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On John Muir's Trail

by Donald Worster

Presented to University of California, San Diego, April 23, 2018

Part of a Special Symposium "After the West: Rethinking John Muir."

UCSD John Muir Symposium and Keynote


About the Lecture:
The name and image of John Muir are scattered everywhere in Californian colleges and high schools, on mountain landscapes, on state icons and environmental legacies they are around the United States and across the world. He was one of the most famous environmentalists of modern history. Yet as environmentalism itself comes under attack from the right and the left, so does the legacy of Muir. We need to step back from our contemporary cultural wars to look for the complex truth of the man, his thought and passion, his role in history, and rediscover his relevance for today.

About the Speaker:
A native of the Mohave desert, Donald Worster is one of the founders of environmental history and a longtime historian of the American West. He is the author of A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir and its companion volume, A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell. Together, those biographies have won more than dozen prizes, including Scottish Book of the Year. His other writings have focused on the history of ecology, water and agriculture in the arid West, and most recently "Shrinking the Earth: The Rise and Decline of Natural Abundance." He lives in Oregon but spends much of his time teaching in Beijing and exploring China's history and landscapes.


John Muir may be the most revered figure in California history, more revered than Hollywood's glamour stars, who fade quickly from public attention as they age, more revered than former presidents and governors, who can stir up as much contempt as acclaim. Muir, in contrast, is like a beloved grandfather who seems to represent the best ideals the state has produced. To be sure, he has had his critics, and I will address them in a few minutes, but they have not stopped Californians from "Muirizing" their landscape, from John Muir High School in Pasadena, to John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek, to Mount Muir and the Muir Trail in the High Sierra, along with various Muir Ways/Roads/and Streets at lower elevations, a miscellany of laundries, drug stores, and banks scattered north to south, and not least the prestigious John Muir College here at the UC San Diego, celebrating its fiftieth anniversary.

In 2004 Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that California's commemorative quarter, produced by the U.S. Mint, would bear the image of John Muir standing before Yosemite's Half Dome as a condor circles overhead. At that moment, Muir joined such official American icons as the bison (on the Kansas, North Dakota, and Montana coins), the Wright brothers' airplane (North Carolina and Ohio), a leaping salmon (Washington), honest Abe Lincoln (Illinois), a ripe peach (Georgia), and the Grand Canyon (Arizona). Those state commemorative coins were an icon-defining moment, and Muir, with his long beard, western hat, and walking stick, officially became iconic for America's most populous and influential state.

But none of those commemorations really says what it is that Muir stands for. They leave us with a legacy undefined, a sanctification unexplained and unexamined. He is identified as someone we should be proud of, but not because he invented some new technology or was good to eat or led the westward movement. Nor was Muir chosen, I suppose, because he served as first president of the Sierra Club, which would have been too controversial. Instead, he became an icon because of his moral character and beliefs—because he was one of our great teachers and prophets.

Muir taught his fellow citizens to care for and protect the natural world, especially in its more pristine state. He emphasized the celebration, not the conquest, of nature. That environmental message gave him a special aura, making him one of a small band of modern philosophers or prophets who have changed the way people think. Shouldn't we be paying attention to him and asking what his philosophy meant and why it has had such power?

Muir was born in the coastal town of Dunbar, Scotland in the late 1830s, a town where his father, a man from peasant stock with no formal education, kept a feed and grain store. When Muir was 11 years old, the family migrated to Wisconsin and wrested a small farm from its demanding frontier. On that land the boy learned about nature through hard work. He endured punishment and privation, while acquiring habits of thrift and discipline. Despite his limited educational opportunities, he managed to enroll in the University of Wisconsin, but then, lacking sufficient funds, he managed only about two years of study before dropping out.
After that he lived among working-class men and women in the Midwest, laboring in America's growing industrial system before dropping out again, this time to devote his life, no matter how poor it might be, to studying and experiencing nature firsthand.

