In Celebration of John Muir

The American legend’s legacy is especially relevant to today’s environmental movement

Born in Scotland, raised in Wisconsin, John Muir is considered the father of our National Parks system, called by many “America’s greatest idea” and later adopted around the world. He was a founder and guiding spirit of the Sierra Club, one of our largest and most effective environmental organizations. An author, naturalist, advocate, and friend of such prominent Americans as Teddy Roosevelt, Fredrick Law Olmsted, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, he achieved enormous fame and recognition. An institution in California, where he spent much of his adult life, Muir’s name adorns a National Monument, a Pacific beach, a Sierra pass, a 14,000-foot mountain, a Wilderness Area and the spectacular 220-mile John Muir Trail, running from Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney. Schools, parks, and playgrounds also bear his name, and his home in Martinez, California is a National Historic Site.

John Muir Photo courtesy University of Washington, Taber & BoydWith the clear exception of his early racism, which warrants continued criticism,
Muir is anything but out-of-date.

Contra Muir

But for some scholars, Muir has outlived his relevance. Just before a recent conference on Muir’s legacy at the University of California, Los Angeles, historian and professor of sustainability Jon Christensen told the Los Angeles Times that “Muir’s legacy has got to go. It’s just not useful anymore. Muir’s a dead end. It’s time to bury his legacy and move on.” In Christensen’s view, Muir was a nature advocate whose use of Biblical language and focus on pure wilderness now appeals only to older white Americans and not to California’s diverse population, which needs urban nature and clean air more than it does “awe-inspiring parks” and protected wild lands. The LA Times reported that, “critics also said Muir’s vision of wilderness is rooted in economic privilege and the abundant leisure of the upper class.” The most serious charge was that Muir was racist toward Native Americans.

Christensen’s comments, in particular, brought forth a torrent of angry letters and online comments. Many readers thought him arrogant and felt he was being provocative with the sole intent of attracting publicity. As I read the article, I too, felt the heat of anger rising inside. How dare these “scholars” dishonor Muir’s memory? As I mulled on the controversy, I began to realize that, above all others, Muir’s ideas and ideals ultimately shaped my values and my future thinking more than any other single influence.

As a youth, growing up in suburban San Francisco in the 1950s and ’60s, my father introduced me to backpacking in Yosemite. My family had little money in those days, and camping within a day’s drive of home was the highlight of our vacations. By the time I was in high school, my friend John Ellsworth and I were allowed to spend part of our summers backpacking in the Sierra without parental supervision, sometimes for several weeks. We were only required to call our parents every few days or so.

Near the end of the last of our trips when we were 17, we scrambled to the summit of Mt. Muir before spending a cold night atop Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states. To this day, those perfect days on the Muir Trail, watching glassy lakes reflect the sunset alpenglow on the summits, or the sunrise from Whitney as it set afire an endless sweep of soaring peaks, are burned indelibly in my memory.

It was hardly the leisure of the affluent; we spent barely a dollar a day on food, purchasing it in grocery stores near the access roads to the wilderness, hitchhiking to get from one trailhead to another. We felt free, competent, and responsible, and I realized that I could be very happy without a lot of money. Today, camping remains less the privilege of high-income Americans than an affordable vacation for people of modest incomes. Yosemite Valley’s campgrounds are well populated by California’s Latino population.

Under his spell

In my teens, I hoped to become a park ranger; such was the power and spell of the mountains, a spell that is undiminished after more than half a century. (Though life, it turned out, had other ideas for me.) Part of the spell came from reading John Muir during the school year, while daydreaming of Sierra trails and our following summer’s trips. I was enchanted with Muir’s story — coming to America at 10 from Scotland, growing up on a hardscrabble Wisconsin farm with a cruel and outrageous father, creating Rube Goldberg inventions, blinding himself temporarily (and fearing the darkness was permanent), and then, walking about America — from Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico. But it was his descriptions of Yosemite and the High Sierra that most inspired me. Years later I can still remember his words by heart:

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings! Walk away in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer! Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their freshness into you and the storms their energy, while your cares drop off like autumn leaves.

Crossing Pacheco Pass, south of San Jose, by highway on a trip to Kings Canyon, I imagined the scene as Muir described it a century earlier — a vast sea of golden blossoms covering the Central Valley at his feet, and beyond that valley, the snowy Sierra summits, dazzling with their light and beckoning him home, as he put it. I ached with him at the destruction of Hetch Hetchy, Yosemite Valley’s northern twin. I marveled at his exploits, spending weeks in the high country with no more than a bit of tea and some hardtack.

