A Century After Muir: The Places of Nature

One hundred years after John Muir's death in Los Angeles, what is his place in the story of the place we call our home? The answer is complicated.

And controversial, as John Christensen expected when he told Los Angeles Times reporter Louis Sahagun "Muir's legacy has to go. It's just not useful anymore." (Christensen is part of the UCLA Institute of Environment and Sustainability as well as the editor of Boom: A Journal of California whose most recent issue questioned how we think about nature today.)

At the turn of the 20th century, Muir's relevance was obvious. He was celebrated as a lyrical spokesman for untrammeled nature and its curative powers. He was a friend of presidents and an ally of Theodore Roosevelt in the first decades of the conservation movement. He fought for the protection of the Yosemite Valley as a national park (a battle he helped win) and against the damming of the nearly-as-grand Hetch Hetchy Valley (a battle he lost).

It's no wonder that Muir, along with his contemporary Luther Burbank, achieved a kind of secular sainthood through his advocacy of undefiled nature. Muir did not turn conservation into national policy by himself, but he was among the best at explaining to middle-class Americans why conservation should be.

Out of Muir's passionate defense of California's high country came the Sierra Club (which he founded), the parks that surround the state's redwoods and giant sequoias, and an ethic that permeated the many organizations that embraced Muir's conception of the natural realm.

The scope of that realm and where Californians are in it lay behind Christensen's poke at Muir's legacy. Along with his UCLA colleague Glenn McDonald, who holds the new John Muir Memorial Chair in Geography, Christensen feels boxed in by Muir's belief that California's landscapes can be reduced to simple categories of urban, rural, and Nature.

For Muir, cities were necessary for commerce and industry. Rural California produced food and raw materials. Above them stood transcendent Nature, literally higher in altitude and vastly higher in spiritual worth. Up there, Muir argued, the nerve-shattered businessmen of the 19th century could recover from their urban life. They could relearn manly self-reliance in order to continue, down below, their Darwinian fight for survival.

Muir's conception of Nature and the place of people in it mirrors the anxieties and urgencies of late 19th century California. Early 21st century Californians worry about and long for many of the same things, Christensen and McDonald argue, but Californians should act in nature without narrow categories of aesthetic value or the conviction that nature is segregated from the places they call home.

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Muir's Nature doesn't seem necessary to some Californians or very welcoming. Membership in the Sierra Club is declining, according to Christensen, and growing older. A smaller proportion of Californians today trek into the wilderness. Even visits to Yosemite have declined.

Diverse Californians don't have a common rhetoric about the nature they inhabit. They don't have a shared narrative explaining how that nature is to be seen and appreciated. Latino and Asian Californians look at Muir, Thoreau, Emerson, and other 19th century apostles of America's secular religion and don't see many parallels in their own cultural traditions.

Rue Mapp, CEO and founder of Outdoor Afro, believes African Americans have an understandable concern about being in wilderness places that appear to be set aside for Americans of a certain ethnicity and class. She's trying to change the reluctance of her community into appreciation of the outdoors.

For some of my suburban neighbors, nature is what they grow in their backyard and put on their table as food. I'm not so ambitious. For me, nature is what's at my feet when I step off my front porch. For environmental writer Jenny Price, nature is as present as the cup of organic coffee in your hand or the chatter of wild parrots overhead.

Many environmentalists, in the spirit of Muir, believe that self-willed or autonomous Nature should be valued above the nature that is complicit with my ordinariness. For them, nature with more than a fleeting human presence isn't Nature at all. But from my perspective, no part of the landscape is privileged over any other solely by its relationship to the kind of nature that Muir preferred.

To decompose Californian landscapes into parts more or less worthy, as Muir once did, imposes human values on those landscapes to which inhuman and uncaring nature is indifferent. It's only aesthetic privilege that separates California into categories and validates one of those categories by denying equal meaning to the others.

Saintly exhortation is bracing, and historical advice is useful, but Muir did not see California as it was even in 1914, with its disregarded communities of color and its laboring poor. His vision traced mountain tops, not playgrounds for working-class children, vegetable gardens for the poor, or justice for displaced Native Americans.

John Muir heard nature's eloquence in the Sierras, as I think I do on my suburban street, but are these different natures or only one?

The easy answer is that Muir could have his Nature on a mountain peak, lonely miles from the things of everyday life, and I can have my nature on a suburban street with miles more of the same all around. But agreeing that the natural realm is a spectrum invites isolating both ends of the spectrum.

Perhaps we should see nature from the perspective of the non-native parrots that flock over my neighborhood. They exalt in their way above differences. The willful parrots see nature simply as the place where they are.

Astrophysicist Adam Frank is convinced that our lives are in continual conversation with the natural realm. "It's a conversation" he said, "expressed not in words but in the immediacy of experience and the poetry of the one, single now."

That is where the experience of sacred nature abides, wherever we are in California.

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