Guest Blog: Terry Gifford – Muir's Errors
- Monday 9th March 2020
John Muir’s Errors
A lecture given on 23 April 2018 at the University of San Diego’s one-day symposium to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its Muir College.
This audience needs no reminder of the achievements of John Muir, which I have been trumpeting myself for a quarter of a century, most recently in a series of introductions to eight ebooks of Muir’s works available from Vertebrate Publishing. Of course, Muir’s conception of National Parks – of conserving wild landscapes and their life specifically for future generations to enjoy – is widely regarded as ‘America’s gift to the world’. But it turns out that it is not a gift that is welcomed as appropriate to all parts of the world. Indeed, in ‘Rethinking John Muir After the West’ (the theme of this conference) we have only to turn to Scotland, Muir’s home country. The John Muir Trust, established in 1983 to protect wild land in Scotland for public enjoyment, argued in John Muir’s name for twenty years against the establishment of National Parks in Scotland. They feared for the future of the wonderful wild land that lay outside the boundaries of such parks. (Windfarms now stand prominently just outside National Parks in Scotland and we have fracking rigs inside National Parks in England.)  The Trust’s argument was that the whole of the Scottish Highlands should be treated as one national park.  In 2000 the British government approved the establishment of two national parks, one of which was not even in the Highlands. The Lomond and the Trossachs National Park is the first open country reached just north of Glasgow. I have written elsewhere about the battles of private landowners and Highland communities over the drawing of the boundaries for the Cairngorms National Park, established in 2003, whilst discussing John Buchan’s radical novel John McNab, written in 1925. 
The problem with preserving American exceptionalism in Muir’s National Parks model is that the everyday, upon which we rely, may be neglected in its unprotected demise. Ask the passenger pigeon. Ask the bees of the Californian Central Valley. We in the UK find it hard to believe that we are losing the common house sparrow. So one might justifiably question not only whether some of Muir’s achievements might be limited to his context and his time, but whether there might be unforeseen negative consequences to some of his ideas and his writings. To call these ‘Muir’s errors’ might be too strongly polemical, but surely his reputation can stand a little rethinking, a little rigorous questioning, from the position of the Anthropocene. In fact, my reconsideration of what might provocatively be called ‘Muir’s errors’ takes its starting point in rethinking some of my favourite Muir sentences.
Under the heading of ‘Unforeseen Consequences’ would come Muir’s encouragement of cars bringing ‘thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people’ into Yosemite Valley. That a park and ride has still not been put in place is testimony, to an English eye, of the political impossibility of separating Americans from their cars. Only on my last visit to a John Muir conference at the University of the Pacific in 2014 did I first hear of a pressure group for limiting car access to the Valley. But there have been more serious consequences from the tone of Muir’s encouragement of popular engagement with the mountains. Take, for example, the end of that sentence which opens Our National Parks: ‘Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find that going to the mountains is going home.’ Home? Really? Ask the rescue service. Ask the mountaineering community. Ask outdoor educators about their risk assessments. Muir was lucky in the mountains and he turned his luck into wonderfully inspiring writing that was uplifting in its spiritual, as well as bodily, attunement. On the only occasion when he records that he fell, he came to consciousness on a steep slope above Tenaya Canyon. His conclusion was, ‘That is what you get by intercourse with stupid town stairs, and dead pavements’ (Steep Trails). Really? Ask the rescue service. ‘Dead pavements’ as opposed to live benign Yosemite rocks? Material ecocritics would have lots of fun assessing the comparative agency of ‘stupid town stairs’ and the wise, divine, talus of Tenaya Canyon.
Whether riding an avalanche, or becoming cragfast on Mount Ritter, Muir turned his narrow solo escapes into spiritually uplifting epiphanies in his writings, years after the events. ‘Had I been borne aloft upon wings, my deliverance could not have been more complete’ (The Mountains of California) is an unreliable excuse from a rock climber on Mount Ritter. The chapter ‘A Perilous Night on Shasta’s Summit’ in Steep Trails reveals that he was lucky to get away without serious damage to his frostbitten feet: ‘thawing them was painful, and had to be done very slowly by keeping them buried in soft snow for several hours, which avoided permanent damage’. This came, not from his week-long snowed-in ‘nest’ beside his fire (Steep Trails), but from sleeping out in the open beside a hot spring that offered little bodily warmth. ‘Perilous’ is a word that can only be used in retrospect by a lucky survivor.
