The Headache of Hetch Hetchy: John Muir, Metaphor, and the Defense of Public Lands


Phillip D. Swart


Phillip D. Swart is a senior at the University of Oklahoma graduating cum laude in Letters with a minor in Environmental Studies. In spring 2018, he will enter the University of Oklahoma Environmental Studies graduate program to focus on the relationship among rhetoric, wilderness management, and the perception of public lands. During the 2015-2016 school year, he was selected as an Honors Research Assistant for the McCarthy laboratory at the University of Oklahoma, where he continues to be a frequent field botanist. Outside of work and school, Phil enjoys backpacking and spending time with his wife, Cody, and their three Chihuahuas: Mia, Milou, and Toby.




Within the pantheon of environmental greats, few match the stature of John Muir. He was a Scottish-American environmentalist, naturalist, and writer who is best known as the founder of the Sierra Club and one of the earliest promotors of the national parks. He was influenced by the Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson, but added a more grounded view of nature that included a scientific approach (Oelschlaeger 178). Muir came to see his role as an environmental protector, bridging the gap between environmentalists and the general public of his time. This role became crucial during the battle over the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park and culminates with some of Muir’s finest writing. Through anthropomorphic metaphors, he was able to translate his concern for public lands in a relatable manner that the American public understood. In doing so, Muir sowed the seed of environmental concern that would only take root after the struggle for Hetch Hetchy Valley ended. I will be conducting a metaphorical analysis of John Muir’s usage of metaphor in chapter six “The Forest Trees in General” from his 1912 book The Yosemite in order to reveal the rhetorical brilliance of John Muir’s public advocacy for nature.

This paper seeks to answer the research question: what types of rhetorical devices are effective at aiding remote audiences’ ability to sympathize with nature? At its core, rhetoric is the artistic crafting of language to elicit a certain mindset within the rhetor’s audience. As with most genres, environmental and nature writing uses many rhetorical devices to communicate effectively. Metaphors are advantageous when communicating an abstract concept such as nature. To help illustrate the power of metaphor, imagine the metaphor of conflict. Depending how we craft the metaphor, the conflict could have a negative or positive association. If we say that we are “traveling down a rocky road,” we are suggesting a negative association. Just by visualizing the metaphor, we know this is a negative association because a rocky hill is difficult to traverse. The same applies to the metaphor of “dancing with the enemy.” This metaphor expresses a positive outcome due to the association with dancing, which is an enjoyable activity (Xiaomao). Because they are useful in framing an argument, it is important to understand the working parts of a metaphor.

In painting a scenic landscape of metaphor, Muir employed a wide range of vehicles to assist his readers. When discussing metaphors, a vehicle is the attribute being applied to an object. That object is called the “tenor” of the metaphor. In the example “the giant sequoia reaches towards the sky,” the tenor is “giant sequoia” and the vehicle is “reaches.” In saying the giant sequoia reaches, we are anthropomorphizing the tree by applying a human characteristic to it. By using anthropomorphic vehicles, a writer can create an increased interest and desire to sympathize with the tenor. In “The Forest Trees in General,” Muir was curating sympathy and concern for the forest trees of Yosemite, and by extension the Hetch Hetchy Valley. The vehicles Muir uses can be broadly categorized as regality, beauty, time, and storm. Each category can be employed multiple times, and each species is not limited to one category or another. In fact, Muir seems to be placing the forest trees in these categorizes as a way of encouraging a particular viewpoint on his readership. As the writer, he had the opportunity to influence his readership’s view of Yosemite’s trees before they ever set eyes on the landscape. However, in order to appreciate the brilliance of John Muir’s anthropomorphic metaphors, a discussion of the context involving the battle for the Hetch Hetchy Valley and “The Forest Trees in General” is necessary.   


Context of the Hetch Hetchy Valley

Throughout the late 19th century, the large metropolitan cities of California were in search of water. These growing metropolitan areas of coastal California needed secure, reliable access to drinking water for their burgeoning populations. Los Angeles, through a variety of deceitful tactics, had acquired and completed aqueducts that supplied water from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles. This was a monumental project that was seen as a triumph of human engineering conquering nature. Not to be outdone, San Francisco had a greater feat in mind: dam the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park and pipe the water into San Francisco.

