Sunday, February 20, 2011

Thinking about John Muir

“‘I care to live only to entice people to look at Nature’s loveliness.’”  John Muir, as cited in Donald Worster’s A Passion for Nature, p. 181

“Capitalism and nature, according to Muir, worked as allies in the shaping of earth’s destiny.” Ibid, p. 414

One of the comments on my blog posting on “Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, and Deep Ecology” was, why did I not mention John Muir, as he was “surely more of a godfather type figure to deep-ecological thinking than either Carson and Leopold.” I confessed to him that I had never read John Muir. Since then, I decided to remedy this by looking at some of John Muir’s writings, as well as at a biography of his life. I wanted to place him more in context and to have a view on his relationship to deep ecology. I have now read Journeys in the Wilderness: A John Muir Reader, published in 2009 (interestingly in Scotland, not in the United States); and Donald Worster’s 2008, A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir. Arne Naess referred to Muir in a passing reference, in Ecology, community and lifestyle, as one of the “forerunners” of the deep ecology movement. (p. 33) It is Naess’s only reference to Muir that I am aware of. Neither Worster’s book, nor the introduction or the editorial comments by Graham White in the John Muir Reader, mention Naess or deep ecology. I find this strange and puzzling. Reading the two books has enabled me to try and grasp the essence of John Muir’s life (1838-1914) and his overall eco-philosophy. One can understand more why he is such an icon for those who value wild nature, wilderness, glaciers, and mountains – but also understand some of his contradictions and philosophical limitations from an ecocentric or deep ecology perspective.

Muir wrote many magazine articles, based on his adventures and personal travels. He had quite a following, once his articles started appearing in print. He wrote to convey the message to help others embrace nature, but also to generate income for a basic livelihood. The books came towards the end of his life and were based on the extensive personal journals which he kept of his various forays into nature.

Five books were published in his lifetime:
-        The Mountains of California, 1894,
-        Our National Parks, 1901,
-        My first Summer in the Sierra, 1911,
-        The Yosemite, 1912 , and
-        The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, 1913.

Published posthumously were
-        Travels in Alaska, 1915,  
and three books from the unpublished journals and magazine articles:
-        A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, 1916,
-        The Cruise of the Corwin, 1917, and
-        Steep Trails, 1918. (Book publishing information taken from Worster, p. 462)

The Reader only offers a partial view of Muir – really a self-portrait, as my comments in the Discussion section show. The biographical material in Worster’s book is needed to better understand Muir’s important role in the conservation movement in the United States, and his influence today on deeper green thinking. This influence is perhaps symbolized by Muir’s election as the first president of the Sierra Club (which he helped to found), a position he held until his death. But also by the fact that his name is associated with so many protected areas and parks (and buildings) throughout the United States, including the magnificent old growth redwood trees of the Muir Woods in the San Francisco Bay area. A friend and I had the good fortune to visit these woods in October of 2008, a spin-off from the “Is Capitalism Soon Over?” conference we attended in San Francisco.

John Muir was quite a complicated man. While he became a conservation icon in the US, he was also a friend and confidant of some high-placed capitalists and politicians. Muir firmly believed in the role of the state in intervening to protect wild lands, yet he has also become a symbol of “private lands philanthropy” in the United States. This philanthropy allegedly celebrates US society’s “cultural and constitutional dedication to private property” (see: Wildlands Philanthropy: The Great American Tradition, 2008). This celebration is on a collision course with a fundamental tenet of deep ecology. For Arne Naess, along with other thinkers like John Livingston and Rudolf Bahro, has informed us that “the earth does not belong to humans.”

Muir came to understand the interconnectedness of the natural world and also that this world is continually evolving. As he said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” (Reader, p. 232) Many academics and others have poured over John Muir’s written entrails and have opinions as to his environmental significance, and what they see as his various strengths and failings. They have also opinions as to how Muir conducted himself and managed his personal life. It is with some trepidation that one dares to enter such a contested arena. 

