Back in grad school, I was teaching assistant for a course called History of the American Environmental Movement. Each semester, I would grade perhaps 70 to 80 essays, including a section on John Muir, an advocate of preserving nature for nature’s sake, and Gifford Pinchot, who advocated responsible conservation of resources for human use.
While Pinchot was the rational business-minded one, I considered John Muir the passionate activist, one who had the writing skills to make the “tough sell” of protecting faraway lands from development.
John Muir said this about Yosemite, which was the first land in the US set aside specifically for preservation:
“It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter.”
I always figured Muir was just a spiritual writer who connected in a different way with nature. This line about nature being a temple, I took that as hyperbole and as a metaphor. I was wrong. Muir was right.
After one visit to the Valley, Yosemite speaks for itself.
There is a temple in Yosemite, and it’s formed by the cliffs themselves. In the Valley, the interplay of light and shadow off three thousand-foot cliffs creates the sensation of being in a giant hall of worship.
The sun filters through a slight haze, making everything in the far distance look like a backdrop from a movie. As you wind down the mountainside into the Valley, breathtaking views in the far distance materialize in more-than-life-size miles as you realize you’ll be standing in the middle of that movie.
We are often awestruck by the magic of the “golden hour” before sunset. In Yosemite, this awe-inspiring moment lasts all day. Light shifts and transforms on the Valley walls from sunrise to sunset, as you’re surrounded on three sides by sheer granite faces too close to let sun stream through in full.
While Yosemite’s landscape is unique, the sensation of sun streaming through clouds, reflecting off the natural landscape is not. It’s what we felt in Storm King, in the Hudson Valley, which explains why the painters of the Hudson River School made their way West to capture Yosemite’s natural beauty on canvas. Their paintings, in part, encouraged thousands to move West.
Though as much as John Muir can rhapsodize in verse or as large as the Hudson River School painters may paint their larger-than-life portraits, it has to be seen in person to be fully appreciated.