Muir taught us that wildlands and nature’s blessings are always threatened by blind and greedy commercial interests. I shared his sense that places like Yosemite are the true churches and temples of the world, where creation had worked its most sublime arts. And I shared his outrage that the moneychangers were in these temples, wishing to rape them for timber, minerals and money. Some may see my sensibilities as a middle-class privilege, yet this sense, generated in me by Muir, was the root of my dismay with unchecked capitalism, however conservative (absorbing my parents’ staunch Republicanism) I believed myself to be when I was a boy. In my defense, back then it seemed that being conservative meant one wanted to conserve things. Perhaps conservatism has changed more than I have.

Going deeper

Nonetheless, might it be that Christensen and Muir’s other detractors were right? My own experience was hardly typical. Few children today would have the opportunities I did, especially in an era where children spend only half as much unstructured time outdoors as they did when I was growing up. Overworked parents and their families have less vacation time now than they did then. Was Muir only about wilderness and the spectacular side of nature? And might my childhood hero have, in fact, been the racist the critics were saying he was? Was I only imagining the Muir I thought I knew?

To look into this further, I turned to the most comprehensive biography of Muir I was aware of, Donald Worster’s A Passion for Nature. My friend Ron Good, an interpreter at the John Muir Historic Site, had introduced me to it in 2009. I was then in the middle of a campaign to win a paid vacation law in the United States, and Ron knew I’d appreciate a fascinating tidbit in Worster’s book.

Worster had discovered a somewhat obscure newspaper article, written by Muir in 1876. In it, Muir suggested a “Centennial [of the Declaration of Independence] Freedom Act” or “law of rest” that would “set free the many urban slaves” by mandating vacation time for “men, women and children of every creed and color from every nation under the sun.”

“Compulsory education may be good,” Muir declared. “Compulsory recreation may be better. We work too much and rest too little.” Muir had a special message for those who felt that such free time was a luxury. “Cannot leave your business?” he asked. “Well you will leave it. Killed by overwork you will end up in the hearse of the jolly undertaker.”

Reading the entire biography made it clear to me that Muir is, if anything, more relevant now than he was a century ago. From the outset, Worster undercuts the critics’ assessment that Muir was an elitist, describing him as among “the most egalitarian” of people, a small-d democrat who engaged everyone he met, from former slaves to bankers, and even “hordes of children.”

Nonetheless, the charges that Muir was racist are not ungrounded. Racism runs very deep in American history and Muir was not immune to its pernicious impact. As a youth, he disparaged the local Winnebago Indians he saw near his Wisconsin farm as drunkards and sometime thieves. His 1868 descriptions of Yosemite’s Mono Indians included appreciation of their original way of life with its far lighter ecological footprint, but also crude remarks about their dirty appearances. In these attitudes he unquestionably reflected the typical white bigotry of the time.

Yet Muir’s views changed as he learned more of the theft of Indian land, and the destruction of their sustenance by greedy white invaders, which too often left the natives poverty-stricken and dependent. In Alaska in 1897 Muir lamented the misery wrought on the Indians by miners and missionaries and, as Worster points out, urged the government to “intervene to conserve the natives’ food resource and protect them from an alien economy.” He also formed a strong alliance with Charles Lummis, an outspoken advocate of the rights of Latinos and Native Americans.

A scientific worldview that is needed in Congress

Mirror Lake, YosemitePhoto by Christopher HighhamMuir taught us that wildlands and nature’s blessings are always threatened by blind and greedy commercial interests.

A deep sense of justice motivated Muir; he fought for national parks so they would be open to all, “from humble shoemakers to millionaires.” A man with little temperament for politics, he entered the fray, understanding that laws matter and that without legal protection, the most beautiful places in America would be drowned by “commercialism,” a term he used with scorn.

The criticism of Muir’s use of Biblical language seems misplaced. In a religious nation, he did employ it to great effect — something still useful when engaging religious conservatives today. But while raised in a strict Scottish Calvinist home, Muir, in contrast to many of his contemporaries, quickly embraced Darwin and rejected then-popular fundamentalist views of a young earth where humans walked with dinosaurs. Sadly, a hundred years after his death, such views are still to be found in our Congress, even among members of the House Science Committee.

Muir upheld the ideals of science and the scientific method, declaring it superior to all religious dogma. His own skills of observation led to changes in scientific understanding; in opposition to most scholars of his time, he proposed that the slow action of glaciers, not some cataclysmic earthquake, had carved the sheer cliffs of the incomparable Yosemite Valley. He turned out to be right.

