Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Immigration Project Focus on: John Muir

Last month I had planned on writing a focus on John Muir in honor of Earth Day on April 22nd and John Muir Day (recognized in California) on April 21st,* but unfortunately, I never got to it. And as I am starting to enjoy the beginnings of the summer break and a respite from teenagers and grading, I thought I would finally get to an Immigration Project Focus On. Such IP focuses have included John Lennon, Dith Pran, and Jacob Riis, and I hope to continue this tradition as a way of celebrating the contributions of immigrants from all parts of the world to our nation's history and culture.

Muir is a name I have heard of all my life as it is the moniker for high schools, streets, trails, mountains, and campsites. As a Californian, I learned of John Muir's contributions to our National Parks, namely Yosemite, in the 4th grade when I learned about Spanish Missions, the Gold Rush, and other highlights of California history. The Muir name has always been in my Californian consciousness, (if only in name) and as something that reflects innately American much like the names Wilson, Jefferson, and Franklin. So I was surprised on my visit to Scotland in 2006, to find that Muir was a Scotsman. The Scotch pride seemed to have Muir's image and name everywhere, even more so than in California, and this is when I learned that John Muir, father of our national parks and co-founder of the Sierra Club, was a Scottish immigrant.

There are too many things to be said about Muir and his contributions, but I will try to give you a few highlights. John Muir was born on April 21, 1838 in Dunbar, Scotland and emigrated to New York by way of Glasgow as a child with his family in 1849. He is known as an early naturalist and conservationist, and believed our natural surroundings were nature's churches, often describing the peeks and domes of Yosemite as the spires and arches of European cathedrals. Different from other conservationists of his time who believed in conserving natural resources in order to sustain their use for human consumption, Muir believed that natural areas should be preserved and left virtually untouched as spiritual places for rest, worship, and appreciation.

He was a celebrated nature writer who wrote countless articles about the Yosemite, Mount Shasta, Alaska, sequoias, glaciers, etc and was published in such places as Atlantic Monthly, Outlook, New York Tribune, and Harper's. He had the opportunity to meet another great essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who visited Yosemite in the twilight of his life, and though Muir wanted to take the writer on a backwoods private camping trip through Yosemite, he declined due to his age and health. Muir was greatly influenced by Emerson's writings as well Emerson's contemporary and another great nature writer, Thoreau, and according an article by John Swett, after Emerson met Muir he stated, "He is more wonderful than Thoreau."

But Emerson was not the most famous person to have visited the mountain man in the Yosemite Valley. That title goes to President Theodore Roosevelt who took a three night, four day trip through Yosemite in 1903. Muir convinced the President to join him on the trip Emerson could not, and after leaving behind his secret service and aids, Roosevelt enjoyed a private hiking and camping excursion through Yosemite where Muir spoke about the importance of preservation and a national park system.

President Roosevelt and Muir in Yosemite in 1903.
You can read President Roosevelt's memory of the visit in this Outlook article from January 16, 1915. There is a funny anecdote where Muir inadvertently insults Roosevelt.

Roosevelt on Muir: "He was emphatically a good citizen. Not only are his books delightful, not only is he the author to whom all men turn when they think of the Sierras and northern glaciers, and the giant trees of the California slope, but he was also - what few nature lovers are - a man able to influence contemporary thought and action on the subjects to which he had devoted his life. He was a great factor in influencing the thought of California and the thought of the entire country so as to secure the preservation of those great natural phenomena - wonderful canyons, giant trees, slopes of flower-spangled hillsides - which make California a veritable Garden of the Lord."

Can you imagine being in the quiet of a sequoia grove with these two giants of history? What a moment that must have been to have these two men bundled by a fire beneath snow sprinkled trees and the wide starry night above their heads. How else, but to bring the President to the source, could Muir have convinced Roosevelt to work for the preservation of natural areas like Yosemite and the expansion of federal parks?

Muir was successful in saving Yosemite from sheep grazing, farming, and other development by helping it become a national park, but unfortunately he was unsuccessful at saving another beautiful natural area, Hetch Hetchy Valley, that Muir believed was Yosemite's smaller twin: "Most people who visit Yosemite are apt to regard it as an exceptional creation, the only valley of its kind in the world. But nothing in Nature stands alone. She is not so poor as to have only one of anything." Unfortunately, Hetch Hetchy, though within the federally protected Yosemite Valley, could not be saved after the Raker Act of 1913 was passed by Congress, which allowed the damming of the valley to create a water supply for San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area. The battle for Hetch Hetchy was late in Muir's life and career as a conservationist, and was a major blow to the man who made his life's work saving these natural cathedrals.

A photo of Hetch Hetchy Valley taken prior to being dammed.

