A Legacy With Legs
by Kit Stolz
Accustomed to roaming alone in the mountains, John Muir once wrote in his journal that "oftentimes we are nearest our friends when furthest from them." Even mortality, he insisted, could not separate true lovers. Eighty-seven years after his own death, the devotion of Muir's fans has proven his words prophetic--although the Sierra Club's founder might be surprised by the lengths to which some will go to honor his legacy. There are said to be more places named after John Muir in California, including some three dozen schools and libraries, than for any other person. A national monument and a wilderness area in that state, as well as a glacier and a mountain in Alaska, pay tribute to the nature-defender. Three plants (including Muir's fleabane), a rabbitlike pika in Yosemite, a butterfly, and a mineral (muirite) have been named after him. Two U.S. stamps have been issued in his honor. The bow of a World War II "liberty ship" bore the bearded muser's moniker. (While hundreds of these cargo ships sank under enemy fire, the Muir, appropriately enough, refused to become ocean garbage and was eventually recycled for scrap in 1966.) California has designated April 21 John Muir Day, and its official state tartan is fashioned after that worn by the Muir clan. The Sierra Club's highest honor is the John Muir Award.
Exploitative adoptions of Muir's name are refreshingly few and far between: There's the unfortunately named John Muir Parkway, a four-lane freeway in Martinez, California, that gives you easy access to the Best Western John Muir Inn, the John Muir Apartments, and the John Muir Executive Center. (The Martinez home where Muir lived from 1890 until his death in 1914 is now preserved as the John Muir National Historic Site.) Not far from Muir's Scottish birthplace in Dunbar, you'll find the John Muir putting green at Winterfield Golf Course. An "audio-animatronic" Muir greets visitors at Disney World's Epcot, even though a living, breathing Muir probably couldn't have survived a minute in this den of plasticity. And while you can buy a Muir polo shirt from the John Muir Memorial Association, it's actually tasteful, as commemorative polo shirts go.
What's most impressive about Muir's legacy is its vibrancy so long after his death. Last year, hundreds of people joined the Canadian Friends of John Muir in a walk guided by botanists, zoologists, and historians along a road Muir trod in 1864. In Scotland, a 1999 exhibit on Muir entitled An Infinite Storm of Beauty attracted thousands to an Edinburgh museum and moved on last year to his childhood home in Dunbar. (Plans to convert part of the home into a "virtual reality" museum have caused a storm of protest.)
Dozens of songs and several CDs are devoted to the conservationist, as well as almost a hundred books about Muir's efforts and impacts. Nearly two dozen books (including a downloadable "e-book") are available to readers interested in absorbing Muir's writings firsthand, including the timeless My First Summer in the Sierra from 1911 and Travels in Alaska from 1915.
Muir inspired two recent stage dramas. Lee Stetson, who has been performing as Muir for 18 years, opened a new show in 2000 (with fellow actor Doug Brennan) called The Roughrider and the Tramp, which focuses on Muir's 1903 Yosemite camping trip with Teddy Roosevelt. Stetson's show was dwarfed by a musical mounted by the Willows Theatre Company in Concord, California. The four original performances of Mountain Days required a cast of 80, a chorus of 50, an orchestra of 28, and a revolving stage, all under the unlikely sponsorship of AT&T, Chevron, and PG&E. After its successful opening last year, it has become an annual event in Martinez.
If the self-effacing Muir were to visit our times, he might be impatient with all the fuss over his own life, preferring the efforts of activists to save the wildlands he loved. No doubt, though, Muir would have been pleased to hear then-president Bill Clinton quote him last year while unveiling Giant Sequoia National Monument in California. "These majestic trees will continue to 'preach God's forestry fresh from heaven,'" Clinton proclaimed.
Last year the National Park Service purchased the Martinez meadow in which Muir is buried. It's not yet open to the public, but you can hike on the John Muir Nature Trail on nearby Mount Wanda, named after one of his daughters, where the family took walks. You could look for some of the 74 wildflower species that enchanted Muir nearly a century ago, and take to heart his enthusiasm for "places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike."
The Greening of Conservative America by John R. E. Bliese (Westview Press, $27)
Conservative politics and conservation may seem incompatible, but according to Texas Tech communications professor John Bliese, this was not always the case.
Examining the differences between the two principal strains of American conservative thought, libertarianism and traditionalism, Bliese documents how both call for vastly greater respect for the natural and human environment than most modern conservatives accord them. His citations from the fathers of U.S. conservatism--thinkers like Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, and Frank Meyer--are striking when set against the diatribes of a Tom Delay.
For example, Weaver wrote that nature "is the creation of a Creator. There follows . . . an important deduction, which is that man has a duty of veneration towards nature and the natural. Nature is not something to be fought, conquered, and changed according to any human whims." John Muir never said it better.
Bliese also shows how basic conservative principles should be applied to the management of forests, regulation of toxic chemicals, and protection of endangered species. With an eclectic approach, he draws on analysts not thought of as conservative--like Amory Lovins on energy--but applies their scientific and economic findings within a conservative framework.
Bliese's pioneering work will help conservatives reclaim their movement from the ideologues who have stolen it. He also gives environmentalists some powerful arguments against politicians and lobbyists who claim that their ideas are rooted in conservative philosophy, rather than greed.
