Actor’s shows bring Muir to life

Photo by Dan Johanson

John Muir never wanted for words when it came to protecting the wilderness, especially his beloved Sierra Nevada mountains. But what would the father of American environmentalism say if he were alive today?

“I’m back, and I’m really ticked off!” Muir might roar. “I’m back to track down Lord Man, to make him a better beast, because California, the home that I love, is on the brink of being lost.”

So begins a new rendition by Lee Stetson, the veteran actor who’s brought Muir to life on stage since 1983 with his first production, “Conservation with a Tramp.” That show depicting Muir in the sunset of his life reflecting on his many adventures and his battle to preserve Hetch Hetchy has captivated hundreds of thousands of people in Yosemite and elsewhere.

In his new act, “John Muir is back, and boy, is he ticked off!” Stetson portrays a modern-day Muir who’s angry and yet sometimes humorous as he rails against environmental destruction of the modern day.

“The song of Sierra singing frogs is disappearing at a fast rate, and the roar of Yosemite’s springtime waterfalls does not last as long as it once did,” Muir bemoans in Stetson’s voice. “And half of the glaciers have now gone, disappeared to Lord Man’s dark magic, while other half are rapidly shrinking. The planet needs glaciers to be a healthy place. Ask the polar bear, put onto the threatened and endangered species list, joining 1,200 good creatures in this country alone.”

Speaking in a thick Scottish accent from behind a distinguished natural beard that would do Muir proud, Stetson drew a laugh from his audience when he expressed Muir’s likely response to his many California namesakes.

“Naming the redwood forest after me, Muir Woods, I am proud of that. But you can do too much of a good thing. Martinez, my hometown, recently named a bank for me, and not far from there, a housing subdivision. And then, to prove they have no earthly idea of how I lived my life, the highway that buzzes by my home is called the John Muir Parkway!”

While the performances are drawn almost entirely from Muir’s own writings, Stetson admits taking a greater liberty with the material in his new presentation. But then, who’s more qualified to speak in Muir’s voice than the actor who’s portrayed him for 26 years? Stetson even edited “The Wild Muir,” a popular book of the environmentalist’s writings about his more hair-raising outdoor escapades.

A native of Maine, Stetson graduated from the University of Hawaii and fell in love with the wild country that remains among the islands. While an “armchair environmentalist,” he pursued acting, writing and directing in Hawaii and California. Then a friend gave him a biography of Muir that would change his life.

“I had a dim idea of him as an old man walking around in woods,” Stetson said. “When I read the biography, I was impressed by his contributions. He’s the father of the Sierra Club and the national parks. And the adventures that he had are astonishing.”

Stetson spent months producing the script for “Conversation with a Tramp.” Large and enthusiastic crowds greeted the show in Yosemite Valley. Stetson has continued performing his original creation though he has introduced variations over the years, like “John Muir among the Animals,” “The Spirit of John Muir,” and “The Tramp and the Roughrider,” about Muir’s Yosemite meeting with President Teddy Roosevelt.

“It’s been a long and happy road for me,” said Stetson. “I’ve been all over the country, and even out the country on occasion, to deliver the message. For the most part, I’m preaching to the saved. The environmental groups that want my services are already committed to the message. But I think the saved need to hear it often too, and they do.

“A lot of incidents in the long haul have shown me that I’ve moved significant numbers of people. That’s very gratifying, of course,” he said. “Over the years I’ve had a great many people write to me indicating they were transformed by those eloquent words of Mr. Muir.”

Among those pearls of wisdom: “Outdoors is the natural place for man, and the further from those cities the better. It’s astonishing that so many good people waste their lives in mean surroundings.”

For hikers, Muir offers this advice: “These mountains are a holy land. One should saunter through them reverently, not go hiking as to war.”

And finally, this note of caution: “Anyone who would try to defend the wilderness, then or now, will be accused of devious deeds by those who would destroy it.”

Among Stetson’s other interests: chess, reading, hiking, and enjoying the company of his wife, Connie. A resident of Midpines, he served a term on the Mariposa County Board of Supervisors.

Promoting Muir’s ideals through his performances, however, is a full-time job that fills his calendar annually. He plays several shows a week during summer months in Yosemite Theatre behind the main visitor center.

“As long as there’s a demand for it and I can still walk, I’ll be up there,” he promised.

For more information about Stetson’s performances, visit www.johnmuirlive.com.

Sierra Heritage, 2008