Happy Birthday, Minerva Hamilton Hoyt, and Thank You for Joshua Tree National Park!

Minerva Hoyt

Just last week, I returned to one of my favorite places in the world: Joshua Tree National Park.

A native of Southern California, I have visited it many, many times throughout my life, ever since I was a young girl: with family, with friends, and alone. This place is full of wonder, beauty, and a clear clean vastness which tricks your eyes and makes you never quite certain if the rock, rise, or Joshua tree you see in the distance is close enough to touch or miles and miles away. I’ve hiked here, camped here, explored here, laughed and talked here, sighed, embraced, and frolicked with my first love here; I’ve experienced companionship, loneliness, solitude, joy, pain, and peace here. Joshua Tree played a great role in the development of my mind, soul, and heart. The beauty and richness of this place have thus affected so many others, including and especially one other woman, and it shaped her life:

There was once a natural wonder in the California desert — one you may not have heard of — that was essentially destroyed 90 years ago because people wanted desert plants for their own gardens.

One Pasadena-based environmental activist was horrified at that destruction. Her response forever changed the way Californians look at the desert, and earned her a permanent place in the pantheon of California environmentalist women… – Chris Clarke

A young Joshua Tree, cholla, creosote, and yucca at Joshua Tree National Park

…This woman was Minerva Hoyt.

Not many will recall Minerva Hamilton Hoyt and her tireless efforts on behalf of California desert protection. In fact, without her leadership, Joshua Tree National Park might never have become part of the National Park System. How a transplanted southern belle born on a Mississippi plantation became a staunch backer of the protection of desert landscapes is perhaps one of the more unlikely stories in the annals of national park history.

Minerva Hamilton led a genteel early life attending finishing schools and music conservatories. Her marriage to Dr. Sherman Hoyt led her away from the deep south to New York and eventually to South Pasadena where she immersed herself in southern California high society and civic causes. She demonstrated talent as an organizer of special charity events and developed a passion for gardening, which introduced her to some of the native desert vegetation commonly used in southern California landscaping. Trips to the desert instilled in Ms. Hoyt a strong appreciation for the austere beauty and wonderful inventiveness of desert plants that somehow managed to thrive in the harsh climate. She also saw the widespread destruction of native desert plants by thoughtless people who dug up, burned, and other wise destroyed so many of the cacti and Joshua trees that Minerva found beautiful.

Following the deaths of her son and husband, Minerva dedicated herself to the cause of protecting desert landscapes… – Joseph W. Zarki

A Joshua tree in bloom

Here’s a photo journal of some of the beauties I marveled at on my latest visit, including the marvelous desert plants Minerva Hoyt loved so well. There were some wildflowers already in bloom, but this was mid-March, a little early for wildflowers at the higher, cooler, western Mohave Desert end of the park. I heard they were in full bloom at the eastern, lower, warmer Colorado Desert end of the park, but I was with a large family group during this visit and we were unable to round everyone up to make the additional drive.

Following these photos, you’ll find links to articles and books where you can read more about this hero of conservation. The political climate we find ourselves in in the United States does not bode well for the conservation of our greatest national wonders. Yet I hope the great vision of Minerva Hoyt, John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt (and later his cousin Franklin, who established Joshua Tree National Park by proclamation), and so many others who fought the good fight on its behalf, fueled by the love of nature which ennobles every heart it finds a home in, continues to win over the hearts and minds of all Americans. This is our pride and our heritage, and once gone, it may never return.

A natural sphinx stands tall among the sunrays and above the yucca plants in Hidden Valley, Joshua Tree National Park

Early blooming cactus, Joshua Tree National Park

Panoramic view of Hidden Valley in early spring, Joshua Tree National Park

A beautiful arrangement of stone, sky, cactus, and creosote, Joshua Tree National Park

Stone, flora, and sky in Hidden Valley, Joshua Tree National Park

Western tent caterpillars in a creosote bush, Joshua Tree National Park

A young Joshua tree forest, Joshua Tree National Park

Another view of Hidden Valley, Joshua Tree National Park

Sources and Inspiration

Bishop, Kim. ‘How One Tireless Advocate Protected Joshua Tree National Park‘. Aug 8, 2016, San Bernardino County Sun

Clarke, Chris. ‘The Woman Who Saved The California Desert‘. March 11, 2016, KCET.org

Kaufman, Polly Welts. National Parks and the Woman’s Voice: A History. University of New Mexico Press, 2006.

