Wild moment: Alec Gilmore

Published: 5th February 2016

A visit to John Muir's house in Martinez Califonia, leaves a powerful impression

Travelling recently in California I found myself in Alhambra Avenue, Martinez - site of the John Muir House. Enquiries at a filling station told me that it was 400 yards up the road, ‘just beyond the Post Office’.

A short walk and there - almost under the CA-4 Highway (or Freeway) aka the John Muir Parkway - was a small, attractive and well-preserved building, though not at all like a house. It was the office and headquarters, clean and well kept, open 10-5, seven days a week, with a modest selection of toys, souvenirs, a bookstore and Muir memorabilia. So what was there to see and where was the house?

The answer to the first question was nine acres of orchard set in 326 acres of woodland, mainly grassland and oaks, snuggling at the foot of Mount Wanda and Mount Helen, home to over 100 species of plants and birds and an invaluable staging post for many species of birds and bats travelling up and down the Pacific. This was Muir’s garden. The house stood high on a mound just behind the office.

Alec Gilmore JM house

Admission was free, and the encouragement to explore, without too much guidance or interference from others, provided the very opportunity to enjoy the experience in the atmosphere Muir might have intended. I went out by the side door into the grounds to wander.

The 17-room house, 10,000 square feet, towered over the scene with the air of a 19th century Italian style Victorian mansion, built for Dr John Strentzel, whose daughter, Loue, married John Muir, and when Dr Strentzel died in 1890 John and Loue moved in. It comprises three storeys, with 12-foot-high ceilings, capped by a bell tower — no bell, but an excellent viewing point in all directions.

Freedom to wander embodied the Muir spirit. Visitors were few as I made my way through the ground floor, the only sound being that of a guide showing books and other documents to a small group of people. Most obvious was a huge square piano on which Loue, a competent pianist, entertained her guests. Upstairs had a rustic simplicity, with a very basic washbasin (though no doubt not all that unusual in those days) followed by two or three simple beds appropriately draped.

Furnishings are said to be from the period but the clothes never belonged to the Muirs or the Strentzels. The desk, however, in his study, or ‘scribble den’ as it was known, where he penned most of his published works, including his books — writings that paved the way to preserving our nation’s most beautiful natural lands, or wild places — is the original, as is the Oliver typewriter (of special interest to me because it is identical to the first typewriter I owned at the end of its life in the 1940s).

Alec Gilmore JM scribble den

Apparently he never used it. He was a ‘writer’. Wanda and Helen were the ‘typists’. The untidy layout is not exactly original but a reconstruction to reflect the sort of man he was and his modus scribendi, relaxing at one moment, picking a paper here or there off the floor, putting it down and returning to scribble at his desk.

On returning to the office a 20-minute video filled in some of the background and focused for me the principle characteristics that shaped the man he became. Three events stood out.

One, his home and family life. First shots are of a lively and energetic Muir romping and dancing with two pre- teenage girls in the grounds, whose names, Wanda and Helen, he also gave to the two local mountains, suggest a happy home and family life. True, the incongruity between the opulence and luxury life-style stood in stark contrast to a man with a reputation for ‘the simple life’, living close-to-nature, has not gone unnoticed, but when Muir married Loue, daughter of an extremely wealthy businessman who owned those acres and that splendid house, Muir ‘married money’ and that was what enabled him to do what he did, using his resources to research the world, write his books, influence policies and care for his family.

Two, his capacity for probing. The accident which permanently damaged his sight is noted but the emphasis is more on qualities of creativity and inventiveness which, together with the hostile, pushing (almost bullying) tactics of his father in his upbringing, must surely have played some part in encouraging, if not creating, the grit and determination which runs through all his work.

Three, his commitment to nature, solitude and conservation often led him into conflict and controversy with the authorities, not least over the battle to save Hetchy Hetchy, served only to increase rather than diminish his determination.

As I left the house I decided to take a gentle stroll up Mount Wanda, marked every few hundred yards with a picture, a brief note on what to look for and a John Muir quote, one of which was an encouragement to devote space, time and quiet to nature, with the words, ‘Wash your spirit in the woods’.

After some 45 minutes and a steep climb of some 500-600 feet, albeit slightly less than a mile, I came to a pinnacle, offering superb views in all directions and surrounded by green hills, overlooking the Benicia Bridge, the Carquinez Straits and Suisun Bay, with a picture of Wanda and Helen and a Muir quote alongside a seat as an invitation to pause and gaze. After a few moments I returned to the car, with some satisfaction from having ‘washed my spirit‘ (albeit only a little) ‘in the woods’.

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