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Lee Stetson has been portraying conservationist since 1983

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FARMINGTON — There is little doubt that the personal characteristic that most defined legendary conservationist and naturalist John Muir was his passion for preserving the wild places he loved.

But Muir was far from being a dour, tree-hugging curmudgeon who took himself and his cause way too seriously, says Lee Stetson, who will bring the Sierra Club co-founder and environmental advocate to life with two Chautauqua performances early next week at San Juan College.

In fact, Stetson says, Muir was a bit of a cut-up.

"Oh, very much so. That's a big part of my productions," Stetson said during a telephone interview Monday from his California home, explaining that he considers Muir's sense of humor — and his love of irony, a trait that he would have shared with so many Gen Xers and Millennials if he were around today — integral to the man's character.

Stetson has devoted much of his life to crawling inside the skin of Muir, bringing his words and beliefs to a wider audience. Stetson put together his first presentation on Muir after reading his memoirs in the early 1980s and becoming entranced by Muir's accounts of his adventures in the wilderness in late 19th century and early 20th century America.

"But I was most attracted by the poetry of his work," Stetson said.

Muir perhaps did more than any other American to convince his countrymen of the wisdom and worth of preserving its natural landscapes in a pristine state. He authored several books and wrote dozens of essays and articles that detailed the majesty of locales ranging from the Yosemite Valley in California to Glacier Bay in Alaska, laying out strong arguments for their preservation. He also did so in a lyrical fashion that captured the imagination of his readers.

Stetson put together his first presentation on Muir's life nearly 40 years ago and began delivering it at Yosemite National Park. He couldn't believe how popular it was.

"I confess I was astounded by the reception when the show first opened in 1983," he said. "It played to enthusiastic, full houses and came along at sort of the dawning of a national environmental consciousness."

Within a few years, Stetson realized he had compiled so much information on Muir that he had enough material for a second show focusing on other aspects of Muir's life. Then came another, and another and still others. Now, Stetson delivers presentations that cover every notable aspect of Muir's life, ranging from his encounters with wild animals to his relationship with President Teddy Roosevelt.

In all of them, Stetson, a trained actor, adopts the persona of Muir, even when he is interacting with the audience during the question-and-answer sessions that follow his presentations. Given their subject matter, he said his strong preference is to deliver the presentations outdoors or in a tent, though his performances at San Juan College won't allow for that luxury.

Stetson said he has reached the point several times at which he assumed he had exhausted every available source of information about Muir, but then someone surprises him with new material that further contributes to his understanding of the character.

"Things keep popping up, and, of course, there's lot of conjecture about his romantic life," Stetson said. "But that has always seemed more conjecture than reality to me."

Stetson said even though Muir's love of the outdoors was well known, he also had a way of winning people over, including some of the better-known and more-influential figures of his time.

"I suppose the most surprising thing for most people is the associations that came for him so easily," Stetson said, listing Ralph Waldo Emerson, Roosevelt and railroad magnate E.W. Harriman among Muir's friends.

Muir and Roosevelt famously went on a three-night camping trip together through Yosemite Valley in 1903, an excursion during which Muir is said to have enlisted the president's support for the burgeoning conservation movement. Muir and Emerson had become friends much earlier, in 1869, when the former was not yet well known and worked at a sawmill in Yosemite Valley.

Muir was not reluctant to use those friendships to advance his wilderness preservation goals, Stetson noted.

"His ease in dealing with people like Teddy Roosevelt and E.W. Harriman allowed him to get many helpful things done," Stetson said.

Stetson will perform "Conversation with a Tramp: An Evening with John Muir" at 7 p.m. Monday and "The Spirit of John Muir" at 7 p.m. Tuesday. Both performances will take place in the Little Theatre on the college campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington. There is no admission charge, and both events are funded by the San Juan College Foundation.

For more information, call 505-566-3430.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or via email at measterling@daily-times.com.

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