Zarki, Joseph W. Joshua Tree National Park, for Images of America book series. Arcadia, 2015

Zarki, Joseph W. ‘Minerva Hoyt‘. For the National Park Service at nps.gov

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

O.P. Recommends: Landmark Cases / Injustices, Two Great Works on the Supreme Court

This last couple of weeks or so, I’ve been packing in a lot more learning about the Supreme Court, and is it ever fascinating.

It began when I stumbled on Landmark Cases last month, a C-Span series about 12 Supreme Court cases chosen because they had a dramatic impact on the legal landscape in United States history, and because they likewise had a significant impact on the Court itself, as precedent and on its perceived legitimacy, for good or ill. It can be found as a video series online, but I’ve been listening to the podcast version.

As I was listening, the discussions reminded me of a book I had heard about a little while ago but had forgotten to read, a book about the Supreme Court’s worst failures, terrible decisions that undermined its legitimacy and had a negative impact on the lives of people for years to come. It’s called Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted, by Ian Millhiser. So, I went and picked it up, and just as with the Landmark Cases Series, I’ve been finding it difficult to tear myself away.

Both the Landmark Cases series and Injustices reveal that though sometimes the Supreme Court has been the bulwark against congressional, state, and individual encroachments of freedom, it has also too often betrayed the public trust. While we remember and celebrate such cases as Brown vs. Board of EducationGriswold v. Connecticut, and Obergefell v. Hodges, which brought the blessings of liberty to more of the American people than ever before, we sometimes forget how extensive the history of freedom-crushing Supreme Court decisions really is. The Dred Scott case, Lochner vs. New York, Korematsu vs. United States, and Citizens United v. FEC, for example, allowed employers to exploit desperate workers by cornering the market, fixing wages, and creating terrible working conditions with health-destroying long hours; permitted the government to imprison innocent citizens and allow the looting of their property based on no other consideration than race; and enabled the wealthy few to effectively buy up elections. Millhiser’s view of the Supreme Court’s historical tendency to value states and property rights over civil rights and the public interest is summarized here: ‘If American government truly derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed, then [the] agenda [of the hardline conservatives] that is so often and so soundly rejected at the polls must not be implemented by one unelected branch of government when there is no constitutional basis to do so.’ (pp 184-85).

The Supreme Court’s conservative justices, joined at times by their otherwise more liberal-minded colleagues, all too often decided their cases according to the view that the Constitution only prescribes and limits federal action, and was not intended to do likewise with state or individual action. But as many other Supreme Court justices observed, especially in its civil rights phase throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, this reading of the Constitution renders it impotent (FDR’s terminology in his second inaugural address) to extend the protections of the Bill of Rights to citizens in almost all arenas of life.

After all, most of one’s life is not spent interacting directly with the federal government or its institutions, but in homes, shops, public squares, workplaces, and so on. If the state, or an employer, or a county sheriff, or a bus driver, or a neighbor, or any other non-federal institution or person uses their liberty to oppress another individual, then the latter can’t actually enjoy the freedoms that the Bill of Rights guarantees*. And surely the founders of our nation didn’t intend the Bill of Rights, demanded as a condition of the Constitution’s passage, to be powerless to protect individual freedoms in most circumstances. This is the principle which drives the more liberal Supreme Court Justices, Millhiser, and commentators on the Landmark Cases series to agree that strict constructionist, hyper-conservative, elitist, and commerce-centric justices have historically imposed opinions on the public that do not serve their interests as idealized in the Bill of Rights, and allowed the the powerful and wealthy few to claim the right to do as they like while trampling the liberties of everyone else. Since the Constitution derives its legitimacy from ‘we the people’, then we the people, in our institutions and as individuals, should be likewise bound by the Bill of Rights.

At times, I think that Milhiser champions too strongly the general principle that unelected judges should get out of the way and allow elected representatives to legislate as their constituents demand. After all, as so many of Milhiser’s examples indicate, legislators historically have been all too happy, too often, to make laws that favor some while trampling the rights of others. The potential value of an unelected judiciary to balance the power of an elected legislature is, I think, revealed more clearly in the Landmark Cases discussions. After all, the will of the majority often runs contrary to the national project laid out in the Preamble of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, to protect and promote the rights of everyone, especially those in the minority who need protection the most. However, as author Jeffrey Toobin points out in his endorsement of the book, Millhiser’s book does an excellent job of balancing the good history of good Supreme Court jurisprudence with the bad.

Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes

*For more on the distinction between liberty and freedom, please see my essay Freedom, Liberty, and the Inevitable Interconnectedness of Human Life

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Sources and inspiration:

Landmark Cases: A C-Span Original TV Series, 2015

Millhider, Ian. Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted. New York: Nation Books, 2015.

“One Third of a Nation”: FDR’s Second Inaugural Address, published at History Matters website. http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5105/