Thursday, January 9, 2014
January 9, 2014: San Fran Sites: Muir Woods
[As I was reminded during my book talk visit, the Bay Area is home to numerous, significant American sites. In this week’s series, I’ll highlight a handful of such evocative places. Add your thoughts, or your own sites, in the comments!]
On why both solitude and community are appropriate modes through which to experience a natural wonder.
If you drive across the Golden Gate Bridge and a few miles north of San Francisco you come to one of America’s most striking natural spaces, the Muir Woods National Monument. The drive itself is pretty scenic and impressive, and there’s a nearby beach (Muir Beach, natch) that’s one of the West Coast’s most preserved and pristine, among other attractions. But if you’re going to Muir Woods, you’re likely going for the trees, those majestic redwoods and sequoias, and I’m here to tell you that they don’t disappoint. The single most famous giant redwood, the one with the hole you can drive your car through, is at a privately owned site much further north; but the trees in Cathedral Grove and throughout the rest of Muir Woods are just as imposing and majestic, a reminder of how much in the natural world dwarfs (in the best and most necessary sense) our human comprehension.
There’s a strong argument to be made that the best way to experience Muir Woods would be in solitude and silence. After all, John Muir is rivaled in American history and culture only by Henry David Thoreau and Rachel Carson as an advocate for such solitary experiences of the natural world; “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness,” Muir wrote in his journals, and like those compatriots he fervently believed that such wildernesses demand our singular attention if they are to guide us where they would. As a hugely prominent advocate for the national park system, Muir certainly believed that all his fellow Americans should have the chance for such experiences, so I’m not suggesting that he was in any way an elitist—but rather that he recognized, as so many of the great naturalists have and do, the power of what Ralph Waldo Emerson called in his essay “Nature” (his first published work and one of the ur-texts of American naturalism to be sure) “an original relation to the universe.” “If a man would be alone,” Emerson begins the first chapter of that essay, “let him look at the stars”—but I think he’d have been on board with “the redwoods” as the predicate of that sentence instead.
But there’s an equally strong argument to be made for a communal experience of Muir Woods—an argument that’s founded on one of the most unique and inspiring moments in recent world history. In the spring of 1945, representatives from 50 nations met in San Francisco to produce the United Nations Charter, the founding document of that new organization; on May 19th, the group traveled to Muir Woods for a ceremony honoring Franklin Roosevelt, who had been instrumental in convening the UN conference before he passed away in April of that year. They placed a commemorative plaque in Cathedral Grove, paying tribute not only to FDR and to his vision for the UN, but to how much a site like Muir Woods can remind us of all that we humans share, including the vital collective mission of preserving the natural world around us. While us 21st century visitors might not travel to Muir Woods with quite such an impressive purpose, nor surrounded by quite such an inspiring community, we all can similarly share the woods with those who inspire and encourage us in pursuit of our most ideal goals and futures. I think Muir would approve of that too.
Final site tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?