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Sense of (Dis)place

Jon Christensen threw the bomb and plenty of people registered the blast. “Muir’s a dead end,” he told L.A. Times reporter Louis Sahagun last week. “It’s time to bury his legacy and move on.” More than 170 comments on the piece include “I hope these two guys aren’t actually teaching our children,” referring also to Glen MacDonald, John Muir chair in geography at UCLA. I got to take part in MacDonald’s November 13 symposium considering the legacy of John Muir as we come up on the centennial of his death in 1914. To my delight, MacDonald pointed out that among other things, Muir was a citizen scientist. Muir didn’t have a college degree but “He was right about glaciation and the origin of some Yosemite mountains,” despite the countervailing theory put forth by Josiah Whitney, then head of the California Geological Survey, that an earthquake had done the job.

Christensen edits BOOM!: A Journal of California, and many of my fellow speakers contributed to its current issue, “Thinking with Nature.” I started my career in the magazine world and I still love the form, especially when an issue opens like a bouquet of varied yet related ideas, which this one does. Byron Wolfe showed us panoramic photographs with historic images stitched in to reveal cultural layers of how a single landscape has been conveyed over time. Ruth Askevold from the San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI) does something similar from a scientific perspective, and her work reveals layers of truth rather than interpretation. She is an historical ecologist and helps figure out what targeted landscapes looked like at various times in the past. Change over time is the stock in trade of understanding nature and in grappling with how to take care of it. Askevold shows what was in a place and what is still there now – and as in Wolfe’s photographs, some features persist, many of them geological and hydrological. These “nodes” where nature hasn’t budged are both emotionally reassuring and useful for focusing restoration efforts. (SFEI could make art objects out of its reports and sell them, just saying.)

There was much casual brilliance tossed about all day. Leading a panel on the New Nature of California, UCLA professor Ursula Heisse commented that her panelists had each in their own way refocused our attention by confessing their own experiences of nature. I liked this a lot because there is a downside, for me anyway, to academic slicing and dicing of “what are we seeing and what does it mean,” which is that urgent and palpable realities, like the disastrous downward spiral of nature today, end up translated into words and basically disembodied.

So John Muir embodies nature for many people. Has nature been buried with him? Richard White, brilliant Stanford historian, posits that Muir’s worldview left us with a tripartite concept of nature. There is the pristine wilderness, there is the ‘working’ landscape that includes ranches, mines, and agriculture, and there are the cities where we live. This is not good. Nature is not separate, even in the dense metropolis.

For me Muir is not a point of origin on nature, he’s a persistent node like the physical ones Askevold discerns. I was on a panel considering the Native American lens on California, and Muir would seem to have a dismal record here. He came upon bedraggled natives and he felt they didn’t fit into the pretty picture around them. What Muir did not see is still not completely recognized by us today. Those people would of course look depressed – they were survivors of a genocide well underway in California at the time, when the Gold Rush and subsequent logging fever gave license to white European newcomers to kill them and appropriate their land. These people had become strangers in their Eden, kicked out not by their own sin but by somebody else’s. As horrendous as this instance of it is, radical dislocation is not unusual. It is shared by many people around world, historically and today. Diaspora is a common denominator of human experience.

John Muir moved to Wisconsin from Scotland when he was 11 – losing his homeland – and suffered a violent father who beat him. In wilderness, Muir found a place to recuperate. Perhaps he did not see the Native Californians’ trauma because he hadn’t recognized his own. Christensen provoked a dialog about whether our image of the bearded bard of “whole” wilderness is an adequate talisman for the challenges nature is facing today. I say yes it is, but we need to look deeper into Muir’s eyes. They are not just reflecting gorgeous mountains, they are revealing stores of loss and pain. It’s premature to depart from John Muir before we have more fully visited with him. We take it for granted that he saved places like Yosemite just because they were beautiful. There’s more to it.

(Photo of Ishi copyright Byron Wolfe.)

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