When Many Critics Question John Muir’s Legacy

Adapting old ideas to new times

John Muir- Courtesy of Wikipedia

John Muir- Courtesy of Wikipedia

December 2014 marks the 100-year anniversary of John Muir’s death. Muir is best known for being the founder of Yosemite National Park (YNP) and The Sierra Club. While many people and entities celebrate his legacy, there are some scholars who argue his ideas shouldn’t be used as much in the 21st century.

 Muir’s work began around 1871 when he first conceived his controversial theory of the glaciation of Yosemite Valley (YV). His unorthodox theory wasn’t compared to other scientists of the time. It said YV was gouged out over time by glaciers of the Ice Age. Francois Matthes mentioned in his article titled “John Muir And The Glacial Theory of Yosemite” that his theory wasn’t popular with many of the scientists of his time; however, many geologists know it to be true in the 21st century. 

Muir wrote many articles and books relating to the Sierras and it got the attention from many people. While writing his works, Muir also travelled around the world and went to Congress multiple times to lobby for conservationism.

“He certainly was an influential early promoter of conserving habitat, species and parks,” said Executive Director of Biological Diversity Karen Suckling. “His general ideas of protecting species from extinction, protecting wildlife habitat, establishing parks and speaking to the moral, not just the scientific dimensions of environmental problems, are all very useful today.”

Muir devoted much of his life and fought for environmental problems just as Suckling mentioned. While many people outside of the conservationism world may not know Muir, but he’s a prominent figure in the field. His work inspired and befriended Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt. While working with Muir, Roosevelt created the United States National Park system and Forest Service in the early 20th century.

Muir continued his work with nature after he met Roosevelt. He wrote over 34 articles and books during his lifetime. However, he died on Dec. 24 1914 before he can finish his travels and fully write about them in his diary.

His work and contribution to the early preservationist movement may be notable, but times are changing. Culture changed very quickly since the late 19th century and it’s causing many important figures like Muir to have an older tone and style of writing. Many scholars appreciate those ideas, but they don’t resonate very well with people today.

Yosemite National Park- Courtesy of Backpack.com

Yosemite National Park- Courtesy of Backpack.com

There are some environmental challenges that Muir could never imagine during his lifetime. Some problems the world faces today are population growth, urban sprawl, demographic shifts and climate change. With these changes, many conservationists are trying to rethink these issues.

There are many prominent professionals in related fields who oppose Muir and they’re in agreement on the issue. Author and Southern California expert D.J. Waldie feels that people need to sway away from Muir’s ideas.

“Many among those who are called ‘new conservationists’ feel boxed in by Muir’s belief that California’s landscapes can be reduced to three simple categories: urban, rural, and nature,” said Waldie.

Muir thought cities were necessary for industry. He also thought California’s rural purpose was for production of food and raw materials. Muir final thought was above all else; there was nature because it’s (literally) higher in altitude and vastly higher in spiritual worth than the city and rural areas of California.

Muir also argued exhausted businessmen and factory owners could recover from urban life in nature while also relearn self-reliance in order to continue a Darwinian type of survival. These categories of nature and the assumptions about who utilize each category aren’t useful.

Muir created these ideas during the late 19th and early 20th century, but he deemed certain ideas as important and had a certain type of mindset that represented his time.

“He represented what Anglo, middle class, educated Californians wanted to be said about California,” Waldie said. “That the state was exceptional in its beauty, boundless in giving the good things of life, and possibly redemptive.

While Muir is a product of his time, his work may be as well.

“Muir's ideas in the 21st century need to become more inclusive of other peoples and cultures,” said Senior Scientist Mollie Matteson of Center for Biological Diversity.

Muir didn’t take account of other groups of people, which raises concern for many people and scholars in the field today. A Vermont Naturalist and Ecologist, Charlie Hohn, agrees with this while still thinking Muir is one of the forerunners of ecology.

“Muir at times condemned the Native Americans in Yosemite when they had over time developed a much more sustainable way of interacting with the landscape,” said Hohn. “[While] Muir's vision of nature isn’t accessible to the poor, especially the urban poor, is very important.”

Because Muir didn’t include the Native American as well poor people in urban cities of his time, ecologists are rethinking his ideas and trying to apply them to the 21st century.

“We need big wild places and we also need small wild places more readily accessible to large urban populations and people with limited means to travel to the big parks,” said Matteson.

