Letter to John Muir
To the Glory of Nature, John Muir, Eternity
by Rex Burress
from California Parks and
Recreation Magazine, November, 1962
Introduction by Rex Burress, September, 2007
A little history connected to my "Letter to John Muir." I
came west from Missouri in 1957 and took up residency in the Bay Area
of California. I was selected for the Rotary Natural Science Center
and Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge in Oakland as, first, an animal keeper
and migratory waterfowl manager in 1961, before becoming Refuge Naturalist,
at a time when William Penn Mott, Jr. was Oakland Park Director. Mott
had hired Naturalist Paul F. Covel as the first Municipal Naturalist
in America in 1948.
I was inspired by the enthusiastic Covel, and since he was a follower of John
Muir’s philosophy, I soon discovered Muir also, and proceeded to read the
of the Mountains, edited by Linnie Marsh Wolfe that we
had in the Bugs Cain library at the Center. Paul was so entranced with Muir that
when he retired in 1975, he traveled to Dunbar, Scotland, just to see where Muir
Then followed many books on Muir, including The
Wilderness World of John Muir edited by Edwin Way Teale. And of course John’s
own books beginning with My
First Summer in the Sierra. I was inspired.
Mott encouraged my writing and art work, often dropping a note of acknowledgment
on some thing I had done. That culminated with me writing the "Letter to
John Muir," and he found it and had it printed in the California
Parks and Recreation Magazine, November, 1962. Of course, I visited all
those Muir places: Muir Woods, Muir Beach, and Yosemite.
I was interested in environmental education and nature interpretation, took up
art and writing as an aid to that effort, and especially noticed the desire of
city people to find nature. We developed the theme, "Toward bringing nature
and people together," at the Nature Center, sort of like Muir’s "I
care to live only to entice others to look at nature’s loveliness with
understanding," and thus evolved this letter.
Here is the letter I wrote:
TO THE GLORY OF NATURE, JOHN MUIR, ETERNITY
By Rex Burress
I have just finished reading some of your writings as edited by Edwin
Way Teale in the book, The Wilderness World of John Muir. This has
been a most joyous experience to read of your adventures and nature observations.
My appreciation of your thoughts is exceedingly great because I, too, am a
student of nature. I feel especially interested in your life, not only as to
the common bond of a love of nature, but I, like you, lived in the mid-west
in my early years, and now live in your stomping grounds of later years- -central
California. Indeed, you mention walking in Oakland and San Francisco- -in the
very area that I now live and work! Our path lines have undoubtedly crossed
Time has made many changes in this old world since your day. If you were in
this big city area today and could hear the noisy chatter of activity and breathe
the air of smog periods and see the mechanized rush all about, you would head
for the hills even sooner than your city revolt in the year 1874.
Your writings speak of the unlivable corrupted conditions of the city. In your
words, "If the death exhalations that brood the broad towns in which we
so fondly compact ourselves were made visible, we should flee as from a plague." And
again, "Once I was let down into a deep well into which chokedamp had
settled, and nearly loss my life. The deeper I was immersed in the invisible
prison, the less capable I became of willing measures of escape from it. And
in just this condition are those who toil or dawdle or dissipate in crowded
towns, in the sinks of commerce pleasure."
Your theme of leaving the busy city for the tranquillity of the hills is a
pleasant thought; but there are just too many people now-days to go and live
in the mountains. Why, if everybody was suddenly to make his home in the open
spaces and wilderness areas, the out-of-doors would lose all value as a retreat
and be hopelessly cluttered with the debris of civilization. As it is, there
are still some unspoiled areas which we can hold in fond memory and hope for
in vacation dreams.
I am speaking as one of the city’s inhabitants. I am one of the "spiders" caught
in the "web." I’m a struggling wage earner who is managing
a small living for myself and my family. It is not easy to break away from
this binding web of responsibilities; food for the family and the security
of a home. The fact may be that it would seem unendurable for a person that
has had a good taste of the sweet nectar of nature and the out-of-doors to
remain in the shadow of the cold concrete-clad skyscrapers.
But it is not too bad, John. And one of the reasons that it is not completely
distasteful is because there are those areas over the hill to which
we can retreat. Thanks to the forethought of men like you, we have the promise
of a place to recreate ourselves, such as in the wilderness tracts set aside
for parks. There is still a goodly amount of unsettled space that we can visualize,
and also urban parks and places to keep our minds fresh.
You wouldn’t believe the number of people that have congregated in this
Bay Area. Stone and steel mountains are rising in thick clusters and they are
not the work of glaciers- -they are man-made and made for man. It is perhaps
the only way the increasing mass of mankind can exist. The life-blood of our
society is dependence on one another. We exchange work for money and in turn
exchange money for food which pays the grocer for his work. And so on to many
There are a good many people scattered among the population like us, who appreciate
beauty and the story of nature. This is evident in the attendance frequenting
parks and shows of art. "Birds of a feather are flocked together" in
Audubon clubs, Sierra Clubs, hiking clubs, camera clubs, rod and gun clubs,
and so on down the list. If dependence on one another is the life-blood of
our human community, the bits of nature here and there is the life-line for
the amateur naturalist.
It is good that the majority cling to the beautiful. A flower garden here;
a seeded lawn there. A rose bud here; a bouquet there. A pruned shrub here;
a spreading tree there. A bird house here; a bird bath there. Thus a line of
nature runs through the city- -implanted and invited by those who cling to
the desire of having lovely and beautiful things.
NATURE IS NOT LOST IN THE CITY’S MAZE. Each spot of plant growth
supports its share of wildlife. Each tree supports a resting and nesting place
for birds. Around each corner a bit of nature can be seen; enough to keep our
minds tuned to the fact that nature exists and is waiting in full glory for
us over the hill...waiting until a chance arrives when we can be off and free...headed
for the high-lands or a park or a stream to renew our spirit with the primitive
freshness of the out-of-doors. Until the chance to go arrives, this bit of
city wildlife and man must live in harmony.
This would surprise you, but right here in the heart of Oakland by Lake Merritt,
there is a bird refuge where wild ducks and geese will eat out of your hand!!
Wild pintails and canvasbacks and bluebills and a host of other free flying
birds that have swooped over the Sierras- -looking down on the most rugged
of wilderness areas- -come to this refuge where they dwell with city and man
in sweet accord. And this is a goal to strive for; the merger of man and nature.
And it must be if we re to keep burning before us the hopeful light of scenes
from the world of nature. There is no need to make our cities a tomb of machines,
because man can merge with nature and make a place practical for wild
things and beautiful for homes.
On some far day the stone cities may be constructed beneath the earth’s
surface and the soil could regain that which it lost, but until then it is
a matter for man to merge- -to share- -with green plants and living animals
the land on which we live.
Thanks also to the splendid writings of men like you, we know how it was then
in the out-of-doors. You have made us aware of how it was then and how it is
now, and the importance of the value in keeping as much of nature alive as
Yes, thank you, John Muir, for the things you stood for concerning your out-of-doors...our
Rex Burress, Animal Keeper, Oakland Park Department November, 1962.
Reprinted by permission of Rex Burress.
About the Author
Rex Burress was born in the No Creek country of northern Missouri.
Eventually he found his way west to Oakland, California, where he worked at
the Lake Merritt Waterfowl Refuge for over 30 years. He and his wife Jo now
live on the Feather River, where he continues to explore nature, take photographs,
and record his experiences and thoughts. You will find about 80 of his writings
about birds and wildlife at Nature
Vignettes: Local Bird Prose and Poetry, by the Mount
Diablo Audubon Society.
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