John Muir’s Legacy

caliStquarUnc_revWe recently spoke with Jon Christensen of UCLA who thinks that John Muir’s legacy is outdated. Cynics might think it’s because the future is bleak and it’s hopeless to keep chasing after the preservation of huge swathes of untouched wilderness.

But that would be missing the point.

More has changed since Muir’s time than the state of the environment.  Our relationship with the environment has changed, too.  Even the “We” has changed. California is not what it was when Muir first explored the Sierras.  It’s a culturally diverse, technologically-advanced place.  It’s a place whose inhabitants interact with the environment in a myriad of ways – including new, previously-unimagined ways.

The problem with Muir’s legacy is not that it’s old.  Or that it’s no longer feasible. Or that it’s no longer good.  It’s that it overshadows other forms of nature appreciation.

Beneath Muir’s legacy is a diverse understory of perspectives on nature.

Is there one right way to appreciate nature?  I say there isn’t, but I wonder whether I’m being honest.  Is there any better way of appreciating nature than by hiking in peaceful solitude, through challenging environments, and feeling the sublime?  (And I don’t mean watching Wild with a bucket of buttery popcorn).

But maybe it’s just one way among many.

And that is the problem with John Muir’s legacy.  It holds up one particular way of appreciating nature as a model for everyone else to follow.  The legacy is so strong – Muir’s writing is so good and his devotees so vocal – that it crowds out other possibilities.

So who are the new writers who are celebrating new models of appreciation? And how can we ensure that these new models are ecologically sound?  There’s a lot of talk lately about appreciating nature’s “ecosystem services.”  There’s been a shift away from nature’s “intrinsic value.”  More technology is finding its way onto the trails.

How can we embrace a plurality of models, yet be sure they are conducive to environmental health?

Perhaps Muir’s legacy for the future will be less about one particular model – his model – and more about how to evaluate the environment for signs of health.

Let us not forget: Muir wasn’t only a worshiper in nature’s temple.

He was also quite the citizen scientist.


Check out our un-cut interview with Professor Christensen, Jonathan Luxton, Matt Luedtke, and myself, and please comment below to share your views on John Muir’s legacy.


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