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John Muir's Legacy is Alive and Well in a World that is "One Great Dewdrop"

by Harold Wood

In a recent LA Times article reported on UCLA professor Jon Christensen and others' rejection of the legacy of John Muir: John Muir's legacy questioned as centennial of his death nears (LA Times Link) 11-13-14) Just a few weeks before the 100th anniversary of Muir's death, Jon Christensen, a historian and journalist at UCLA's Institute of Environment and Sustainability, baldly stated: "Muir's a dead end," he said. "It's time to bury his legacy and move on." Christensen was joined in his critique of Muir's legacy by essayist D.J. Waldie and Richard White, a historian at Stanford University who said that Muir's "late 19th century, Anglo-Saxon brand of environmentalism and bias toward untouched wilderness skewed the way nature has been portrayed in popular culture."

Ironically, the occasion was the investiture of professor Glen MacDonald as the University's inaugural John Muir Memorial Chair in Geography at UCLA. The endowed chair is named for the naturalist and activist who not only helped to preserve the Yosemite Valley and turn it into a national park but also founded the Sierra Club. After being funded as an endowment by a 1971 UCLA graduate, a geography department committee chose the chair's name.

MacDonald has explained the connection of modern geography to Muir in positive terms: "Muir studied glaciers, alpine plants and forests, particularly in the Sierra Nevada, He was really interested in conservation of nature and striking a balance between human activity and conservation. He was a writer, scientist and even a mapmaker. So even though he wasn't officially a geographer, in his work he did many of the things that you find being done today in a geography department."

However, Dr. MacDonald also questions much of Muir' s relevance today, but he sounded a small conciliatory note: "For all his flaws, Muir did a lot of great things and his enthusiasm for nature continues to inspire." [See also, John Muir, A Century On, by Glen M. MacDonald [Offsite link - From Boom Fall 2014, Vol 4, No 3]

Six days later after the report on Christensen's out-of-mainstream views, the LA Times reported: Speak ill of John Muir? Brace for a backlash! There were more than 184 website comments on the article by 11-22-14, uniformly concluding that Christensen's views were either "hogwash" or more kindly "absolutely absurd and ridiculous." The LA Times reported receiving, in addition, dozens of more formal letters to the editor. The Times reported: "Readers supporting Muir's continued sainthood: 56. Readers siding with Christensen and other Muir skeptics: 0."

Unchastened, Christensen wrote another article for LA Observed, titled "I, Jackass" in which he issued a sort of apology for offending anyone, but hardly a retraction; instead he took it as an opportunity to restate the attack: "I don't come here to dispute anything about Sahagun's story, especially the quotations attributed to me. My quotations are accurate... But I do come here to apologize to the many people I offended on Thursday and afterward as the story ricocheted around the Internet... I do not mean to disavow what I said."

The following essay is my response to Jon Christensen's attack on Muir's legacy, intended as a "fact check" for the assertions Christensen and others made..

In reviewing the rationale for the amazing conclusion that John Muir's legacy is a dead-end, it is clear hat Christensen and the other professors quoted have simply invented a characterization of Muir - and his legacy as well - that is not in any way accurate. It is easy to knock down a straw man by inventing a totally inaccurate portrayal of Muir that does not exist! The authors clearly have no understanding of either the historical Muir nor an understanding of how Muir continues to inspire people all over the world today, and that he is just as relevant as ever. Muir's contemplation of the Earth "as one great dewdrop" seems especially relevant to a generation raised on seeing the NASA photographs of Earth from space, literally confirming Muir's perception of a century earlier:

"When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty."
- John Muir

Christensen and the other Muir detractors contempt for Muir seems to boil down to three bald assertions - none of which are accurate.

Myth # 1: "Muir's notion that immersing people in "universities of the wilderness" - such as Yosemite - sends the message that only awe-inspiring parks are worth saving, at the expense of smaller urban spaces. Rather than accessing Muir's beloved Sierra Mountains as backpackers, skiers or rock climbers, they argue, Californians would benefit more from the creation of urban parks, additional roads and trails in wild lands."

This would be amazing news to the Muir Heritage Land Trust in California's Contra Costa County, which actively protects open space in a rapidly urbanizing area, including multi-use trails for walking, hiking, cycling, horses and dogs; productive agriculture; protected drinking water; and clean air. Or the Natural Heritage Land Trust of Wisconsin which have been inspired directly by Muir's name to preserve local areas protects natural areas, wildlife habitat, working farms, healthy lakes and streams, and recreation land near the state's capitol in Wisconsin. Or the hundreds of other land trusts across the country who protect open space in urbanizing areas through purchase of conservation easements. Even the tiny Hamilton Wenham Open Land Trust in Massachusetts, far from Muir's Sierra Nevada mountains, quotes John Muir as they brag about the mere 100 acres of open space in 13 afferent parcels they have acquired: "Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike." Even in Scotland, this year the government created a 134 mile walking and bicycling path that crosses the country's highly populated heartland, named in honor of Muir. And there are dozens of city parks and schools named for John Muir all across the United States - and even murals painted on city walls that celebrate the redwoods and mountains that Muir extolled. Professor Alison Swan reports: "I have seen his [Muir's] influence firsthand among my environmental studies students: they have no problem whatsoever transferring his passion for, for example, "A Wind-storm in the Forests," to a woodlot in their neighborhood." So we readily see that Muir inspires urban parks all the time, not just wilderness.

