Summer Reading Series: John Muir

This summer I have been working with communities seeking to leverage their scenic and outdoor recreational resources to increase tourism. I didn’t question the underlying idea – “we have a beautiful river so let’s get more paddlers.” Then as the centennial celebrations of our National Park System got underway, I was struck by how new this idea really is, that a river is a playground, a mountain a scenic and spiritual resource, an undeveloped lot in a community an asset to preserve as green space.

As planners and consultants, we have come to take for granted community values that would have perplexed not-too-distant predecessors. The forbidding forests of the Brothers Grimm enforce the moral tales of danger, obedience, staying within the village; even in 1937 Walt Disney’s animated film Snow White is filled with fear and danger, and not just from the very human witch. Why do we bring these terrifying, unknowable spaces into communities now, as parks, arboreal streetscapes, and suburban wildlife sanctuaries?

This summer, I encourage you to celebrate not just our National Parks
but all of our community green spaces by starting a conversation about them.

There are so many books – guides, travelogues, humorous accounts, spiritual reflections – that we have a national book club all reading about the outdoors. Reach out other members and ask “Can it really be only a century? Would you believe we used to be afraid of the woods, and now here we are?” or “I can’t imagine our town without its park; do you ever wonder why it was preserved and not developed?”

My own book club choice is John Muir, a name almost synonymous with our parks. He is credited with shaping our values with his activism and his writing. To discover how, I opened The Mountains of California and within a few pages saw why he inspires us, almost literally, to move mountains.

John Muir is a nearly invisible writer in this book – he steps out of the way and connects the reader to the landscape. In one passage he sees a mountain as completely itself, and in the next is surprised to find an undiscovered valley looking like a cultivated garden. He writes of mountain mansions, ceilings of stars, and rooms inside glaciers or evergreen thickets. He shows us that within the spectacular, intimate and comfortable spaces exist, and I believe this is one of his great gifts to planners and communities. Wildness and beauty is not limited to the big or far away; we can create in our own communities the surprise of an urban pocket park, the scent of pine needles on a town’s fitness trail, the peace of a short path with a seat by a waterfall.

We bring John Muir’s world into ours. Go outside and see it, then start a conversation with our national book club about why we will continue to create these spaces. 

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