The Man, The Trail, and The Wilderness Ideal

by Don Weiss

Ecology–A Myth for Our Time?

According to an 1872 description, John Muir was five feet nine inches tall, and he referred to himself as having been stunted by his harsh childhood. The film shown at the Muir House Historical Site says he was “about six feet tall.” He took virtually all his longer trips either riding a horse or leading a pack animal, generally both, and traveled with companions as often as possible. Yet he said he went alone, afoot, carrying just dry bread and tea. And he is said to have been killed by the heartbreak of losing the battle over Hetch Hetchy. Why?

At a 1990 scholarly conference devoted to Muir, Harold Wood, a Sierra Club activist, gave a talk devoted to Muir as a hero. He argued that Muir’s life contained many of the elements of the standard hero’s biography. He came from a far place, he showed early signs of unusual powers and talents, he went into the wilderness for inspiration, he fought the good fight against inhuman forces, and died of sorrow after his last great battle. Wood argued that such a life deserved commemoration such as it now has in California, where Muir’s birthday, April 21, is a State Commemorative Day.

Two days after Woods’ talk, the world celebrated the second Earth Day. Millions of people planted trees, marched, read about recycling, or attended outdoor concerts in praise of Mother Earth and in warning against pollution and all the other ills that bedevil the world. So as John Muir becomes recognized as a hero, the people of the world turn increasingly toward Ecology. This is not an accident.

Much of the Earth Day rhetoric and many of the activities were clearly reminiscent of religion, just as so much of Muir’s mountain-saving rhetoric reverberated with the prose of the King James Bible. This also is not an accident.

At the same time as the growth of the ecology movement, a complex of ideas, philosophies and religious practices has become popular in the US and abroad under the name New Age Movement. Nearly all these groups share much of the rhetoric and belief of the ecologists, and they all find a great deal of common ground, not least in the way they are all often reviled by The Powers That Be. Organized religion opposes the new religions, orthodox capitalists and socialists oppose ecologists, and the FBI is out to get the leaders of Earth First!, a group whose slogan is, “Back to the Pleistocene.” These things are all connected, all part of the same great change engulfing our era.

To understand these connections, it is useful to look at an essay written by Joseph Campbell in his book Myths To Live By. He defined religion as a subset of the general theme, myth, but specifically as a set of myths accepted by a society as the official representation of its world view. Once it is accepted as such, a religion that acts as an “operating mythology” fulfills four functions within the society.

  1. to waken and maintain in the individual a sense of awe and gratitude in relation to the mystery dimension of the universe, not so that he lives in fear of it, but so that he recognizes that he participates in it.
  2. to offer an image of the universe that is in accord with the knowledge of the time.
  3. to validate, support, and imprint the norms of a given, specific moral order.
  4. to guide him, stage by stage, in health, strength, and harmony of spirit, through the whole foreseeable course of a useful life.

The Sierra Club, which was largely Muir’s creation, has recently published a book that seems to be an adequate “first draft” candidate for the Bible of the new functional mythology which I call, simply, Ecology. It includes a history of the club, profiles of the Club’s early leaders, a glowing portrait of Muir with quotes from his writings, and an extensive analysis of how the club is fighting the good fight for ecology, social justice, and sustainable life on earth.

It attempts to, “awaken awe and gratitude in relation to the mystery dimension of the universe,” through evocative descriptions of natural beauty, photographs, and an eloquent passage from one of the most eloquent writers whose subject is the environment, Wallace Stegner.

It offers an image of the universe in conformance with current scientific knowledge. In fact, a recurring theme in the book is the scientific basis for everything the club does. Ours is seen as an age of science and “Ecology” is perceived as a scientific discipline rather than a philosophical approach.

It attempts to validate, support and imprint its views on club members by getting them involved in club-sponsored activities, either recreational, political, or both.

Finally, it tries to guide day-to-day behavior by suggesting that each individual must attempt to contribute to the goal of living an ecologically sound existence–through no-trace camping, recycling, using transit, tithing to support the club’s lobbying efforts, and just generally being a good resident of the Planet Earth. The book sums up the club’s mission in this way:

“Although no one can predict what the future of our remarkable planet will be, conservationists the world over generally agree on what they would like to find in the environment of the future Earth: clean water, healthy and abundant wildlands and wildlife, technology appropriate to a finite world, concerned citizens who use non renewable resources frugally and make the most of those that may be renewed.”

Societies always try to mold their life to their operating mythology. They also try to mold their myth to their needs and their dreams. I believe that what we see in the explosive growth of the Sierra Club and similar organizations, the movement for the creation of wilderness areas and the use of those areas, the genesis of Earth First!, the alar scare of 1989, and much of what is rounded up under the title “The New Age Movement” –all this is a groping towards the creation of a new operating mythology.

The heart of this myth is the appreciation of the values of Nature, especially as epitomized by Wilderness. One of the basic laws of ecology is “Nature knows best.” This suggests a belief, easily traceable back to Muir and Thoreau, that whatever in Nature is most “wild” and most “natural” is obviously best. Edward Abbey, the guru of Earth First!, pointed out that Thoreau “outgrew” the Transcendentalism of Emerson, which saw Man as the center of all things and believed that Ultimate Truth could be spoken in rational words. I think Abbey was right. In his posthumous essay, “Walking,” Thoreau wrote,

I think that each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest, of five hundred or a thousand acres, either in one body or several–where a stick should never be cut for fuel–nor for the navy, nor to make wagons, but to stand and decay for higher uses–a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation.”

This call for people to be instructed by “untrammeled” natural processes, through the image of a tree decaying uncut, was amplified by Muir in the books and articles that flowed off his pen after he decided that his role was that of John the Baptist, to “entice people only to look at nature’s loveliness.” His life became a hero’s life because those who agree with him have seen him as their hero. They have named so many things after him that in the U.S. Dept. of the Interior instructions about how to propose naming a specific natural feature after someone, they give Muir as an example of a person who has had so many things named after him already that “enough is enough.” His name appears on a National Monument, a National Historic Site, an Alaskan Glacier, schools, campsites, a mountain pass, a 14,000 foot peak, and a trail. The John Muir Trail. A modern route of pilgrimage where, as on all pilgrimage routes, the devotee is guided by a spiritual mentor through tests both mental and physical, and returned to society a better person. If ecology is becoming a functioning myth for our time and Muir is its prophet, surely the John Muir Trail deserves it place as a pilgrimage.

So before it becomes a mandatory “coming of age” rite for millions as part of the new religion, strap on a pack and head for Yosemite.

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunlight flows into trees.


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