Who Was John Muir, Really?

By Chad Hanson, Ph.D.

We have often been conditioned to think idealistically about great historical figures as icons, institutions, or superheroes, despite the historical context of their times, but that’s a mistake. They are all people, and their lives have arcs that may involve major changes and transformations. They are a product of their upbringing but it is up to them to decide who they truly are. John Muir is no exception. Muir was raised by a racist and horribly abusive father, who relentlessly beat him, forcing him into intensive labor logging forests on their farm as a pre-teen and beating and lashing him to force memorization of one verse of the Bible after another until he could recite the entire text of the New Testament and most of the Old Testament.[i] Muir’s father viewed natural areas as places to be exploited—cut down, dug up, and put to rigorous utilitarian purpose—and saw Native Americans as an impediment to this goal.[ii]

The ignorance about people of color that was beaten into Muir was reflected in some of his earliest writings in the years before he became an environmental advocate, a time period during which he used derogatory, hurtful and racist language regarding Black and Indigenous people in some passages of his original journals in 1867-1869.[iii]

In these same early years, Muir worked in the logging industry at sawmills in Ontario, Canada (1865), southern Florida (1867), and in 1869-1871 at a sawmill in Yosemite Valley, where he also worked for a time in the livestock ranching industry.[iv] At this time in his life, Muir commented frequently about the beautiful landscapes that he saw. However, there was also a sense of otherness in these early writings about Nature, including a preoccupation with wild places being dirty.[v] And, while Muir could note the beauty of a forest in the 1860s, he was nevertheless employed in an industry that was chopping down those same forests—evidencing a disconnectedness exhibited by many in the logging industry. 

When Muir first arrived in Yosemite in 1868, it was nearly two decades after (circa 1850-1852) white miners and loggers, backed by militias and the U.S. government, warred upon the Native American tribes in Yosemite Valley. Many Native Americans were killed, with survivors being forced to either flee to other areas or settle onto reservations in the foothills as part of the government’s genocidal policies toward Indigenous peoples and goal of facilitating industrial resource extraction and exploitation of the ancestral homelands of Native tribes.[vi]

After more than a year working at the Yosemite area sawmill, Muir began to change. In 1870 and 1871, he increasingly struggled with the conflict between his growing love for Nature, and the nature of his employment at the lumber mill. And, Muir began to view Native Americans, their culture, and the way they lived in harmony with Nature, with growing respect and reverence. In 1871, he began to argue increasingly with his boss at the sawmill and, in the summer of that year, Muir quit his job in the logging industry[vii] and began his personal and professional transformation. John Muir the environmental advocate was born. 

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Lots of Burning Grass, and the Redwoods are OK – countering the false narrative about California wildfires

Dryness and heat, facilitated by human-caused climate change, are responsible for the large wildfires we are currently experiencing in California. It’s not about mature, native habitat.

Unfortunately, in news stories about the fires, you’ve probably heard someone repeating the same misguided claim made during nearly every fire, as if it explains everything: “The area hasn’t burned in years!” Other than being usually incorrect, the claim supports the false narrative that if we could just get rid of all this “fuel,” via prescribed burns or other habitat removal methods, these fires wouldn’t happen.

In fact, NPR had a story yesterday that said exactly that. They unfortunately also engaged in cultural appropriation of Native Americans to do so. We doubt the reporter even looked at what was actually burning.

A more accurate perspective on the use of fire by Native Americans can be found here.

What’s Really Happening – A lot had burned in the past 10 years

Our colleague, Bryant Baker, did an excellent job investigating the issue of blaming-habitat-for-fire and has assembled the following facts.

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