San Francisco’s interest in using the Hetch Hetchy Valley went back as far as 1882. Two hurdles stood in their way. First, other municipalities had senior water rights to the Tuolumne River, which fed into the Hetch Hetchy Valley (US Dept. of Interior). Second, by 1890 the Hetch Hetchy Valley was part of Yosemite National Park (Wood). After numerous applications for water rights to the Hetch Hetchy Valley were denied by the US Secretary of the Interior, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fire made it clear that the city’s water infrastructure was woefully inadequate. By 1908, James Garfield was the new Secretary of the Interior. He approved of San Francisco’s permit just four days upon receiving the permit application and without ever setting eyes upon the Hetch Hetchy Valley (Sierra Club Timeline). San Francisco promised to use Lake Eleanor as a reservoir first, filling it to capacity before touching Hetch Hetchy Valley. Muir agreed to this compromise, and urged President Roosevelt to permit the use of only Lake Eleanor. By 1910 the City of San Francisco decided they needed both Lake Eleanor and Hetch Hetchy Valley. San Francisco was fervent that their needs were more important than the beauty, splendor, and intrinsic value of Yosemite National Park.


The Yosemite

John Muir knew that without public support, the Hetch Hetchy Valley would be dammed. In an effort to spread awareness, he published his book The Yosemite in 1912. There are fifteen chapters in the book, which encompass everything from the types of storms seen in Yosemite, to the awe-inspiring granite peaks and forests. The book concludes with a chapter on the Hetch Hetchy Valley. Thus, John Muir’s intention of The Yosemite was to act as a primer for discussing the damming of Hetch Hetchy Valley. For the purpose of this paper, I will be examining conducting a metaphorical analysis John Muir’s use of anthropomorphic metaphors in chapter 6, “The Forest Trees in General.” It is a listing of trees, that, on the surface, only a dendrophile would appreciate. However, it is one of the longest chapters and provides a unique look at the rhetoric John Muir developed to prepare his reader for the Hetch Hetchy Valley controversy.


The Metaphors

John Muir’s description of the sugar pine is a journey through metaphor. He uses multiple metaphorical vehicles to describe just one tree species. For example, he introduces his audience to the sugar pine tree by noting “the Sugar Pine (Pinus lambertiana) is king, surpassing all others, not merely in size but in lordly beauty and majesty” (Muir 402). With these first metaphors in “The Forest Trees in General,” Muir was deliberately crafting the vehicles of beauty and regality to introduce the reader to the forests of Yosemite. In selecting a regal vehicle, he suggests that the sugar pine has dominion over Yosemite. Coupled with the vehicle of beauty, Muir is creating an illustration of perfection or flawlessness. The metaphor of beauty inspires awe, wonder, and desire for the forests. In the regal metaphor, Muir is constructing a sense of respect and reverence that the public should bestow on these venerable trees. This can be explained by Muir’s own view of the forests. He was troubled by the relentless deforestation of pristine forest lands. It is ironic that monetary value was only placed on the heartwood of hundred or thousand-year-old trees: heartwood is the nonliving part of a tree. The bark and more importantly the sapwood, the living component, were discharged in the same way the industry disregarded the life of each tree (Oelschlaeger 198). Muir knew that if he could portray these trees to the general public as having intrinsic value—value for simply their own sake of living—that public perception could sway in his favor for Hetch Hetchy. Should the readers visit Yosemite, they would undoubtedly seek out the beautiful and regal sugar pine for being the majestic, picturesque tree that reigns over the forests below.  

In his writing about the sugar pine, Muir continuously takes one metaphorical vehicle and builds upon it. While the sugar pine is both beautiful and regal, Muir expresses movement to imbue the sugar pine with life. The sugar pine trees “toss out their immense arms in what might seem extravagant gestures [but] they never lose their expression of serene majesty” (Muir 403). This is a wonderful example of an anthropomorphic metaphor. Trees do not possess arms; humans do. When Muir suggests the sugar pine has “immense arms,” we are mentally visualizing a tree’s branches as human arms. Seeing ourselves in other people or things draws our sympathy for a subject. As more anthropomorphic metaphors are introduced, it will become evident that the vehicles of beauty and regality are intertwined with a variety of metaphors.