For a contribution to a new book titled Walking, Landscape and Environment, I considered mountaineering literature as ‘dark pastoral’. This is a term that Heather Sullivan coined two years ago to characterise literature in a pastoral mode that engaged with the paradoxes of the Anthropocene in a strategic ‘doubled movement closer towards and away from green fantasies’.  In Muir’s day the mountains of Yosemite offered him evidence of glaciation that had been missed, or misinterpreted, by the professional geologists. Now mountains around the world provide geologists with evidence of the effects of a new geological era, the Anthropocene. Glacial retreat and loose rock now show that ‘everything is flowing’, to use Muir’s phrase, faster than ever in the mountains. The beautiful ‘temples’ of Muir’s writing are now, more than ever (and they always were) a place that could be characterised as ‘dark pastoral’. I am sure that my friend and neighbour, the university lecturer and mountaineer, Paul Nunn, was echoing Muir when he described in his book At The Sharp End the experience of walking into a Himalayan valley as one of warm recognition: ‘one feels that one is coming home’.
But Paul was also all too aware that these were dangerous environments. Writing about walking on the approach to climbs in the Himalaya under séracs hanging above the approach glacier, he knew that even at this early stage of the mountaineering narrative death was not far away: ‘One day soon some must fall. Oh, that we will not be there!’. On 6 August 1995, walking down from the summit of Haramosh II (6,666 metres) in the Karakoram range, almost at his base camp, Paul Nunn was killed by a falling sérac. An experienced and respected leading figure in the British climbing community, whose caution had resulted in a succession of expeditions on which he had turned back before the summit, Paul is still greatly missed by those of us who benefitted from his generous and lively friendship.
No, going to the mountains is not exactly, however much we yearn for the intimacy of spiritual attunement, ‘going home’. And ‘what we in our faithless ignorance and fear call destruction’ is not ‘creation finer and finer’ (Travels in Alaska). It is also destruction, and we’d better not be distracted from engaging with the destruction by glaciers, as well as the destruction of glaciers.
Now, I know what you’re thinking – because I’m thinking it too – so it’s best to be equally rigorous in asking questions of myself. I know that I have come by a fossil fuelled aircraft to make this point, and therefore carry a greater error than Muir’s. This is why my new collection of poems is titled A Feast of Fools. I’ve come to this confession earlier than I expected. I was struck by a reader of my draft chapter for the walking book casually remarking that, ‘of course, mountaineering is an unsustainable activity’. Is all travel an unsustainable activity? I remember the deep ecologist George Sessions at an early ecocriticism conference at Reno saying, quite simply, ‘We’re going to have to hunker down’. And I’d look forward to the new discoveries to be made close to home in doing so, if we all did it together. Naomi Klein argues that our environmental crisis is so serious that only state imposed limitations on flying will answer and that is what we should be pressing for. So whilst the planes are being used by everyone else, including the capitalists and the climate-deniers, I’m going to use them to join dialogue and ask some awkward questions.
So let me try to cover this partial embarrassment by asking my most awkward question. Is Donald Trump one of John Muir’s errors? Is the denial of the Anthropocene, the dismissal of the Paris Agreement and the abandonment of American environmental agencies by the Trump presidency an indirect result of Muir’s strategy of trusting in the democratic controls of American capitalism? Was Muir in error when concluding Our National Parks with a marvellous burst of a different kind of rhetoric from his usual tone: ‘Any fool can destroy trees […] but [God] cannot save them from fools – only Uncle Sam can do that’? Was Muir’s faith in Uncle Sam a mistaken strategy? The inclusiveness of Muir’s Sierra Club was impressive, especially in the number of women that can be seen in the famous photograph of the ninth annual outing in 1909. In his history of the Sierra Club, Michael P. Cohen writes that ‘most active members of the Club had joined not because they were interested in the economic uses of nature but because they were drawn to the healthful aspects of recreation’.  William Colby initiated the idea of an annual outing and he and Muir drew up a proposal for the first outing in 1901. It is surely Muir’s strategising contribution to that proposal which Cohen quotes: ‘if people in general can be got into the woods, even for once, to hear the trees speak for themselves, all difficulties in the way of forest preservation would vanish’. 
