Then and Now: Understanding John Muir’s Ideology

A recent article in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism by Emily Brady explores John Muir’s engagement with the natural world. The article, “John Muir’s Environmental Aesthetics,” emphasizes Muir’s interest in the sublime; his interlaced world view of religion, science and aesthetics; and his belief that fully immersive experiences provide an opening to the natural world.

John Muir (Source: Library of Congress).

Brady, a professor of environmental philosophy at Texas A&M University, argues that Muir creates a pluralistic aesthetic bringing together aesthetic, scientific and spiritual ideas. This bridge is connected to Muir’s deep roots in environmental protection and ethics. In order to be a modern steward of the environment, Brady argues that this world view retains its importance.

A Scottish-American naturalist, author, glaciologist, and advocate for wild spaces, Muir has an enduring ideology of “wildness” and what “wild” spaces look like: scenery untouched, undeveloped, and undisturbed by humanity. Over a century after Muir’s death, the very existence of such places has come into question.

In the Muirian framework, we can distinguish what is and is not the “natural world.” There are varying perceptions of what “wilderness” is. A lot of the time it refers to spaces devoid of people, though historically-speaking this would be incorrect since many so-called wilderness areas have been inhavited and modified by indigenous people. Recently, with the age of the Anthropocene, there is an emerging view that humans have commandeered all of the world’s wild spaces.

Brady disagrees with this view. “This idea takes agency away from the natural world. If everything has been affected, it negates the life of all other creatures,” she told GlacierHub. “Nature has the ability to renew itself, so it seems unfair to assume that we have complete control over it.” Though humans have a pervasive impact on the environment, Brady emphasizes that it is crucial to remember that, if given the opportunity, the natural world has the ability to regenerate.

Muir’s writings demonstrate an optimism and enthusiasm when it comes to the regenerative power of wild spaces. In his writings such as his journals and letters, we can see that he does not experience the sublime solely as a spectator; rather, he finds this feeling through the bridge of scenery and immersion in these spaces.

Brady talked to GlacierHub about this relationship. “There is the scenery, but there also is the embodied aspect, which is kind of unusual,” she said. “A lot of people will just see scenery, and experience the natural world from a car window or a scenic outlook. But Muir was such an incredible mountaineer, that he had a distinctive ability to get into glaciers and mountains.”

Alaska’s Glacier Bay, where much of Muir’s “Stickeen” takes place (Source: Ann/Flickr).

These remote and often unpredictable landscapes are places in which many people would likely feel a strong sense of danger. But Muir sought out these spaces, and once in them, he celebrated their beauty despite the hazards. We see this clearly in Muir’s short story, “Stickeen,” which recounts a visit to Alaska’s Glacier Bay. In the story, Muir describes the experience of nearly spending the night on the glaciers. “Doubtless we could have weathered the storm for one night, dancing on a flat spot to keep from freezing, and I faced the threat without feeling anything like despair,” he writes. But Muir was not necessarily inexperienced or ill-equipped.

These landscapes were accessible to Muir because of his ability to explore and experience wild spaces. Muir had the privilege of access and time to become comfortable in these “untouched” settings. In Muir’s lifetime and even now, there remains a lack of diversity in the experience of the outdoors. According to a National Park survey released in 2011, the majority of visitors to National Parks are white, with minorities making up only 22 percent of the 292.8 million annual visitors. Moreover, instead of focusing on reserving the natural world for “wild” spaces, many people are now connecting with nature through urban green space or rural landscapes. Green spaces within cities allow people the opportunity to receive the benefits of connecting with nature, such as reducing stress and perhaps even making us more empathetic.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/cococat/8637155950/in/photolist-eaeFxU-27aVunR-xqVCj9-ojHFxB-ohvGM6-Fo9khC-iVBL9b-2cf4257-2bXnWYg-cQuS6b-nbShpD-d2tYcC-VNRJmY-d1U6qm-o9k8aA-8YFXSM-WnkobT-66EQp5-W7prF7-JdFqoG-p4Vswh-pxmp2T-WnkqiZ-WiRJQJ-nbSkmk-d55CvE-WeAUWD-5825Hc-byYQf1-MLkJQG-2dguATo-RdHXz9-2bXTYKx-V2w5WW-V5jwR6-LGsmub-V2wrB3-V5jvdX-eizqx5-hemWja-4X3Esz-21Z65uh-aZ4dXv-fJgAuC-4r4vYE-wT3TAK-2cvFGr9-keDuVL-ComgL6-hPmvAC
Named after John Muir, Muir Beach is a popular tourist destination (Source: Kuronakko/Flickr).

