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PRESERVING MORE THAN STORIES
Chances are good that historian Frank Helling will perform this Thursday, Sept. 28, for the latest installment of the Respite By The River reading series. But if you blink, you might think you're seeing someone a little more famous.
Helling will appear as John Muir at the River Center on Old Friant Road, telling stories of the central San Joaquin Valley through the eyes of the revered preservationist. Helling's storytelling is a regular feature at Grant Grove in Sequoia National Park, and it's an entertaining presentation that might possibly provide life's direction to the young and not so young alike.
Helling has performed as Muir since April 21, 1982. In a recent interview, he explained the events leading up to his portrayal of Muir, and how Muir has changed his life.
In the early 1970s, Helling saw one of the first showings of the documentary John Muir's High Sierra, by Dewitt Jones. "I was just blown away by this film," he said, and shortly thereafter Helling began reading a book edited by naturalist Edwin Way Teale, The Wilderness World of John Muir. After that Helling was hooked, and he read everything Muir wrote.
About a decade later, while Helling was teaching at Bullard Talent in Fresno, he thought, "Gee, it'd be neat if John Muir just showed up on his birthday." So, on April 21, 1982, Helling walked into class wearing secondhand clothes from a thrift shop and a fake beard from Jackie's Costumes in the Tower District. He announced to his students that their teacher was sick and that he, John Muir, was their substitute teacher.
Then Helling said, "It's my birthday and perhaps we could all celebrate it together."
Fifteen minutes into telling Muir's stories in a quasi-Scottish brogue, Helling's beard fell off. "But it didn't matter," he said. That day they baked a birthday cake, made and mailed birthday cards to the Sierra Club, and planted a Sequoia tree on campus. "I was going to do it just one time," he said.
But then the next year rolled around and his students started asking him "if John Muir was coming back to school." So that year during Christmas vacation, Helling grew a real beard, which he still has to this day. His one-time portrayal of Muir became an annual event.
At Grant Grove, Helling is known to many folks as Ranger Frank. Vacationer Lon Larson of Los Angeles said Helling's transformation into Muir this past August was fantastic. Larson aims to catch Helling's show every time he's in the area, he said, and he has now seen the show six times.
Helling has a seasonal ranger position, which he has held for 17 years. "Muir is the one who got me the ranger job," he said. It's because of Muir that Helling has met almost all of Muir's living descendants and other people that he would never have met.
And now, years after his retirement from teaching, Helling still portrays Muir to keep his message that "this planet that we live on is pretty special, and we need to take care of it." Helling said this message "is especially crucial today. All aspects of our life, our economy, our politics, and everything in our personal lives is hinging on helping the environment."
He believes that there is a way to do things wisely and there is a way to do things solely motivated by the "get as much as you can right now" mentality. Helling said that one of the things we should have taken from Iroquois philosophy -- which, according to Teacher Frank, influenced our own constitution -- is that "we have a responsibility unto the seventh generation, to those generations which we will never live to see."
Ranger Frank's presentations on Muir in Grant Grove have influenced more than a few lives. Helling tells the story of two sisters spending part of their summer in the park, going for walks and coming to his campfire presentation. He said that when one sister, Rachel, graduated from high school, the Earth Island Institute nominated her as one of the top young environmentalists in the country, presenting her with the David Brower award, named after the first director of the Sierra Club. In Rachel's acceptance speech, Helling recalls, the young woman said: "This all started on a walk with Ranger Frank when I was 10 years old."
Her encounter didn't seem so different from Helling's encounter with Muir, and how it has changed the direction of his life, too.