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[Detail] The Grand Canyon. Clarence E. Dutton, 1882.

2) Environmental Essay

Conservationist John Muir described the beauty of America's landscapes in essays and books. His writings were an important influence in the conservation movement. Have students read his description of Yellowstone beginning on page 37 of Our National Parks, 1901 from the collection Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920.

...[Yellowstone National Park] is full of exciting wonders. The wildest geysers in the world, in bright, triumphant bands, are dancing and singing in it amid thousands of boiling springs, beautiful and awful, their basins arrayed in gorgeous colors like gigantic flowers; and hot paint-pots, mud springs, mud volcanoes, mush and broth caldrons whose contents are of every color and consistency, splash and heave and roar in bewildering abundance. In the adjacent mountains, beneath the living trees the edges of petrified forests are exposed to view, like specimens on the shelves of a museum, standing on ledges tier above tier where they grew, solemnly silent in rigid crystalline beauty after swaying in the winds thousands of centuries ago, opening marvelous views back into the years and climates and life of the past. Here, too, are hills of sparkling crystals, hills of sulphur, hills of glass, hills of cinders and ashes, mountains of every style of architecture, icy or forested, mountains covered with honey-bloom sweet as Hymettus, mountains boiled soft like potatoes and colored like a sunset sky.

Our National Parks, John Muir, 1901. Page 38.

After reading this excerpt, students can browse the maps of Yellowstone in the Geographic Location index. Can they find what section of the park Muir was describing? What are the names of those areas? Does one get the same sense of place from Muir's description as one does from viewing maps in the collection? What does one media portray that the other does not? Use these and the following questions in a class discussion.

  • What imagery does Muir use to describe the park?
  • How does Muir involve the reader's senses in his description? What do you see, hear and smell from his description?
  • What image of the park does Muir portray? What emotions does he elicit from the reader?
  • Does he intrigue you to want to visit the park?
  • How does Muir make the reader feel this a unique place?

Students can search on the names of other national parks In Evolution of the Conservation Movement to read other descriptions. Searching on John Muir will retrieve additional works by the author as well as photographs.

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