The troubling history of Muir Woods that isn’t always told

Photo of Muir Woods
Adrian Fontao/Staff

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With the coming and going of spring break, campus activities have resumed in full swing. I’m sure many of us have asked or been asked “how was your spring break?” since coming back to campus. The first few responses to this question may have come with a full account of your spring break: the good, the bad, the boredom and the blur. But, perhaps by the fifth or sixth time, you begin to tire and reply in a moral curt and formal, choosing to forego an entire account of your spring break shenanigans.

In many ways, history has been told in a similar fashion where facts — which may be hard to tell — are conveniently left out to create a more palatable story. Indeed, this “sanitization” of the past has been used to tell the history of Muir Woods National Monument.

This spring break, I visited Muir Woods, a short drive across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge and through winding roads toward Mount Tamalpais. I had the opportunity to see banana slugs inch across the forest floor, view coastal redwoods up close and leisurely walk the wooden pathways that extend through the forest.

Informational signs that introduce various historical facts — such as the first redwood fossils dating back to the time of dinosaurs 200 million years ago — intermittently dot the main wooden pathway. Other signs — such as blackened redwood bark — point to the visible history inscribed upon the very redwoods themselves. It was more than a hundred years ago when the Coast Miwok people would use controlled burns to properly care for the landscape. The Coast Miwok lived in harmony with nature and were the original stewards of the land.

The story of the Coast Miwok people is often where park rangers — who host tree talks throughout the day — begin their presentation on the story of Muir Woods. Tree talks are casual presentations given to park visitors as an introduction to the park, its species and its history. These tree talks also seek to rectify past mistakes in how the history of Muir Woods has been told.

Tree talks are given in a clearing within the understory, right next to a posted sign conveniently detailing a timeline of Muir Woods’ history in writing. Its story begins in 1872 with the creation of Yellowstone National Park, the first national park in the world, and continues with a list of dates associated with important actions by influential people who championed the protection of the redwood forest.

Yet this very timeline has recently been covered in yellow caution tape by park employees, who also added a posting that reads: “This sign credits influential, philanthropic white men with saving Muir Woods. While they undoubtedly contributed to the forest becoming a national monument, part of our duty in the National Park Service is to tell the full story of how that happened.”

This project is a collaboration between Muir Woods and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area interpretive team. This collaboration seeks to tell a complete history of Muir Woods, uncomfortable truths and all. What isn’t often mentioned in the Muir Woods history is its roots in racism, misogyny and slavery. These topics are added via yellow sticky notes surrounding the original timeline and addressed in the tree talk.

While these topics may be difficult to talk about, it’s important to face this discomfort so that a deeper and more complex understanding of Muir Woods history is told.

I am thankful for the way in which the National Park Service has chosen to actively rectify history through alterations and frequent tree talks. I’ve learned that, while everything on the original timeline is technically true, history is always under construction. We must remain conscious of the way in which stories are told and passed onto future generations, aiming to ensure that they remain true, fair and just.

Contact Adrian Fontao at [email protected].