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John Muir's Defense of Wildlife

By Richard F. Fleck

Reprinted by permission of the author from The Macrobiotic, Number 122, December 1977.

Anthropocentric man has claimed his natural superiority over all other living things from biblical times through Muir's day and ours. Yet there have been mavericks down through the ages including Saint Francis of Assisi, Henri febre, Henry David Thoreau, and the Scottish-american writer and conservationist, John Muir. Throughout his writing career, Muir supported the equal rights of wildlife. Whether one reads A Thousand Mile Walk, Mountains of California, or The Cruise of the Corwin, or his other writings, he will find many pertinent passages defending wildlife and chastising tunnel-visioned man.

In 1867, two years after the close of the Civil War, Muir set out on foot to walk from Indiana south to Florida in order to botanize and observe wildlife. When he arrived in northern Florida, he was struck by the totally callous attitude of people for alligators:

"Many good people believe that alligators were created by the Devil, thus accounting for their all-consuming appetite and ugliness. But doubtless these creatures are happy and fill the place assigned them by the great Creator of us all. fierce and cruel they appear to us, but beautiful in the eyes of god. They, also, are his children, for He hears their cries, cares for them tenderly, and providers their daily bread."

As all men are Brothers, Muir is suggesting that all creatures are brothers and equal in the eyes of their creator.

Several pages later in A Thousand Mile Walk, Muir expresses his views on man's domination over the animal world even more strongly:

"Let a Christian hunter go to the Lord's woods and kill his well-kept beasts, or wild Indians, and it is well; but let an enterprising specimen of these proper, predestined victims go to houses and fields and kill the most worthless person of the vertical godlike killers, --oh! that is horribly unorthodox, and on the part of the Indians, atrocious murder! Well, I have precious little sympathy for the selfish propriety of civilized man, and if a war of races should occur between the wild beasts and Lord Man, I would be tempted to sympathize with the bears."

Anticipating Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac by over a half century, Muir writes,

"Now, it never seems to occur to these far-seeing teachers that Nature's object in making animals and plants might possibly be first of all the happiness of each one of them, not the creation of all for the happiness of one. Why should man value himself as more than a small part of the one great unit of creation? And what creature of all that the Lord has taken the pains to make is not essential to the completeness of that unit - the cosmos? the universe would be incomplete without man; but it would also be incomplete without the smallest transmicroscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful eyes and knowledge."

Most civilized men hunt beasts around the globe without the remotest philosophical concept of the interrelatedness of all life. Whether he is on the Great Plains or on Arctic shores, he decimates wildlife with no higher consciousness. Muir wrote two books dealing with the Arctic, and he contrasts quite effectively the hunting procedures of the civilized man with those of the natives. Only the latter have a sense of ritual connoting a greater awareness of man and his relationship to the world. On board the Corwin, white hunters approached three polar bears valiantly trying to make an escape over the ice-floes:

"The first one overtaken was killed instantly at the second shot, which passed through the brain. The other two were fired at by five fun-, fur-, and fame-seekers, with heavy breech-loading rifles, about forty times ere they were killed. From four to six bullets passed through their necks and shoulders before the last through the brain put an end to their agony... It was prolonged, bloody agony, as clumsily and heartlessly inflicted as it could well be, except in the case of the first, which never knew what hurt him."

Shortly afterwards the bodies were hoisted aboard the ship and skinned to be taken home "to show angelic sweethearts the evidence of pluck and daring."

Similar procedures were carried out with walruses by the great white hunters from San Francisco: "These magnificent animals," Muir writes in the Cruise of the Corwin " are killed often times for their tusks alone, like buffaloes for their tongues, ostriches for their feathers, or for mere sport and exercise. In nothing does man, with his grand notions of heaven and charity, show forth his innate, low-bred, wild animalism more clearly than in his treatment of his brother beasts. From the shepherd with his lambs to the red-handed hunter, it is the same; no recognition of rights - only murder in one form or another." This voyage to the Arctic in 1881 taught Muir much about his fellow man.