Muir, who spent so much time in the West and California, that several places are named after him. These places now receive many visitors each year. What would Muir think of these places like Muir Woods and Muir Beach, for example- Though they bear his name, they are littered with people and human-made paths to guide visitors through them.

The evolution of wild spaces may not have been what Muir expected or wanted, but these areas do provide access to people who may not have otherwise been able to trek across terrain to see the ancient redwoods and beautiful Northern California coastline.

Not to discredit the importance of wild spaces with humans; these areas still need to exist. But in an ever-expanding and changing world, the Muirian world view remains of deep value while allowing alternate spaces for connection with the natural world.

John Muir: America’s Ice-Chief

John Muir in 1907.  Public Domain. Source: Francis M. Fritz
John Muir in 1907.
Public Domain. Source: Francis M. Fritz

A rhapsodic wanderer trained in geology and botany, John Muir had a big hand in launching the American environmental movement and is considered by many to be the godfather of America’s national parks. The Scottish-born naturalist wrote numerous screeds in defense of wild places for national magazines around the turn of the 20th century that electrified the American public, and he influenced both Presidents Roosevelt and Taft to take major measures to protect iconic American landscapes. He was also one of the founders of the Sierra Club.

In a book out last year, Kim Heacox argues that it was the glaciers of Alaska that inspired Muir’s fiercest passion for the wilderness and animated his efforts to protect wild places. Thus, the title of Heacox’s book: John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire: How a Visionary and the Glaciers of Alaska Changed America. Muir “would popularize glaciers unlike anybody else, and be to glaciers what Jacques Cousteau would be to the oceans and Carl Sagan to the stars,” writes Heacox, an independent scholar who lives in Alaska.

The story is an entertaining and elegantly written romp through Muir’s evolution from a self-described tramp and outsider who scorned all things urban and “civilized” into a formidable force for conservation in the United States. Along the way, he cultivates friendships with some of the greatest minds of the era, and takes painstaking efforts to nourish his literary talent. The lure of Alaska’s majestic and otherworldly ice-scapes for Muir are a constant throughout, and Heacox’s descriptions of his adventures there are some of the most lively passages in a lively book.

Screen Shot 2015-01-13 at 10.49.55 AMMuir was undeniably enamored of the unforgiving rivers of ice that blanketed his beloved mountains in California’s Sierra Nevada and the United States’ new frontier, Alaska. He called glaciers “God’s crystal temple,” in one passage cited by Heacox, from a book by his friend the Reverend Samuel Young, Alaska Days with John Muir. Muir’s references to God and temples were not just for the reverend’s sake. John Muir believed that heaven lies on earth, that one finds transcendence in the wilderness, that nature is the original church. Muir tells Young,

I’ve been a thousand feet down in the crevasses, with matchless domes and sculpted figures and carved ice-work all about me. Solomon’s marble and ivory palaces were nothing to it. Such purity, such color, such delicate beauty! I was tempted to stay there and feast my soul, and softly freeze, until I would become part of the glacier. What a great death that would be.

While he courted great danger on many of his trips to Alaska, he trusted his own luck and the expertise of his guides, native Tlingits. Muir admired them for their knowledge of and respect for the ice, sea and land. He in turn won their esteem, according to Heacox, with his fearless daring, his death-defying agility and his persuasive oratory. The Tinglits called Muir the ice-chief.

