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Wharton James on Outdoor Living



George Wharton James lived in California in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He was a student of Native American life, and spent many weeks living with the descendents of the earliest Californians. In 1907 he wrote a book called Learning from the Indians, that was originally published under the title What the White Race May Learn from the Indians. His photographs of native life in situ – right where they lived – are in important historical collections, and he amassed an impressive Indian basketry collection in his life time.

James was familiar with other writers of his era who were exploring the history of California, and who were enjoying its still fairly unspoiled beauties at the turn of the century. James also traveled widely in the west, visiting tribes in the Four Corners, and recording important photographic and anthropological information. The book the Camp will be referring to was written to offer the white reader a better understanding of what James saw as some of the most intelligent practices he observed among the Indians, and was weighted by some commentaries about what he saw that he didn’t approve of as well.

“The Indian is an absolute believer in the virtue of the outdoor life, not as an occasional thing, but as his regular, set, uniform habit. He lives out of doors; not only does his body remain in the open, but his mind, his soul, are ever also there. “

“ When he learns of white people shutting themselves up in houses into which the fresh, pure, free air of the plains and deserts, often laden with the healthful odors of the pines, firs, balsams of the forest, cannot come, he shakes his head at the folly, and feels as one would if he saw a man slamming the door in the face of his best friend.”

“ Virtually he sleeps out of doors, eats out of doors, works out of doors. When the women make their baskets and pottery, it is always out of doors, and their best beadwork is always done in the open. The men make their bows and arrows, dress their buckskin, make their moccasins and buckskin clothes, and perform nearly all their ceremonials out of doors. “

James quotes Edward Robeson Taylor, whom he dubs the poet-mayor of San Francisco :

“In him that on the rugged breast of mountain
Finds his joy and his repose,
Who makes the pine his fellow, and with zest
Treads the great glaciers and their kindred snows,
A strength is planted that in direst test
Dares all the Devils to oppose. “

He also quote Robert Louis Stevenson, the famous writer who followed his beloved to California to be wed, and spent his honeymoon in a tumbled down miners shack :

“To wash in one of God’s rivers in the open air seems to me a sort of cheerful solemnity or semi-pagan act of worship. To dabble among the dishes in a bedroom may perhaps make the body clean; but the imagination takes no share in such a cleansing. “

Wharton James commends the Indians way of life as one that builds healthy bodies and healthy spirits. He comments on his current medical peers as finally coming around to realize that fresh, clean air is a sure for many ailments, including tuberculosis that was then a modern plague. He heartily recommends camping trips, and recounts his efforts to take city dwellers out away from their normal life and expose them to raw nature while sleeping out under the stars – these trips transformed the men and opened their eyes and hearts to the wonders of living closer to nature.