Inspired by John Muir: The Eternal Conflict Between Right and Wrong

Every day greets us with another wonderful opportunity to rejoice in and save another acre of wildness. While we can not control what others think or do, or determine the results of our actions, we can choose to live in the light and celebrate our efforts to speak for all the indigenous plants and animals that call earth their home – Nature deserves nothing less.

John Muir chose the light and provided the wisdom that we must remind ourselves of every morning.

The battle we have fought, and are still fighting for the forests is a part of the eternal conflict between right and wrong, and we cannot expect to see the end of it. … So we must count on watching and striving for these trees, and should always be glad to find anything so surely good and noble to strive for.

Always.

The joyous, never-ending fight. That is our charge as environmentalists. Without hesitation. Without doubt. Without exhaustion. The plants and animals will always need us to speak for them. We must move forward through both defeats and successes, with the clear understanding that the fight is eternal, being renewed by the preciousness of life every single morning, because there will always be more. We must be forever vigilant to reject whatever challenges the temple destroyers throw at us, whatever discouragement, and be joyful for the honor to do so. We can never let Nature down.

I’m hoping someday the Sierra Club, the organization that Muir founded in 1892, will rediscover how to live in the light. The Club has recently lost its focus on celebration and preservation, but as with all challenges in life, its path into the abyss provides multiple opportunities to reach even higher summits.

But before we dive into the Club’s drama, the important story here is about how we can maintain our courage to live in the light.

It’s a challenge. We have evolved to react to immediate danger above almost everything else. This is why negative news sells, warnings of impending doom raises the most donations, and why it has proven extremely difficult to address climate change, something that requires us to think beyond the immediate (a quality our species constantly struggles with).

There’s also a tendency, or a cultural script, that demands a measure of grief for those who fight for a just cause. Wallowing in sorrow from time to time confirms the commitment. And if you lose the fight, you should be torn up about it, filled with regret and sadness. “He was never the same.” Otherwise, your heart must not have been in it. “I can’t believe he was laughing at the party less than a week after his loss!” Knowing other people are suffering too, can validate our own. This is one reason why I avoided the teacher’s lunch room while teaching high school biology for 20 years.

There’s a story about Muir that was created by our tendency to focus on the negative, reaffirming the power others think they have over us in determining our emotions.

After losing his long battle to stop San Francisco from damming the precious Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park, the Park Muir had pushed Congress to create, we are told the defeat was so crushing that it caused Muir to die of a broken heart a year later, on Christmas Eve, 1914.

What image of Muir does this story create for you?

The truth provides a different one.

After Hetch Hethcy, during his last twelve months on earth, between visits with friends and family across the country, Muir poured himself into a project he had put off for years, writing about his wonderous Travels in Alaska. In the last chapter of his book, Muir describes his experience seeing the Aurora Borealis in the cold night sky, and reveals his intoxicating bliss.

I now returned to my cabin, replenished the fire, warmed myself, and prepared to go to bed, though too aurorally rich and happy to go to sleep. But just as I was about to retire, I thought I had better take another look at the sky, to make sure that the glorious show was over; and, contrary to all reasonable expectations, I found that the pale foundation for another bow was being laid right overhead like the first. Then losing all thought of sleep, I ran back to my cabin, carried out blankets and lay down on the moraine to keep watch until daybreak, that none of the sky wonders of the glorious night within reach of my eyes might be lost.

This was a man in love with life.

Muir worked on his book in his characteristically enthusiastic manner to the end. The morning before his death, the book’s manuscript was spread out all over his hospital bed.

Contrary to the heart break story, Muir exemplified what it means to live for the present moment, to enjoy life in all its glory, and treasure each day as a special gift as if it would be the last – all inspired by Nature.

John Muir.

Muir’s wondrous life, and the lessons it offers, can inspire and resonate with anyone.

