Kindness and Nature: John Muir & The Battle of Hetch Hetchy

The battle over damming Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park was the first national debate over the use of wilderness in U.S. history. It lasted 12 years.

The unstoppable fires caused by the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 underlined the city’s need for a reliable water source. So in 1908, the City of San Francisco issued a referendum to the U.S. Congress calling for the damming of Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park to supply the city with water…oh, and electricity.

John Muir and the Sierra Club produced and distributed articles, pamphlets and posters to mobilize the public. These acts inspired thousands to send letters to Congress objecting to the dam, and most of the nation’s newspapers to publish editorials condemning the plan.

On the other side, dam supporter William Kent called Muir “a man entirely without social sense. With him, it is me and god and the rock where god put it, and that is the end of the story.” San Francisco’s city engineer called the preservationists “short-haired women and long-haired men.” The San Francisco Chronicle called Muir’s camp “hoggish and mushy esthetes.”

On December 6, 1913, the U.S. Senate voted 43 to 25 on the bill, authorizing the dam. The New York Times wrote, “The American people have been whipped in the Hetch Hetchy fight.” Muir, who once wrote that the battle over Hetch Hetchy was killing him, became sick shortly after the bill’s passage and died of pneumonia in December 1914.

Muir advocated that God and nature are one in the same, and there is no difference between the respect we should pay to a natural wonder like Yosemite Valley, or its beautiful sister Hetch Hetchy, or to a man-made marvel like St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Muir said:

“To my mind, it is inconceivable that a plan that has worked out, through unthinkable millions of years, without one hitch or one mistake, the development of beauty that has made every microscopic particle of matter perform its function in harmony with every other in the universe, that such a plan is the blind product of an unthinking abstraction. No; somewhere, before evolution was, was an Intelligence that laid out the plan, and evolution is the process, not the origin, of the harmony. You may call that Intelligence what you please: I cannot see why so many people object to call it God.”

If Muir was right, and God = Nature, where does mankind and the organizations it creates, like government, fit in? And is it right to see ourselves as “separate” from nature or above its laws?

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