Muir was one of the first naturalists to think in ecological, whole-system ways, anticipating scholars like Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson. He understood that “whenever you try to pick out anything by itself, you find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” I can’t think of a better way to express the fundamental principle of ecology.

Challenging commercialism and growth

But perhaps the aspect of Muir’s actions and beliefs that holds the greatest relevance for our time was his implacable opposition to “the dollarish motives” that drove American culture. According to Worster, Muir saw conservation as “a movement to set limits on growth and the pursuit of wealth…Saving the American soul from a total surrender to materialism was the cause for which he fought…he tried to lead his fellow citizens toward new ideas and values in their personal lives that could contain that materialistic virus [I call it “Affluenza”]. He taught them to cultivate leisure instead of endless work…He wanted to free others, and free himself, from the kind of workaholic temperament that he had seen in his father.” In a time when workplace stress has become “the new tobacco,” and sharing and shortening working hours an essential step toward sustainability, Muir’s teachings ring increasingly true.

Worster observes that while Muir in old age had many friends from the upper classes, he “continued to oppose the concentration of power in monopolies or social elites. He used the word ‘capitalist’ as a term of reproach. He denounced laissez-faire ideology as ‘the gobble-gobble school of economics’.” In his last, futile fight, to save the Yosemite-like Hetchy Valley, Muir attacked the “temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism.”

In the end, writes Worster, the values Muir professed were “not strong or widespread enough to contest the power of the growth ideology in America. Even the self-styled Progressives, eager to put the economy under government oversight, when put to the test, insisted on economic growth, national expansion and material values above everything else.”

For the most part, they still do. The ideology of growth still motivates Republicans and Democrats alike, Paul Krugman as much as Paul Ryan. Indeed, even much of the environmental movement believes that deep-seated ideology cannot be challenged. There is a hidden agenda in the kind of environmentalism that dismisses Muir and extols the “Anthropocene: the refusal to challenge consumerism. The new environmentalists have made their peace with consumer society; Muir almost certainly would not have.

Many of these new environmentalists still believe that what has happened in the past half century — the consumption of more resources than in all of history before then; the depletion of soils, fisheries, forests, fossil fuels and other resources by half; the largest mass extinction since the end of the Cretaceous Era; the rapid heating of the planet — can continue indefinitely, moderated by alternative technologies including nuclear power, and incentives to recycle. Indeed, as Muir’s Sierra Club heir, David Brower, often pointed out, nearly all of our leaders believe this. “They are considered reasonable, intelligent, normal people,” Brower used to say. “But they are stark raving mad.” We can’t grow on like this.

John Muir sensed all of this, and more, a hundred years ago. He knew that the battle was not really over this issue or that, but over the values and hearts of human beings. I believe those scholars who would bury Muir are profoundly wrong. He has never been more relevant. Muir sought a different attitude toward the economy — less centered on work, production, acquisitiveness and growth. He exemplified a sense of wonder, dangerously threatened in our virtual world. In our era, slower growth — trading increased productivity and more stuff for more time, work-sharing, and simpler lifestyles — is a necessity lest we self-destruct.

Muir also made clear that you had to fight to save things that matter; they couldn’t save themselves. He was a Renaissance man with a curiosity about all things and a deeply democratic attitude. He was not unwilling to compromise, nor should we be. But let us not fear to put our values first, challenging the ideology of limitless growth that threatens to engulf our planet.

Don’t bury Muir, resurrect him

With the clear exception of his early racism (which warrants continued criticism) Muir is anything but out-of-date. He held the view — also more relevant than ever — that humans were not the be-all and end-all of life and that other species also had a right to exist and flourish. He could see what was happening to them through human ignorance and greed — the last of the passenger pigeons, which had darkened the skies with their sheer numbers in his youth, died in a Cincinnati zoo the same year as Muir passed away. How many species have followed it in the past century?

In a technocratic time, it is important to remember that Muir’s remarkable successes came because of his use of moral language and his appeal to non-material values, not in spite of them. With all respect to often-valuable utilitarian arguments for the environment — the monetary worth of ecosystem services, for example —saving our planet and ourselves depends most on a transformation of values. On the centennial of his passing, let John Muir not be forgotten. Resurrect his memory that it may inspire countless generations to come. Until the affluenza virus is as rare as smallpox, John Muir must live!

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