Prologue: The Photo, May 17, 1903 PROLOGUE The Photo — May 17, 1903 —
Whether the photographer, who would forever remain anonymous, felt the conceivably immense pressure we will never know. But with the head of the nation and the soul of the nation’s preservation movement, both rugged, demanding, and outspoken men, paired together for a brief time, posed against arguably the nation’s most transcendent and iconic landscape, a long journey by train, horseback, and boot from any major city, the stakes in making a good image were high.
The photo—the official portrait of John Muir, age sixty-five, and Theodore Roosevelt, age forty-four, at Overhanging Rock—would come to symbolize the young president’s love of nature and serve as a memorial to the meeting of the two indomitable men who had camped there together the night before. Yet all might not have been as copacetic as it appeared, or as Roosevelt, who was laying the groundwork for election to a second term, would later lead us to believe. Were these two pillars of American conservation, these two headstrong men, truly in accord that day, or had they, representing two very different and irreconcilable visions, clashed? Did they themselves even know?
The Roosevelt-Muir photo op took place five decades after the California Gold Rush, when the first white men to enter the magnificent valley, the Mariposa Battalion—a volunteer army of prospectors, ranchers, and roughnecks—led by the trader James Savage, who had quarreled with the Miwuk, went there in the spring of 1851 to rout the tribe from its stronghold, a remote valley and bear den they called Yosemite. Reaching what became known as Inspiration Point, at least one of them, the gold miner L. H. Bunnell, realized the specialness of the place. “Haze hung over the valley—light as gossamer—and clouds partially dimmed the higher cliffs and mountains,” he later wrote. “This obscurity of vision but increased the awe with which I beheld it, and as I looked, a peculiar exalted sensation seemed to fill my whole being, and I found my eyes in tears with emotion.”1
Four decades had passed since President Abraham Lincoln had signed a bill granting Yosemite (Miwuk for “those who kill”) Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees to the State of California to preserve and protect “for public use, recreation and enjoyment, inalienable for all time.” Lincoln’s Yosemite grant—preceding the creation of Yellowstone National Park by eight years—was the first to establish government protection of any land. This little-observed act, in the midst of the Civil War, would become the fountainhead of the nation’s conservation movement, and Muir, its champion, the embodiment of the nation’s passion for its wilderness. It was not by accident that Roosevelt, on a two-month, twenty-five-state, two-hundred-speech whistle-stop tour of the West that was meant to boost the electoral viability of the youngest president ever, came to meet Muir at this time and in this place.2
One can almost imagine the pulse of the still inchoate nation beating in the veins of the two men—the backcountry immigrant and the Ivy League president—in this moment. Theirs was a country enthralled with itself and its unknowable potential even after thirteen decades of independence on top of seventeen of colonial expansion. It lacked introspection or remorse at brutally driving the native peoples off their lands—from Jamestown in 1607 to Manhattan to the Black Hills and to this valley before the Civil War—in part because in the wake of the war, it was simultaneously redefining its borders and relationships and struggling with its complexities and paradoxes while dizzyingly hurtling into the future; it lacked hindsight because it had not yet arrived to look back. That reckoning lay in the distant future. But these two men, for very different reasons, at least had the insight to know that they must put a stop to the devastation that white men had brought to the land. That was their fight. This was their summit. There was a real sense that Yosemite Valley, where they now met, represented the nation’s natural beauty and that its fate would somehow define the nation’s future.
The night before the photo was taken, Muir and Roosevelt camped with their guides near the upper end of the valley, a couple miles from Glacier Point, where Overhanging Rock juts out and gives a spectacular view of the mile-deep Yosemite Valley and the panoramic Sierra Nevada. Roosevelt was already well into his cross-country tour and eager to escape the coffin-like luxury of his plush Pullman railcar, the ever-present phalanx of reporters, and the pressure to perform and please at every stop. Since his years as a Dakotas rancher and lieutenant colonel leading the Rough Riders cavalry regiment in the Spanish-American War, Roosevelt preferred horseback to a reclining cushioned seat. After a satisfying day of riding their mounts through deep snowdrifts, the men lay beside the campfire on beds made from the bent boughs of a fir tree and, both being capital storytellers, rattled away at each other, neither afraid to speak his mind.3
Muir found much to like in the “interesting, hearty, and manly” Roosevelt, but he mistrusted his motivations for preserving nature and his interpretation of what might constitute “the greatest good for the greatest number,” the mantra of his forestry chief. When Roosevelt bragged about his hunting, Muir, angered by America’s heedless eradication of the passenger pigeon and the American buffalo, chastised him for killing animals for sport: “Mr. Roosevelt, when are you going to get beyond the boyishness of killing things?” he blurted out. “It is all very well for a young fellow who has not formed his standards to rush out in the heat of youth and slaughter animals, but are you not getting far enough along to leave that off?”
