Writing for a Wounded Planet FSEM
John Muir as a Role Model
When one reads Muir, they feel a draw to the nature and wilderness that he describes through his work with beauty. During class, we all felt this draw. Many of us said that we wanted to go out and explore nature immediately. This is the effect Muir had on us, and I wanted to find out more. I wanted to uncover the truth of the man, and the more I did the more I needed to ask myself, “Is John Muir the type of person who should be setting an example for us?” Through the exploration of his background as a conservationist we will uncover the truth of the man. This will lead to exploring the language his stories use, and how it affects our perception of him. Then a first hand account of someone who followed him, and whether or not she should have. Despite Muir giving the world help through conservation, his efforts were damaged and ultimately undermined by his racism towards Native Americans.
Muir, from his stories, seems like a mythical man as a mountain climber who has a big heart for nature. With this in mind, I needed to learn more about who he is outside the text. Is he really such a person as he seems in the books? The first line of John Muir and the Modern Passion for Nature by Donald Worster is: “If we follow John Muir very long, he will wear us out with his incessant gab (Worster 8).” This “incessant gab” he speaks with no real negativity, as he just brings it to attention that Muir speaks a large amount. The further one reads the more you learn about how Muir speaks to anyone and everyone. He is unbiased in his discussions, namely those about nature. This drive that Muir and his companions speak about have been described as a “passion for nature [that] can still draw people together across lines of race, class, and gender (Worster 8).” This passion is part of what makes what he writes so intriguing, as we get a feeling for the mind of Muir and the excitement he holds. So it would seem that Muir acts like what we expected from his writing, for the most part. This is shown in that Muir feels that every creature and species has a right to “life, liberty and happiness” (Woster 11). He believes that all deserve the same equal happiness that he feels. To him nature is the ultimate equalizer. But this is contradicted in his own statements, namely of Native Americans. He feels as though there is an inherent difference between the “savages” with “dirty, unwashed faces” and the “cleanly civilized folk.” While this environmental racism is not particularly uncommon for the time period, it is still sad to see that even an open-minded and seemingly good man like Muir can hold such a bigoted view. In many ways, his history of environmental racism towards native americans outweighing his efforts to be a good environmentalist. Even if it was the normal opinion of the time, Muir as a role model has said awful things about the Native Americans who lived on the land before us. These views cannot be forgotten. His actions endangered the lives of those Native Americans. This shows that to him conservation held a higher price than those human lives, or he thought the Native Americans weren’t true humans. So the Muir from the stories is many ways unlike the real Muir, who seems to be racist and bigoted against Native Americans. This new view on him changes the way we can see him for good. No longer is Muir a simple mountain man; he did awful things to hurt people who were different than him. This is something that cannot be forgotten when talking about him.
Nevertheless, Muir’s personality had a large impact on how he wrote his books; his passion for nature drove him to learn how to describe things in a “rich metaphorical language (Heitschmidt paragraph 3).” Gregg Heitschmidt’s essay, Articulating Wild Spaces: John Muir’s Lexical Wonderland, gives us insight into these linguistic tools that Muir uses and how it affects our readings of him. Muir had strong feelings about written works: “written creations were meant ‘to give readers a personal experience of the wild beauty’ (Heitschmidt 7). This is why Muir’s work had a high amount of beautiful language that brings the sense of nature to the very pages that line the book. Muir knew the importance that each word brought to the story, and so he chose them wisely. Part of this language is not just his metaphors, but the construction of his phrases themselves. These small details bring the beauty of his work to the extreme, giving us a work that is full of moving sections that give us more feeling and sense of the natural world. This natural world to him is also more than just his metaphoric language. He imbues it with a sense of the divine, a holy sacrament that describes nature as if it were one with god. All of this enters into an accord, bringing the piece of work together and turning it into something that allows us to see the beauty of the natural world through the eyes and words of John Muir. However, this world hides a potentially more dangerous view that threatens the lives of people. That is, the Native Americans who call these natural beautiful landscapes their homes have been taken away. John Muir’s ideals of protecting the land didn’t account for the people who protected it before him, and instead was more partial towards kicking them out of their homes. All this was for the sake of “conservation”, but those ideals displaced and hurt thousands of lives in the process. This language he uses romanticizes the what is happening, but in reality it is a way to cover the evils he has done in order to “protect” the environment.
