In the summer of 1869 John Muir ventured into the Sierra Nevada. While helping a shepherd and his flock reach the headwaters of the Merced River, Muir recorded his daily activities. He later compiled these entries to create My First Summer in the Sierra. Each entry reveals Muir’s conversion experience in nature as well as his perspective on wilderness. His lyrical passages inspired generations of wilderness enthusiasts and continue to shape our understanding of nature.
Three months ago I arrived at Fallen Leaf Lake to spend my first summer in the Sierra, working at Stanford Sierra Camp. Since then I have been leading discussions with Stanford Alumni, focusing on Muir’s text and how his values and definition of wilderness influence our current interactions with nature. Before reading My First Summer in the Sierra, I believed, like many of the guests, that Muir’s views were fairly straightforward. As Denis Williams describes in this book God’s Wilds: John Muir’s vision of nature, Muir saw a potential for divine lessons in nature and believed that wilderness existed on a separate plane from humanity. Although these interpretations are accurate, many also assume that Muir wanted to completely separate humans from nature. His support of preservation as well as his offhand remarks about humans being “locusts” make this an easy assumption. But Muir had much more complex views of wilderness and humanity.
One fact that often surprises my discussion group is that John Muir encouraged Alaskan gold miners to cut down forests and build roads into Alaska. In his essay “The Wild Parks and Forest Reservations of the West,” Muir advocates sacrificing some wilderness so people can experience it. The debate over whether wilderness should be accessible or limited is still being argued today. Whether it is allowing snow mobiles inside Yellowstone National Park or setting restrictions on climbing Half Dome in Yosemite, our relationship with wilderness continues to change. What Muir recognized is that people must be able to visit wild places. If people cannot experience wilderness, then they will have no reason to protect it. Muir saw, as biologist Stephen Jay Gould once said, “We will not fight to save what we do not love.”
Yet as more people experience wilderness, the more it is degraded. Almost every week a guest asks me, what would John Muir think if he saw Yosemite Valley today? And each time I respond with something vague like, “He would appreciate that more people care about nature, but he would disapprove of the crowds in Tuolumne Meadows.” I struggle to find a right answer because Muir’s views weren’t black and white.
An example of this is his complex relationship with Native Americans. Muir admired Native Americans because of their simple and sustainable lifestyles, yet he often refers to them as “dirty.” My group is often caught off guard when I tell
them that Muir advocated for the removal of Native Americans from Yosemite Valley. Many forget that our “wilderness” areas actually had people living in them for thousands of years. If we go by the Wilderness Act of 1964, which states that “wilderness is an area untrammeled by man, and where man does not remain,” then our National Parks where made into wilderness. This idea that many of our wilderness areas were created and that the “wilderness prophet” dispossessed native peoples from their land is unsettling. And this problem still exists today.
Indigenous peoples continue to lose their land under the name of conservation. Like the Native Americans, they are forced from their land and become “conservation refugees.” One of the greatest consequences of this is that we are making enemies of conservation. Even when we don’t displace native peoples from their land conservationists continue to create enemies. There is a degree of hypocrisy in telling 3rd world countries that they must live sustainably when we destroyed our wild spaces. Often times indigenous populations argue that we want their land because they treated it better than we did.
But why do they treat their environment better? “Fortunately they are unfortunate,” one of my guests says about her experience with conservation in the Middle East. “If they had the means they would also live like us, but instead they are just trying to get by.” If they do desire to live like us, is it right for us to deny them a better standard of living? For example, Chile imports 80% of its energy and wants to build hydroelectric dams to become self-sufficient. What is more important, Patagonia’s rivers or the Chilean people?
The ethical questions of conservation are no different than the ones Muir faced at the turn of the century. Is conservation about “the greatest good for the greatest number in the longest run,” as Gifford Pinchot once said, or about biodiversity and preserving wilderness for future generations? Even the wilderness prophet struggled to make up his mind.
Although Muir goes back and forth on his definition of conservation and wilderness, he does have one clear value, education. Muir’s general dislike of people resonates throughout all of My First Summer in the Sierra, except in one section. When his professor from the University of Wisconsin Madison pays him a visit, Muir acts completely different.
Muir regards his professor as a great human being and enjoys being around him, showing how much he values what his professor taught him. As we continue to debate issues in conservation and sustainability, I believe that it is important to remember the value of education. We must not only address how to educate from the bottom up, but also from the top down, because much of conservation is done through philanthropy.
My first summer at Sierra Camp made me realize how helpful discussions are in understanding how we treat our environment. Even in a group with similar backgrounds, people have a variety of opinions and different values. Sharing our differences and commonalities allows us to see what people really value most and how to approach our problems. I look forward to spending more time discussing these issues on campus this year and would appreciate hearing your perspective.
Seth Judson is a sophomore majoring in Biology and enjoys exploring how creative writing can improve scientific literacy and environmental awareness.