In the fall of 1867, at the age of 29, Muir was lying delirious with malaria in a Florida fishing village. He had arrived there by walking from the Ohio River, a journey of one thousand miles, collecting plants across the post Civil War South. Along the way he stayed overnight with newly freed slaves or with poor whites but most often he slept alone on the ground. Finally, a sawmill owner's wife took him in when he fell ill and nursed him back to health as he went through the deepest crisis of his life.

Muir assumed, as everyone else did in those days, that getting malaria meant that he had inhaled some "bad air" from rotting vegetation. There was a lot of rot in the swamps he had waded through, but we know today that it was not a bad smell but a female mosquito's proboscis that infected him the disease. Immobilized and feverish in his bed, he asked himself over and over why his beloved nature had made him sick and concluded that it was his own fault--he had ventured into a place that was not healthy for humans and he had no business being there. He could not blame nature; he could only blame himself.

After recovering, Muir continued on his journey, arriving in California two decades after the discovery of gold. California proved to be far healthier and successful for him. Within a few years he had become a famous naturalist and writer, admired all across North America as a conservationist. He was the unofficial guardian of Yosemite National Park, a key influence behind the establishment of many other national parks, and the author of such classics as The Mountains of California, Our National Parks, and Travels in Alaska, all of them in print today. California remained his home for half a century, until in 1914 a case of pneumonia put him in a Los Angeles hospital, where he died from respiratory congestion on Christmas Eve.

It was during that thousand-mile walk across the South, however, that Muir arrived at the philosophy he held to the end of his life. It came from his social roots but also from ideas derived from a generation or two of revolutionary philosophers and poets, including Robert Burns and William Wordsworth in Great Britain, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in the United States. All were exponents of a new view of nature that was radically democratic and egalitarian. They taught the intrinsic value of all nature, including all types of humans, and the essential goodness of nature as a model and inspiration for society. They were, in other words, modern liberals, and their vision of nature was arguably the founding principle of liberalism. Never before been had that principle been so prominent in western civilization, for earlier nature had been regarded as a fallen world and a source of corruption. Nature should be subdued,, until the time when humans could escape this earth and find a better home.

Back in that Florida fishing village, while prostrated by malaria, Muir broke decisively with that old conservative dogma and lined up with the liberals of his time, embracing both nature and human nature. He rose from his sick bed breathing not disillusionment but the spirit of progress, affirmation, and hope. In a journal of that period he contemptuously dismissed conventional religion and the conservatism and anthropocentrism it promoted:

"The world, we are told, was made especially for man—a presumption that is totally unsupported by facts. A numerous class of men are painfully astonished whenever they find anything living or dead, in all God's universe, which they cannot eat or render in some way what they call useful to themselves. They have precise dogmatic insight of the 'intentions' of the Creator…. He is a civilized, law-abiding gentleman in favor either of a Republican form of government or of a limited monarchy; believes in the literature and language of England; is a warm supporter of the English constitution and Sunday schools and missionary societies; and is as purely a manufactured article as any puppet of a half-penny theater."

This passage, dripping with sarcasm and scorn, announced his break from standard Judeo-Christian attitudes, which put humans at the center of the cosmos as God's chosen species, while dismissing nature as nothing more than a storehouse of commodities to serve human needs. After his long walk south, Muir had arrived at a different view of the world. He had left behind the religion of his fathers and was setting off to find and define his own liberal faith.

But note that in his criticism, he was also rejecting the ruling elites of his day. He challenged their sense of superiority over other peoples and nations, as well as other species. Muir had grown up despising the English lords and ladies who ruled Scotland as their colony. From his sense of being one of the colonized, a lowly subject of imperial authority and hierarchy, he went on to become a spokesman for the most colonized beings on the planet, the plants and animals over whom al humans, but especially rich people, had tyrannized.

Muir's philosophy of nature envisioned a democracy as big as the Earth. It came to him not in a library or seminar but while walking, getting closer to the natural world than his days as a farmer or factory worker or college student had ever allowed.

In his day, walking was less easy to avoid than now. The common people often had to walk long distances from farm to farm and from farm to town. They were not happy doing so, especially while the elites rode in carriages or on the backs of the poor. Muir pushed that ancient mode of transportation to moral as well as physical extremes. He came to love walking, whether across unplowed, unfenced prairies or climbing up and down densely forested mountains, for he found that walking was not only a cheap way to get someplace but also a great way to join that larger democracy of being, allowing him to see nature eye to eye.