Tourists at the edge of a crevasse on Muir Glacier in Alaska, 1896. public domain.
Tourists at the edge of a crevasse on Muir Glacier in Alaska, 1896. public domain.

It turns out that even then, the ice chief was worried about the ice. When Muir made that first visit to Alaska at the age of 41, he already believed that its massive glaciers had begun melting into the sea. Here Heacox quotes Muir in his own words, from his Travels in Alaska, written at the very end of his life:

Glacier Bay is undoubtedly young as yet. Vancouver’s chart, made only a century ago, shows no trace of it, though found admirably faithful in general. It seems probable therefore, that even then the entire bay was occupied by a glacier of which all those described above, great though they are, were only tributaries…that this whole system of fjords and channels was added to the domain of the sea by glacial action is to my mind certain.

John Muir Glacier and Bay, July 2010. © Eric E Castro
John Muir Glacier and Bay, July 2010. © Eric E Castro

Muir attributed glacial retreat around the world to warming temperatures, and may have been the first naturalist to do so, according to Heacox. In 1896, Heacox tells us, just six years after Muir’s first visit to Alaska, a Swedish physicist and chemist named Svante Arrhenius began to theorize about the effects of burning coal and oil on the atmospheric concentration of carbon, and in turn, the possibility that this atmospheric carbon would have a greenhouse effect, raising the surface temperature of the earth. More than a century later, though scientists have since confirmed both Muir and Arrhenius’ suspicions, climate change remains a subject of contentious debate. (Just witness the lack of commitments to action made by the governments that participated in the December United Nations Climate Change conference in Lima, Peru.)

John Muir commemorative 5 cent stamp, 1964 © U.S. Post Office
John Muir commemorative 5 cent stamp, 1964 © U.S. Post Office

It is likely that the places Muir visited on his first trip to Alaska are now ice free, according to Heacox. “Muir Glacier today, only a fraction of its size in 1890, now rests at the head of Muir Inlet, some thirty-plus miles farther north, and is no longer tidewater,” he writes. Though the glacier that carries Muir’s name may be much diminished, Muir himself remains larger than life—an inspiration to those who work to combat the effects of climate change and who seek solace in the wilderness. Heacox’s book is a timely and poignant addition to a canon of literature about one of America’s favorite mountain men.

For more recent stories about glaciers in Alaska and California, click through to the following stories:

As Glaciers Melt, Mt. Shasta Could See More Mudslides
For One Time Only, the Perfect Glacier Wave
High Schoolers Get Hands on with Alaska Glacier

 

 

Icelandic Zombie Glacier Survives by Shedding Dead Bits

Falljökull glacier. Photo: © Matt Malone
Falljökull glacier. Photo: © Matt Malone

It’s alive! British scientists recently discovered that a glacier named Falljökull in Iceland, considered dead, is in fact partially “alive.” Using 3D imaging of the interior and surface of the glacier, they found that its long top section, which extends in a steep ice fall from the ice cap Öraefajökull to a plateau below, has at least temporarily saved itself by severing ties with a lower stagnant, dead piece. It brings to mind that lone hiker pinned under a rock who hacked off his arm a few years ago to escape certain demise in the wild.

Perched as it is between dead and undead, Falljökull has earned the nickname zombie glacier in the popular press. But it’s not clear whether this unusual glacier behavior of sloughing off dead ice–behavior that had never before been reported–will keep this patient alive over the long run. Today, the glacier’s active, or living, length is about 700 meters shorter than it was five years ago.

“It would be nice to think that the behaviour we have described at Falljökull could represent a type of ‘survival mechanism’ whereby steep mountain (Alpine) glaciers can quickly adapt to warming summer temperatures and decreasing snow fall during the winter months,” wrote Emrys Phillips, British Geological Survey research scientist and lead-author of the paper, in an email. But its survival ultimately depends on whether it remains “attached” to the Öraefajökull ice cap, its source, he said. And predicting how the glacier will behave in the future is tricky.