Though Roosevelt lacked any remorse when it came to slaying animals, he was a consummate diplomat when he wanted to be, and he considered the point. “Muir,” he responded at last, “I guess you are right.”4
It was a dubious concession. Roosevelt had collected and stuffed more than a thousand birds by the time he went off to college. He had left his pregnant wife to rush out to the Badlands to shoot a buffalo, a species on the brink of extinction, before it was too late to bag one, and on this train tour, he was barely persuaded by his handlers not to dog-hunt cougars in Yellowstone, where hunting was forbidden, for fear of a public outcry. While Roosevelt would never escape his chest-thumping glee of the kill, Muir, a hunter in his youth in Wisconsin, had long ago rejected the notion that wild animals were created solely for food, recreation, and “other uses not yet discovered,” and had once declared in his journal that if a war broke out “between the wild beasts and Lord Man, I would be tempted to sympathize with the bears.”5
Perhaps they would not see eye to eye on hunting, but Muir had trees and whole ecosystems to save. Blinded by its own hubris, the nation was grotesquely cannibalizing itself, felling giant sequoias, some of the planet’s oldest and largest living organisms, thousands of years old, and even shipping them off to be exhibited in monstrous fashion, like circus spectacles. The irony was that they would have to undo Lincoln’s grant in substance to save it in spirit. Muir and his coconspirator, his editor at the Century Magazine
, Robert Underwood Johnson, felt in their hearts that this bold, and in many circles unpopular, maneuver was necessary.
Muir took a torch from the fire and with his face and his shaggy salt-and-pepper beard flickering in chiaroscuro ignited a brown pine tree nearby. He loved the drama of fire at night, how it brought the trees to life and drew them into the conversation. He had built bonfires for such eminent naturalists as Asa Gray and Sir Joseph Hooker and had once attempted to build one for Ralph Waldo Emerson. The glow of Muir’s immense fires transformed the surrounding firs into “enormous pagodas of silver,” recounted his friend Annie Bidwell, while Muir would wave his arms ecstatically, shouting, “Look at the glory!”
Now as Muir and Roosevelt watched in awe, like tenderfooted boys, the dead tree roared to life, shooting stars into the sky. “Hurrah!” Roosevelt shouted, the exclamation leaping from his gut. “That’s a candle it took five hundred years to make. Hurrah for Yosemite!”
With its spectacular scenery and well-heeled tourists, Yosemite had attracted some of the country’s most skilled photographers. Though this one—a hired hand sent by Underwood & Underwood, the world’s largest publisher of stereoviews—would go unnamed, perhaps it was Arthur Pillsbury, a company stringer, who had taken a shot of them two days before in front of the immense sequoia Grizzly Giant. Whoever it was clearly knew the precise place and time to produce a memorable image. “Sunrise from Glacier Point!” Muir’s late friend and geologist Joseph LeConte had once exclaimed. “No one can appreciate it who has not seen it…. I had never imagined the grandeur of the reality.”6
Before breakfast, in the soft morning light, Roosevelt and Muir took their places by the cliff’s edge at Glacier Point, with a view across the valley as a backdrop. Though neither cared much for sartorial splendor, they both looked kempt in their hats and jackets. Roosevelt wore jodhpurs and boots, Rough Rider–fashion, with a kerchief around his neck. Muir wore a simple broadcloth suit.
A photograph for the ages: Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir at Glacier Point, Yosemite Valley, one of the most enduring images of the early conservation movement in the United States. Underwood & Underwood.
In the photograph, there’s no hint that they had refused tents to sleep by the campfire and that five inches of snow had dropped on them overnight, a Sierra Nevada baptism verifying that the President had indeed escaped pampered civilization and the claws of his handlers to be immersed in the bosom of nature. At dawn, he had emerged from a thicket of forty army blankets, shaken off the additional blanket of snow, and shaved by the light of the campfire.
Overhanging Rock jutted out precipitously and from certain angles looked only a footstep away from Yosemite Falls all the way across the valley. Half Dome stood stark against the sky. To Muir, it looked “down the valley like the most living being of all the rocks and mountains,” such that one could “fancy that there were brains in that lofty brow.” The promontory provided just the right perspective on the Giant Staircase, the impressive drop of the Merced River into the valley over the 594-foot Nevada Fall (Wowywe, or “twisted current,” to the Miwuk) and just downstream the 317-foot Vernal Fall (Yanopah, “little cloud”). The view stirred the President. On his tour he had seen the Grand Canyon for the first time and declared it “beautiful and terrible and unearthly.” Casting his eyes now on what many believed was the most spectacular panorama in the nation, the nation that he led, Roosevelt felt a welling of emotion. Not only was it a sight of awesome beauty and grandeur, it was an immense responsibility. Though if tears streaked his face, as was reported, you would never know it from the photo. The photographer, who took two shots of the pair and two of Roosevelt alone, made sure of that.7
The photographer oriented the distant Yosemite Falls—a flowing white streak—on the left-hand side of the frame, below the President’s right shoulder. Nature was the great equalizer, but he placed Roosevelt, who was five feet, eight inches tall, on the higher part of the boulder with his broad shoulders square to the camera. He positioned Muir, who was a few inches taller (and with his thin build looked even more so), at an angle a little lower on the right. The men were thus as evenly matched in height as in stature, each being master of his own realm.
Roosevelt looked boldly into the lens, as if daring the viewer to question him. Muir, lithe and erect of posture even in his seventh decade, bushy bearded, gazed pensively, hands deferentially clasped behind his back, as if he were pausing in the middle of a conversation with the President. He had embellished himself, as he liked to do, with a botanical spray as a boutonniere. (A perhaps not altogether innocent gesture: “There is that in the glance of a flower which may at times control the greatest of creation’s braggart lords,” he had written.) The sun cast his shadow onto the President. Roosevelt was the last best hope to prevent the American wilderness from being swallowed whole by a voracious nation whose appetites and aspirations were fueled by its natural resources.8
Muir, who believed that not everything was put on earth to save man, had one more night in the majestic valley to bring the President around.