I wrote this essay in response to recent interpretations of John Muir as a racist. This is not a defense of the indefensible but a more wholistic view of the man and his worldview, and his elevation of pure Nature over the conceit of human superiority.
John Muir’s Nature Superiority was not White Supremacy
“Muir was a true kindred of those original peoples, a man whose heart was deeply infused with the spirit of the land and all of its inhabitants; who spoke of animals and plants as people, as did the Native Americans.”
~Richard Nelson, Introduction to Travels in Alaska by John Muir
“In thinking of America, I sometimes find myself admiring her bright blue sky, her grand old woods, her fertile fields, her beautiful rivers, her mighty lakes, and star-crowned mountains. But my rapture is soon checked—my joy is soon turned to mourning.”
~Frederick Douglass, Letter to William Lloyd Garrison, January, 1846
Was John Muir a racist? Many have been stunned to hear the accusation even from the Sierra Club he founded (https://www.sierraclub.org/michael-brune/2020/07/john-muir-early-history-sierra-club). Those of us who have read him extensively, writing and teaching on his life and philosophy, are not surprised by the “revelation“ that Muir said some racially-charged things over his 76 years. We don’t need to defend him or give him a pass. Of course Muir was a man of his time, which in no way excuses him for making some very insensitive, even ignorant statements particularly in his younger years (who isn’t guilty of that?). Having said this, we need to follow the whole winding trail of the man, not just a short and disappointing dead end. In my view, he was neither racist nor supremacist. He loved the beauty of America as Frederick Douglass did—and mourned the ugliness.
John Muir certainly was no racist. Perhaps the real racist are those of us still using antiquated terminology that divides ethnic groups by inaccurate, divisive description of color, or places of origin. White is the absence of color. There is no “White” race. Every ethnic group on this American continent arrived through migratory channels. American Indians are actually from Asia. We humans are all people of color, and are all cousins, when it comes right down to facts.
I tend to agree, Tom. And Muir could have been more aware that words matter, especially describing people he wasn’t so familiar with.