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The Mountains Are Calling—but Who Gets to Go?

Caroline Schaumann

In the Covid-Age, the value of nature runs high. Beaches and mountain trails are overrun with those seeking a respite from lockdowns and social restrictions in the cities, and campervan and RV life is surging in popularity. When Yosemite National Park reopened in early June, the precious few overnight reservations were sold out within minutes, and $2 day-use reservations became scarce, as well. Among those lucky enough to secure a permit, we took our daughter for her first peek of the majestic Valley and its imposing sheer walls, the birthplace of North American rock climbing. What a special treat it was to picnic in the meadow below El Cap without mobs of people, to get misted by water rather than a neighbor’s sweat on the Mist Trail, and to start a climb without waiting in line first for the routes to clear. On our way back, we spotted a black bear roaming through Tuolumne Meadows and a pack of deer crossing the road. Those privileged to experience the uncrowded Valley and high country may wonder whether this is what it was like fifty years ago or more and wish for this kind of exclusivity to stay—both prevalent sentiments on social media.

Covid-19, however, also brings into sharp focus the deep and systemic injustices that pervade American society and extend into all areas of life. This is an opportunity to reexamine histories of racism, bigotry, misogyny, and other forms of discrimination, histories that infuse idyllic nature as much as buildings and monuments. A few days ago, the Sierra Club called out the racist ties of its founder, John Muir (1838–1914), for his friendships with white supremacists, and announced its decision to remove or rename monuments. Denouncing the legacy of white privilege that has pervaded American environmentalism to this day, the Club also vowed to change its leadership structure and staffing so that the voices of Blacks, indigenous, and people of color are represented.

Muir, the so-called Father of the National Parks, remains an intriguing figure precisely because he embodies some aspects we continue to admire and others that are deeply troublesome. As an immigrant from Scotland, he became instrumental for a North American identity. Muir celebrated the immersion of able bodies in nature, but turned to wilderness after a disabling accident caused him to (temporarily) lose his eyesight. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Muir was one of the most effectual environmental advocates who warned against the exploitation and depletion of natural resources, but his tendency to compromise made him sacrifice land not deemed as worthy of preservation.

After emigrating with his deeply devout family from Scotland, Muir began to study in Wisconsin but left for Canada for fear of being drafted into the Civil War. In 1866, he returned to the United States and soon attempted an ill-fated exploration of South America styled after the Prussian explorer Alexander von Humboldt. But after battling heat, humidity, and bouts of malaria in Florida, Muir abandoned these plans and left on a steamer for San Francisco instead. Headed to the California Sierra Nevada, he became a sheepherder who despised sheep, a logger who hated logging, and a wilderness advocate who helped bring tourists to Yosemite.

Muir became instrumental in making wilderness accessible to white men, arguing that temporary respites in nature make for happier workers in the cities. Thus, he not only greatly aided burgeoning tourism to the newly minted National Parks, but also introduced a paradigm that remains immensely influential to this day, when nature-loving city dwellers proclaim their true home to be the “wilderness” they encounter on hiking or camping trips.

Muir journeyed to the mountains seeking rapture and solitude, but arrived in the long-held home of the Yosemite Miwok during the time of their extermination. Not only did he refuse to acknowledge this rich cultural history, but he actively participated in the white settlement of Indian lands. Quite possibly his disdain of Native Americans stemmed from their use of fire. While different tribes used fire strategically and deliberately to control undergrowth, promote biodiversity, and prevent large-scale forest fires, Muir came to view fire as a destructive enemy that had to be avoided at all costs. Ironically, the mountain meadows that Muir admired had been created through regular fires, and in turn his reliance on top-down, European forestry models set into motion federal forest protection measures that ultimately led to large-scale and ever more destructive wildfires made worse by today’s rapidly warming climate.

By envisioning a sublime “wilderness-park,” preserved and depopulated, Muir conjured a place of harmony and no ill will. His gaze often turned a blind eye toward social injustice especially when it came to those not privileged to enjoy nature’s remedies, such as minorities and women. Still, he happily introduced the backcountry to his grown daughters on the Sierra Club’s annual summer camping trips and welcomed women mountaineers. And some of his musings on humans’ profound impact on nature read like timely predictions of the Anthropocene: “Man, too, is making many far-reaching changes. This most influential half animal, half angel is rapidly multiplying and spreading, covering the seas and lakes with ships, the land with huts, hotels, cathedrals, and clustered city shops and homes.” Equally timely, Muir was mocked as an effeminate nature lover in newspaper caricatures, belittled as an amateur scientist, and ultimately discounted by political interest groups.

Muir’s fraught wilderness idea is not an ideal worth aspiring or going back to, but raises urgent questions of the value of nature and recreation and the intersections of environmentalism, race, class, and gender. A little more than a century later, President Obama, during his visit of Yosemite Park in 2016, urged us to carry John Muir’s vision further, connecting us to each other, to nature, to American democracy, and to environmental stewardship. “Because the parks belong to all of us. This planet belongs to all of us. It’s the only one we’ve got,” Obama said. “That’s what our generation has to do. We’ve got to summon that same vision for the future.” 

Back on the wet steps of the Mist Trail in June 2020, as we share our way with fewer but more diverse visitors, the path ahead is foggy and distant, while looking back reminds us of the strains and pains of the steep trail. But as newly posted signs announce, this is now a one-way-only trail because of social distancing measures, and fittingly, we have to return via the John Muir Trail. Even so the vision and the Valley remain.

Caroline Schaumann is professor of German studies at Emory University. She is co-editor of Heights of Reflection: Mountains in the German Imagination from the Middle Ages to the Twenty-First Century and author of Memory Matters: Generational Responses to Germany’s Nazi Past in Recent Women’s Literature.

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