Thirty years ago in 1990, my Stanford dissertation described the implicit racism embodied in John Muir’s writing in endless painful academic detail. Complete with footnotes. It was not a welcome message, then or now.
So in July 2020 when national news outlets finally began publishing first-hand accounts of fierce confrontations between the Sierra Club and its own employees of color — complete with strident calls for the Sierra Club to sever ties with the racist legacy of its legendary founder John Muir — my first reaction was “Oh heck yeah. It’s about time.”
But my second thought, just as it had been thirty years before, was to wonder if the sometimes-painful story of Muir’s life and legacy couldn’t still somehow offer a partial way forward through the catastrophic forest fires that destroyed Paradise. Leaving us all trapped together regardless of age, race, religion, poverty or wealth in the smoke and heat of the 21st Century’s looming Anthropocene era. Could the complex story of Muir’s long life contain some useful clues? A pathway forward beyond our painfully racist past? And present? Or perhaps hint at practical policies to confront the rapidly-accelerating “slow violence” of combined resource rape, social disintegration, and climate catastrophe injustice?
So although I fully support recent calls to remove Muir’s name from sacred indigenous spaces, I also feel that nothing better represents the mixed success and failure of Muir’s efforts as a conservationist more accurately or eloquently — or painfully — than California’s Muir Woods and Alaska’s Muir Glacier. Both of which will soon be erased from the map. Not by government map makers or street protests, but by impending climate change catastrophes.
“Books,” Muir once mused, “are but cairns to mark where other minds have been.” So let’s retrace the trajectory of Muir’s well-learned environmental racism — and then ask where did he go from there? Did he ever even try to move forward? Perhaps even to un-learn that well-learned racism?
This we know: no one, Muir included, is a born racist. So no one is inevitably doomed to remain a racist either. What has been learned can be unlearned. Perhaps precisely because Muir’s career as a writer was so darn long — spanning half a century — he gradually found the time and space to change his mind: slowly un-learning, bit by bit, bias by bias, conversation by conversation, cowardly attitudes he’d always uncritically accepted as received truths as a younger man.
His teachers? The best in the world. Specifically, they were the Native American elders (to put it bluntly, Alaskan genocide survivors) who directly challenged his old world views. These teachers also included Muir’s friend, the author and activist Helen Hunt Jackson, who for several decades strove to make herself the most eloquent and effective ally of Native Americans nationwide. And largely succeeded. To this day, her 1881 book A Century of Dishonor, mailed at her own expense to every Congressman in Washington D.C., remains a landmark work of anti-racist writing.
Does Muir’s friendship with Jackson absolve Muir of his prior (and persistent) racism? Of course not. Did he, like his friend Jackson, become a literary paragon of anti-racist activism? Not even close. Yet does the story of Muir’s moral evolution, however hesitant, deserve closer scrutiny? I believe so. Read on and judge for yourself.
First the basics: Long hailed as the legendary “father of American Conservation,” I sarcastically labeled the all-pervasive myth of Muir’s sanctified moral purity as the “St. John of the Woods Syndrome” in my dissertation. The core issue: his casual contempt for African Americans, Asian immigrants, and Native American First Nations, especially in his early writing.
To make matters worse, these same racist sentiments were expressed far more nakedly and unapologetically (and permanently) in the twisted words and deeds of Muir’s most powerful conservation allies: including our proudly White Supremicist President, Teddy Roosevelt; and Stanford University’s own first President, the race eugenicist David Starr Jordan (a crucial co-founder of the Sierra Club).
Through several hundred pages of painful academic prose — hacking my way bravely through a forest of footnotes — I once did my grad-school best to explore (and explode) the intellectual and scientific roots of racism embodied in 20th Century environmental movements worldwide. Including the Nazi/Nativist Aryan roots of forest conservation in Europe (which deeply influenced yet another famous American conservationist, Gifford Pinchot, Muir’s sometime ally and eventual nemesis in Washington D.C.).
So today, speaking as a much older but still no wiser white male environmental historian, and as someone who has published plenty of pages in praise of Muir (and plenty of sharp criticism too), I want to first begin by saluting the fiercely courageous people of color who have now finally taken a hammer to this Green Glass Ceiling. Thereby bringing the Sierra Club and similar Lily-White Eco-organizations to a long-overdue tipping-point of national reckoning. If not reconciliation. Nothing I’ll write here about Muir can or will ever possibly change or challenge my admiration for their ability to speak truth to power. Nor do I seek to dodge or diminish my own personal complicity in this entire tired dysfunctional organizationally-racist ecosystem.