For a paper concerned with anthropomorphic metaphors, why are we discussing storms and time? Well, time is a social construct. Or at least, time as we think of it. Nature does not count the years as humans do. Tree rings, a rough guide to a tree’s age, are nature’s hints at time. But they are not always precise, and can be fickle depending upon the seasons and the years. When we talk about a duration of time such as years, we are speaking of a timeframe that only humans understand. Muir writes:

The largest specimens are commonly about 220 feet high and from six to eight feet in diameter four feet from the ground, though some grand old patriarch may be met here and there that has enjoyed six or eight centuries of storms and attain a thickness of ten or even twelve feet, still sweet and fresh in every fiber. (Muir 402)

In this passage we can identify four vehicles: beautiful (grand), regal (patriarch), time (old, centuries, fresh), and storms. We have seen that metaphors of beauty evoke awe, wonder, and desire for the forests. In the regal metaphors, Muir is crafting a sense of respect and reverence that the public should bestow. The latter half of this passage is what we want to concentrate on. While storms themselves are not an anthropomorphic metaphor, Muir typically includes an anthropomorphic metaphor that interacts with the storm. Some sugar pines have “enjoyed six or eight centuries of storms,” which is quite spectacular! The key to linking storms with an anthropomorphic metaphor is to include another vehicle, such as “welcoming” or “enjoy.” Trees do not have emotions, and as such cannot enjoy an experience. Muir is applying a human emotion to an inanimate object, so the anthropomorphic metaphor works. In fact, the metaphor is even more powerful because the sugar pines are described as enjoying centuries of storms, an experience that would likely frighten the average human. This metaphor does not bring sympathy but awe to the reader. Muir is setting the reader next to the tree in a lightning storm, with the tree proudly unwavering in the wind. That is a powerful image.

Muir also used all four of the metaphorical vehicles toward the middle of the chapter. In writing about the mountain pine, Muir notes that the regality is “nearly related to the sugar pine… and suggests its noble relative in the way it extends its long branches” (Muir 412-413). At the tall peaks of 10,000 feet, Muir says, the mountain pine’s main characteristic is “extending its tough, rather slender arms across the air, welcoming the storms and feeding on them and reaching sometimes to the grand old age of 1000 years” (Muir 413). The most striking metaphor here is that the mountain pine is “welcoming the storms and feeding on them.” So far, Muir has described trees as both welcoming and enjoying storms. But feeding on them? That is a potent description. Muir is painting a visual whereby a gnarled mountain pine is absorbing the energy of lightning. The trees listed in this chapter are either very tall or reside on mountaintops, making them prime targets for heavy winds and lightning strikes. In displaying strong metaphors such as “welcoming” or “enjoying” these violent weather conditions, Muir is informing the reader that these trees are immovable, strong, and outlive the worst conditions presented to them.

As has already been shown, one of the most interesting elements of “The Forest Trees in General” is that Muir uses the metaphors of storms and time quite often. This was by no mistake. In his essay “The Forests,” he says we must get to know the forests by disregarding our construct of time (Macfarlane 295). However, references to storms and time were one of Muir’s favorite ways of seeing trees as individuals. Muir kept his eyes open for unique features in trees. One of his favored talents was to read the ‘wind history’ and ‘storm story’ of each tree he found (Macfarlane 295). It should not come as a surprise that when trying to relate the forests of Yosemite to the general public, Muir chose to include a multitude of time and storm metaphors.

The vehicles of time and storm are frequent vehicles in “The Forest Trees in General.” They fit well together. Often, he will intertwine these two vehicles with other metaphors. Take for example this except on the Jeffrey pine:

It is this variety of ponderosa that climbs storm-swept ridges alone, and wanders out among the volcanoes of the Great Basin. . . . Old specimens, bearing cones about as big as pineapples, may sometimes be found clinging to rifted rocks at an elevation of 7000 to 8000 feet, whose highest branches scarce reach above one’s shoulders. (Muir 405-406)

We see that the storm-swept ridges characterize the environment that the Jeffrey pine lives in. It creates a mental image of a cold, barren, rocky outcrop. This image is strengthened when Muir says the Jeffrey pine wanders out among the volcanoes of the Great Basin. In saying a tree wanders, Muir is calling upon an anthropomorphic metaphor. We know that “to wander” is to walk or move in an aimless type of way. Muir saw these trees spread out around some of Yosemite’s harshest environments, and in order to draw a cleaner and more vivid picture of what he saw, he portrayed the Jeffrey pine with the anthropomorphic metaphor of wandering.

