John Muir’s view of wilderness is just plain wrong
We need to be part of the natural world, not separate from it
THE IDEA that to “preserve” or “protect” a piece of land means it must be devoid of human influence (other than recreation) is a legacy of the white supremacy on which our nation was established. John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club and early advocate for the creation of national parks, expelled native peoples from their lands in order to satisfy the interests of the preeminent white policy makers and thinkers of the day. He called Indigenous Peoples “dirty” and said they had “no right place in the landscape.”
The Sierra Club and others have acknowledged this problematic history but have stopped short of reimagining what preservation and conservation truly mean. In “Conservation Refugees,” Mark Dowie writes: “John Muir, a forefather of the American conservation movement, argued that ‘wilderness’ should be cleared of all inhabitants and set aside to satisfy the urbane human’s need for recreation and spiritual renewal. It was a sentiment that became national policy with the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act, which defined wilderness as a place ‘where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.’”
The legacy of this thinking persists today. The modern-day push to protect 30 percent of the Earth’s lands and waters by 2030 has, at its roots, a lack of inclusion for the people who live in these places. Globally, there is articulated concern that non-white, Indigenous communities will be further displaced in order to fulfill this goal (which now is around 15 percent). It is currently estimated that there are over 40 million conservation refugees.
It is a great irony that our often-fumbling actions to “preserve” further remove us from the natural world, separating it falsely from our daily lives, drawing an arbitrary line between what is natural and what is human. In defining our open spaces as sacred, as places of quiet refuge and recreation, we lose the true sacredness of living which is connection to that which we consume.
Muir is not the only problematic idol we must reevaluate. Henry David Thoreau fetishized the natural world. As Kathryn Schulz writes in the New Yorker: “Walden is less a cornerstone work of environmental literature than the original cabin porn: a fantasy about rustic life divorced from the reality of living in the woods, and, especially, a fantasy about escaping the entanglements and responsibilities of living among other people.”
The recently-deceased E.O. Wilson argued, in his 2016 book Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, that we must preserve half of the Earth in order to prevent catastrophe. Wilson defines the wilderness requiring preservation as “undomesticated places not yet yoked to the human will.”
Doing so is a direct legacy of Muir’s flawed thinking. Certainly there are places where humans have tread very lightly, but more often than not what looks like wilderness to the White, colonial mind is in fact an inhabited landscape where natural resources are made use of in accordance with notions of sustainability and gratitude.
If we do not acknowledge and sustainably make use of our local, renewable forest resources in Massachusetts and instead continue to place our wood needs on places like Brazil, British Columbia, and South Carolina, we forfeit any notion of honest stewardship when it comes to our natural lands. As a result, we might just forfeit those forestlands to development as well.
Just as we’ve embraced our local, sustainable agricultural producers, so too should we embrace our local, sustainable wood producers. A decentralized and vibrant economy can better weather storms of our own making.Cognitive dissonance fed by a tired vocabulary can easily obscure our understanding of the natural world and our place in it. As Dowie writes: “The preference for ‘virgin’ wilderness has lingered on in a movement that has tended to value all nature but human nature, and refused to recognize the positive wildness in human beings.” The most ethical consumer of wood is she who, in her wildness, cuts the tree or knows who did, perhaps knowing even what grows in its place. In contrast to what Muir professed, this is someone who, idyllically, has “no wrong place in the landscape.”
Kate Lindroos Conlin lives in Buckland. She independently manages societyforforeststewardship.org. She serves on the board of the Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership, though the views expressed here are her own.