In The Pathless Way Cohen reflects upon the ‘comparative ease and comfort’ intended by the proposal for the first outing and observes that the result has been ‘a static caste system in the parks’ ranging from the residents of the Ahwahnee Hotel to backpackers. Further, Cohen writes that when Sierra Club member Stephen Mather became the first director of the newly formed National Parks Service, his belief in ‘good roads, good meals, and comfortable accommodations’ resulted in ‘a system of national parks designed by a vulgar intellect for what he presumed was an ignorant and physically handicapped American public’.  Cohen also, by the way, criticised a pattern of ‘National Parks as islands’ that resulted from Muir’s failing to develop ‘a coherent and far-seeing plan for parks and wildernesses’.  This was the fear of the John Muir Trust in Scotland.
Of course, Muir’s favourite notions of ‘harmony’ and ‘balance’ have now been replaced by chaos theory and instability in what is called ‘postequilibrium ecology’.  Muir’s ecology always emphasised the dynamic quality of natural processes, but his sense of divine balance underlay his idea of everything being ‘hitched to everything else in the universe’. One ought to recognise that this was pre-ecology thinking, but, nevertheless, the idea of a web in balance has been replaced by the biosemiotics of Timothy Morton’s more complex intra-active, multidimensional ‘mesh’. That verb ‘hitched’ indicates that Muir was a populariser of notions based upon his unsystematic observations rather than a scientist. I have also written about Muir’s turning away from the possibility of his becoming a professional scientist in terms that emphasise the gain in Muir’s multiple discourses.  So perhaps, in addition to the big questions, one might ask if it was a mistake for Muir to decline to become a scientist, allowing his early work to be represented by others and choosing not to personally carry the authority his work deserved. Was the choice to become a nature writer and ‘wilderness sage’ a self-indulgence that weakened his potential political influence? Steven Holmes has shown that the apparent rejection of Muir’s early book manuscript of the 1875–76 ‘California Alps’, submitted in April 1877, deterred him from writing books until late in his life.  Would an earlier book writing career have been beneficial to his influence? Indeed, did the revision of journals and collecting of articles as a mode of addressing issues detract from what a more focused approach to writing books might have achieved in his lifetime? I sent a copy of my abstract for this talk to my friend Michael Cohen whose response to these questions was, ‘Muir would not have been America’s Darwin had he followed science’. But he also quoted Thoreau to me, or probably at me: ‘What is your master doing? The messenger answered with respect: My master desires to diminish the number of his faults, but he cannot come to the end of them (Thoreau, Where I Lived and What I Lived For)’.
Perhaps it is also necessary to defend Muir against some false accusations of errors, such as the way he wrote about indigenous people,  as well as his Christianising of the agency of material nature, and the idealisation of Yosemite Valley and Alaska. Were his friendships with missionaries and capitalists tactical, as well as ideological, errors? Some of these questions were raised by Michael Cohen in The Pathless Way in 1984, but who is engaging with them now in the context of the Anthropocene? These are lines of enquiry that critically engage with Muir’s legacy beyond the West for which really a whole book would be required.
 See Martin F. Price, Mountains: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 116.
 See ‘Scottish Natural Heritage’s Map of Relative Wilderness’, Wild Land News, Autumn 2017, p. 14.
 Terry Gifford, ‘Ownership and access in the work of John Muir, John Buchan and Andrew Greig’, Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism, 17.2, 2013, pp. 164-174.
 Heather I. Sullivan, ‘The Dark Pastoral: Goethe and Atwood’, Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism, 20.1, 2016, pp. 47-59.
 Michael P. Cohen, The History of the Sierra Club (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988), p. 19.
 Ibid. p. 20.
 Michael P. Cohen, The Pathless Way: John Muir and American Wilderness (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984), p. 310.
 Greg Garrard, Ecocriticism (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012), p. 65.
 See Chapter Three, ‘Muir’s Multiple Discourses’ in Terry Gifford, Reconnecting with John Muir: Essays in Post-Pastoral Practice (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006), pp. 39-53 .
 Stephen Holmes, unpublished lecture at the University of the Pacific conference, ‘John Muir’s Legacy, 1914-2014’, March 2014: ‘Muir's Cultural Legacy: Science and Storytelling from “The California Alps” to Climate Change Communication’.
 Against the charge of racism, Donald Worster, in a keynote at this conference, drew attention to Muir’s immediate guilt at noting that the Mono Indians he met in 1869 were ‘dirty’, and ‘begged whiskey or tobacco’: ‘Yet it feels sad to feel such desperate revulsion from one’s fellow beings, however degraded’ (My First Summer in the Sierra).