Arriving in California, Muir walked all the way to Yosemite Valley, which left him speechless and ecstatic. Here he found a spiritual home for the rest of his life. He could not pull himself away from its granite walls, its lush, flowery meadows, or its soaring evergreen forests. Each day over a decade of residence he went walking and climbing, all the way to the summit of nearly every peak in the Sierra range. This was how he acquired intimate knowledge of nature and grounded his moral philosophy.

As Muir was learning about nature through walking, the United States was in the throes of its so-called Gilded Age, a time of unusual political corruption and emergent hierarchies of power. Capitalism ruled the land, and there was no check to its acquisitiveness. Immense fortunes were being made by fraud and trickery. All of this Muir looked on from a distance with quiet contempt. The common norms of business, he thought, were debasing and selfish. America needed a higher standard, by which good work and benevolence would be rewarded. It needed a moral reformation. To purify their collective soul, however, Americans must first discover the underlying harmony of the world, accept humans as part of that community of life, and learn to respect and protect nature in its wilder aspects.

America needed a revolution that would go deep, down into the heart and mind . The old religions had reinforced hierarchy, and hierarchy had led to corruption, in Britain and now in the United States. Without a new religion any effort to change society would always be superficial. Change would lead to nothing but a continuing war among competing self-interests—rich against poor, men against women, nation against nation.

Muir's new religion we can call simply the "religion of nature." The Bible, though he had had to memorize large chunks of it, had faded from his life. Nature was now the only holy text he needed. And saving that text, written by ice and rock, vegetation and animal life instead of by human hands, became his life mission. Go to that holy text, he urged, and read it without bias or prejudice. Read it with the aid of modern science. Then we would forsake materialism, greed, exploitation, and violence against the earth and our fellow humans.

In this religion of nature there was no patriarchal figure, no authoritarian deity, as there was in western traditional religions. When Muir spoke of "God," and he did so on occasion, he meant not a humanlike figure wielding absolute power, but the totality of nature, which for him was a self-organizing and coherent entity. His Creation was a work of awesome beauty, surpassing all human ideas of art. On a torn scrap of paper, he wrote , "Beauty is God, what shall we say of God that we may not say of Beauty. …All is God, all is Beauty."

To Muir, that God/Beauty/Nature whole had to derive from an inherent goodness in the cosmos, in its material processes and structures. The Earth and the Cosmos had become the true divinity—and all of it was good for people and good for life.

Muir did acknowledge that there was suffering, danger, and death in nature. That was the painful lesson he learned in Florida. But suffering or tragedy were not for him the decisive truth, for suffering could be avoided or minimized with better understanding. From a larger perspective suffering was a means to harmony, order, peace, and goodness. When people think otherwise, he concluded, they becomes corrupt and violent, and they become a threat to the rest of nature—self-seeking, destabilizing, destructive of the greater good.

Go to the wilderness, he told his audience, and you will find not a fallen world, marred by strife and conflict, but a world full of joy and hope. That liberal, optimistic religion of nature, I have suggested, has been more common than we remember and it came through a profound shift throughout western civilization. It echoed, to some extent, philosophies in other civilizations like China or Native America, but it was more modern and science based. It did not call for a return to any of the old faiths. It looked forward to a better future on earth.

Nor did that religion lead to a vengeful war on capitalists, imperialists, or slave owners. There was no "Onward, Christian Soldiers" tone, as there had been in the Civil War, no trumpet calls to the proletariat to arise and take command of the factories. At heart Muir was a pacifist. He did not think that real, substantial change could come only through bullets and bloodshed. In his day he did not speak for everyone, of course, but he drew many disciples who were likewise ready to seek a better society through first seeking a better relationship with nature.

Such was Muir's message to the Gilded Age and the subsequent Progressive era of American politics. But what is his message to Barack Obama's or Donald Trump's America? Does he still represent hope as he once did? Or have we moved beyond our bearded prophet and found some new and better source of faith and hope?