Moreover, let's not forget that John Muir's first act of "wilderness" preservation was to attempt the purchase of the small wildflower meadow adjacent to Fountain Lake in his boyhood home. Even more, John Muir in his writings expressly advocated the establishment of not only in national parks but also small gardens and even window-sill boxes of flowers:
"The making of gardens and parks goes on with civilization all over the world, and they increase both in size and number as their value is recognized... this natural beauty-hunger is made manifest in the little window-sill gardens of the poor, though perhaps only a geranium slip in a broken cup, as well as ... the thousands of spacious city parks and botanical gardens, and in our magnificent National parks--the Yellowstone, Yosemite, Sequoia, etc. -- Nature's sublime wonderlands, the admiration and joy of the world. " (The Yosemite, ch. 16)

Myth #2: ""The conservation movement reflects the legacy of John Muir, and its influence on a certain demographic - older and white - and that's a problem. … Critics also see a correlation between the emotional, biblical language of Muir's writings and the demographic makeup of national park visitors and the ranks of the largest environmental organizations - mainly aging, white Americans."

Once again, the authors seem ignorant of the high praise that Muir heaped upon the Army troops that were stationed to patrol Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks before the National Park Service was established. It just so happened that those troops were Black cavalry units - the acclaimed "Buffalo Soldiers" - showing that Muir was color-blind when it came to protecting our natural heritage.

Nor did Muir ever seem to begrudge visitors of all races and nations from visiting our national parks. In 1901, in his book Our National Parks, he wrote, "The United States government has always been proud of the welcome it has extended to good men of every nation, seeking freedom and homes and bread. Let them be welcomed still as nature welcomes them, to the woods as well as to the prairies and plains. No place is too good for good men, and still there is room. They are invited to heaven, and may well be allowed in America. Every place is made better by them." After all, Muir was an immigrant himself.

The assertion that appreciation for Muir's love of nature appeals only to whites would be news to the young lady of Vietnamese descent who recently interviewed me for a National History Day project about John Muir, as dozens do every year. Or to the many Hispanic and other children who visit the "John Muir Lodge" at Tulare County's Science and Conservation School near Springville, California.

The assertion would seem to also seem to be a surprise to another speaker at the conference Christensen spoke at, Rue Mapp, founder of the group Outdoor Afro, "which disrupts the  false perception that black people do not have a relationship with nature, and works to shift the visual representation of who can connect with the outdoors." On a 2012 visit to several Bay Area historical parks, Outdoor Afro participants "discussed the legacy of John Muir and his significant role in ensuring that we can continue to enjoy national parks like Mount Wanda and Yosemite."

And as Bruce Hamilton, Deputy Executive Director of the Sierra Club explains, the Sierra Club has "a robust diversity, equity and inclusion program and have a growing number of people of color in our staff and volunteer ranks. We are fully committed to becoming a multi-cultural organization and every staff member and department is required to have a diversity plan. We regularly partner with people of color national and community organizations while we seek to diversify our own ranks... the Club's Our Wild America program focuses heavily on protecting Nearby Nature and building broad coalitions with local communities of all ethnicities to provide access and a nature experience for all. Since the 1970s we have run an Inner City Outings program, which has provided outdoor experiences for thousands of urban youth with 'nature deficit disorder' as Richard Louv calls it. Muir's Sierra Club also works on clean air, clean water, cleaning up toxics and all with an environmental justice lens. It is so wrong to assume we are just a white remote wilderness advocacy organization."

While the statistics of visitation to U.S. national parks show approximately 3/4 are white, it is clear this is rapidly changing. The recent National Parks Second Century Commission report observed an important effort to "connect people to the parks" by engaging a more diverse audience. In my recent visit to Sequoia National Park on Labor Day, it seemed to me that whites were in the minority; the park was being enjoyed by thousands of Hispanics, Asians, Blacks and other people of color. As the U.S. population changes, the national park visitation will surely change as well. And we must not forget that the national park system includes many urban park, especially in California, such as the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Santa Monica Mountains NRA, and the newly established San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, which already receives over 4 million visitors a year. and will receive many more under the new designation as increased facilities are planned.

Myth # 3: "One blemish on Muir's past is indisputable: He had disdain for California's Native Americans, a group he claimed had no place in the Sierra landscape."