Contrasted with these crass forms of hunting are the slaughters of reindeer by the Chukchis peoples of Siberia who herded these animals for milk, fur, and meat. John Muir observed an important killing ritual reminiscent of Pueblo Indian deer-killing ceremonies depicted by Frank Waters in the Man Who Killed the Deer:

"After it (reindeer) was slain they laid it on its side. One of the women brought forward a branch of willow about a foot long, with green leaves on it, and put it under the animal's head. Then she threw four or five handfuls of the blood, from the knife-wound back of the shoulder, out over the ground to the southward, making me get out of the way, as if this direction were the only proper one. Next she took a cupful of water and poured a little on its mouth and tail and on the wound. While this ceremony was being performed all the family looked serious, but as soon as it was over they began to laugh and chat as before."

True reverence for all life strongly appealed to the California naturalist.

When white men introduced Arctic natives to repeating rifles, much of this ritualistic approach to life and the killing of what was only necessary for the time was destroyed. As Muir notes, once the balance of nature was upset, the natives became all the more "civilized" and dependent upon white man's goods from the South. The sacred one to one relationship blurred under the influence of a system of material reward and dependency. Eskimoan peoples became both the cause of and victim of overkill despite their innate wisdom of an earlier period. Very rarely did animals overkill others and very rarely did Eskimoan peoples overkill animals until the advent of the repeating rifle and other supplies from the South.

John Muir clearly advocated a higher relationship of man to the animals. We had much to learn from them by simply observing their life styles in the wilderness as Farley Mowat was to do years later as recorded in Never Cry Wolf. Animal wisdom, language, and poetry of movement were, according to Muir, untapped riches for the human race. Of all Muir's books, perhaps The Mountains of California most directly concerns itself with observation and appreciation of wildlife. Two of Muir's favorite creatures were the Douglas squirrel and the water-ouzel. No other animal is better fed than the Douglas squirrel, because of his intricate system of food caches. Their curiosity is greater than most men's. One time while Muir was deep in the forests of the Sierra, he whistled some catchy Scottish tunes, and a Douglas squirrel perched himself on a branch and listened with sparkling eyes, "and he turned his head quickly from side to side." When Muir changed his tunes to solemn ones, the squirrel "screamed his Indian name, Phillillooeet, turned tail, and darted with ludicrous haste up the tree out of sight, his voice and actions in the case of leaving a somewhat profane impression, as if he had said, "I'll be hanged if you get me to hear anything so solemn and unpiny."

The water-ouzel was something special to Muir: "He is the mountain streams' own darling," writes Muir in The Mountains of California, "the hummingbird of blooming waters, loving rocky ripple slopes and sheets of foam as a bee loves flowers, as a lark loves sunshine and meadows. Among all the mountain birds, none has cheered me so much in my lonely wanderings - non so unfailingly. for both in winter and summer he sings, sweetly, cheerily, independent alike of sunshine and of love, requiring no other inspiration than the stream on which he dwells. While water sings, so must he, in heat or cold, calm or storm, ever attuning his voice in sure accord; low in the drought of summer and the drought of winter, but never silent." the inner harmony of the water-ouzel serves as a simple but poignant lesson for man who endures different kinds of droughts abstract and real.

John Muir defended North American wildlife's equal rights. He believed that not only did wildlife have equal rights with humans on this planet but that it had a great deal to teach us if we would only attempt to open up channels of communication. He prefigures twentieth-century writers like J. Frank Dobie, Aldo Leopold, and Farley Mowat because he was at least a century ahead of his time. Some of his environmental philosophy has yet to be digested by modern readers. We would all profit greatly by returning to the writings of John Muir for a closer look.

Source: The Macrobiotic, Number 122, December 1977. Reprinted on the John Muir Exhibit by permission of the author.

Life and Contributions of John Muir

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