No one continues to be more associated with the creation and expansion of national parks than John Muir. Long after his death in 1914, Muir continued to influence public thinking and the conservation movement. His many books have remained in print to this day, including his rhapsodic guide, Our National Parks, first published in 1901.
Muir was a complicated man, not least in his thinking about nature and park preservation, and he was usually outspoken and often controversial. In the mountains he was a preservationist, but in the lowlands he was a farmer. In the mountains he saw the necessity of bringing in more tourists to support their protection. In the lowlands he loved to watch the birds and squirrels but felt compelled to poison them occasionally to protect his crops. Most essentially, Muir was the prophet of a new religion in America, the religion of nature. The national parks were central to that religion, for they represented nature at its purest, far away from the everyday world of toiling to raise food. As a religious prophet, he drew on his Judeo-Christian and particularly his Scottish Calvinist roots, but at the same time he was nontraditional and modern in his embrace of pantheism, democracy, science, technological progress, and internationalism. He was modern also in his commitment to justice, although his concept of justice was focused less on human relations and more on breaking the persistent anthropocentrism of his fellow citizens.
Like many park enthusiasts, Muir was an immigrant to the United States, arriving in 1849 at the age of eleven with his family from the North Sea shores of Scotland. His father staked out a new life in frontier Wisconsin, becoming a farmer but mainly becoming an evangelist for a more strictly Bible-based Protestantism. Early on, a serious breach developed between the two men. It widened when the son left home for the University of Wisconsin, where he encountered science and secularism. A draft evader during the Civil War, he later returned to the United States and found work in a wagon-wheel factory in Indianapolis. A workshop accident nearly blinded him and, in a state of shock, sent him off on a walking tour through the South. Eventually, in 1868, he made his way to California, heading straight to Yosemite valley, where he dwelt for the next five years, enraptured by his surroundings. There he felt free to reinvent himself.
At age forty-two, Muir gave up some of that freedom when he married the daughter of a prosperous physician and landowner and came down out of the mountains to help manage their large fruit farm near Martinez, California. Within a decade, however, he had grown weary of those farm duties and material pursuits. Joining the political movement for nature conservation, he was largely responsible for the establishment of Yosemite National Park, while other parks and monuments owed much to his influence too, including the Petrified Forest in Arizona. In 1892 he became the first president of the Sierra Club, established in San Francisco to encourage interest in and protection of the Sierra Nevada forests and parks. Until his death he remained the club’s president and late in life became friend and ally of the great conservation-minded president Theodore Roosevelt.
Muir’s life may now seem to have turned out bourgeois and conventional, but under the surface he was always to some extent a rebel and an outsider. Back during his travels through the war-ravaged South, he had angrily rejected bourgeois society’s views of nature, particularly the view that the world was made for humans and that other species had no intrinsic value. Late in life he published that journal under the title A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf, with its harsh critique of “Lord Man” assumptions left intact. Such hierarchical thinking always violated his deep egalitarianism. Every species exists for itself, he believed, and should not be classed as good or bad on the basis of its usefulness to civilization. That belief shaped his vision of the parks as a refuge for all plants and animals against farmers, industrialists, and even tourists anxious for their personal safety from dangerous creatures.
In his early years in California he moved toward an even more radical point of view, once again challenging society’s prevalent attitudes. The standard notion of God, he decided, was too imbued with antinature prejudice, making the earth and all its creatures the playthings of a transcendental being who would someday destroy it all when it had served his purpose. In contrast, Muir’s “God” was immanent in nature, more of an indwelling spirit or harmonizing force that flowed through the natural world. One day, during an excursion into Hetch Hetchy, Muir scribbled in a notebook his own understanding of the divine: “Beauty is God, what shall we say of God that we may not say of Beauty?” To discern the divinity animating all nature one needed no written scriptures, seminaries, or churches. Anyone could find it for himself. For Muir the highest moments of religious ecstasy came through journeys into wilderness, places that he wanted to save as parks.
Muir’s do-it-yourself religion rejected traditional theology but not modern science. He trained himself in such fields as botany and geology to understand more fully the mechanics of natural beauty. Every plant, he felt, but most especially the great forests of the Sierra, were revelatory to anyone who studied them systematically. Even the glaciers that had carved Yosemite valley were a form of divinity that science could illuminate. They had once destroyed part of the earth, but they had produced a higher beauty.
While others of his era struggled with the implications of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), Muir did not. His only objection to the new biology was its frequent use of words like struggle or conflict, for in Muir’s mind nature displayed not violent competition but always a progressive harmony. Conflict was not the dominant pattern in nature, he insisted, but rather cooperation among all the elements and forces. In Muir’s understanding, nature was forever dying, rebirthing, changing, improving, and becoming more beautiful and godly over time. He did not find in the Sierra a fixed or static order to be locked up forever in a museum. The aim should be to preserve a natural world constantly in the making. Science was the best guide to that evolving perfection, revealing the unseen power that brought coherence out of chaos.
The national parks, therefore, were sacred lands that science could help interpret. Many peoples, including the American Indians, had also identified sacred sites and made them off-limits to mundane activities. The national parks were different only in size, dependence on scientific interpretation, and legal ownership by government. Here an ancient piety, the “natural beauty-hunger” in all people, rich or poor, might be nourished in up-to-date ways. The sacred parks should be open to all people but not to people’s agriculture, business, or commerce. A dam in Hetch Hetchy was a form of sacrilege. Muir wrote: “These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar . . . [N]o holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man."
Religions, along with secular ideologies, commonly require at some point a leap of faith and a capacity to ignore contrary evidence. From Buddhism to Catholicism to Marxism, many belief systems often have ignored or smoothed over evidence of abuse of power. They have all had trouble explaining the coexistence of evil with good. Muir was no exception. Just as other religious thinkers had overlooked the shortcomings of their gods, he tended to ignore the dark side of nature. While critics in his day never confronted his religion of nature, they did criticize him for being weak in humanistic terms, insufficiently attentive to society’s needs. Today, that criticism continues more strongly than ever. Some have argued that safeguarding sacred places is no longer so compelling a social need. Muir’s vaunted wilderness, critics have said, is as much a fiction as God. Nature’s beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, and national parks get too much attention, while the mundane places where we live receive too little. Muir, it has become popular to say, should have spent more time talking about the health needs of cities, industrial workplaces, and the working class. In short, the religion of nature has lost some of its cultural force, for reasons plaguing all religious and secular faiths.
Yet after the flooding of Hetch Hetchy valley, no national park in the United States would suffer in the same way. When, in the 1950s, the government sought to dam and flood Echo Park canyon in Utah, located within Dinosaur National Monument, a coalition of opponents managed to stop it for reasons Muir would have applauded. Despite much debate and controversy, his preservationism would gain ground in the nation’s thinking about the parks. Many would repeat his warning that the nation lacks sufficient reverence toward godly beauty. His parks as sacred places, for all their hordes of visitors, would continue to lay a strong hold on the human, and not merely the American, imagination.