JOHN MUIR AND THE WHITE WESTERN
In Sun Valley, I read John Muir’s wilderness essays. I had bought the book in Sun Valley the previous year and had brought it to New York where I thought I would read it while I was yearning for the mountains. Instead, I got caught up with New York, so I brought it back to Sun Valley, and I read it there.
Reading Muir while quarantining in the west feels especially pertinent. My infatuation with the West began with Sun Valley in my childhood, and the pioneer unit in second grade where we played the Oregon Trail computer game and wrote journals as if we, too, were little pioneer children, and with landscapes vaster than myself and my imagination. It began with the Woody Guthrie song we would sing while sitting in a circle “This land is your land, this land is my land / […] / This land belongs to you and me.” It began with men like Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan and Jack Kerouac and John Muir who trampled across the west writing and “discovering” and naming. If the west belonged to them, it could belong to me, too. Or so I thought.
What nobody told me about the west, perhaps out of fear of shattering a precocious, overly romantic white child’s dreams and illusions, was that the west could never belong to me because the west does not belong to white people at all. Of course, the ownership of land and whiteness is an issue that extends far beyond the west, but because I read John Muir in SunValley, we will focus on the rough area both Muir and I explored during our time in the mountains together.
In his essays, John Muir frames himself as a heroic character discovering the grandeur of the west, an explorer, a discoverer, braver, better, smarter, nobler than anyone else, notably the indigenous populations he encounters. He is the quintessential American hero, the one who
defies limits and bounds, who identifies and preserves the land so that it can be our land, too, who diminishes and patronizes anyone non-white, anyone, less heroic than he.
In “The Discovery of Glacier Bay,” Muir writes of his trip to Glacier Bay in Alaska, where he, in true heroic spirit, is the only man with the courage to explore the depths of the bay. When a storm discourages his men from adventuring with them, Muir writes of giving a rousing
speech similar to those given by generals in war films and Spartacus in Spartacus. Muir tells the indigenous men aiding him, “for ten years I had wandered along among mountains and storms and that good luck had always followed me […] they need fear nothing; that the storm would soon cease, and the sun would shine; and that Heaven cared for us […] but only brave men had a right to Heaven’s care, therefore all childish fear must be put away” (11-12). This speech rings of the manifest destiny we learned about in the second-grade pioneer unit, the belief pioneers and white Americans had that it was their Godly right and duty to expand westward. Good men, strong men, holy men fear nothing, Muir tells his men. Good men, strong men, white men guided by God fear nothing. These men are lucky, protected by God, Muir is lucky. Muir argues that men like him should be trusted, followed blindly because the fears and hesitations of those who accompany him are invalid.
Though his speech works once, it doesn’t work a second time, and leaving the indigenous men who aided him with his journey behind, Muir ventures alone into the bay to observe the most magnificent of its glaciers, naming the grandest, most astounding of them all after himself. The Muir Glacier, John Muir writes, “probably contains as much ice as all the 1,100 Swiss glaciers combined” (28). The lower summits of the Muir Glacier, John Muir writes, “are richly adorned and enlivened with beautiful flowers” (30). The Muir Glacier, John Muir writes “teach[es] us that what we in our faithless fear and ignorance and fear call destruction is creation” (31). The Muir Glacier, to John Muir, is a symbol of the power and beauty of nature; a symbol of how the violence of ice falling and moving and melting is not destruction but creation; a symbol of how these realizations about nature and wilderness belong to Muir, are stamped with Muir’s name.
Muir’s holier than thou mentality shines in his essay, “The Animals of Yosemite,” in which Muir paints portraits of the animals in the valley and his seemingly sacred relationship with these creatures. Each animal in the essay becomes a character in the story of the valley, along with the bear hunters and tourists. The Native Americans Muir encounters in the valley are mentioned and forgotten. Muir writes them as an afterthought, a dying population that does not know the animals the way he or the rugged white bear hunters do. Muir writes “But the Indians are passing away here as everywhere, and their red camps on the mountains are fewer than ever” (157).
The death of the native population in the valley is not described with the same violence as the death of the other animals in the valley Muir talks of. Muir depicts the horror he feels upon killing a rattlesnake and thoughtfully details the experience of shooting bears, but the death of Native Americans in the valley is addressed and forgotten in a sentence, the lives of human beings holding less weight than that of a snake Muir trampled to death. The Yosemite Valley does not belong to its indigenous population, it belongs to the white men and animals the white men of the valley encounter.