His story illustrates the foundation of every self-affirming philosophy I’m aware of, from Dale Carnegie to Eckhart Tolle. Sufferers of PTSD embrace it, as well as Nature itself, to help regain control of their lives. It’s a story that alcoholics embrace as they become sober through AA: To accept the things I cannot change; Courage to change the things I can; And wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time.

And it’s an old story. The Greeks articulated it all 2,500 years ago. Live in the present. Only you control how you feel. View every challenge in life as an opportunity for growth.

The Romans did their collective best to live it as described by Marcus Aurelius in his personal journal.

Our life is what our thoughts make it. Do every act of your life as if it were your last. In a word, your life is short. You must make the most of the present with the aid of reason and justice. Since it is possible that you may be quitting life this very moment, govern every act and thought accordingly.

Just as nature takes every obstacle, every impediment, and works around it–turns it to its purposes, incorporates it into itself, so, too, a rational being can turn each setback into raw material and use it to achieve its goal…

When I started writing this essay, I had intended to use the story of Muir’s supposedly broken heart as an example of the costs associated with fighting to protect Nature from, as Muir referred to them, the temple destroyers. He provided the martyr I needed to support my notion that sadness was just a natural byproduct of the effort. I had to just segregate the fight from my heart to prevent burn out, depression, and giving up. Then I asked myself, “Is this heart break story really true?”

As we’ve discovered, it turned out not to be.

The discovery of Muir’s wisdom, and love of life, shifted my approach in dealing with the fight. While identifying and separating from the drama is helpful, it’s actually just one step in dealing with addiction – recognizing the problem. The next challenge is to discover the internal judgements that are causing the reaction, the pain. And finally, realize, no matter what your brain wants to make you believe, you are in control. Once accomplished, one can truly embrace what really matters in life, which helps one minimize the time spent feeling sorry for oneself. Caring about Nature is who I am, who many of us are. We care so much. We can not escape it. Trying to segregate and ignore that love and joy will only lead to denial and all the consequences such a thing breeds. Instead, embrace your empathy for Nature. Celebrate the fact that you have been blessed to care, and have the ability to be the voice for the voiceless, to counter those who only promote their own self interest to fulfill the emptiness within themselves.

The sincere love and joy Muir had for Nature, from the Sierra Nevada, to Alaska, to the Gulf Coast, exemplifies what all of us who fight to protect the environment feel deeply inside. So, if you ever find yourself feeling the need to turn away from the cause so surely good and noble to strive for, take a moment to read Muir, or whatever source you’ve found, to help recenter your heart and mind.

It’s now clear to me why rituals, prayers, holy books, the signing of psalms can be so important, and why both Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell worried about the loss of myth in modern society.

When times got difficult, the Greeks had Sisyphus to provide guidance to continue pushing the boulder up the hill. Such mutually agreed upon myths show us, as Campbell taught, “how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances.”

For me, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and John Muir’s writings provide my own personal Sisyphus. Reading the last page of Muir’s journal on Hetch Hetchy brought me back into the light last Friday after I was feeling especially defeated. It allowed Nature to breathe its sweetness back into me again.

So keep speaking your truth. Think of the temple destroyers as lost souls who really don’t know any better – their careers, credentials, and biases blind them. Use their blindness as yet another opportunity to be the voice for Nature. And make sure you have your favorite source of inspiration readily available when needed.

The battle we have fought, and are still fighting for the forests is a part of the eternal conflict between right and wrong, and we cannot expect to see the end of it. … So we must count on watching and striving for these trees, and should always be glad to find anything so surely good and noble to strive for.

– John Muir, “The National Parks and Forest Reservations” in a speech by Muir, Proceedings of the Meeting of the Sierra Club Held November 23, 1895.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Drama at the Sierra Club

Apart from not properly recognizing John Muir’s inspirational example, the Sierra Club has made a major effort to purge the organization’s connection with him. Last summer, Michael Brune, the executive director of the Club, announced that the organization would henceforth brand Muir as a racist due to some of the people he associated with and comments he made when he was younger about Native and African Americans. Brune listed steps that would be taken to distance the Club from its founder, including the removal of monuments established in Muir’s honor. They’ve already done a pretty thorough job purging Muir from their website, replacing him with virtue signaling and the latest trends, many of which have nothing to do with protecting the natural environment. Fortunately, many individual chapters are still carrying on Muir’s work.

