Yosemite Through John Muir's Eyes

LiveAuctionTalk.com:  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of PBA Galleries.

When naturalist-author John Muir decided to write about Yosemite Park in 1911 he agonized over how to capture the magic of the place in words.  He decided it would take a whole book to pull it off.

“But no temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite.”
— John Muir

Where to begin?

Muir determined the most dramatic aspect of the park was Yosemite's dozen waterfalls.  Of all the falls it was Nevada Falls that held the most magic for him.

"This noble fall has far the richest, as well as the most powerful, voice of all the falls in the valley," he said. 

Native Americans believed Muir would have been a great medicine man in his day because he was listening, truly listening.  He wasn't exploring.  He was learning.  He would have been one of those elders the kids gathered around as he talked to the rocks and trees and listened to the waterfalls. The children, they say, would have loved his stories. They wouldn't have called him crazy.

"But no temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite," Muir said in the introductionto his guidebook "The Yosemite."  "Every rock in its walls seems to glow with life." 

Muir, like the Native Americans before and after him, considered the forests of Yosemite sacred, a place to commune with nature, a place of contemplation.  A preservationist, Muir wanted the land used as a park, free of logging, grazing and hunting. 

The land's value was spiritual not practical for Muir.  He had seen much devastation in the Sierra Nevada by the sheep and lumber syndicates and was skeptical of their motives and whether they could actually be controlled. 

Muir was nicknamed the "Prophet of the Wilderness," an "unknown nobody" who stepped up as the voice of conservation. 

Yosemite wasn't the world's first national park.  Yellowstone was.  But Yellowstone's creation as a national park came eight years after Yosemite was set aside by Congress and entrusted to California. 

Muir's hero, writer Ralph Waldo Emerson showed up in 1871 with an entourage and rode on horseback to many of Yosemite's sites.  At Muir's invitation Emerson visited the tiny loft in the sawmill Muir called home. 

Here was a man living out what Emerson decided was the life he preached about in his writings with a direct connection to the currents of the cosmos.  Here was a man "firmly believing that "every one of its (Yosemite's) living creatures...and every crystal of its rocks...is throbbing and pulsing with the heartbeats of God,"  Muir said.  Emerson could not have said it better.  

Muir's relationship with the old sage was more bemused father and eager son than between two equals.  Nonetheless, there was a heartfelt connection and a deep respect for the land between the men. 

As Emerson's group rode off toward civilization and away from Yosemite Emerson lagged behind and waved a last goodbye to Muir with his hat before disappearing over a ridge.

On October 9, a presentation copy of John Muir's book "The Yosemite" went on the block at PBA Galleries and sold for $18,000.  The book was inscribed by John Muir to Lucretia Perry Osborn, wife of Henry Fairfield Osborn, noted zoologist-professor and Muir's friend.


Photograph; "El Capitan"; glass plate positive photograph; circa 1880-1900; 33 3/4 inches by 25 1/2 inches;  $1,800.

Albumen Photograph; buildings in Yosemite; circa 1878; 5 inches diameter;  $3,000.

Book with Photographs; Ansel Adams; "Sierra Nevada"; 50 tipped-in plates from photographs of John Muir Trail with tissue-guards; 1938; 16 1/4 inches by 12 1/4 inches;  $3,600.

Book; "The Wonders of Yosemite Valley, and of California"; Samuel Kneeland; illustrated with 20 mounted original albumen photographs credited to John P. Soule; tissue guards; 1872; 10 1/4 inches by 6 3/4 inches;  $14,400.  


Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her LiveAuctionTalk.com website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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