Quite the opposite: thirty years after launching my own career as a lifelong full-time college-level climate educator in 1990, we have clearly failed completely to communicate the urgency of the threat or the need for action. Especially to communities of color who suffer the often-fatal impacts of climate change most severely — and who should, therefore, be our most cherished constituency. One core reason for this systemic failure is systemic racism.
The grim result: a mere three decades after my Muir dissertation was completed, the Earth’s atmosphere now contains fully twice as much heat-trapping carbon dioxide today as it did in 1990, when the UN’s first IPCC Report was published. Back when atmospheric concentrations of C02 still hovered at a barely-survivable 350 parts-per-million. Not the glacier-melting, forest-destroying 417 ppm levels heights of hypocrisy they’ve reached today.
Worse yet, in 1990 the planet’s politicians and policy makers literally teetered on the brink of passing an all-encompassing Climate Accord which — had it only been ratified and implemented — could and would have saved countless millions of lives (and trillions of wasted dollars pillaged from communities of color). How soon we forget: “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect forget about the ‘White House effect,’” George Bush Senior famously declared in a 1988 Presidential campaign speech. “As president, I intend to do something about it." Alas he didn’t.
Regardless we now find ourselves foredoomed to move forward together, co-inhabitants of a rapidly-warming planet, through the dawning decades of the 21st-century’s self-inflicted global Anthropocene catastrophe. Alas the only thing that hasn’t really changed much in all those years is the implicit and explicit racism embodied in the modern Environmental movement. And the mature Muir’s muted ability, perhaps, to help us move a few more steps forward.
But why? And far more importantly, how?
The reason I launched myself headlong into an academic confrontation with Muir’s racism was that my Stanford dissertation advisor, the distinguished Professor Mary Pratt, shared with me the manuscript of her as-yet unpublished book. In Imperial Eyes, Professor Pratt presents a scathing critique of systematic racism of Muir’s European scientist super-hero: the great German explorer of South America, Alexander von Humboldt.
Today Professor Pratt’s books remain foundational works in what soon became an entirely new academic discipline, Post-Colonial Studies. Whereas I’m still the only fan of my own unpublished dissertation.
Hence as often happens in grad school (or is supposed to!), Professor Pratt’s work directly inspired and informed and guided my own far smaller project about Humboldt’s protégé John Muir. And helped change my worldview entirely.
Eventually I “translated my dissertation into English” (as I’m fond of joking) — publishing two general-interest books that explicitly argue that Muir at least partially outgrew his old dysfunctional and destructive inherited racism. With important results for us all.
In Northwest Passages of John Muir (1988) I first asserted that Muir’s trip to Oregon, Washington, and Alaska in mid-career marked a pivotal turning-point in his own psychic survival, and in the American conversation movement as a whole. Crucially, that journey north involved in-depth encounters with Native American elders from regions less completely crushed and conquered and genocidally oppressed than California. Not coincidentally, the forests of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska were, at that time, far less completely ecologically destroyed and devastated than California’s Tahoe or Yosemite: providing Muir, and the entire national Conservation movement he co-founded, with a way to move forward beyond despair.
Similarly his first canoe trip along the coast of Alaska to Glacier Bay had finally provided him the chance to converse directly with a proud and articulate Native American tribal leader. Significantly Muir’s party included a Christian Missionary (whose evangelizing campfire sermons Muir subtly begins to question and undercut). But also included four local tribal members who acted as guides.
“I greatly enjoyed the Indian’s camp-fire talk this evening on their ancient customs, how they were taught by their parents ere the whites came among them, their religion, ideas connected with the next world, the stars, plants, the behavior and language of animals under different circumstances, manner of getting a living, etc.”
It was a turning point in Muir’s understanding of himself — and of the the natural world. Even Muir’s very first biographer, Linnie Marsh Wolfe, noticed way back in the 1940s that “Muir was deeply impressed...and with his own deep-seated paganism,” felt that these Indians had more wisdom and understanding of the world “than did the tutored, civilized exponents of Christianity.”