Henry David Thoreau, famed as a hermit and icon of technophobia who escaped to the woods, was actually a sociable fellow who engineered devices for his family's pencil factory and worked as a professional surveyor. While at Walden Pond, writes ecologist Daniel Botkin, "Thoreau went into town almost every day . . . and entertained many guests in his cabin on the lake." He made his premier wilderness excursion with his older brother, and trekked with friends and Indian guides in later years.
Why this matters, Botkin contends, is that the myth of Thoreau as a lone woodsman perpetuates the notion that "real" nature exists apart from ordinary life. "When we focus on the idea of nature, it is a focus on the environment of our vacations and of places we rarely experience directly. This leads to a peculiar idea about nature and our personal relationship with it. . . . The result is a false dualism: Nature is
out there, to be admired, preserved, revered; life is here, in the home or on the curb or where the tarmac runs into the mud." Ironically, this dualistic attitude that Botkin criticizes has often damaged the very wilderness it purports to revere. Solitude reduced to mere privacy has become an attractive commodity marketed by developers colonizing the wild. By contrast, Thoreau's solitude gave him an observant intimacy with nature that enriched his relation to others. In helping us understand this through a fresh reading of the neighborly naturalist, Botkin does a great favor both for distant wilderness and the habitat of our own backyards.
A dangerous dance is being performed among the Bonneville Power Administration, Northwest tribes, and Californians thirsty for energy. The reality of too many demands on too little water is forcing tough decisions on resource allocation. Nature generally takes a backseat in the Northwest.
As a model for a less reckless relation to the environment, Charles Wilkinson gives us the Nisqually Tribe, whose territory once stretched from Mt. Rainier to south Puget Sound. Using interviews, photos, and maps, as well as his experience in Native-rights law, he sketches the tribe's history from its salmon-fishing basis to the genocidal relocation and integration programs of the U.S. government to modern protest.
Linking civil rights and environmental integrity, Wilkinson vividly recreates the Nisqually struggle to maintain salmon fishing rights guaranteed by an 1854 treaty. Lengthy court battles culminated in the 1974 Boldt decision, which gave the Nisqually rights to half the salmon harvest.
"As a lawyer," writes Wilkinson, "I once believed that law could change the world. I no longer think of it that way. The world changes only as new ethics mature. Then the laws change to reflect the new ethics."
In Wilkinson's engaging story, the Nisqually's attempt to balance human needs with nature becomes a parable of these new ethics.
At a glance
New from Sierra Club Books
Where Vultures Feast: Shell, Human Rights, and Oil in the Niger Delta, by Ike Okonta and Oronto Douglas, is a firsthand account of Shell Oil's destruction of the Nigerian environment and the indigenous struggle against the oil giant.
Breaking Gridlock: Moving Toward Transportation That Works, by Jim Motavalli, shows how mass transit can provide relief from sprawl and car wars.
Order these titles from the Sierra Club Store by phone (415) 977-5600, through our Web site, or by writing the store at 85 Second Street, 2nd floor, San Francisco, CA 94105.
Your sneakers come from China, your shirt from Sri Lanka, and your produce from Peru. Globalization creates cheap goods, but with harrowing environmental costs, including pollution, habitat loss, and exposure of workers to toxics. Fortunately, concerned groups are using the Internet's global reach to educate the public and lobby for international commerce that is green, clean, and fair.
For a comprehensive course on global trade and the World Trade Organization, go to WTO Watch, www.wtowatch.org, with its breaking news, answers to common questions about the labyrinthine realm of international trade, and access to an electronic library with more than 250 downloadable documents.
Log on to Global Exchange at www.globalexchange.org/wto to join far-flung campaigns for human rights and environmental justice, such as the crusade to protect workers' health on banana plantations. Its educational "Reality Tours" to troubled regions include eye-opening journeys to Haiti, South Africa, Iran, and the U.S.-Mexico border--excursions you'll never find in Fodor's.
For a multimedia spark, you can download provocative radio and TV commercials from Adbusters at www.adbusters.org/campaigns/question/toolbox/global.html. Or you can arrange a screening of Trade Off, www.wrightanglemedia.com/tradeoff, the passionate, award-winning documentary about the global issues confronted at Seattle's infamous WTO meeting last year.
The Sierra Club's "Responsible Trade" page, www.sierraclub.org/trade, presents the Club's effort to derail fast-track trade negotiating authority, "talking points" to use in letters to legislators, and an Action Kit that exposes problems with the Free Trade Area of the Americas.
For the other perspective, visit the WTO itself, www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/envir_e/envir_e.htm, to peruse its history of environmental issues in global trade and topics under discussion at the WTO. This account comes complete with the WTO's defense of its controversial sea turtle and dolphin rulings.
Finally, for a look at the wilder side of anti-globalization, try www.ruckus.org, and read about the Ruckus Society's Global Justice Action Camps (dubbed "basic training for tree huggers" by U.S. News and World Report), which teach skills ranging from scaling buildings to hanging from billboards. Not ready for such high-altitude action? Check out the group's Tech Toolbox Action Camp to see how to use the Internet for social change.Up to Top