Standing silently amidst the giants of this pine and birch forest, I look up to see a patch of grey sky visible between the treetops. Fighting my impatient urge to frantically wave my arms in an effort to fend off mosquitoes, I exhale and allow my limbs to gently rise and slowly unfurl. The noble stature and incredible patience embodied by these trees reminds me of what John Muir, renowned naturalist and early proponent of developing the US National Park System, wrote in his unpublished journals: “I never saw a discontented tree.”1 As a dancer, I depend on movement to teach me, and as a site-dance performer, I gain further insight through moving with the environment. The ways that movement and environment come together offer me opportunities to glimpse inside not simply what the dance means and what understandings I can derive from moving, but also considerations of awe, humility, and the significance of being human in conjunction with the rest of the living world. I came to Acadia to learn from these trees—to let them teach me about the nature of contentment. I tend to mis-remember Muir’s statement as, “I’ve never met a discontented tree,” because being in the presence of these masterful creatures feels to me like visiting a council of elders and wise friends. An Earthwatch volunteer stops me to ask what I am doing. After explaining that I am an Artist in Residence at Acadia National Park—a dancer creating a series of short films integrating movement, landscape, music, and the writings of John Muir—she quips, “Oh, that makes sense. We nicknamed you ‘the wood sprite.’”
During this month when the Amazon rainforest has been burning, the Italian Mont Blanc glacier nears a melting collapse, and the United Nations General Assembly has made disappointingly small gestures towards any action to address the climate crisis, I am not feeling very spritely. Instead, I feel weighed down by the difficulties facing our global landscapes. Surprisingly, Muir’s perspective shakes me from my malaise and asks me what I am going to do about it—as a citizen and an artist. In the history of this world, so many wrongs have been perpetrated against trees, and humans have further used trees to enact violence and cruelty against each other. Whatever I am meant to learn from these trees—whatever “contentment” is—surely it is not a synonym for complacency.
Upon arriving in Bar Harbor, Maine at the foot of Acadia National Park, I drive past a woman wearing a red hat that says, “Keep America Great.” That statement could be a slogan advocating for preservation of our national parks if it didn’t already have other, seemingly oppositional, connotations. Hearing myself sigh audibly in response, I reflect on how divisive conversations can be about what that greatness is and how to live it, both individually and collectively as a country. It is not too bold to say that our national parks already embody such greatness and can therefore remind us of better aspects of our own (human) nature. Despite the undeniable beauty of these landscapes and their popularity with both national and international visitors, citizens of the United States are currently engaged in a struggle to preserve our parks (all of which are territories first inhabited by tribes indigenous to this land before they were occupied by what is now called the United States. Acadia National Park exists on traditional homeland of four tribes collectively known as the Wabanaki).2 In theory, the preservation of these public landscapes seeks to make them available to be enjoyed by all citizens and to help us all learn more about ourselves, each other, and the places we inhabit together—yet members of our own government favor selling these sites to oil companies and private interests.
Muir’s own time was not immune to this kind of struggle. A statement he penned in 1901 calling on the United States government to protect these lands still echoes poignantly today, more than one hundred years later:
Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed,--chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones. Few that fell trees plant them; nor would planting avail much towards getting back anything like the noble primeval forests. During a man's life only saplings can be grown, in the place of the old trees—tens of centuries old—that have been destroyed. It took more than three thousand years to make some of the trees in these Western woods, trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty forests of the Sierra. Through all the wonderful, eventful centuries since Christ's time—and long before that— God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools,-- only Uncle Sam can do that.3
During the December 2018 government shutdown, I applied for this artist residency, not knowing if the NPS would even continue to exist in the way that it had for the past century. That same government shutdown fostered the destruction of another public landscape where I have been fortunate to work as an artist—Joshua Tree National Park. With no Uncle Sam or park rangers available to guard its safekeeping, its own citizens carelessly plowed trucks through trees.
Any fool can destroy trees.
If we can’t depend on Uncle Sam to save them, what can we do?
All of my responses are too simplistic to satisfy me, so I again turn to Muir’s wisdom. Ruminating that, “We all travel the milky way together, trees and men,” Muir presents the human being as a comrade of trees and other environmental elements within the movement of the larger universe.4 So I continually ask myself, “How can I be a good comrade to these trees?”
Navigating Acadia’s Sundew Trail, I apologize to the trees as I inevitably step on their roots. Their far-reaching, stairstep extensions actually provide support for me to climb back from the oceanfront. In the larger context of his unpublished journals, Muir’s statement about the contentment of trees emerges from his observation of their roots. He writes,
It has been said that trees are imperfect men, and seem to bemoan their imprisonment rooted in the ground. But they never seem so to me. I never saw a discontented tree. They grip the ground as though they liked it, and though fast rooted they travel about as far as we do. They go wandering forth in all directions with every wind, going and coming like ourselves, traveling with us around the sun two million miles a day, and through space heaven knows how fast and far!5
These trees already know how to be good comrades to humans—to accompany us as we all travel together, and to offer their steadfast and generous contributions to the journey. Their graceful and gracious presences remind me that I am still learning from them about the nature of contentment. Contentment is rooted. It is a grounded, steadfast commitment to be present in all seasons—not just to weather the changes, but to enhance the environment. I recognize this commitment to enhancing the environment to be part of my responsibility as a citizen artist— especially in the current climate of the United States. I cannot create something as beautiful as a tree, but I can bring the gifts of who I am to where I am. And in Acadia, perhaps that means to remind visitors of the importance of these landscapes not only to our national pride, but to our collective consciousness. Any fool can destroy trees. But, what if I refuse to regard my fellow citizens as fools? What if I believe in the potential for all of us to do better by our national environments? This belief in our potential is what I can offer, and because of it, I make art as an act of hope. I don’t make political dances. As a choreographer, all I am truly capable of making are love letters. The following video is just that—a love letter to the trees and to the possibility of us/US. I made this film for you, because we are in this together. Just as Muir’s words and this landscape inspired me to ask how I can bring light to this situation, perhaps this film can open a door for the light that you will each uniquely bring to the landscapes of this nation.
1. Linnie Marsh Wolfe. John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Press, 1938). 313. back to text
2. “The Wabanaki: People of the Dawnland.” Acadia National Park, National Park Services. Last modified December 14, 2015, https://www.nps.gov/acad/learn/historyculture/wabanaki.htm back to text
3. John Muir. Our National Parks. (Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1901). 107. back to text
4. Gretchen Ehrlich. John Muir: Nature’s Visionary. (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2000). 203. back to text
5. Linnie Marsh Wolfe. John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Press, 1938). 313. back to text
Ehrlich, Gretchen. John Muir: Nature’s Visionary. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2000.
Muir, John. Our National Parks. Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1901.
“The Wabanaki: People of the Dawnland.” Acadia National Park, National Park Services. Last modified December 14, 2015,
Wolfe, Linnie Marsh. John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Press, 1938.