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.” (Reader, p. 500)

“A cautious mountaineer seldom takes a step on unknown ground which seems at all dangerous that he cannot retrace in case he should be stopped by unseen obstacles ahead. This is the rule of mountaineers who live long…” (Ibid, p. 517)

When I was a grad student, a very long time ago, I was fortunate to be the teaching assistant to a Max Weber scholar, an honourable and courteous gentleman. My professor fled Germany in the 1930s and ended up in the States. His general line on criticism of Weber, which was notably absent from the courses he taught, was something like “before you can criticize Weber, you must read him.” He seemed to mean all the various publications written by Weber, not just The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Curiously, the world of Calvin and his message of “inner worldly asceticism”, explored by Weber in this well known book, helps to understand the demons driving the father of John Muir. Fundamentalist Calvinism – unending work and ‘lessons’ from a literal bible narrowly interpreted – harshly impacted the Muir family. (The mother seemed mainly absent in Muir’s accounting of his early life.) Later in life, Muir eventually became a successful capitalist in California – through his own work, but also by marrying into a family with a large, successful fruit orchard.

In grad school, I took the position about Max Weber, as I do now about John Muir, that the potential commentator/critic has to try and read a “representative sample” of writings, to gain some understanding of the thinker of interest. But not everything that has been written has to be read. Otherwise, one would never get out of university! My representative sample on John Muir is the John Muir Reader, which includes selections drawn from the five books published in his lifetime, plus extra material.

John Muir was born in Dunbar, on the Firth of Forth, in Scotland. He remained proud of his Scottish heritage throughout his life and stayed a Lowland Scot in his personal consciousness. At the age of 11, he travelled to the United States with his father and two siblings. They arrived in 1849, to a country of about 23 million persons with more than 3 million slaves. The mother and four other children followed later. His father obtained a land grant in Wisconsin. Muir spent 19 years there toiling at farming, but he also attended the University of Wisconsin for some time. He left Wisconsin at the age of 22, without a degree, off to his post-graduate travels in the university of life. As he put it: “I was only leaving one University for another, the Wisconsin University for the University of the Wilderness.” (Reader, p. 145)

John Muir was self-educated. He was mainly a botanist – usually carrying a plant press on his travels – and a geologist, with a fascination for glaciers. The sequoia forests of California were one of his passions. As well as a conservationist, he was also a mechanical inventor, with various inventions to his credit. At times, he earned a living not only as the now well know sheep herder in California – sheep were “hoofed locusts” for Muir – but also as a millwright. A major concern for Muir, who was anti-slavery, was to avoid being drafted to fight in the American Civil War (1861-1865). This led him to visit Canada for a time, as part of his draft dodging. When he was 30 years old, his travels brought him to California. The Yosemite Valley became the centre of Muir’s new personal and conservation life. He also made a number of exploratory trips to Alaska, as well as to other countries. But it was Muir’s California experience that mainly propelled him into a leading conservation role in the US. It also pushed him into coming into contact with powerful politicians (including US presidents) and influential capitalists. Such people sought Muir out because of his growing status as a Nature savant of wild places.

Impressions of "Journeys in the Wilderness"
From his writings, which were based on his personal journal notes (polished and perhaps embellished with the benefit of age), Muir comes through as someone with quite a vast knowledge of the natural world around him. He had skills in mountaineering and living simply off the land, usually travelling with ‘provisions’ amounting to a loaf of bread plus water, and the barest minimum of hiking equipment. I see him as the polar opposite of anyone today outfitted for the outdoors by the local Trail Shop. Muir’s drive for climbing mountains and exploring the high Sierra of California, and for exploring glaciers, was done mostly in a solitary manner. Only a couple of essays in this collection show Muir as part of a collective mountaineering endeavour.

The Reader shows Muir as driven by a self-ignited passion to explore and understand the natural world around him. But these writings do not show Muir as an environmental organizer. Graham White, who put the Reader together, claims Muir’s writings “reveal the ethical fountainhead from which so many streams of the modern conservation movement flow.” (Reader, p. 1) Yet I found that, although Muir’s writings contain vivid descriptions of the natural world around him, philosophy is largely absent. And Donald Worster’s book notes “Muir was a naturalist and reformer, not a philosopher.” (p. 307)

A reader of the essays has to try and sort out what Muir sees as the path forward. He was religious, although critical of conventional religion, and we see frequent references to a Christian deity as the moving force behind Nature. “God” and “the Lord” pepper his writings. I believe he had mainly a stewardship and mystical position towards nature, based in the Christian faith, on how humans should conduct themselves. Muir saw nature as a manifestation of God. People still had “dominion”, but this should be respectfully exercised. Yet, for Muir, other life forms were still “people.” He speaks of how “the bird people of Wisconsin welcomed us.” (Reader, p. 82)  Donald Worster says Muir’s definition of people, “included all the plant and animal species that civilized man regarded as inferior or expendable.”  (A Passion for Nature, p. 273) So this is hardly a traditional anthropocentric position! Should we speak of John Muir’s nature philosophy as one of a Christian-based “ecocentric stewardship” position? For Muir, other life forms were “human-like” and should be treated with respect. This is not the intrinsic value of deep ecology, but it is moving in that direction from an ethical perspective.