In looking at this issue, we should not forget that Muir had disdain for anyone - including the white sheepmen and loggers - who sought to despoil the wilderness. He distinguished between people he liked and those he disliked based upon their behavior, not their skin color or race. In any case, over time, his views of Native Americans changed as he encountered tribes he respected.

Muir was an "equal opportunity" advocate for casting out any of the "mere destroyers… tree-killers, wool and mutton men, spreading death and confusion in the fairest groves and gardens ever planted,--let the government hasten to cast them out and make an end of them." (Notably, this is in the same paragraph in which Muir recognized the need for sustainable natural resource management and use, in which he said any citizen or immigrant was welcome to "cut and hew, dig and plant, for homes and bread, as the birds are to pick berries from the wild bushes, and moss and leaves for nests. The ground will be glad to feed them, and the pines will come down from the mountains for their homes as willingly as the cedars came from Lebanon for Solomon's temple. Nor will the woods be the worse for this use, or their benign influences be diminished any more than the sun is diminished by shining.") (Our National Parks, ch. 10.)

Professor Richard Fleck has further put the claim about Muir's views of Native Americans in perspective in an intensive analysis in his book Henry Thoreau and John Muir among the Indians, (1985 - re-titled in subsequent reprint as Henry Thoreau and John Muir Among the Native Americans) in which he observed that the Indians of California and Alaska confirmed Muir's belief in the need for a harmonious relationship with nature. In this analysis of Muir's writings, Fleck reviews how Muir's early fears of Native Americans was replaced by great appreciation when coming to know the Natives of Alaska. A telling example of this is how John Muir refused to participate in the looting of a Native village when he was on the 1899 Alaska Harriman Expedition. In a famous famous Cape Fox group photograph of the expedition's looters, Muir is notably absent. Muir objected to taking the Cape Fox totem poles; he considered it pillaging. See The Tlingit Encounter with Photography by Sharon Bohn Gmelch (2008).

Fleck recently observed as well: "Recently critics of Muir, including historians Jon Christensen and Richard White, contend that John Muir had no respect for tribal cultures of California and that he believed that wilderness was limited to national parks for the consolation of aging white males. A close reading of Steep Trails (for that matter Travels in Alaska and The Cruise of the Corwin) would dissuade such inflexible impressions. Steep Trails contains many wilderness passages beyond our national parks and praise for tribal ways of life. And his Alaskan books come to the strong defense of and admiration for tribal peoples of the Arctic." Source:

What Fleck is showing is that in later work like Steep Trails, Muir showed that he greatly admired some Indian tribes, like the Alaska natives, and in northern California, the Winneman Wintu and the Hewisedawi, while disliking the warlike Modoc and the unimpressive Maidu. If there is any kind of racism when it comes to Native Americans, it is lumping them all together as if they were a single tribe. In fact, in North America there were (and are) thousands of different tribes, and they were very different from one another, linguistically, socially, behaviorally etc. Muir's ability to distinguish between tribes he liked and those he disliked shows that his perceptions were not based on mere skin color or prejudice, but upon the merits of the behavior of the people in question.

After living among the Tlingit natives in Alaska, Muir exclaimed that "Uncle Sam has no better subjects, white, black, or brown, or any more deserving his considerate care." Unique among white men, Muir sought to engage with the Natives in a two-way communication, not just preaching to them as his contemporaries did. "Many a good lesson might be learned from these wild children," he wrote. "They should send missionaries to the Christians."

As eminent John Muir biographer Donald Worster notes, John Muir embraced "his favorite poet Robert Burns' ringing endorsement of the brotherhood of all people: "It's coming yet, for a' that, that man to man, the warld o'er, shall brothers be for a' that." After a detailed analysis of Muir's journals, professsor Worster concludes, "I will say this: John Muir was one of the most racially unbiased Americans of his day."

It is amazing to me that any historian would claim that any historical figure should simply be rejected because they do not match current knowledge and ideals, because obviously everything evolves. His job as a historian is precisely to make historical figures who originated concepts we still celebrate today - including John Muir - relevant in today's America. By definition, history is the story of human progress and change throughout time. Muir evolved his ideas in his own lifetime, and the environmental movement he launched has evolved even further. Rather than rejecting his legacy, we should build upon his legacy. Wilderness and National Parks are crucial in a world combatting global climate change. This is not to say that the style of management of such protected areas will follow the same model everywhere. Clearly in developing nations, for example, modifications to the national park idea are needed in order to integrate human populations into protection of forests and wildlife.

But today we can build upon the rich heritage of Muir's vision. Consider one of Muir's followers, David Brower, who called for the planet to be a "conservation district" within the universe called "Earth National Park." Only by looking at Earth the way Muir did, and as NASA photographs confirm, as "one great dewdrop," rather than as isolated nation-states, will we succeed in addressing all our global problems.

See also In Celebration of John Muir by John de Graaf - Earth Island Journal (December 23, 2014).

Date: November 16, 2014, Updated November 22, 2014 and October 19, 2016.

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