Martinez to celebrate John Muir birthday, Earth Day April 23

Frank Helling, as John Muir, will reprise his role as the famous conservationist at this year’s Birthday-Earth Day celebration April 23 at the John Muir National Historical Site, 4204 Alhambra Ave., Martinez. (TOM ZAMARIA / Courtesy)
Frank Helling, as John Muir, will reprise his role as the famous conservationist at this year’s Birthday-Earth Day celebration April 23 at the John Muir National Historical Site, 4204 Alhambra Ave., Martinez. (TOM ZAMARIA / Courtesy)

Martinez Tribune

MARTINEZ, Calif. – The Earth Day 2016 celebrations being held locally will mark many milestones and much progress in the environmental movement that can be traced back to the labors of John Muir, whose name graces the national historic site in Martinez.

The National Park Service (NPS) is celebrating its 100th anniversary of encouraging the public to embrace natural treasures from coast to coast, that are available today for public consumption, and the 60th anniversary of the John Muir Association that has been continuing the efforts of the advocate for conservation and defender of all places wild.

Admission is free April 23 to the John Muir National Historic Site, 4204 Alhambra Ave., where festivities will take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., rain or shine. Free parking will also be available at Alhambra High School, Alhambra Avenue and D Street.

According to the NPS, Muir’s legacy of protecting Yosemite, Sequoia, the Grand Canyon and Mt. Ranier as national parks are attributable to his written appeals to the U.S. government to protect these majestic places.

The annual local environmental celebration will again be marked by Frank Helling’s reprise of his inspirational role of the famous environmentalist.

“I had seen Hal Holbrook do his Mark Twain character on Public Television, so why not develop a John Muir performance as my Masters project (at California State University-Hayward) and have something I could do in the classroom to inspire students to care about the environment,’’ Helling said, recalling the first performance to his 5th grade students in Pleasanton in 1972.

A film called “John Muir’s High Sierra” by DeWitt Jones and an anthology of Muir’s writings, “The Wilderness World of John Muir,” further stimulated Helling and he was hooked.

A decade later he seized the chance to again transform himself into Muir by donning his fake beard and old thrift store clothes. While the beard fell off that day in Fresno, his performance of sharing Muir’s story, planting a Sequoia, having the kids make cards destined for the Sierra Club, and venturing outdoors to play nature games did anything but disappoint. It was so popular, students the following year were asking if Muir was returning, and that generated repeated requests for other performances.

While Helling never finished the Master’s program for a degree in environmental education, looking back he has no regrets. He takes pride in knowing the role he has reprised countless times (complete with his own whiskers modeled after Muir himself) has continued Muir’s work of stimulating attention and care for the environment.

Along with participating in the annual John Muir Birthday/Earth Day celebration locally, the role of “Muir’’ also led Helling to a seasonal ranger-naturalist position in Kings Canyon National Park, appearances in Connecticut and the chance to perform at Theodore Roosevelt’s New York birthplace, and joining Jill Harcke and Sue Barry at Muir Camp each year. The icing on the cake has been meeting the Muir-Hanna family who also are expected to be on hand April 23.

During this year’s festivities, visitors will be able to experience the Giant Sequoia Muir planted more than 130 years ago, songs performed by the original cast of “Mountain Days,’’ Muir’s 1882 Italianate Victorian house and orchard, silent auctions, and Centennial activities led by National Park Service rangers.

A presentation of John Muir conservation awards will also mark the day. The Association has continued this annual tradition nearly 40 years after the first award was bestowed upon Marshall Kuhn in 1978 for his contributions through the local Sierra Club chapter.

The 2015 recipients include John H. Hartig, Conservationist of the Year. Dr. Hartig, a limnologist, has over 30 years of experience in advocacy, environmental education, restoration, the environment, or other conservation efforts.

Rex Burress is receiving the Conservation Legacy Award. A lifelong conservationist, Burress’ mission became “to entice others to look at nature’s loveliness with understanding” through nature walks, writings and art.

The non-profit, educational organization Worth A Dam, founded by Heidi Perryman in 2008, is being recognized with the Environmental Education Award. Worth A Dam is dedicated to the value, importance and contributions of beavers in the ecosystem.

Since August 2014, Keep Coyote Creek Beautiful (KCCB) has mobilized the San Jose community to clean up Coyote Creek. For those efforts, the KCCB is the recipient of the Conservation Initiative Award.

Vineyard Team is receiving the Nonprofit Conservation Award for its more than 20 years of working with growers to be more sustainable.

For more information about the Birthday-Earth Day Celebration, visit or, or call the John Muir National Historic Site at (925) 228-8860.

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