In a rush to judgement, the Club has failed to fully appreciate how Muir evolved as he grew older and wiser, recognizing the failures in America’s treatment of oppressed peoples. Nor has the Club acknowledged the leading role Muir played in protecting many landscapes sacred to Native Americans from the juggernaut of Manifest Destiny. Unlike his peers who were eagerly seeking ways to financially gain from the exploitation of Nature in California, Muir used his influence and privilege to preserve it. Muir manifested exactly the kind of change those who are now demonizing him are demanding. It’s unfortunate the Club has chosen the path of retribution rather than grace.

As a member of the Sierra Club since 1970, I am saddened by the organization’s choice to follow the example of many past empires, erasing past leaders and demanding new allegiances in an effort to promote the new order. That approach to life has historically failed. It inflames the oppressed and blinds the establishment to its own fallacies.

If we ever intend to heal our nation from past and current sins, it can only be accomplished by inclusion and forgiveness, not self-righteous anger.

But as Muir has shown us, we can’t control the opinions and actions of others, especially those who have yet to actualize their own inner selves, lashing out at life in unfettered frustration. I suspect if Muir was still alive, he’d likely emote a few Scottish insults, reflect, then fill his pack with some flour, his favorite sourdough starter, and head into the Sierra where the joy of life is magnified ten fold. He’d return recentered, ready to fight for yet another beautiful patch of Nature.

After Congress decided to damn Hetch Hetchy, Muir wrote that, “… in spite of Satan & Co. some sort of compensation must surely come out of this dark damn-dam-damnation.”

It did. The tragedy inspired millions of others across the world to speak up for Nature, including myself.

I suspect the Sierra Club’s current fall into the abyss will teach them important lessons as well. As a consequence, new leaders will take the organization to still higher peaks.

Evolution Basin on the John Muir Trail, Sierra Nevada.

24 Comments on “Inspired by John Muir: The Eternal Conflict Between Right and Wrong

  1. You are right on in your notes on John Muir and the Sierra Club. I too have found the club to be off centered. I have been a member sense about 1970. I will no longer support the national group, but only the local group… John Dechert

    • Yes, the local groups are where the action is anyway. I became a life member back when I was in high school (1970 as well), so the national org will have to put up with me for a while longer.

  2. So well written and a refreshing break from the down world. Thanks for the lift! And the facts-Especially the article about the arc of Muir’s life as opposed to one relatively short period.

  3. Good writing, Rick! All organizations large and small are subject to invasion by fifth columnists. Worse, they are magnets for the self-righteous. Semper vigilans.

    “The suspension of judgment is the highest exercise in intellectual discipline.” –Raymond Maurice Gilmore

  4. We have to remember that Indigenous means organisms that were here “first” and are identified with the area. Race is not the issue, it’s human presence. Muir was right. It was a mistake for him to pick on particular human identifiers.
    Discussing the wrongs that humans have done to each other over time, the conquering, the massacres, the displacements, don’t have anything to do with our wild places, in my opinion. These are serious matters that should be dealt with but not when it comes to wildlife habitat. The indigenous species (wildlife, not humans) have lost too much.