I now want to address some of Muir's critics who have become so vocal recently. Here I don't mean the old, entrenched hostility of many religious conservatives toward any "green religion" or any whiff of the "pagan worship of nature." Nor do I want to talk about those like-minded reactionaries in the sagebrush West who still insist that God has given them a divine right to the land, even the public domain. Instead, we have a new wave of anti-Muirism to consider, one coming from leftist academic circles, challenging his philosophy as it challenges the conservation movement he led. By pulling Muir down, they seek to redefine the environmentalism as part of the quest for social justice. They want to divert us from "saving" or "loving" nature and toward saving people. Saving people from what? Saving them from economic inequality, social discrimination, and unhealthy pollution.

One of those new critics most frequent charges against Muir was that he was an elitist white male who glorified nature while paying little attention to people of low income or color. He was, they say, a racist. The charge of racism is a loose cannon these days, firing blasts in all directions, sometimes with little concern for facts or definitions or collateral damage. Sometimes it hits the right target, sometimes not. In Muir's case the cannon ball falls quickly with a dull thud.
A few years ago a California professor of environmental studies invited me to speak on his campus. When I offered to speak about Muir, he protested that he simply could not listen to anything related to Muir without getting sick at his stomach. Muir, he charged, was a racial supremacist who wanted to see all Indians exterminated or at least removed from the wilderness. Where did he get that notion? By now I have heard it more than once, and each time it seems to come from a single passage that Muir wrote in an 1868 trail journal and later published in My First Summer in the Sierra.

The offending passage describes a walk that Muir has just made across the Sierra toward Mono Lake. Along the way, he runs into a band of Indians looking for acorns to harvest. Muir describes them as "queer, hairy, muffled creatures" bundled in rabbit furs through which their worn, dirty faces peer. From a distance they look like bears, but close up he finds they are not real bears, which he loves, but a blot on nature. He stands aside to let them pass, but they stop and begin clutching at his clothes, forming "a dismal circle about me," begging for whiskey and tobacco. He feels threatened and defenseless. Their numbers frighten him, their stench and addictions disgust him.

This is, as far as I know, the only time Muir ever expressed any physical revulsion toward Indians or other people of color. He never did so while traveling in the South or among native peoples of Alaska, where on one occasion he spent a night rocking a sick Indian baby to sleep in his arms. But even back on the Mono trail, a simple physical revulsion or racism was not where Muir ended up. If that deeply offended, vomit-prone professor had simply turned the pages, he would have seen a different attitude emerging. Muir goes on to say that he is ashamed of his negative reaction to the Indians. He ends by quoting 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." In other words, Muir did not end by calling for Indian removal from the Sierras or scorning them as an inferior species.

By stopping after reading the first few lines of that journal entry a few other professors, civil rights activists, and neo- environmentalists have also jumped to a harsh conclusion. Why? Because, it seems, they are sure that loving nature and loving Indians or loving people in general must be competing ideas, in the mind of Muir or today's environmentalists.

No one can deny that there have been white folks who say they love nature and yet believe that Indians or Blacks or other races are biologically inferior or at least distasteful in some way. Racism has infected the ranks of conservationists as it has every other social group or reform movement. We can find its stain among socialists, feminists, and labor organizers, and not only in the United States but in Mexico, Africa, and every part of the globe. I will say this: John Muir was one of the most racially unbiased Americans of his day. His nature conservation, like his religion of nature, did not exclude any individual or group, though it did exclude some human activities from some parts of the landscape. Not everything done by humans was to be tolerated in every place. And almost no commodity extraction, Muir would have said, should be allowed in places of supreme natural beauty, for they would profane the sacred text. Let me add, that in My First Summer in the Sierra, Muir pointedly argued that it was the white man, not the Indian, who had wreaked so much environmental destruction.