According to the National Park Service website, there were close to 4 million people who visited YNP in 2012 despite being only 135 miles away from San Francisco. Compared to California’s population of over 38 million people and the U.S.’ of 319 million, YNP only gets a fraction of either population. Bay writer and editor Mary Ellen Hannibal believes in Muir, but acknowledging many people don’t have the chance to visit national parks.

“Muir was right that we need to protect Yosemite,” said Hannibal. However, “his critics are right that we need to protect and cultivate nature in urban areas. Nature in urban and suburban areas can be protected at corridors or pathways that connect the big cores.”

In the past 30 years, conservation biology taught many people some fundamental ideas about how nature works and what it needs to be saved. Some conservationists refer to it as the “Three C’s” of conservation. The first “C” is society needs large cores (like YNP) where nature is left to its own devices.

The second “C” is people need connectivity where they need some pathway or corridors between large cores, so animals and plants can migrate and breed with other populations.

 The last “C” is that an ecosystem (society) needs carnivores. Historically the wolf, mountain lion and grizzly bear performs a central role in the ecosystem’s health. However, people today view these carnivores mainly as their top predators. People need mountain lions in core areas to keep nature’s parts moving and sustain the health of the whole system.

As many people understand the “Three C’s,” it gives lawmakers and city planners a better grasp in what needs to be changed in regards of getting people to experience nature in the city.

 Muir wasn’t a trained environmentalist, but he advocated for and wrote on the issue a great deal. Many people aren’t confident Muir changed the field, but he definitely contributed to it while understanding what he was trying to do. Many people look to Muir as inspiration for preservation, but many professionals in the field today don’t see anyone directly quoting his work anymore.

“I don't know if Muir changed the future of environmental sciences, but he changed the interpretation of how Yosemite came into being,” said former Executive Director of the Southern California Historical Society and Historian Thomas Andrews. “He understood the need for both [large and small spaces], but I doubt if he had a firm idea of how to reconcile or balance the two for the future.”

Muir didn’t start the movement, but his ideas challenged and guided many people in the field. He saw these vast areas of nature are worth saving, but Muir didn’t realize nature in people’s backyards is just important as well. Muir spent a lot of his life in nature and many people who know his work tend to see him as this lone person in it.

“The image that we have of Muir — the lone man out in the wilderness — is often still seen as the ideal for how people should commune with nature,” said Professor at UCLA, senior fellow of UCLA’s ‘cityLAB’ and Editor of ‘Boom: A Journal of California’ Jon Christensen. “That isn’t useful because there are many different ways of relating to, thinking about and caring for nature…we need to understand, appreciate and support all of those different ways of caring for nature.”

As Christensen suggested, there are more ways of caring for nature besides thinking of it as this lone abstract idea. He also purposes society changed since Muir because people are thinking more in an ecological sense. They’re also increasingly thinking of nature not as something that’s separated from culture, but people in cities see themselves as part of nature.

Christensen also argues that other proponents of the environment should be valued just as much as Muir because it would change people’s view of nature as well.

“I'd like to see many different environmental heroes celebrated on an equal footing with Muir, with many different stories about how we can care for nature and commune with nature, not just alone in the wilderness, but in many different ways in our daily lives,” said Christensen.

As Christensen and many others begin to challenge Muir’s ideas in the 21st century, there are other people who are trying to connect the inter city to nature. This reimagining of nature will affect many poor people’s mindsets that live in the city and challenge lawmakers in putting more nature related things in these areas.

Many naturalists and journalists realize that Muir didn’t focus on smaller spaces of nature, but that might be a point of his work.

“[I] don't know quotes of him not seeing value in smaller, local open space areas,” said retired Lead Los Angeles County Naturalist Michael Long. “But we have to realize he was ahead of his time in knowing the large wildernesses would be damaged or destroyed if not saved a wild functioning ecosystems.”

Some argue it’s much harder to save all the species in a small wild area near urban areas, but it’s easier if everyone helps. The recent controversy brings up the point that everyone can save big wildernesses while also saving and restoring small, local wild areas for people’s enjoyment. Many scholars, lawmakers and ordinary citizens can’t just focus on one or the other.

Scholars can’t change Muir’s ideas, but they can adapt them to current problems in order to save the last remaining wild areas. Muir was a game changer of his time, but Ecologists can’t be boxed in by his ideas because they need to rethink new solutions to these new problems. Scholars can keep Muir in mind as they attempt to connect the inner city to nature before its demise.