  5. Thank you, Rick, for this inspiring and thoughtful essay. I once visited the John Muir homestead in Scotland and left a tribute to him for the good seeds he had planted. For me, you are the John Muir of the Chaparral. You taught me to wonder about all these indigenous plants and animals so different from my childhood home in Vermont’s Acadian forest. I so appreciate your hard work in growing your own seeds. And I just want to affirm for you that they are taking root just as John Muir’s did. As to racism, I refer back to Jesus of Nazareth: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

    • Hi Linda! I too visited Muir’s birthplace in Dunbar, Scotland and well as his homes in Wisconsin, and his dorm room at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Walking around his old haunts helps one understand how he developed such a love for Nature. I’ll be writing a piece on that soon 🙂

      • Rick, I agree with Linda and want to also thank you again for your incredible efforts to protect our chaparral treasures! Sincerely, Chris Khoury

  6. All very well written, including the vexing part about the Sierra Club purging their organization of their founder. We’re all “woke” now, so watch out! I ran into a Scottish member of the Muir Society on the trail very near to where the Evolution Basin photo was taken that you show during a 50-miler with my Scouts. He had his underwear drying on a stick attached to his backpack flapping in the wind as he literally joyously hiked through the landscape his inspirer and hero helped protect.

    • Literally joyously! 🙂 I met a young man around there during our trip. He was 17 and hiking alone. We talked and I mentioned how free he must be feeling without the usual distractions back home. He offered up a small frown and pulled out a satellite phone from his side pack. He said it was the only way his mom would allow him to do the hike. He had to check in every night. I offered to liberate him of the device, but he demurred. I should have hung out with him longer, camped nearby. I know I could have convinced him to take a piece of granite to the thing.

  7. Also a Sierra Club member since about 1970, and in agreement. I think this started long ago, with the Club taking positions on things like the Panama Canal and nuclear power. Controversial issues distant from the Club’s traditional agenda, and the Club’s positions alienated many members who were firm supporters of its traditional agenda. Was also disappointed by the Club eliminating all technical climbing, including training as well as trips, because of the high cost of liability insurance. Seemed to be done with no awareness of the Club’s role in pioneering technical climbing in California and therefore the world, the status this gave the Club, and the ending of a generation-to-generation continuity, with older climbers training younger ones. Was also angered by the attempt of the Club to rename North Palisade as Brower Peak, in honor of Sierra Club mountaineer and leader David Brower. I dislike naming mountains for people in general, and North Palisade was a fine name with strong memories for many people, including myself. I am sure David Brower, had he been alive, would have opposed it. Am also disappointed by the failure of the Club to fight for hikers, as opposed to fighting for preservation. Mountain bikers and others have powerful organizations who fight for them, hikers have none. And now they won’t stand up for John Muir.

    • Ed, totally concur. I was introduced to mountain/rock climbing when I took BMTC back in high school. We were taught the fine art of repelling in Joshua Tree, the skills needed to handle an ice axe, and how to survive a snow camp by actually surviving in an actual snow camp. Those treasured experiences are no more. Now, BMTC is about safely strolling on a trail with a backpack – a important skill, but…

      Brower is rolling in his grave. However, Ed Abbey would have barked, “I told you so.”

  8. I am supportive of the Sierra Club’s new stance. They may have drifted from their original more narrow definition, but in the process they have strived to tackle much bigger problems that are at the root of all environmental destruction. Sierra Club is a BIG organization and they should tackle BIG problems. Their current examination of John Muir is not “drama’, it is a worthwhile discussion of how our past ways of thinking were often wrong. Though I believe we can still celebrate Muir while also acknowledging his faults.

    • Hi Brad. We concur that examining our past ways of thinking can help us plot more successful pathways, The problem with the Sierra Club’s approach is that they have no interest in celebrating Muir at all. There intent is to purge him from the system because of a few things he said as a young man, things he later corrected as he grew wiser. Hence their failure to embrace forgiveness. Their main web page now looks more like a civil rights organization, championing causes that have nothing to do with celebrating Nature and keeping it out of the temple destroyers’ clutches. Had it not been for Muir, the National Parks we now treasure would never have been established, allowing industrial interests to further destroy what little was left of the landscapes held sacred by Indigenous Peoples.