In the second half of the Jeffrey pine passage is the vehicle of time. Unusual for Muir, he does not provide the reader with a specific age of the species. Rather, we are simply told this is an “old specimen.” But why choose the term “specimen?” There are a few possibilities for this subtle choice. First, Muir was a trained botanist. Throughout his writings, glimmers of scientific language pierce through his poetics. Second, Muir is wanting his reader to trust his observations. In labeling this Jeffrey pine a specimen, he is hinting to his reader that he has studied this individual closely, and that his descriptions are reliable. It reinforces his next statements, which are that Jeffrey pines have giant pinecones when they reach a mature age, and that they can be found around 7,000-8,000 feet above sea level.

Once more, let us look back to Muir’s ability to intertwine metaphors. Take this next passage for example: “This vigorous tree is ever beautiful, welcoming the mountain winds and the snow . . . and it maintains a youthful freshness undiminished from century to century through a thousand storms” (Muir 407). This is a wonderful example of Muir’s tendency to combine multiple metaphorical vehicles. Clearly, Muir has included the vehicle of beauty. But more interesting is his use of the welcoming metaphor. When we welcome something, we are making a conscious choice to accept that occurrence. Trees arguably do not have consciousness, yet Muir leads his readers down that path. Why? First, by welcoming storms, the tree is displaying the role of host. Along with the vehicle of time, this metaphor continues to portray the forests as belonging in Yosemite, yet they are accepting—welcoming—of guests, be it man, wind, or storm. This harkens back to the vehicle of regality, where we are welcomed into the kingdom of the forest by the sugar pines. Second, Muir is building upon positive anthropomorphic metaphors. One of the major tasks of his book The Yosemite was to acquire sympathy for Yosemite National Park and the Hetch Hetchy Valley. If Muir is able to alter his reader’s view of the forests, such as seeing the forests of Yosemite as providing a welcoming, enjoyable experience, then his readership is more likely to be sympathetic to the cause of Hetch Hetchy (Frierson 471).

Up to this point in the chapter, John Muir has mixed scientific details such as heights and ages with anthropomorphic metaphors and poetic prose. In the latter half of this chapter, the reader begins to see Muir’s passion for the forests quickly overtake the scientific details of earlier descriptions. For example, he describes how in midwinter the incense cedar showcases “a noble illustration of Nature’s immortal virility and vigor” by flowering during the deepest of winters (Muir 408). Similarly, when describing the Western Juniper, Muir writes, “Barring accidents, for all I can see they would live forever; even when overthrown by avalanches, they refuse to lie at rest” (Muir 414). For previous tree species, Muir has explained they can live for centuries. But centuries are within human understanding. Muir has pushed his anthropomorphic metaphor from being similar to humans, to being beyond humanity itself. He notes that they “live forever” and “refuse to lie at rest,” which both hint at immortality. The concept of immortality is profound, and that is the goal of associating the western juniper with immortality. As readers, we know that trees are not immortal. But there is power in words. It is one thing to say the western juniper lives in a certain spot. But it is profound to say it has lived there forever. This change in perspective is precisely why metaphors are powerful tools. If a tree has lived here forever, who are we to cut it down? The impact of this rhetorical crafting of time is to create a sense of belonging for the forest trees of Yosemite. The change in perspective is precisely why metaphors are powerful tools.

In crafting a sense of place for the forests, Muir is passively working his readers to accept the longevity of the forests and their place in this world. In stark contrast, Muir also explicitly demonstrates that the forests belong based upon their own attributes. He writes, “On level rocks the juniper dies standing and wastes insensibly out of existence like granite, the wind exerting about as little control over it, alive or dead, as it does over a granite boulder” (Muir 414). Here the juniper dies; it is not an immortal being. Yet, the tree stands erect during the harsh weather conditions. It persists, like the granite that Yosemite is famous for. The anthropomorphic metaphor of standing in the face of harsh or dangerous conditions suggests resilience and strength. It is also an apt metaphor for the Hetch Hetchy Valley battle, insisting to the reader that nature stands up against the harshest of battles.


