Cathedral of Nature

I went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.

John Muir, explorer, naturalist and conservationist

GeoffPilgrimage105I’ve fulfilled a long cherished dream and at last added a very significant tick to my Bucket List of things to do before I die… I’ve ‘hugged’ a giant Californian redwood and been overwhelmed by a sense of peace, awe and reverence in a Cathedral of Nature as inspiring as I’ve encountered anywhere on the planet.

Ironically this profound experience has happened in an oasis of calm and beauty within the hustle and bustle of the greater San Francisco area, with even the famous Golden Gate Bridge seeming insignificant to me alongside the majesty of the old-growth trees of Muir Woods, a national monument and testament to a founding figure in the global conservation movement.

John Muir was a Scottish-born naturalist, author and early advocate of the preservation of wilderness areas in the United States, whose activism is linked with saving countless giant trees and especially the Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks that rank among America’s greatest treasures today.

GeoffPilgrimage107Although he died almost a century ago, he continues to inspire with the breadth of his vision and understanding.

He recognised the sacred in all around him, whether it was against the backdrop of his beloved Sierra Nevada Mountains in California or while meeting a bulbous baobab tree in Africa, or perhaps standing beneath the rainforest canopy in South America, the latter experiences happening in his twilight years.

To John Muir the natural world was a place of worship and it was said he understood part of his mission to be “saving the American soul from total surrender to materialism.”

How amazing that I’d been to San Francisco at the height of the love and peace revolution of the 1960s, and again more recently on a motoring junket, and never suspected that such majesty and magnificence existed within easy reach of the highways I’d driven with eyes that only noticed man-made monuments.

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With Milton Nogueira in Muir Woods

It says everything about where my priorities lay then and I can thank my friend Milton Nogueira for introducing me to these delights. Together we walked through the ancient woods and also hiked to the viewpoint on Mount Tamalpais that offers panoramic views in every direction.

It was a memorable day and one that has made me re-examine my long-held belief that Cape Town offers considerably more natural beauty than any other major city. Now I’m not so sure.

Muir Woods is a remnant of ancient coast redwoods that blanketed many northern California coastal valleys before the 1800s and it was local businessman William Kent and his wife Elizabeth who bought land in 1905 to protect one of the last stands of uncut redwoods.

GeoffPilgrimage108To ensure permanent protection, they donated nearly 300 acres to the federal government and in 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed the area a national monument, naming it for the pioneering conservationist who was also a friend.

Milton and I were lucky to visit late on a Sunday when most visitors had left for the day, enjoying the quiet area where noise is discouraged.

It was apparently in this natural shrine many decades earlier that the founding fathers of the United Nations polished their ideals, while former secretary-general Dag Hammarskjold observed during a later visit to Muir Woods in 1955: “Persons who love nature find a common basis for understanding people of other countries, since the love of nature is universal among men of all nations.”

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The view towards San Francisco from the top of Mount Tamalpais

In weeks to come I hope to make at least three more ticks on my Bucket List, encountering the world’s tallest trees, the biggest trees by volume and the ancient bristle cone pine trees that are regarded as among the oldest living things on the planet, some having survived nearly 5,000 years. If time and the punishing heat of Death Valley allows, I may also experience the hottest place on Earth.

Who says California is all about money and materialism?

Geoff Dalglish

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