I found Muir’s nature writings “over-the-top” in his use of descriptive language. His nature descriptions are often conveyed in metaphors that come tumbling out in an overkill, almost frenzied manner. This, for me, was captured in an earthquake Muir experienced, when he ran out of his cabin shouting:
“‘A noble earthquake! A noble earthquake!’ feeling sure I was going to learn something.” (Reader, p. 461)

Ultimately, because of their non-stop abundance, the reader is worn down by Muir’s effusive descriptions. When everything is special, then nothing becomes particularly significant. Muir extols the virtues of the natural world and why it should be preserved, but he does not really put this in a philosophical context. Although often speaking out against rampant commercialism, Muir nowhere opposes industrial capitalism as the motor of environmental destruction, or shows opposition to capitalist legal structures, like “private property” laws.

“He (John Muir) came to believe that governments should have the responsibility of setting aside national parks, forests, and wildlife sanctuaries and such places should be open to all citizens…But then he pushed well beyond the granting of access to every human being toward granting rights and moral significance to every creature that lives on the earth.” (Worster, p. 8)

Donald Worster on John Muir
Reading Donald Worster’s A Passion for Nature helped me obtain a more rounded view of John Muir than by reading Muir’s own writings in the Reader. I found that Worster’s book was basically fair and honest in looking at the various contradictions in Muir’s life. I came to see that Muir was much more than the solitary mountaineer and naturalist in the California high country, being absorbed and transformed by the relatively unspoilt world around him, with a full white beard and staff in hand. Worster shows a John Muir who most of the time was also embedded in civilization – for example, living in San Francisco to pursue his writing.

Muir came to accept industrial expansion, while he fought what he considered its excesses. Ideologically, my major criticism of Worster’s book is that it does not look at Muir’s thinking in relation to deep ecology or to Arne Naess. The “we” the author writes from, is that of ”liberal democracy”, that enveloping cultural assumption, with capitalism at its core, which seems personally appropriated by the United States and is celebrated by Worster. (For an eulogy, see pp. 465-466.) People like me see liberal democracy as providing a cultural screen obscuring a global “resource” funnel that economically benefits the industrial capitalism of the USA and its foreign policy objectives. Worster’s politics are perhaps also shown when he speaks of Muir – the fruit farmer and property owner – after his marriage, as employing “often unruly, undependable laborers largely of Chinese origin. There is no evidence that he exploited them.” (p. 343) Does not the concept of surplus value constitute exploitation? 

Conservation and Preservation
Anyone who has tangled with those who advocate the misleadingly called ‘Wise Use’ philosophy knows that their followers generally hate environmentalists. ‘Wise Use’ supporters basically want open access to exploit nature’s wealth – all of Nature must be available for HUMAN use. Nature must not be “locked-up” in parks or wildlife reserves. Human access to what are termed “resources” must always have priority. ‘Wise Use’ followers call themselves “conservationists”, and their opponents, people driven by genuine environmental passion, “preservationists.” To be called a “preservationist” becomes an epithet. It also implies that preservationists do not make use of the environment, which they must do in order to live. (See the discussion of ‘Wise Use’ in a Canadian context in Green Web Bulletin, “Ecofascism: What Is It? A Left Biocentric Analysis”) So, while the terms conservationist and preservationist are not objectionable in their own right, they should never be used in the way they have been appropriated by the ‘Wise Use’ movement. Worster does not seem to agree. He even uses ‘Wise Use’ himself in writing about Muir. (p. 428) Speaking of Muir, and using the human-centered word “resource”, we are told:
“A sharp distinction between conservation (or wise use of resources) and preservation (the non-use of resources) does not really apply to him. Privately, he was still convinced that man should not be the measure of all value, that justice must extend to all creatures, and that accumulating money should not become the chief end of living. Publicly, however, he defined the goal of conservation as fuller human development.” (p. 308)

Sierra Club
Perhaps I have been running with the wrong environmental crowd, as I have never been a member of the Sierra Club, either in the US or in Canada. But, through all my activist life, I have been listening to sell-out stories over various issues, involving the national leadership of the Sierra Club in the United States. John Muir’s most famous conservation battle was trying to prevent the damming of the Tuolumme River in the Hetch Hetchy Valley within Yosemite National Park, to provide a water and power source for San Francisco. It was unsuccessful. Worster points out:
“No one of substantial fortune came to the valley’s rescue. All of Muir’s moneyed friends either stayed indifferent or went over to the other side.” (p. 452)

The person who donated the land which became the famous Muir Woods National Monument, William Kent, became a key booster for the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and bitterly opposed Muir on this issue.

