Sunday, November 01, 2009

All Saints Day thoughts from Muir Woods

While walking in John Muir's wood, we came upon the plaque pictured above. And therein lies a tale:

Last summer at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, where I was working for full inclusion of LGBT folks, a distracting issue arose that might have tied an important committee in knots. The folks delegated to consider "Prayer Book, Liturgy and Music" were trying to add a list of people to the roster of men and women remembered in the calendar. This is not like the Roman Catholics announcing that someone is a saint -- Episcopalians think all the baptized are "saints" but some people's lives were especially good examples to be contemplated and commemorated. The PBLM committee was working on updating the list.

Among the potential additions was John Muir, the early 20th century naturalist for whom the redwoods monument is named -- and who properly gets credit for the founding of the U.S. National Park system. Many of the same people who would have preferred to avoid full inclusion of gay people in the church objected to including Muir among a long list of new commemorations. Muir's relationship to the divine was a little unconventional for his time and perhaps for any institutional church. Muir explained that he had found a

"primary source for understanding God: the Book of Nature." ...

[Muir also wrote:] "Every particle of rock or water or air has God by its side leading it the way it should go; The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness; In God's wildness is the hope of the world."

This sort of thing smacked of heterodoxy to some conservatives at General Convention. So they proposed that if TEC wanted to list a naturalist, how about Gifford Pinchot?

Who was Gifford Pinchot?

If we owe the National Parks to Muir, we owe the National Forests to Pinchot. A turn of the 20th century Progressive, he believed U.S. government should not simply turn public lands over to private exploitation, but should employ scientific management to make the country's natural resources both profitable and sustainable for posterity. Under President Teddy Roosevelt, he served as the first head of the U.S. Forest Service. Driven from office by more conservative Republicans and then Democrats, he entered politics and eventually became governor of Pennsylvania. According to his supporters at General Convention, Pinchot was also an Episcopalian.

The contrast between Muir and Pinchot is well captured in these two quotes:

Let everyone ... travel, and see [the redwoods] for himself, and while fire and the axe still threaten destruction, make haste to come to the help of these trees, our country's pride and glory.

John Muir, 1903

It is almost impossible to bring home to the average man the economic importance of this great national resource. But without cheap lumber our industrial development would have been seriously retarded.

Gifford Pinchot, 1901

In 1913 the two men battled over the creation of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir which dammed a valley within Yosemite National Park to provide water to the city of San Francisco.

A group known as Preservationists, led by John Muir, was staunchly opposed to the building of this dam. They felt that building a dam would destroy the natural beauty that the area was known for. Another group led by Gifford Pinchot, the Conservationists, felt that a dam would benefit the people greatly, and pushed for its construction. Almost every major newspaper in the country followed the story, and it captured the nation’s attention.

Though Muir lost that environmental battle (and we drink Hetch Hetchy water today), his preservationist vision has largely prevailed in the public imagination.

As we live into a time when humans will be forced to respond to the changes our species is making to the planet, the Muir-Pinchot arguments are sure to arise again. However much we are drawn to wildness, how much pure preservation can we achieve? Do we contribute to our own destruction when we seek to bend nature to our needs -- or is the notion we have any choice just an illusion?

Maybe we need to ponder both these guys. Their issues are still with us. If I remember rightly, I think General Convention took the oh-so-human route of referring the Muir-Pinchot matter to a committee.


Kay Dennison said...

Thanks fo0r clarifying this.

Darlene said...

I side with Muir. We must think of future generations and not selfishly think of our own comfort. We are on this planet for a very short time, but the beauty of nature is eternal if we preserve it.

It is my hope that we can desalinize the ocean for our drinking water and stop building dams where they will destroy the beauty of the area. I am thinking of the Grand Canyon and the dam in China as I write this.

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