Rhetorical Contribution

Then it ended. On December 19th, 1913 President Woodrow Wilson signed the Raker Act, permitting the City of San Francisco to flood the Hetch Hetchy Valley and construct a reservoir for city consumption. The final sentences of The Yosemite were prophetic: “Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man” (McKibben 112). Muir’s effort to prevent the dam proved unsuccessful, but his writing and effort spurred the general public. In a tidal wave of support, protests against the damming of other rivers encouraged a series of national park designations in the later 1910s and early 1920s (PBS). In 1916, the National Park Service was established in an effort to ensure that future destruction of national parks—such as the flooding of Hetch Hetchy Valley—would never come to be. Though justice for Hetch Hetchy evaded the great writer, Muir’s writings had an influence on how Americans witness and experience nature around them. In spurring a surge in support for public lands, Muir ensured that future generations would enjoy the grandeur that nature had gifted the United States. The National Park Service has become emblematic of the United States, labelled as “America’s best idea” (PBS).

The timing and message of this paper is poignant. In late April 2017, two executive orders from President Trump requested that U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke review the status of 28 national monuments (DOI). This has been largely seen as an effort to shrink public lands in order to furnish natural resources such as timber production, professional fishing, and coal extraction (Board). The Trump administration has repeatedly justified these orders by stressing its desire for public input on United States national monuments. John Muir faced a very similar problem: the City of San Francisco wanted to destroy the Hetch Hetchy Valley and reshape it into a water reservoir. The Sierra Club—the environmental organization that John Muir created—has been leading the charge in support for the nation’s public lands (Sierra Club). As of this writing, the list of national monuments on the docket to have their borders altered has been limited to only 10 of the original 28 (Siler). The fight still continues to eliminate any reductions to the national monuments, just as the fight continues for Hetch Hetchy Valley. To this day, the Sierra Club continues to be dedicated to restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley to its original state (Wood).

I have argued that Muir employed anthropomorphic metaphors to illustrate to the public, in a relatable manner, that the forests of Yosemite and Hetch Hetchy Valley have a permanence in the landscape and cannot—should not—be disbarred from it. With the vehicle of regality, the trees are the lords of Yosemite. They are in control of the forests, not human beings. It is their regality and beauty that visitors are awestruck in Yosemite National Park. They welcome the guests into their kingdom, some of them spanning back beyond the founding of United States. The vehicle of time forces the reader to acknowledge the forests’ permanence in time and place. Lastly, Muir kept coming back to the vehicle of storms. In “The Forest Trees in General,” storms project power amongst the trees. They either endure the storms or the storm is feasted upon, suggesting a transfer of power. This is Muir’s most powerful and aggressive metaphor, and it makes a strong lasting impression upon the readership.

Anthropomorphism is a tricky topic in environmental writing. When anthropomorphism is applied to animals, it generally has a negative impact. This is because we ascribe human emotions or ideas to animals at the loss of understanding and disregarding how that animal objectively feels. As of this writing, trees and other plants have yet to gain sentient status. We are able to apply anthropomorphism to a tree without disregarding its own feelings. However, that does not mean we can use anthropomorphisms without consequence.

The problems of anthropomorphic metaphors are obvious in our daily lives. We project our own set of ideas upon dogs, cats, birds, and other animals we meet. However, there is a place in environmental and nature writing for anthropomorphic metaphors to be applied to non-sentient beings. Given the mode of consumption in today’s fast-paced world, even traditionally strong methods of delivery—such as photography—struggle to capture and maintain the public’s imagination and wonder (Killingsworth). There is a definite need for engaging and informative writing, which I believe the use of metaphor—specifically anthropomorphic metaphor—can achieve, aiding the reader in coming to terms with abstract environmental issues. It is my hope that this paper has highlighted the use anthropomorphic metaphors as a means to create sympathy for non-sentient beings.


