July 24th, 2007

Muir woods in captivity

During my short stay in San Francisco, I’ve managed to go to Muir Woods in Marin. I hadn’t been there in a couple of decades (who’s counting?), but the memory of its majesty and mystery had stayed with me.

There’s something about a grove of ancient redwoods that can’t fail to engender awe. That’s why Muir Woods was set aside by Teddy Roosevelt back in 1908 as a protected national monument, and remains in a relatively pristine state today as one of the most easily accessible and most-visited old-growth redwood forests.

My recollection of Muir Woods involved strolling among the tall, broad, shaded giants, the sunlight breaking through to dramatically highlight the tops. Huge fallen trunks served to support the growth of other, lighter trees, and ferns and other shade plants covered much of the forest floor. The bark of the redwoods was swirled and convoluted, festooned with swollen burls at odd intervals, and a beautiful rich reddish-brown color. The trees seemed to be placed in harmonious groupings that formed the beautiful and almost infinitely varied patterns that only nature can provide.

It all remains, almost unchanged. But the experience has changed. I was fortunate enough to be there on a day with relatively few visitors and beautiful weather, but Muir Woods has become an exhibit in a zoo, caged off from the interfering hands and feet of we humans who now watch it, if not from afar, then from a slight remove.

A few feet above the forest floor, an elevated boardwalk has been built to guide the visitor down the proper path. It has rails high enough to discourage climbing overboard, and signs warning against doing so. The sensation is somewhat odd compared to the days of old when the visitor could walk at will, meandering in whatever direction seemed most appealing. Now there’s only the approved way to go.

I’m sure there’s plenty of reason for the change. People, being people, have no doubt tried to take home a souvenir (or two, or three or four or more) from the forest. The dilemma of what to do about it is an old one.

Those who originally appreciated and loved areas such as Yosemite, or the redwood forests that originally covered much of California and were harvested for lumber, disagreed about what to do to preserve some the wild and glorious lands that were still left undeveloped.

Muir Woods is named for John Muir, whose life illustrated some of those dilemmas. Muir was the proponent of some of the more extreme tenets of what is known as the preservationist (as opposed to conservationist) movement. His position was that of the purist: no development of any kind, and the smaller the human imprint the better. Muir was the champion of the idea that humans were nothing special and should not consider themselves any higher than any other life form.

This attitude has reached its pinnacle (so far) in PETA members, who focus more on animals than on natural wonders such as redwood forests. Muir (also the founder of the Sierra Club) was opposed by more moderate conservationists such as Pinchot, who believed there was a way to intelligently manage national resources without leaving them untouched, although both men opposed what they considered the reckless exploitation of natural resources.

We are their heirs, and similar disagreements persist today concerning areas such as ANWR in Alaska and whether oil production and the natural wildlife there can peacefully coexist. Muir Woods itself is serene and silent on the issue, but human beings are not; the argument goes on.

21 Responses to “Muir woods in captivity”

  1. Zhombre Says:

    I think you mean Gifford Pinchot, not Pinochet in the next to last paragraph.

  2. gcotharn Says:

    I visited Muir Woods in 1989. I am sad to hear of the walkways. Some of the earthy experience must be gone.

    I can smell Nanny State from a good distance away:
    1. Don’t trust the people to make choices of their own free will. The walkways are a passive aggressive fu from the enlightened to the hoi polloi.
    2. Artlessly invade the Muir Woods with the walkway. Couldn’t more tasteful, less intrusive ropes have been erected in trouble spots?
    3. Expensively invade. That’s my tax dollars paying for an expensive and invasive walkway, instead of an inexpensive, less obtrusive group of ropes.

  3. Yehudit Says:

    I can recommend about a dozen redwood groves within an hour’s drive of San Francisco with taller bigger redwoods and more quiet. There’s no reason to go to Muir Woods except that you can get there by bus. But it’s so beautiful around there it’s worth it to rent a car for a day or two and do some real hiking.