So why does it all matter? Why read Muir on my porch in Sun Valley on a sunny July day. Why bother with a man glorified by many as a conservationist who was riddled with racism and imperfection. Maybe I read Muir for his descriptions of the alpenglow, that “long blue spiky-
edged shadowed cre[eping] out across the snow-fields, while a rosy glow, at first, scares discernible, gradually deepen[s] and suffuse[s] every mountain-top” (218), which I miss so dearly in New York. Maybe I read Muir to close my eyes and repeat “Light, of unspeakable
richness was brooding the flowers. […] In metallic gold, in sun gold, and in-plant gold. The sunshine for a whole summer seemed condensed into the chambers of that one glowing day” (87) over in my head until the image becomes clear and gorgeous in my mind. As a child, that’s why I would have read Muir, to feel close to a man and his adventures and the west. Today, I read Muir to remember my complicity.
“Complicity in what?” somebody like my mother might ask, “you weren’t there. You weren’t even born then.”
She might ask a question like this on the car ride to Glacier National Park, where we drove for the weekend during our quarantine out west. Hundreds of people arrived at the park that weekend from all over the country, but we separated ourselves from those people. We had a
home out west, we’d been coming for twenty years, we arrived earlier in the summer, before all the tourists, we wore masks everywhere. And so, with this mentality, we drove to Glacier.
John Muir was one of the strongest advocates for the Yosemite Valley becoming a national park. I have never been to Yosemite, but I have been to Glacier in July of 2020, when the park was crowded with tourists driving in from around the country in the midst of a global Pandemic. Due to the extreme mass of tourists like us, the eastern part of the park, a reservation for the Blackfoot Tribe, was closed due to spikes in COVID and a lack of health care.
National parks feel like an inherent American right. They are land protected by our government for us, the people driving in from around the country in the middle of a pandemic. The hiking trails and camping grounds we crowd feel like ours, a shared space that is both our own and everyone else’s. The mentality we have towards national parks feels similar to the one John Muir had towards the Yosemite Valley and the other parts of the country he wrote about in the 1800s.
My home in Sun Valley feels like a right, too. It is the home I have grown up visiting since I was born. For forty years, my family has been coming out West to Sun Valley. For twenty years, I have been infatuated with the place. But Sun Valley is not ours, it is not my land, it is not your land, it is stolen land, like that of the national parks or Manhattan or anywhere. The
places John Muir and I love belong to neither of us.
What does one do about this? I do not think I stop coming to Sun Valley or living in New York or Chicago or wherever I find myself. At least, not right now. What then? Read, question, educate, listen? Is that enough? It will never be enough, but I must. We must. Even what I write now is imperfect and must be scrutinized by myself, always.
Most importantly, we must listen to black and indigenous environmentalists and conservationists. We must listen to what they say, and we must do what they ask. We must return the narrative to them. We must know the west as a place that belongs to them and not the white cowboys and white bear hunters and white explorers and pioneers who little girls like me wanted to be when they grew up.
“Imagine,” I wanted to say to the man sitting next to me in Apgar Village, the very western tip of Glacier National Park, “imagine planning a trip like this a year in advance, booking a hotel, taking the time off of work, telling yourself it’s worth it because you are going to the most beautiful place on earth. Imagine, you drive across the country, there’s a pandemic,
too, you’re risking your life at every gas station you stop at, every restroom you pee at. But it’s worth it, you tell yourself, it’s worth It because I’m going to the most beautiful place on earth. All of that work and imagining, and then you arrive, and it’s closed, the whole park is closed, and you get stuck next to me in Apgar, overlooking the most beautiful place on earth, but not being allowed to venture within it. You’d be angry, wouldn’t you?
Imagine feeling so entitled to a piece of land that is not your own that you don’t care that you might have brought a deadly disease to one of the poorest counties in the United States, that you may be endangering indigenous lives. Imagine caring more about taking a pretty family picture with a mountain goat in the background than about the lives you are endangering by coming here to this place that is not yours and that is far more than the pretty, complacent picture you imagined it to be in your head.”
Or, maybe, this is what the man sitting next to me in Apgar Village wanted to say to me.
Muir, John. Wilderness Essays. Layton, Gibbs Smith, 2015.