      I often wonder what people will say about me in 100 years, if I merit such a conversation. Perhaps I too shall be purged due to the fact that even though I knew about climate change, I continued to drive a internal combustion vehicle. And even more damning, I never had a friend who was a person of color when I was younger.

      One intent of my essay was to help people see the full picture, not just the one that is currently in vogue.

  9. Thanks, Rick. I left the Sierra Club in the 1970s. Standing in the post office in Yosemite Valley, I had just picked up my mail. It included a request to renew my membership and listed their priorities – including “moving all Park employees out of Yosemite.” Wow, I thought, that’s me…. The leadership has gotten farther and farther away from their roots in the Sierra. Tearing down John Muir is just the latest. They drink their lattes made with Hetch Hetchy water and tell others how to live.

    • Hi John, yes, losing touch. What Ed said above is on the same line, referring the Club’s decision to stop their storied BMTC courses that included mountain climbing, rope work, and ice axe: “Seemed to be done with no awareness of the Club’s role in pioneering technical climbing in California and therefore the world, the status this gave the Club, and the ending of a generation-to-generation continuity, with older climbers training younger ones.”

      All those folks are gone now. Instead we have a lot of people in Club management doing much of what you are suggesting.

      The Monkey Wrench Gang, really needs to address that Hetch Hetchy scar.

      • Now that the Sierra Club leaders preside over a political lobby, I wonder if any of them can self-arrest or set up a belay…just sayin’

      • … or trust any of these desk bound people as my partner on the ice, or for that matter, just to partner up on a thru-hike of the John Muir Trail.

  10. I am saddened to see the institutional biases that infected the Sierra Club repeated here. The problem is much larger than Muir’s racial bias which set the organization on a path to preserve playgrounds for those with sufficiently light skin and economic means, to the exclusion of the indigenous people who stewarded the land for centuries. The Sierra Club alienated those who could not afford specialized equipment, and the time to go off in the wilderness to use it, while ignoring the larger environmental crises caused by overconsumption. Environmental racism was not on the Sierra Club’s radar because it did not matter to most of its members that black and brown communities bore the brunt of polluting industries, waste dumps and bisecting highway systems so white communities could maintain their property values and privileged lives. The Sierra Club has a long way to go to atone for its past failures to protect the environment outside of playgrounds for the privileged. Examining the roots of its institutional bias, starting with its founder, is an important first step.

    • Tina, we totally support the examination of racist intent and doing what we can to create a more inclusive society. The fundamental basis of that effort must be truth. Our essay here is about John Muir and the failure of the Sierra Club to examine the man in totality and honesty. After reading his works, as we suggest you do as well, we have never found one example where he encouraged, promoted, or engaged in racist behavior. In fact, during his last decade, he was continuously expressing the fact that we are all of one spirit, one people, none above others. He rejected America’s treatment of people of color.

      Unfortunately, in a move to show agreement with the current rush to judgement, the Sierra Club has condemned a man who used his white privilege to protect what few wild spaces were left from the colonial powers that were intent on wiping out not only all Indigenous Peoples, but also indigenous plants and animals for profit.

      Please spend the necessary time to read Muir’s works before passing judgement on him. As we expressed in our essay, approaching this subject with honesty, forgiveness, and inclusion is much more productive than retribution.

      “Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”
      – Martin Luther King

    • Tina, you are making some sweeping and unsubstantiated generalizations about Sierra Club members and the Sierra Club, itself, even though there is no evidence to support your claims. No specialized equipment is required to hike wilderness trails, and those larger environmental crises caused by overconsumption affect everyone, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity. Industries pollute due to inadequate regulation, corruption and greed, and living near toxic sites is a function of social class as well as race. Organizations like the Sierra Club necessarily have limited sets of organizational objectives and they restrict their focus to those objectives. Other issues are the purview of other organizations. You seem to be assembling a laundry list of claims and grievances about conditions that are the result of complex sets of historical factors and outside of the purview of the Sierra Club or its members.

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