Decades later in my 2010 book Tahoe beneath the Surface, I dedicated a full chapter to Muir’s failed battle to create a Lake Tahoe National Park. But I also dedicated four full chapters to help trace the 10,000-year history (and heroic survival) of California’s Native American inhabitants in the Sierra Nevada region. Including the Washoe Tribe of Lake Tahoe, and the Northern Paiute people of Pyramid and Mono Lake, not to mention the so-called “Ahwhaneeche” Indians of Yosemite —a renegade group of Mono Lake Paiutes who were both “discovered” and “conquered” by a brutally violent paramilitary expedition bent on genocidally eliminating or outright enslaving the remaining Native American population who had taken refuge there. I also spent an entire chapter explaining how the Donner Party of white pioneers were applauded for openly shooting their Native American rescuers in the back. And then cannibalizing their corpses for their own selfish survival. Yikes: Talk about creepy conservation metaphors.
Let’s be clear: Calling out this kind of racism does not absolve Muir — or me, or the Sierra Club of which I remain a lifelong member — of our complicity in structures of racial prejudice, privilege, and entrenched power. But it has contributed a continuing sense of urgency to my own life-long search for The Nature of America — the deliberately double-edged title of my Stanford dissertation.
We’ve all gone to look for America.
Perhaps Muir, like all of us, was capable of unlearning his racism. Capable of growth. Capable of listening. Capable of learning. Capable of changing his mind and heart and spirit for the better. Capable of finding a way forward through the forests toward the future.
Next a crucial historical footnote: Muir never actually became a political conservationist of any passion or power or national influence until he was fully fifty years old, shortly after suffering what we today might call a mid-life crisis. In brief, having abandoned his early vagabond existence as a wandering mountaineer and part-time nature writer, all the while singing the praises of the Sierra Nevada in print in major magazines back East, a suddenly-no-longer-young John Muir had finally married and settled down to the quiet (for him, catastrophic and claustrophobic) life of a gentleman farmer in the Bay Area farming town of Martinez. Which is where the John Muir National Monument still stands today.
There he took charge of his wealthy wife’s thriving fruit orchards — and cursed at the so-called laziness of his “Chinamen” farm workers. All the while forcing them to spread arsenic (the most widely-used agricultural pesticide prior to the invention of DDT) on his tons of ripening “little bald head” cherries prior to shipping them off on the nation’s new railroads for sale back East.
In so doing, his wife soon observed, he’d essentially sold his soul to the devil: increasingly becoming “nerve-shaken and lean as a crow” in the words of his own bitter self-description. In desperation at his growing depression, his wife Louie quietly threw him off the farm for the summer: sending him to Lake Tahoe to rest and recover.
Ironically it was not the restful and healthful vacation in pristine nature they’d co-imagined. Instead California’s greatest nature writer confronted the utter destruction of his once-beloved Sierra Nevada forests, like a mirror image of his own collapsing health: the towering old-growth trees relentlessly logged from lakeshore to ridge line.
And so in a fateful moment, Muir refused to return home to the fruit farm— fleeing instead even further north on a long, ultimately heart-healing journey to Oregon, Washington, and then on via ship to Alaska (including a return visit to Muir Glacier still named for him today).
What does all of this have to do with unlearning racism, you ask? Good question.
In the Pacific Northwest the aging and ailing Muir wandered through vast tracks of old-growth forests still untouched by axe and saw. And marveled at alpine meadows on Mount Rainier spared from the “hoofed locusts” (AKA sheep) that had already destroyed Yosemite’s once-luxuriant alpine gardens. Further north in Alaska, he found himself in long campfire conversations with the same Native Elders whose cultures he had once disparaged in starkly racist terms back in California. Yet crucially, Muir also finally found himself listening, at last, to what these elders had to teach.
Why this sudden change of heart? In addition to healing his own self-inflicted psychic wounds as an arsenic-laced farmer, Muir’s open-minded attention was based in no small part on his admiration and friendship for the foremost Native American Ally of his own generation: a crusading author and Native rights activist name Helen Hunt Jackson. A woman who had become one of Muir’s closest friends and intellectual sparing partners — and who therefore courageously and openly and repeatedly and patiently challenged his ugly anti-Indian racism constantly. And courageously. And with compassion.
The result? The same John Muir who had repeatedly disparaged and insulted California Indians as “Diggers” (the close rhyme was no accident in that era) suddenly found himself listening — and yes, learning — from Indigenous Elders whose wisdom and understanding far-exceeded his own.
Earlier in his long life’s journey, as he vividly describes in his youthful autobiography, The Story of My Boyhood and My Youth, Muir had gradually and gratefully outgrown the angry joy-killing form of fundamentalist Calvinist Christianity his own Scots-immigrant father had literally beaten into his flesh and blood back in the bitter winters of pioneer Wisconsin. Now at mid-life entering his fifties, Muir gradually found himself moving beyond his casually-inherited contempt for the First Nations inhabitants of the forests and mountains he loved. Hence the worst of the racist epithets for which John Muir is justly criticized and despised come, at least in my view, from the first half of his career — prior to his late and rather sudden re-emergence as one of America’s foremost conservationist voices.