  4. neo-neocon Says:

    Thanks, Zhombre. I guess we can’t blame Pinochet for that.

  5. Thomas Says:

    On the debate between the sides, I’d throw in that not all of nature is as pleasing as a California redwood forest.

    I see modern preservationists fighting to keep some areas from being developed, or even having non native plants introducedm and have to ask ‘why’ (other than ideology)… its ugly unproductive scrub prone to erosion and doesn’t even support much animal life… as is… just iky… Throw in some cherry trees and make a park… Sometimes people can make areas better IMO. ‘Natural State’ is not always that great… Anyway, its not going to sequester much carbon. ;)

  6. Lee Says:

    It’s not so much the “souvenir hunting”. It’s to keep people from hurting themselves and filing a lawsuit. Ropes aren’t “preventative” enough.

    “Got to keep the loonies on the path”

  7. Gerard Says:

    When I inhabited Muir Woods long ago it was to a different purpose entirely. Muir Woods in those days (circa late 60s) was one of the preferred destinations for consuming the mystery molecule and then communing with the spirit of nature. Very powerful molecule and much more powerful nature was always revealed.

    You can bet folding money that some of those who tripped about Muir Woods in their youth were the same aging nannies that caused the planked path to be built in their dotage.

  8. Yehudit Says:

    I visited Joe and Jan Katzman in one of those classic California modernist redwood houses deep in the woods north of Santa Cruz, and it’s refreshing to hear people totally unsentimental about redwoods because they are surrounded by the monsters, which drop dead limbs on them and block out the sunlight and interfere with their cell phone service. Ironically, if you live among the redwoods, solar panels are a joke. Two California stereotypes cancel each other out.

    Then there is Michael Totten’s 100 ft tall Douglas Fir which all the arborists in Portland refuse to cut down, even though it drops limbs on his neighbor’s yard. . . .

  9. Michael Blaine Says:


    I’ve stumble into your blog, and note that while you say you have a background as a therapist, you blithely post about the necessity for more violence in Iraq.

    Are you trying to get work catering to PTSD victims? Or do you have so little empathy that human carnage doesn’t bother you?

    I don’t understand “Americans” like you. More than therapist, you seem to be sadist.

    Michael Blaine

  10. Lee Says:

    newsday.comGee, Michael,
    So sorry you “stumbled” into here, when such a caring young man as yourself would probably feel more at home here:


    with the rest of your anti-freedom for brown people crowd, like George Soros.

    Don’t feel bad. Us Americans don’t understand you Europeans, either.

  11. md Says:

    Lee, take a chill pill: Blaine is an American, “I cast my first presidential vote for Reagan…”; he was a conservative before neo!

  12. Sally Says:

    md, take an upper. Blaine is, to use his own scare quotes, at best an “American”, not an American. And whatever else he is, or says he is, he’s clearly portraying himself as just another frightened troll, who thinks his obtuse and maudlin comments are original — if he can’t pay attention to the post he’s commenting on, he should at least try to come up with an assertion or argument that hasn’t already been refuted a few million times, here as well as elsewhere.

    And there’s a difference, by the way, between a conservative and a neoconservative (not to mention a neo-neoconservative).

  13. EssEm Says:

    Glad to hear that you are here, neo. Now there are two postlib types in the area! LOL.

    Hope you enjoy your time here in the People’s Republic and northern Mexifornia. The beauty and the weather are continuing miracles for me after fifteen plus years living here…the population? Good looking…but nuts! ;)

  14. Driver Says:

    I visited Muir Woods a while back…I can remember the temptation to bring back a redwood seedling as a souvenir. But I resisted, and then at the end of the walk, found out I could legally buy one right there in the gift shop. They don’t do well back east…

  15. chuck Says:

    Walden pond has gone much the same way, although the last time I visited it didn’t yet suffer from rails and boardwalks. I grew up in the area and learned to swim in Walden pond back in the days when there was a concrete pier to dive off, changing rooms, and men fishing from boats out in the center. It was a more carefree time, now it is a state reservation, the pier has been torn out, and there is a visitor’s center, a gift shop, and a large parking space. Maybe population pressure drove the change, maybe the revived interest in Thoreau, but the Walden experience has lost much of its fun. It seems a bit too reverent these days.

