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.