Wednesday, April 9, 2014

John Muir National Historic Site

Asked the pups if they wanted to go "car bye bye" today. They did. I secured them in their crate in the back seat of my Ford Focus and drove from my home in San Leandro, California, east on I-580 to I-680 north with the mighty Mt. Diablo on my right. Then took CA-4 to Martinez where the John Muir National Historic Site is located.

It was 70 degrees Fahrenheit outside. Nothing unusual about that; it's almost always 70 degrees around here. What was unusual, the National Park Service ranger said dogs on leash are allowed on the grounds. Dogs are not allowed in the buildings, though. That was okay by me; I'll go back there some time and have a look at the "scribble den" and other interior spaces John Muir (April 21, 1838 – December 24, 1914) writes about. Today, the dogs and I just wanted to romp around the fields were Muir once walked.

The 14-room Italianate-Victorian style house built in 1882 is mostly constructed of redwood. It originally belonged to Dr. John T. Strentzel, father-in-law of John Muir. After Strentzel's death in 1890, Muir and his wife Louisa, and their daughters Wanda and Helen lived there. When Muir wasn't managing the orchards and horticultural business, he was writing, sketching, or walking in the wild--that's the John Muir persona readers, hikers, walkers, and lovers of nature everywhere know and admire most.

It had rained recently, so grasses on the grounds and surrounding hills were lush and green. A few golden poppies here and there among mowed native grasses mixed with dandelion, miner's lettuce, and thistle. In the orchards grew pear, quince, pomegranate, olive, and an assortment of other fruit trees. In the vineyard, tidy rows and columns of grapevines. Two tall palms bracketed the front of the house. Clusters of palm, redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), spruce, and cypress added to the biotic display.

According to one of Muir's journals [citation needed], in about 1898, he took a trip to the Sierra Nevada and brought back a giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) sapling, which he planted near an out building, down by the wind mill. Today it is about 116 years old and 70 feet tall and is considered the most monumental botanical specimen at the site. As evident in the photo above, the tree is infected with the fungus Botryosphaeria dothidea, a vascular disease that causes branches to die. Arborists have been carefully monitoring and treating the symptoms for decades. Good news is this giant sequoia with such an significant connection to John Muir has been successfully propagated from cuttings by Archangel Ancient Tree Archive.

It was really something to stroll around with my dogs on sacred ground where Muir once lived. Touching the giant sequoia and knowing Muir planted it was amazing! Even though the traffic noise, construction work, and views of high-voltage towers, Valero gas station, and Chase bank were a bit of a distraction, there was a definite sense of Muir's presence. Seeing a marvelous piece of architecture preserved for future generations to enjoy is a good feeling. The John Muir National Historic Site is a treasure to the community of Martinez, to the world at large, and to all who visit.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014


Stickeen is a short memoir by American naturalist John Muir (April 21, 1838 – December 24, 1914). It describes (in heart-pounding-nail-biting-edge-of-your-seat detail) a hike he took across a glacier in Alaska with a little black dog named Stickeen. It is a prime example of the profundity of the human/dog bond.

The adventure takes place in 1880, but Muir didn't write the memoir until 1897. And it was revised many times for decades after that. Muir once stated "in all my wild walks, seldom have I had a more definite or useful message to bring back."

I live less than 30 miles from the John Muir National Historic Site, Martinez, Calif. The 14-room Italianate Victorian mansion he lived in from 1890 until his death in 1914 is still there, but much of the open space Muir and his family enjoyed has been developed. Now Muir's home projects its original splendor on a small plot of land at the intersection of a major state highway and a busy city street.

I'm aware of Muir's significant contribution to the creation of the Sierra Club and to the establishment of the national park system here in the United States. I know he wrote a lot of books about hiking and wilderness adventuring. While I've read plenty of famous quotes from John Muir, Stickeen is the first work of his I've ever read. From a reader's perspective, his words transported me into the world of glacier hiking, vicariously from the safety and comfort of my armchair. Now I want to read all his books. I think his experiences will inspire me to develop a boldness of character when I venture out on wild walks with my two dogs.

Here's a link where you can read Stickeen online and explore a list of various versions: Stickeen: John Muir's adventure with a dog on a glacier