Anyone who becomes involved in environmental issues around parks and protected areas, will sooner or later be accused of being indifferent to the fate of indigenous Americans or Canadians, who were often forcefully and brutally evicted to create parks and other protected areas. While this is true, aboriginal peoples were essentially dispossessed from all of North America. The parks issue needs to be placed in such a context, before righteous anger takes over. In his 2010 book Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future (see my review), Bron Taylor nicely summed up this clash between the social justice side and the Earth justice side:
“Those with anthropocentric values tend to fear that biocentric values produce indifference to human suffering, and those with biocentric values tend to believe that anthropocentric values lead to indifference to the well-being of the rest of the community of life.” (p. 179)

I do not believe, based on what I have read on John Muir, that, in the context of his time, he was indifferent or hostile to aboriginals or to Afro-Americans. He conveys that he is sympathetic to Native Americans and to the loss of the lands they occupied. He was sometimes condescending or deprecating towards aboriginals in his language, but John Muir was not a racist. In his Alaskan explorations, he worked closely with various tribes of aboriginals, using their sea-going canoes. He spoke out against aboriginal and white hunting excesses, such as leaving meat behind. However, there are statements by Muir which are definitely not acceptable. Worster shows some of them. This is an example from the account of Muir’s Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf:
“’The Negroes are very lazy (revised to ‘easy-going’ in the published version) and merry …. One energetic white man, working with a will, would easily pick as much cotton as half a dozen sambos and sallies.’” (p. 128)

Muir and Naess: Some Comparisons
Both John Muir and Arne Naess were mountain men. High mountains, meditation, solitude, and simple living were essential to their spiritual development, their writings, and how they came to see the world. Both of these men have huge moral standing in the environmental movement today, because of how they lived their lives. If we consider just the setting aside of parks and protected areas, Muir has had more impact than Naess. Yet the ideas of Naess are far more influential in the radical and subversive section of today’s environmental movement than those of Muir.

Unlike Naess, the ideas of John Muir do not challenge the legitimacy of industrial capitalism or private property. Tom Butler, in an essay in the recently published coffee-table-size book Wildlands Philanthropy: The Great American Tradition, which has a quote from Muir on its dust cover, says: “Wildlands philanthropy is not exclusively, but it is certainly overwhelmingly, an American phenomenon because of our cultural and constitutional dedication to private property.” To write about a “dedication to private property”– meaning humans have some unique qualities giving them lordship over other species and their habitats – is not reconcilable with the position of Naess.

When I first became involved with deep ecology, I felt there was a definite culture which extolled climbing mountains as almost a prerequisite for understanding what deep ecology was all about. In my 1986/87 review of Deep Ecology: Living As If Nature Mattered, I said that “deep ecology in North America has to be rescued from the academics, notwithstanding any backpacking, rock climbing or mountaineering qualifications.”

For Naess, no one can own the Earth, whereas for Muir, the Earth is a manifestation of a Christian God. So presumably this deity owns the natural world. Muir was more of a field naturalist than Naess. Muir was also much more of a ‘self-made man’ and only became relatively wealthy later in life. Naess was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Unlike Naess, Muir does not talk about what an alternative society would entail and how to move forward in eco-politics.

My expanding list of environmental “significant others” now includes John Muir. I am willing to accept, as Naess noted, that Muir was a “forerunner” for deep ecology. Yet I find it hard to characterize Muir’s eco-philosophy, and my designation of him as holding a Christian-based “ecocentric stewardship” position is tentative. I do not want to deny or minimize John Muir’s positive and extensive impact on environmental consciousness in the United States. But, as a result of  looking into and thinking about John Muir, and trying to understand his basic nature philosophy, I believe that Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson, who both came on the conservation scene much later than Muir (he died in1914), have influenced the thinking of deep ecology far more than the life of this Lowland Scot. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, David, for a clear and persuasive assessment, as always.
    Best regards,
    Alf Hornborg