There is another criticism that targets Muir and the wilderness preservationists these days, but in my view it too is without much substance. It can be found, for example, in William Cronon's 1995 essay, "The Trouble with Wilderness." Surprisingly, for in many ways Cronon seems to be one with in Muir in his passion for wild nature. But he criticizes other nature lovers for "idealizing a distant wilderness" while "not idealizing the environment in which we actually live, the landscape that for better or worse we call home." If idealizing means loving and caring, then John Muir (if not other environmentalists) did indeed love and care about places that he would call profane. He did not care only about protecting Yosemite National Park, while tolerating the degradation of the rest of California. Most of his adult life Muir lived on a fruit ranch in the Alhambra Valley not far from San Francisco. It became his home after he married Louisa Strentzel, daughter of the founder of the ranch. Muir undoubtedly loved his wife and all her family--did he also love their orchards and vineyards? When put in charge of those family lands, did he fail to take care of its resources, destroy all the natural vegetation, or countenance its degradation? On the contrary, he spent ten years working strenuously to get that fruit ranch into better shape, economically and aesthetically, and he dwelled there happily for thirty years.

Muir never wrote much about the Strenzel home place, partly I suppose because publishers were not interested in the local and domestic. We know that Muir kept watch on the migrating birds that visited the ranch and cherished the view of the Carquinez tidal estuary from his window. We know that he often took walks with his two daughters along the enclosing hills, lands he loved for their golden grasses and valley oak trees; those parts of the old ranch are now public parklands. He was an enthusiastic orchardist, partial especially to pear trees, but he did not look on them as equal in spiritual value to the wild forests of the Sierra.

Reluctantly, Muir did put out poison to kill ground squirrels when they took up residence in his family's vineyards, a vital source of income. Then he was acting like a farmer, not a Sierra hiker. Was he morally inconsistent? Probably he was, but moral consistency is hard for any of us to achieve. Here again, Muir was drawing a line between the sacred and the profane—Yosemite was sacred, his vineyards were profane. Such distinctions run throughout human history. American Indians drew such a line. Designating and protecting sacred places does not necessarily mean that one does not care about the profane places or even about ground squirrels. One might even love the profane, and I believe that Muir did.

Among his recent critics is another professor, Jedediah Purdy of Duke Law School, who in his recent book After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene, accuses Muir and other environmentalists not only of failing to care about people but also failing to become engaged in politics. What he means by politics seems to be fighting for social justice and equality for the oppressed.

John Muir, as I have indicated, did not have much faith in political action as a way to create a better society. He sought a more profound form of change. Now and then, nonetheless, he descended into the corrupt, hurly-burly realm of legislators, bureaucrats, and lobbyists. Repeatedly, he forced himself to go to the California state legislature and the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.. He devoted almost a decade to stopping the city of San Francisco from building a dam within the boundaries of Yosemite, a battle that he lost. He cannot be accused, therefore, of retreating to the hills, or leading a mere pilgrimage, for he did acknowledge the necessity and possibility of changing the nation through political action.

To be sure, he did so only on behalf of nature, and that seems to be what bothers Purdy most. Even though Muir supported freedom for slaves, suffrage for women, government protection for vulnerable Indians and Aleuts, and financial help for the poor, he did not go to Washington to lobby for social equality. He gave money to those causes, but left that kind of lobbying to others. Was that wrong? Can a person choose priorities according to his own sense of their significance? Is there only one acceptable way to promote change, or only one kind of change that is needed?

The critics never complain that Harvard scholar William E. B. Dubois, or women's rights advocate Susan B. Anthony, or labor radical Eugene Debs paid no attention to environmental issues of their day. Nor would I complain, for they addressed what they deemed the most compelling evil, even while they ignored other issues, including the degradation of American cities and industrial workplaces. Isn't this what democracy should allow—reformers are permitted to say what they think is important?

I don't want to make Muir into either a hero or a villain. Rather, as a historian I want to understand how he thought and what he reflected of his time. In his own mind he believed wholeheartedly in the democratic vision—not merely democracy defined as human rights but democracy defined as the rights of all nature, for those he called the "plant people," also for insects, bears, and rocks, as well as for the right and opportunity of all humans to experience the natural world. Like his critics, he was sure he knew what people wanted and, above all, what they needed—access to green forests and distant mountains.

