Muir’s View on Wilderness, Indigenous People, and the Differences Between His Time and Our’s
John Muir is the father of National Parks and quite the guy. From exploring Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, and the Pacific to living in the Sierra Mountains, Muir’s travels inspired him to focus on showing others the environment. Muir’s spiritual awakenings with wilderness are inspiring and show the beauty behind even the hard things in life. While Muir had a few falls while in nature, he still manages to see it as a beautiful exploration full of emotions and journeys. Muir’s spiritual awakenings with nature are very interesting and open up the world and his way of thinking. Wilderness can do that to people.
This paper will look into the life of John Muir and how he became the father of National Parks and what kind of spiritual adventures he has gone through due to the wilderness. Indians during Muir’s time were treated harshly with little concern towards them. Muir’s treatment of the Indians is very interesting, for some he treated with respect and others he did not. His preferences were based mainly on religion. In this paper, I look at Muir’s definition of the wilderness and how he treated the Indians during his time. I also distinguish some key differences in how Muir viewed the world compared to my fellow peers in today’s day and age.
The word wilderness has a different meaning for many people. While the word wilderness does have a dictionary definition, many people associate it with different things and areas. This alters a person’s perspective on the word as well as their definition. The word wilderness comes from the Old English word wildoerns, which means the place of the wild deer (Powici, 2004). It is most commonly used in the English language to describe a landscape, but the word has changed over time to describe different types of landscape. Two hundred and fifty years ago, it was used to describe places that were “barren”, “savage”, and “deserted” (Cronon, 1995). Wilderness was also closely associated with religion at the time. Cronon writes: “The wilderness was where Christ had struggled with the devil and endured his temptations” (Cronon, 1995). Religious texts include many mentions to the environment and wilderness, such as the Garden of Eden and Mount Sinai. The wilderness is how people 250 years ago related to religious texts. Many believers of different religions appreciate the wilderness because of its connection to the spiritual world.
Wilderness is important because it is a habitat to other beings and fulfills vital psychological needs which help us become more mature. (Powici, 2004). The wilderness helps house multiple species, from bacteria to humans. Prokaryotes and eukaryotes need the wild to survive in some sense. Wilderness to me is something untouched by man where one can go and feel peace. Wilderness is a spiritual place and can refresh my brain when I am in need of a new beginning. It is a place where one doesn’t feel judged and can be alone without being completely alone. There are multiple species in the wilderness that surround me even when I am alone. It is comforting to be alone but not feel like I am the last one on Earth. The wilderness helps with that in a sense. For many people, the wilderness has become a sanctuary, asylum, and freedom as well (Powici, 2004).
Muir’s writing is very poetic when he describes what he sees while in the wilderness. He paints a picture like Bob Ross, describing in great detail how trees and flowers look (Powici, 2004). He focuses in on the little details, giving the reader the sense that they are in Yosemite with him. While reading his work, I could picture the flowers and trees in my head perfectly, imagining that I was there with him. Muir looked into the landscape instead of through it and right out of it. Muir described the pines of Yosemite as ‘definite symbols, divine hieroglyphs written with sunbeams’. He explains everything he is seeing while he also is experiencing it (Powici, 2004). In Cronon’s The Trouble with Wilderness, he says, “When John Muir arrived in the Sierra Nevada in 1869, he would declare, ‘No description of Heaven that I have ever heard or read of seems half so fine’” (Cronon, 1995). Muir is one of the few who describes the wilderness as not having many flaws. In Cronon’s work, he also states “The writer who best captures this late romantic sense of a domesticated sublime is undoubtedly John Muir, whose descriptions of Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada reflect none of the anxiety or terror one finds in earlier writers” (Cronon, 1995).
Many people in today’s society describe their experience in the wilderness fully, making sure to include the worst parts first. Humans are more prone to remember bad events over the good events that happen (Tugend, 2012). They also will take pictures of something they see so they have the memory but they miss out on what is happening in front of them still. Phones make it difficult to experience the wild while also capturing a picture or video of it. Many people in today’s society are lost behind the screens of their devices while exploring different places.
Muir believed that wilderness is something that should be kept in a fenced in area so it can be preserved. This goes against the definition of wilderness, for wilderness is something that usually cannot be contained because it is wild and deserted. He wants to preserve the wilderness in a way some people do not agree with. Many do not agree that the wilderness should be contained. However, the wilderness does need to be protected in a sense because a majority of people will not preserve their own backyard. He is the father of National Parks because of this reason. He would like to preserve the wilderness by fencing it in.
Muir’s writing is an art. Muir is sometimes compared to a prophet, not just in the wilderness, but for the wilderness (Powici, 2004). When writing, personal narrative is absent from his journal entries. For example, in the first passage of My First Summer in the Sierra, readers hear more about the physical aspects of the Sierra. Whereas in the second passage, it is a section about consciousness. Muir is a romantic, which means that nature transcends the human. Muir also uses religious metaphors that appeal to certain people (Powici, 2004). Muir’s writing provides a different experience for each individual that reads his work.