Oh, if only it were so simple, I can hear you sigh. Because of course it wasn’t. Not even close. And hence the psychic transformation I’m arguing for here was neither so sudden nor half so complete as I’ve implied. Case in point: In later years, as the founder of the Sierra Club, Muir made common cause with racist power-brokers and scientists: Stanford’s first President (a eugenicist named David Starr Jordan) and Berkeley’s first Professors of Biology (the proudly racist southern-born Le Conte brothers) among them.
And yes, Muir cozied up to industrialist magnates such as the California railroad baron A.E. Harriman to get his conservation legislation pushed through Congress. It’s all a mixed and disturbing legacy at best, full of political compromises and questionable motives. But it’s also the foundation of the National Park and National Forest systems that arguably saved what little was left of the Nature of the America from complete destruction. Yosemite Valley and Lake Tahoe (which Muir tried and failed repeatedly to make a National Park) included.
Far from being “Saint John of the Woods,” Muir the savvy conservation leader did what he felt needed doing — and made more than his share of political compromises along the way.
But hey isn’t that also precisely the problem? That Native American homelands and their sacred sites were seized, often by force, to make so-called “wilderness parks” and “preserves” for wealthy white “conservationists” fleeing the seething ethnic interchange of modern industrial cities?
In a word: yes. Is that the end of the story? Alas, no.
Here’s a quick glimpse of our shared Anthropocene Era future:
California’s towering coastal redwoods, already 95% logged and destroyed, are now reeling from heat and drought and disease. So are the even larger Giant Sequoia “Big Trees” in the Sierra Nevada near Lake Tahoe. Having survived so many millions of years as a species, and with their oldest individuals far more than 2000 years old, California’s Muir Woods are unlikely to survive another century. Because of us.
Likewise Alaska’s Muir Glacier, now retreating rapidly from the Pacific due to Climate Change, will almost certainly vanish by century’s end — another victim of the Anthropocene apocalypse already bearing down upon us. With a vengeance.
So yes by all means, let’s remove Muir’s name from Muir Woods and Muir Glacier — and promptly replace them (just as we did decades ago for Mount Denali) with the far more ancient and honorable and poetic and non-racist names given them eons ago by the local Native American inhabitants who lived peacefully in their shadows not just for centuries, but for millennia.
But simply changing the names of these places won’t save them. Or us. Although it might at least begin to help remind us that another way of life on earth together is not only possible, but inevitable. Come what may.
Similarly let’s demand the Sierra Club (and its sister eco-organizations) stop mindlessly sanctifying men like Muir without first openly acknowledging and confronting and atoning for their long sad destructive ugly violent legacy of environmental racism.
And let’s applaud the recent decision to return 1200 acres of land adjacent to Big Sur National Park to the permanent stewardship and control of the local Esselen Tribe — a move announced in July 2020. And a hopeful model for Indigenous stewardship of sacred lands globally.
That said, however, let’s not imagine that mere acknowledgement or atonement or reparations will save communities of color locally or globally from the oncoming scourge of climate change and eco-catastrophe.
Instead let’s throw our collective support and our resources and our hopes together as one (including those of the Sierra Club) behind the Indigenous leaders. And behind the many vibrant new youth-led eco-justice movements — such as Oakland’s Sunrise Movement or the Standing Rock Sioux Water Protectors — who are out on the streets and in their communities courageously charting a new way forward for us all. Because in the Anthropocene National Monuments and National Parks (whatever names we give them) can’t possibly protect the forests and glaciers and waters of the earth from the globalized threats of climate change and global toxic pollution and invasive biologic species any longer.
At the end of my 2010 book about Lake Tahoe’s 10,000-year human history, I described a ritual Sacred Circle formed by Washoe Elders and the best lake scientist ecologists on earth — all standing together as one. Here in 2020, with or without John Muir’s name attached, I can’t possibly imagine a survivable future without forming just such a Sacred Circle. With all of us (scientists, citizens, Indigenous youth, and elders) finally standing together to help us find a way forward. Because in the dawning era of the global Anthropocene there can be no place to hide any longer. No conservation sanctuary that climate change can’t crush. No refuge from the revenge of our own racism. And no turning back.