The new critics are too self-righteous and narrow minded about Muir and his values. There is, however, one criticism I would make if I may step outside of the historian's role and ask what is Muir's relevance for today. My criticism is this: I don't quite buy the guy's religion. Like many moderns, I don't buy religion of any kind. From a pragmatic and evolutionary perspective, religion may serve some useful function, but as a panacea for making us kinder to everyone or kinder to the Earth, it doesn't seem to have worked very well, perhaps because what we have worshipped turned out to be our own invention. You cannot get a perfect God out of an imperfect people.

Appealing to faith and religion as a panacea has been a popular thing to do in America. In Muir's time several new religions appeared to remedy the flaws of the outmoded traditional ones. Think of Joseph Smith and Mormonism or Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science. Muir's contribution seems more truly modern than others in its emphasis on material nature rather than on magic and the supernatural. Unlike the others, it went much further toward embracing real science. And over time it seemed to offer a useful check on growing populations, rising consumer demands, and runaway trade and technology. But has any religion, including the religion of nature, ever really fulfilled its promise?

The critical flaw in Muir's philosophy, it seems to me, was that he would not allow himself to see the dark side of nature, or the dark side of people. Too naively he trusted that nature always works for the greater good of all. He didn't have enough information. He didn't think hard enough about malaria.

By the way, due to global warming, malaria is on the increase, along with a long list of other health and environmental disasters, forcing us to ask, where do we humans belong and where can we live? Will anywhere on the planet remain free of threat and danger? As our knowledge has increased, so has our ecological impact. In that impact have we at last killed off the possibility of finding something to believe in on this planet?

Muir was born back in April 21, 1838. One hundred eight years later, we seem to have arrived at a different philosophy of nature than his. Nature, it seems to be a consensus these days, has no clear, agreed on "good" in mind. Not the good of people, or the good of anything else. In fact nature has no mind--no indwelling intentions, no programs or goals. In our time we tend to accept the cold reality that nature is not becoming anything. It just IS.

We have uncovered a great deal of information about the workings of this amazing planet, and we can still find beauty in those workings. But scientists tend to conclude with the newspapers, the movies and novels, and the scientists that there is an immense lot of tragedy in this world and probably always will be.

The idea of progress has been losing its hold for many years. Once it expressed the optimism that lay at the core of modernity. Now optimism is collapsing. We worry that humans are on their way to extinction, along with the flora and fauna of Yosemite Valley, and the millions of other species that share the earth.

So, Brother John, thank you for doing so much to preserve nature and for spreading knowledge of this California and this earth. May your spiritual home place Yosemite endure for a long time. And may your life story of struggling out of poverty, developing a feeling of kinship with all forms of life, and exploring the wilderness still inspire children of all races and classes. May people continue reading about your days and nights in the outdoors, cherishing your work in conservation, and valuing your insights into the natural world.

As a spiritual prophet, however, you gave us a beautiful feather bed called nature where falling Christian like yourself could rest and take comfort. But a hundred years after your death, that bed seems more like a badly cracked rock. We cannot lie down on it any more than on all those feather beds that other prophets have offered. Nor these days can we find comfort in the old belief that every human being is a child of God, or that every child can grow up to be kind, decent, intelligent, charitable, peaceful, if only we give them the right opportunity. Skepticism toward feather beds in general has entered our minds.

Muir, as I see him, was one of the great liberals of the 19th century. But that liberalism, the founding ideology of modernity, is in decline. Its often-extravagant faith in people and nature has weakened. We may still long for liberalism's optimism, but we don't know how to bring it back. Above all, we are sure that there is no social class or any set of professors or experts or indeed any other group of people who can be safely put us back on that road.

Can we settle for hope if we cannot find optimism? Being hopeful, compared to being optimistic, does not require us to be supremely confident that a good outcome necessarily lies in store. Hope is more tentative. But then exactly where do we look for hope? If we look in the mirror, can we find it there? If not, where? Probably it is not going to come from a 25-cent coin bearing images of John Muir, Half Dome, and a circling condor.


Other talks by Donald Worster


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