Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park

Lee Stetson performs as renowned naturalist in Yosemite, on PBS series

November 23, 2009, 6:32 am
For anyone who has seen Lee Stetson's riveting portrayal of John Muir, the first American naturalist of renown, and founder and president of the Sierra Club, the fact may be lost that Stetson was himself a man with an accomplished life before the idea of bringing Muir onto the stage came into being.

In fact, when meeting Stetson, now known as the voice of John Muir, it's almost surprising to see him drive up in a newer import, instead of riding on horseback. Or even on foot, as Muir walked practically everywhere.

It's reasonable to say that were not for the colorful Stetson's portrayal of Muir in the Yosemite Theater for the past 27 years, much of Muir's fascinating history might have been buried beneath years of neglect.

Stetson's career began as a college history major in Massachusetts, back in the mid-'60s. He then went to Thailand with the Peace Corps to teach English. While living in Hawaii for more than a decade, acting and directing, he became the founder, manager and artistic director of the Hawaii Performing Arts Company.

His acting pursuits brought him stateside. He started doing research on Muir after moving to the Yosemite area, and he, too, fell in love with the place. After spending two years, off and on, writing his first monologue, "Conversations With a Tramp" was finished and ready for production.

"I wrote the show and took it to L.A. to find someone interested in producing it," Stetson said.

Nobody was.

He took it to the Sierra Club, but it didn't know what to do with it.

He had no intention of acting the part, yet when he sent it to the park ranger and chief interpreter at Yosemite National Park, they were not only interested, they wanted him to be John Muir. The program was scheduled to last for two weeks.

That was 27 years ago.

Since then, Stetson has written four more productions, each 90 minutes long. Between his performances in Yosemite, he travels, taking his shows to parks, universities, museums and wilderness and environmental organizations from Washington, D.C., to Hawaii. He also gives lectures on the arts and environment.

Now settled in a mountain community not far from Yosemite, Stetson is considered a John Muir authority. Just three years ago he was sought out by Dayton Duncan to have a part in the making of Ken Burns' film series about America's national parks, recently aired on television by PBS.

The regular season for Stetson's shows in Yosemite Valley begin in May of each year, and continue through September. When visiting the Park, a copy of the publication, "Yosemite Today," can be picked up to find the performance schedule. More information about Stetson can be found at: www.johnmuirlive.com.

After an unexpected turn in life, as the "Voice of John Muir," Stetson feels fortunate to be playing a small part in keeping the spirit of John Muir alive.