    The area is popular for fishing, swimming, and walking. To protect the natural resources of the area and ensure that Walden Pond remains a pleasant place for people in the future, the number of visitors is limited to no more than 1,000 people at a time. Dogs, bicycles, floatation devices and grills are prohibited. To avoid disappointment, visitors are encouraged to call the park in advance and check on parking availability. A replica of Thoreau’s house and the location of his modest home are available for viewing by the public. Year round interpretive programs and guided walks are offered as well as The Shop at Walden and the Tsongas gallery. Specialized Equipment includes portable FM listening systems for park programs and a beach wheel chair for access to the beach and water.

    Roland Robbins, a guy who painted houses and washed windows, lived two houses down from us and was the amateur archeologist who found the remains of Thoreau’s cabin. He later went on to restore the Saugus Iron Works.

  16. Lee Says:

    blackfive.netHere’s a message for all Americans and “Americans” alike, but I think it’s more for Blainey Boy:


    Warning: Graphic Language. It is “Patton” after all.

  17. Michael Blaine Says:

    rudelystamped.blogspot.com’md Says:
    July 25th, 2007 at 8:21 am
    Lee, take a chill pill: Blaine is an American, “I cast my first presidential vote for Reagan…”; he was a conservative before neo!’

    Correct. Then I grew up, developing a moral imagaination along with empathy. And the gratuitous killing my government engages in, along with my fellow citizens who support it, began to repulse me.

    Michael Blaine

  18. Lee Says:

    “And the gratuitous killing my government engages in, along with my fellow citizens who support it, began to repulse me.”

    So you became a Nazi. Good move, there Michael.

  19. Prometheus Says:

    If you had made an effort to walk more than the initial boardwalk loop (or looked at a map), you would have seen that the vast majority of the park is rough and sometimes even risky dirt trails. The initial restricted area is aimed at bus-loads of tourists which, in the summer, you could compare to “the running of the bulls” in a small china shop. With out the paths the soil would be too compacted to support life. The boardwalks don’t block nutrients to the soil like paved paths (which as I recall still coexist with them) and allow bugs and amphibians to pass under the paths without being trampled. This area is handicap accessible and allows as many people as possible to experience a bit of majestic “nature” for what may be the first time. You can take Grandma in her wheelchair or walker and the Grandkid in his stroller. If you have more than a passing interest and are up for it, you are free to explore vast acres of woodlands where you may not see another soul for hours even on a busy day. You can pet all the giant banana slugs you want. Otherwise, get back on your bus, enjoy your postcards and quit complaining. Its a grand experience for absolutely no effort.

  20. Chris Says:

    Dear Neo,
    I was in Muir woods in ’94 w/ my daughter who has since moved to the area. She’ll be replying herself; but assures me the boardwalks are for the handicapped and group tour-types only. She points out that a raised walkway is better for the roots (shallow on such big trees) and they also provide safety for the small critters living and traveling along the ground. She has personally taken hikes up into the woods with interested visitors and claims; ‘ you could be seriously lost’. So the pocket wilderness Muir Woods represents for the millions of Bay Area residents should be applauded and not looked askance at. Here in the East, we have many trails throughout the White Mountains of NH that have been ‘loved to death’. The exposed roots lay in wait for the unwary hiker; ‘slipery root syndrome’ is a serious health hazard..a few judiciously placed raised boardwalks would be welcomed.


  21. M. D. Vaden Says:

    The boardwalk you describe, is also used near Ape Caves close to Mt. St. Helens at a place where tree “molds” exist from trees encapsulated in lava – later decomposing.

    The ancient grove I like, and hardly anybody knows the location…

    Grove of Titans redwood trees

    Hopefully, the secret of the location stays a secret for a long time.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.


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