Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life – John Muir
In our time, Ansel Adams gave us images of Yosemite that re-imagined America. In an earlier time, John Muir gave us words that did the same. Before that, Congress and Abraham Lincoln gave us the Yosemite Grant, an act that enlarged our political imagination – what’s possible when We the People are inspired to form a more perfect union.
When I caught first glimpse of Yosemite Valley, I gasped. The images, words and deeds are no match for the view, which Lincoln and the members of the 38th Congress never saw. But were it not for them, we might not be free to see it, and perhaps we wouldn’t own it.
In May and June of 1864, Ulysses S. Grant executed the Wilderness Campaign, the bloodiest chapter of the Civil War, which his boss had redefined a few months earlier at Gettysburg. On June 30, Lincoln signed a bill granting the Yosemite Valley (and the Mariposa Grove of sequoias) to California, stipulating “that the premises shall be held for public use, resort, and recreation; shall be inalienable for all time.” Thus was born the concept of a national park.
The Yosemite Grant was the basis for the 1872 act President Grant signed designating the first national park, Yellowstone. Because it was located in the Wyoming Territory – not yet a state – Congress handed its jurisdiction to the Department of the Interior. On that precedent, Congress in 1890 created Yosemite National Park, though the law did not provide the protection we now consider the norm.
Since his first walk into the Sierras in 1868, Muir had been writing about Yosemite. In the 1890s, his articles about the destruction of its mountain meadows by sheep and cattle ranching operations caught public attention. When Theodore Roosevelt camped with Muir in the park in 1903, it set the stage for the retrocession of the Yosemite Valley to the federal government in 1906 and for creation of the Park Service in 1916.
You don’t have to know any of that to stand agape on the banks of the Merced in Yosemite Valley, or at Yosemite Point across from Half Dome, or at Olmsted Point above Tenaya Creek flowing below Clouds Rest and into the valley.
Still, on my mind is the warring of North and South that allowed Lincoln and Congress the unfettered room to remake the powers of the Union while they faced its destruction. I have written before of the progress achieved under a unified government in the 37th Congress. More followed in the 38th, including the Yosemite Grant. All of it was based on a larger vision of the Constitution’s preamble than had been possible when our forebears were focused on whether we would be, as Lincoln said in 1858, half slave and half free.
Every generation faces new struggles to protect what is held in trust for us, or to envision a greater sense of oneness. In 1892 John Muir founded the Sierra Club, which lost the battle to prevent the damming of the park’s Hetch Hetchy Valley in 1913. A couple weeks ago, I spied the Superfund site that was a uranium mine just below the Grand Canyon’s South Rim into the 1960s. This year, litigants are challenging Donald Trump’s decision to shrink the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, partly to promote mining interests in southern Utah. Muir’s vision is not obvious, unless you are here, agape:
We all flow from one fountain Soul. All are expressions of one Love. God does not appear, and flow out, only from narrow chinks and round bored wells here and there in favored races and places, but He flows in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless over creeds and forms and all kinds of civilizations and peoples and beasts, saturating all and fountainizing all.