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.
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.