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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Kindness in Education

Can kindness be taught? Do humans develop kindness naturally, or must we teach our children to be kind? If you believe that kindness is something we learn, does it have a place in academic curriculums?
We are raising and educating our children in the most competitive academic era that our global society has ever known. Applications to the right preschools now outnumber applications to universities. Middle school sports teams increasingly demand private athletic coaching to ensure a child’s placement on the team. And pressure to score high on college entrance exams has driven some students to unthinkable levels of cheating and mind stimulating drug use.
In the face of all these educational challenges, kindness actually helps our children succeed. Kindness raises students’ self-esteem and enhances the learning environment. Minds are open and available to greater memory retention in non-hostile settings. So, whether academically proficient or not, students are given a way to excel through kindness.
It’s not only struggling students who benefit from a climate of good will. During difficult or stressful times, students are empowered when they take positive action and extend kindness and support to their fellow students. Kindness encourages empathy and helps develop valuable interpersonal skills that will help children succeed in every setting throughout their entire lives.
Schools are a great place to build on the beneficial principles of kindness that our children have been nurtured with at home. And if a child has not been gifted a kind loving home, our schools are a great place to start learning about it.
On the wall of the fifth-grade classroom at Willow Creek Academy, there are pictures and writings about kindness: kindness to the earth and kindness to one another. The fifth grade students came up with the idea for the “Kindness Project” independently. The year-long project provides opportunities for students to think deeply about how to keep their classroom community friendly and safe for everyone. Meegan Devol, their teacher, has integrated kindness into reading and writing projects, and the class regularly discusses kindness in class meetings.Devol shares, “We are focusing on eliminating put-downs from our class entirely. I know some people say, ‘They’re just playing around’ or ‘That’s what kids do;’ however, if a child does not feel safe in the classroom environment, they will not take chances in the classroom and learning will suffer. Thankfully, we made it through today with only one put-down. Furthermore, many of the students gave each other compliments throughout the day. I am so proud of room 25!”
Is it possible to learn kindness at almost age or at any time during your life? The answer is yes! I was reminded of an important lesson in kindness from my son when he was only five years old. As we walked in Union Square in San Francisco on a chilly afternoon, my son generously offered his warm wooly scarf to a homeless man sitting on the edge of the sidewalk. At first, I wanted to snatch his scarf back from the man, but then I stopped to think why my son might have offered his scarf. And then I remembered the quote, “A little child shall lead them.”
Kindness is a great lesson, and not just for tomorrow’s leaders. This week we will be high-lighting standout programs and school across the country educating children on the importance of kindness. Do you know a teacher who deserves a sincere thank you?