Muir writes, “When I reached Yosemite, all the rocks seemed talkative, and more telling and loveable than ever” (Muir, 2014). He personifies the objects that he sees while walking alone in the wilderness. He describes inanimate objects as if they are full of life and ready to talk to him. Muir also brushes off any harm that could be done to him. Muir also writes, “I had not yet reached the most difficult portion of the canon, but I determined to guide my humble body over the most nerve-trying places I could find; for I was now awake, and felt confident that the last of the town fog had been shaken from both head and feet” (Muir, 2014). Even though he had tripped and fallen, Muir sees it as his head is just clearing and doesn’t write about the pain he feels. For he writes, “and when consciousness returned, I found myself wedged among short, stiff bushes, trembling as if cold, not injured in the slightest” (Muir, 2014).
John Muir’s life growing up influenced his admiration for the environment. Muir was born in Scotland and immigrated to the United States at the age of eight. His family lived in Wisconsin and he helped run the family farm. His family’s farm was small and could barely keep up with substantial farming. Muir went to the University of Wisconson – Madison but did not finish his degree. Later on in life, Harvard gave him an honorary degree (McDowall, 2010).
John Muir was very adventurous and wanted to explore the United States. Soon after dropping out of college, Muir walked from Louisville, Kentucky to the Gulf of Mexico side of Florida. Muir began to question his faith while on his walk. He was raised into the Calvinistic religion. His thoughts while walking caused Muir to start writing about his adventures. While on his walk, he contracted Malaria in Florida. Muir traveled to Cuba to explore the mountains, however, he was too weak to climb. His dreams of going on to South America and the Amazon after had been crushed and he decided to go to California instead (McDowall, 2010). Muir’s travels have allowed him to have a wide range of experience with all different types of environments.
While traveling throughout North America, Muir had the opportunity to encounter many of the Natives. Muir describes the Indians as being as soft as birds, while the white man has left a bad mark. This is contradictory because Muir calls the Indians dirty (Powici, 2004). He writes that “nothing truly wild is unclean.” He also writes that the Indians are dirty and do not belong in nature because they do not preserve the land and are dirty (Pesses, 2018). Muir’s opinions on Indigenous people tampered with his views on how he thought they treat the environment.
Muir was very public with his thoughts on the native people he encounters. His thoughts on Natives were made public in many published journals. They weren’t kept in his private journals. When Muir would write about the people in the area, he was very quick to dismiss the Indians of America. When Muir traveled to Alaska, however, he praised the Indigenous people in Alaska. They did not put up a fight when converting to Christianity and had actually accepted the new religion. He spent a whole chapter talking about the Tlingit tribe because they had a whole ceremony called potlatch where they gave white visitors a gift. Muir put Christian Indians above all others. He described the indigenous people of Alaska as hard workers and gave them praise, whereas the ones in the lower 48 states are described as being lazy. Muir was very biased in his opinions on the natives of an area (Pesses, 2018). Muir only respected and gave praise to the indigenous people that had converted to Christianity. This further clarifies that his definition of wilderness includes the Biblical aspect of wilderness.
Muir’s discrimination against certain groups is very similar to what we deal with as a society today. There are many people in today’s time that treat others differently because of their race, religion, and gender. For example, many Muslims are discriminated against because they wear a hijab and aren’t Christian. Neo-nazism is also on the rise. There are still many people that discriminate against religion like Muir seems to do while traveling in North America.
Muir believed that the wilderness was pristine. When Europeans came over to America, they believed the wilderness was already pristine. While Muir talks about how he wanted to preserve the wilderness, he wants it to be untouched. The problem is that California’s beauty was already altered by people living there. He wanted to preserve human-made wilderness. However, Muir was not against people being in the environment. He was against industries taking over unless being used to promote tourism of the wilderness. Muir and Thoreau are the initial saviors of natural and wild spaces (Pesses, 2018). Muir’s trap is to incorporate humans back into the environment. Muir fights for the end of frontier mentality and for the rediscovery of inner frontier experience for urban visitors (Powici, 2004). The way Muir thinks about the environment is very interesting.
In conclusion, Muir believed that wilderness is something that should be kept in a fenced in area so it can be preserved. His definition is very different from that of Cronon. Also, Muir and the people during his time did not treat the indigenous people of North America with respect, for they only respected the indigenous people if they converted to Christianity. The people during Muir’s time were also different in how they treated the wilderness. Today, people want to hike and be out in nature whereas, in Muir’s time, the wilderness was described as being barren, savage, and deserted. Muir’s time in some senses was different from ours, but also similar in other ways.
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