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Being John Muir

Actor brings his portrayal of the conservationist to Ojai.


Although some people claim to hate history, many more are captivated by it. There are Civil War reenactors, Renaissance reenactors, Wild West reenactors and on and on.

Then there are those who portray historical figures, such as Oxnard's Don Ancell, who transforms himself into honest Abe Lincoln. In that spirit, actor Lee Stetson will present a one-man show this weekend in Ojai celebrating the life and times of naturalist John Muir.

Stetson will perform "Spirit of John Muir" at Ojai schools during the day Friday and for the public that evening at Thacher School. Also, a Saturday-morning meadow walk will be led by Stetson as Muir, at a site to be determined. Space for that is limited to 25 people.

John Muir first visited Yosemite in 1869 and was a changed man forever after. He explored and studied this magnificent wilderness, all the while taking good notes. Gently but completely radicalized by the grandeur of the natural world, Muir became an eloquent spokesman for the preservation and protection of the landscape. He pointed out how the quest for financial gain at any price led to damage from tourism, grazing and logging. Muir founded the Sierra Club, and, until his death in 1914, was the driving force behind the establishment of the national parks system.

Stetson's fascination with the naturalist began when a friend gave him a biography of Muir. Already an avid outdoorsman, Stetson's life was changed to the point that he abandoned his actor's existence in Los Angeles and moved to Yosemite, which he had never visited. Twenty years later, he still lives near the park.

During his presentation, Stetson becomes Muir, affecting a Scottish accent as he quotes Muir about taking care of our world.

Stetson, who has been portraying the naturalist in one-man performances since 1983, discussed his inspiration during a recent phone interview.

What are some of the obvious lessons to be learned from John Muir?

Muir was the first of the ecological thinkers, really. He had a number of observations on how the planet works and how we should not tinker with great segments of it and preserve parts of it. These are arguments, of course, which we are hearing all over again today but more intensified in many ways. Muir was the first to make a clarion call for [the environment] and was clearly way ahead of his time and very much an oracle worth listening to today.

Where did you find your source material?

Well, he left us 10 books, numerous articles and a wealth of journals that he kept from his earliest days of travels. It's those materials I tap to do these Muir shows. I've done a series of productions for the last 18 years up in Yosemite National Park in the summertime, plus I've toured throughout the country, and indeed, outside the country.

No one seems to want to reenact John D. Rockefeller or Leland Stanford, but there's a certain attraction to Muir.

There is. I've written up other historical characters and I've been looking for a capitalist of one kind or another that was worth writing up, but I haven't found one yet. A couple have come close, but there always seems to be a letdown. Ben & Jerry come to mind and a host of others who have been very enlightened capitalists, but people who seem to generate recognition and enthusiasm seem to be rare.

So Yosemite inspired you the same way it did Muir?

Yes, in many ways it did. I had been an actor, but in many lovely environs such as Hawaii, Oregon and Idaho. Then I finally decided to seek fame and fortune in L.A. I didn't manage to find either of those, but I did manage to find the Sierra Nevada, where I could play recreationally as I had in these other great environments. It was there that I became aware of Mr. Muir and his contributions, his poetic writings and his incredible adventures.

So what can people do to make a difference in their own backyard?

That's the very point. There's nobody's backyard that's not affected by environmental problems. There's no square inch of soil, air or water that we cannot pollute, and indeed, we seem determined to do so. There are so many things such as making sure our kids are properly educated as to sound ecological principles. We have had tremendous success with recycling, for example. Just 20 years go, it was scarcely a thought in anybody's brain, and now literally everybody does it, while at the same time there appears to be a lessening of environmental activism. There are some lessons that are learned and appropriated while others just don't seem to stick.


"Conversations With a Tramp--An Ojai Evening With John Muir" at Thacher School, 5025 Thacher Road, Ojai, 7 p.m. Friday; $8 per individual or $16 per family; 646-0251.

* Bill Locey can be reached by e-mail at

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