Muir's description of Hetch Hetchy from the article "Features of the Proposed National Park": "Here you will find a glorious view. Immediately beneath you, at a depth of more than 4000 feet, you see a beautiful ribbon of level a ground, with a silver thread in the middle of it, and green or yellow according to the time of year. That ribbon is a strip of meadow, and the silver thread is the main Tuolumne River. The opposite wall of the caƱon rises in precipices, steep and angular, or with rounded brows like those of Yosemite, and from this wall as a base extends a fine wilderness of mountains, rising dome above dome, ridge above ridge, to a group of snowy peaks on the summit of the range. Of all this sublime congregation of mountains Castle Peak is king: robed with snow and light, dipping unnumbered points and spires into the thin blue sky, it maintains amid noble companions a perfect and commanding individuality."

The founding of the Sierra Club was to help stop development over natural areas like Hetch Hetchy Valley and it continues to do this type of work today. Where I live in the San Gabriel Valley such a battle has been boiling for the last couple of years over the Whittier Narrows Natural Area--which sits along the bank of the San Gabriel River. The natural area is a wildlife sanctuary in the middle of the suburban expansion and development of San Gabriel Valley and is home to countless species of birds and plants. Currently, there is a plan to build a 14,000 square foot building for a "Discovery Center" (a museum focused on watersheds and life along the river) and a 116 space parking lot over the natural area. The idea of destroying a wildlife sanctuary in order to build a museum educating children on nature is ludicrous and goes against Muir's own belief that the structures of nature are much more spectacular than any structure made by man.

For more on the Whittier Narrows Natural Area or to find out how to help go to Friends of the Whittier Narrows Natural Area.

For more about John Muir and the Sierra Club go to Sierra Club website, which has a fantastic collection of Muir's writings and journals and a great bibliography.

For more on Muir's adventures check out The Wild Muir.

*John Muir's birthday is April 21st, and though he is seen as a father of conservation, the date of Earth Day has no affiliation with John Muir.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Publishing News and a Poem for My Grandmother

I'm excited to share that Writer's at Work has chosen my poem, Ghazal of the Traffic, for their Poem of the Month series. It's great to have one of my "My L.A." poems finally find a home. You can check it out here.

From Ghazal of the Traffic

On a corner a child sells ripe mangos, yellow and green.
She looks familiar, but I have traveled too far in the city.

A hipster girl draped in vintage wails down Hollywood Blvd.
Countless are the broken dreams and scars in the city.

Radio gossip: coke-filled-photos, anorexia, Anna Nicole.
We keep our famous in air-punched-holed jars in the city.

In other news, this past Wednesday, May 11th, marked my grandmother's 90th birthday. That's right, 90! We had a mass to celebrate this past weekend, much like the one we had last year that I wrote about in this post. To commemorate the day, I wrote a little poem about my grandmother. It is a bit of a love letter to my grandmother and to all my cousins. I feel lucky to have had 3 brothers and 15 cousins to grow up with. Like I tell my cousins, Erika and Gloria, at every family wedding (after a couple of rounds of tequila), "I'd kill for you!" Of course, actual blood shed is highly unlikely, but there is little I wouldn't do for my family. I think it also fits into the "My L.A." poems because when I think of L.A., I often think back on weekends spent at my grandmother's home in Boyle Heights.

A shot of my grandmother's front steps.

On the Front Steps

We ate pink and blue ice cream
shaped like feet and rockets
bought from rusty trucks
singing down Fairmont. We gossiped

and giggled into cousins’ ears,
sugary colors dripping onto the
red concrete below us. We watched
the boys play football in the street,

and our grandfather manicure his lawn.
We inhaled the fragrances of orange,
guava, rose, fern, and every other plant
that grew green and full around us.

We grew much the same way
over years, maturing like plants
around her as she nourished us
with tacos de crema, bowls of conflais,

huevos con weenies smothered
in katchun katchun. She tended
to our insatiable bellies with pieces
of chocolate and cookie, and fueled us

with spoons of frijoles from a pot
that never emptied, and like magic
she nursed her little plants
from a tiny kitchen, and we sprouted

into wild creatures too big for front steps.
Knowing we could never be potted
and still, she sent us off with a kiss
and a prayer, “Que Dios lo bendiga,”

and stood at the top of the steps—
yellow light of the house framing her
small body like a saint—to wave us goodbye,
our bellies full, our hearts and minds strong.

My niece, the next generation of little plants.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

May 10, 1869: A Date for Railroads and Chinese Immigrants

I learned that today marks the 142nd anniversary of the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad. According to the book The Other Half--a biography about Gilded Age muckraker, Jacob Riis--"35,000 miles [of rail] was in place by the Civil War...By 1869, Americans could take the train from coast to coast." (Buk-Swienty, 48). As many know, the laying of these miles and miles of track from coast to coast was due, in a big part, to the painful and dangerous work taken on by Chinese Immigrants.

KCET Departures has a good article marking the history of our railway system and the contribution of thousands of Chinese immigrants. You can check it out here.

Or you can go here for more on the Transcontinental Railroad and Chinese immigrants.