These styles and language he uses that hide the awful truths are the words that propel people to travel in Muir’s trails and follow in his footsteps. This is what lead Betsy Perluss to hike the Sierra Trail, which she describes in great detail in This Glorious Darkness: Reflections from the John Muir Trail. Her experience after reading Muir led to a gut feeling that she had to follow; “I have known for some years that when I turned 50, I would hike the John Muir Trail” (Perluss 137). Now she turned 51, and she finally made good to that promise. Through the calm walk, she thinks of her life choices, of other philosophers and of the beauty of the land. To her the feeling of being close to nature is that of being whole; “wholeness doesn’t exist outside the scope of nature’s cycles” (Perluss 138). She even uses different sources to claim that, in essence, humans are no different than nature, eventually realizing through a spiritual awakening that nature is the balancer between the light and dark in her life. At the peak of mountain she sees a world she is both a part and not a part of. Her realization is one that many Native Americans could probably sympathize with. She holds a similar view of nature as they do. As such, would she have been okay with what happened to the Native Americans who lived near the trail? Would she still hold the same views of John Muir had she known of what happened to preserve this? This very trail was formerly used by Native Americans, and it was unfair for it to be taken from them for the purposes of “preservation.” This is the type of reaction that people have. They search in the wilderness for beauty that Muir believed in, without realizing the horrible atrocities that happened on the very ground they walk on. This source shows that for our purposes the lands can still be a place with natural beauty and allows one to reflect on life; however, this doesn’t mean that it is less morally abhorrent that Native Americans were taken to make this trail that she walks on and that Muir conserved.
Was Muir entirely awful? No, he did a degree of goodness by pushing for the conservation of natural spaces. He also does a good job at motivating people to explore and be active in nature. That doesn’t mean he is a man who is a good role model however. His activism and conservation were good but his views on treatment of Native Americans as savages, taking them from their homes, was morally indefensible. His awful views were the common thoughts of the time. As more conscious people we must realise the problem with those ideals in order to change them. Muir’s failings in that regard is shown clearly in a more recent environmentalist who gained the mantle of being a celebrity. Steve Irwin is a name that almost all people of this time know, being a exciting conservationist who met a tragic end 12 years ago. His shows and interviews excited and influenced thousands to become more active in their environment. He did this all with a modern mindset, the same one we all felt from John Muir. He and Muir at face value share some similarities; they were both popular speakers who motivated many to be active. Both of them had the same type of activist attitude, both feeling very relatable in a way, but they still held dignity in their work. Irwin splits off from Muir in having no apparent racism however, Irwin was the person who Muir seemed to be: accepting, caring, and kind to all. Irwin strove to protect all people and animals from destruction and pain, and he never showed the same hatred that Muir did. This is the type of person who we envisioned Muir as, and perhaps his influence on us when we were children is why we felt an immediate connection to Muir. This connection with Muir is broken when one realizes his awful ideas of Native Americans. Despite preaching acceptance towards all, he never truly practiced it through his denial of Native American land and freedom. Irwin has been described as doing stupid things, but he never once pushed that any person or race was worse than the next. Irwin was a kindred soul of his time, and he will always be remembered as the Australian that taught the world conservation in the digital age.
In a day like this it is hard to see the impact of environmental racism, as it is a problem that hides itself in our society. The same problem that plagued society hundreds of years ago still haunt us. The native americans who were taken away are still living on the reservations away from the land they once had. Their lives are full of pain and suffering, and they live in poverty. It is easy to ignore the problem because it is so far from home. Many of us have likely never seen a reservation, or travelled within one. As modern people we must right the wrongs of our ancestors. We must try to help those who are impoverished because of the actions that happened hundreds of years ago.
The Native American population isn’t the only one that has been affected by the pains of environmental racism. As we learned in The Concrete River by Luis Rodriguez, these problems exist in cities around the world that have a majority of ethnic diversity. In those like the book with problems of drugs, violence, and pain; to those without the very fundamental essences of living. A town called Flint, Michigan which has a majority black population existed for several years without clean drinking water. Since 2014, the water has been contaminated with lead and unsafe to drink, but nothing was done until very recently. This situation got very little coverage despite it being one of the largest areas of Michigan. Why did nothing happen? I would say that the area was ignored due to the majority race, being African American. Those in power decided that it wasn’t worth it to fix the problem fast, and instead exploited the situation by selling clean water to the residents. Is this the type of actions we can allow in this modern day? These problems are happening every moment around us, and nothing is being done to stop it.
We have to learn from these problems. Muir’s lessons and teachings show us that conservation is good, but we also have to learn from his moral failures. Being environmentally conscious of the fact that he, and many of his time, took the livelihood of the Native Americans and uprooted centuries of their home being protected by them. No amount of his beautiful language and the beautiful trails he left behind for us can change what he pushed for. Muir himself was a poor role model for being a truly conscious environment speaker, who has to realize the width of the impact of their actions to not just the land but the people too. Muir was a bad man with good intentions, and while we can appreciate the work he has done in some ways, we must realize the things he has done to harm the lives that are still affected to this day. Along with the lives that exist in turmoil that we ignore because it doesn’t exist in front of us. We have to do something to help these lives. Whether it be protesting in hopes of someone hearing, or just bringing to light that these problems exist. Anything that one can do is useful for helping the problems that existed, and still exist, in our society.
Perluss, Betsy. “This Glorious Darkness: Reflections from the John Muir Trail.” Psychological
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Donald Worster; John Muir and the Modern Passion for
Nature, Environmental History, Volume 10, Issue 1, 1 January 2005, Pages 8–19, https://doi-org.ezproxy.umw.edu/10.1093/envhis/10.1.8
Heitschmidt, Gregg. “Articulating Wild Spaces: John Muir’s Lexical Wonderland.” CEA Critic,
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