Consider snow and ice, and you may conjure barren, unforgiving landscapes that don’t sustain much life. But most glaciers are in some sense “alive,” an idea first proposed by legendary naturalist John Muir in the late 1800s. This means that the vast sheets, bulging tongues and glittering blue crowns of ice that constitute a glacier are mobile. They flow and advance in ice-rivers and ice-falls in winter and retreat in summer, according to seasonal patterns in snowfall and melt and given the pull of gravity that results when giant hunks of packed and frozen H2O are pitched at an alpine angle.

Of course, many glaciers are melting faster than they can accumulate new ice from snowfall, wind-blown snow, avalanches and frozen rain in the winter—mostly attributed to rising temperatures and increasing soot and dust in the atmosphere around the globe. This means the seasonal balance between advancing and retreating is thrown off, which can result in such a severe decline in glacier mass that the glacier is declared “dead.” A dead glacier stops moving and simply melts in place, like a giant ice cube in an empty glass on a hot day in summer.

The fault line where the living and dead pieces of the Falljökull glacier meet. "You can see the highly crevassed ice fall which feeds ice to Falljökull and then below that a ‘bulge’ in the glacier surface which is fractured and pocked marked by hollows – this area represents the living active part of the glacier. The thrust faults which are formed as the ice moves forward can be seen in the lower part of the glacier (the curved fractures cutting across the ice)," says British Geological Survey scientist Emrys Phillips. Photo Credit: British Geological Survey.
The fault line where the living and dead pieces of the Falljökull glacier meet. “You can see the highly crevassed ice fall which feeds ice to Falljökull and then below that a ‘bulge’ in the glacier surface which is fractured and pocked marked by hollows – this area represents the living active part of the glacier. The thrust faults which are formed as the ice moves forward can be seen in the lower part of the glacier (the curved fractures cutting across the ice),” says British Geological Survey scientist Emrys Phillips.
Photo Credit: British Geological Survey.

At Falljökull, the team of scientists, who published their research in the AGU Journal of Geogphysical Research in October, found that a new ice front has formed between living and dead pieces of the Falljökull glacier, with the living section actually surging up over the dead section into a bulge at a giant fault line. The scientists note that retreat of the original ice front has accelerated since 2007 and is moving at a faster rate than in any 5-year period since annual measurements began in 1932. Meanwhile, the upper part of Falljökull is still flowing forward at between 164 to 230 feet per year.

“Although the margin of Falljökull has ceased moving and is now undergoing stagnation, field and photographic evidences clearly show that the icefall remains active, feeding ice from the accumulation zone on Öraefajökull to the lower reaches of the glacier,” the scientists write in the paper. “To accommodate this continued forward motion, the upper section of the glacier below the icefall is undergoing intense deformation (folding and thrusting) and, as a result, is being thrust over the lower, immobile section of Falljökull.”

The group expects Falljökull is not the only glacier behaving in this manner, but finding out for sure will require more research. “As far as we know, this is the first time that this type of structural adjustment in active glacier length has been reported, so we cannot be certain that other mountain glaciers respond in the same way as Falljökull,” wrote Phillips. “But that said, from informal comments made by colleagues working in North America, Svalbard and elsewhere in Iceland, plus reading the published literature, we think that it is possible that a number of other Alpine-type glaciers are potentially behaving in a similar way.” In particular, they expect it may be found in places such as the Himalayas, Andes, Alps and Cascades.

The team of scientists was able to detect this zombie glacier behavior using Ground Penetrating Radar to map the ice’s internal structure; terrestrial Laser scanning (LiDAR) to create a 3D model of the surface of the glacier and surrounding landforms; four Global Navigation Satellite System stations on the glacier’s surface to record its velocity, and digital mapping and measuring of the glaciers surface structures, such as fractures, crevasses and faults.

 

Andrew Finlayson setting up the ground penetrating radar. Photo Credit: British Geological Survey.
Andrew Finlayson setting up the ground penetrating radar. Photo Credit: British Geological Survey.