John Muir taken down from the pedestal by Sierra Club

Two days ago the Sierra Club made the front page of the Los Angeles Times when the 122-year-old environmental organization took down the monument in esteem that was its hero, John Muir, the co-founder of the organization, from his emeritus leadership position in the great beyond.

Joseph LeConte, his friend and co-founder was outright disowned, for explicitly advocating white supremacy.

In the words of long-time director Michael Brune on July 22, in a piece entitled Pulling Down Our Monuments:

The most monumental figure in the Sierra Club’s past is John Muir. Beloved by many of our members, his writings taught generations of people to see the sacredness of nature. But Muir maintained friendships with people like Henry Fairfield Osborn, who worked for both the conservation of nature and the conservation of the white race. Head of the New York Zoological Society and the board of trustees of the American Museum of Natural History, Osborn also helped found the American Eugenics Society in the years after Muir’s death. 

And Muir was not immune to the racism peddled by many in the early conservation movement. He made derogatory comments about Black people and Indigenous peoples that drew on deeply harmful racist stereotypes, though his views evolved later in his life. As the most iconic figure in Sierra Club history, Muir’s words and actions carry an especially heavy weight. They continue to hurt and alienate Indigenous people and people of color who come into contact with the Sierra Club. 

To me it’s noteworthy that the first charge brought against Muir is his friendship with white supremacists such as Henry Fairfield Osborn and Joseph LeConte. Muir’s personal views take on a darker tone when you see that his preaching of the “untouched by man” beauty of the mountains and glaciers and meadows actually fits all too well into the idea that these mountains and lands were not for the Miwok and Paiute and others who had lived there long before the Spanish and then the Americans came on to the scene.

Though the Sierra Club’s announcement didn’t go into detail, it’s known that Muir supported ejecting Native Americans from their lands to make way for people-free open spaces. He described the Miwok people, most of whom had been killed or driven from Yosemite by the time he arrived in 1868, in the ugliest of terms, writing that they were “dirty,” “altogether hideous” and “seem to have no right place in the landscape.”

This land may have been made for you and me, but to Muir and other early conservationists, “you and me” meant the class of white gentlemen who made occasional forays to what Muir saw as the untouched beauty of wilderness.

This brings to mind the Wilderness Act, once considered a high-water mark in environmental action and land conservation, now perhaps due for a reckoning. The LATimes’ sly reference to Woody Guthrie and “This Land is Your Land” is aptly drawn: the famous language of the l964 bill has no room it seems for people.

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.

The LA Times adds an interesting ecological and historical note:

Muir actually misunderstood the “untouched” part as well. The open meadows he admired that afforded broad views of the geological splendors of Yosemite weren’t the hand of nature; they were the result of strategic fires set by the Miwok to prevent undergrowth and catastrophic forest fires. Forty years after the Miwok were gone, so were the meadows.

Perhaps it’s time for a correction. I expect Muir himself would be appalled to discover that he has become a media star, in documentaries, recordings, theater shows, guided tours, historical homes, schools, parks, and on and on. I don’t believe he’ll be disappointed to be consigned once again to the wilderness. That’s where he always went for solace.

John Muir (Library of Congress)

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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