Further Research

John Muir was a prolific writer and naturalist. A study of his rhetoric, limited to one chapter about trees, does not do his work justice. There are a variety of avenues that should be traversed to further understand John Muir’s rhetorical impact on later writing about the wilderness and the environment. The literature on John Muir is great and vast, with much of the scholarship either pertaining to his accomplishment of Yosemite National Park, his battle of conservation vs. preservation, and other loosely related elements of his life. In the public sphere, most books on John Muir attempt to capture the mythical man that has been created over time. False quotes, especially on the internet, crop up and are taken out of context to suppose ideologies. A compilation of John Muir’s most rhetorically powerful passages, with substantial context, would be a valuable asset to the public.

I believe a throughout examination of Muir’s mixture of science and prose is worth conducting, which could only be lightly addressed in this paper. In my research, I could not help but see Muir’s chapter “The Forest Trees in General” as a prototype of our modern field guide books. Field guides were available before the publication of The Yosemite, but I wonder if Muir had any influence on the wider adoption of field guides in general as an aid to public participation in the outdoors. Likewise, in Michael P. Cohen’s article “John Muir’s Public Voice,” he makes clear that Muir was not always enthused with sharing the natural wonders of the world with the general public. Muir only appreciated this approach when it became apparent that if he did not share these beautiful landscapes, nobody would care enough to preserve them. It would be a worthy endeavor to study Muir’s descriptions of nature, and determine the differences (if any) between his public and private intended works. Furthermore, I would like to expand my research into the entirety of The Yosemite, of which “The Forest Trees in General” is merely one small example of Muir’s brilliant use of metaphor and rhetoric.



It seems fitting to conclude a metaphorical analysis of John Muir with a metaphor for his own life. Utilizing the best of his rhetorical vehicles, writing just two years before his death, John Muir could have written his own eulogy when he wrote of a pine forest: “some venerable patriarch may be seen heavily storm marked, towering in severe majesty above the rising generation, with a protecting grove of hopeful saplings pressing close against his feet, each dressed with such love care that not a leaf seems unwanting” (Muir 54). Just as John Muir’s fascination with nature was seeded by the generation before him, he has offered nourishment and care for nature in the form of rhetorical brilliance for future generations. Though Muir’s stature remains tall and immovable, with each decade his saplings—modern environmentalists, nature writers, outdoors enthusiasts, and Americans—venture out to carry on the rhetorical advocacy for nature.


Works Cited

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Department of the Interior (DOI). “Interior Department Releases List of Monuments Under Review, Announces First-Ever Formal Public Comment Period for Antiquities Act Monuments.” U.S. Department of the Interior, 10 May 2017, Accessed 16 Sept. 2017.

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Killingsworth, M Jimmie, and Jacqueline S Palmer. “Afterword.” Ecosee: Image, Rhetoric, Nature, edited by Sidney I Dorbin and Sean Morey, State University of New York Press, 2009, pp. 299–309.

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PBS. The National Park System: America's Greatest Idea. PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2017.

Sierra Club. “Nat'l Monuments & Wilderness.” Our Wild America, Sierra Club, 9 Feb. 2017, Accessed 16 Sept. 2017.

Siler, Wes. “The Lies in the Secret National Monuments Memo.” Outside Online, Outside Magazine, 19 Sept. 2017, Accessed 20 Sept. 2017.

Swart, Phillip D. (2017). John Muir’s Anthropomorphized Trees. Unpublished manuscript. University of Oklahoma.

United States Department of the Interior. "Proceedings Before the Secretary of the Interior in Re Use of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir Site, In The Yosemite National Park, By The City Of San Francisco, May 11, 1908". United States Government Printing Office

Wood, Harold. “Timeline of the Ongoing Battle Over Hetch Hetchy.” Timeline - Hetch Hetchy - Sierra Club, Sierra Club, Accessed 29 Aug. 2017.

Wyatt, David. “Muir and the possession of landscape.” The Sewanee Review, vol. 92, no. 1, 1984, pp. 32–46., Accessed 5 May 2017.

Xiaomao, Min. “Beyond Intractability.” Metaphors | Beyond Intractability, July 2005, Accessed 3 Sept. 2017.