Where is the dividing line? Where is the dark, thick line that we can use to decide whether a person is/was good or bad? The question fills my head as I wander through the stunning Strentzel-Muir House, the highlight of John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez, California. Here, the famed naturalist and “Father of the National Parks” lived with his wife and daughters, engaged in many of his important writings. For more than a century, his legacy was untarnished. Recently, however, controversy has found John Muir through the uncovering of some rather disgusting thoughts and words.
The name John Muir is synonymous with the environmental movement. His words, poetic and descriptive, helped inspire America to protect some of its most beautiful natural places, places like Yosemite. He was one of the political forces behind the creation of the National Park Service, and was the first President For Life of the Sierra Club. Muir Woods is named for him, as are natural features ranging from meadows to glaciers. And one of the colleges at the University of California at San Diego is named for him as well. That last one hits home, since I am an alumnus of John Muir College at UCSD.
Here at John Muir National Historic Site, the good side of John Muir is well documented. A twenty minute video shares some of his life highlights. Born in Scotland in 1838, Muir moved with his family to Wisconsin at the age of eleven. It was here that he fell in love with nature, using walks to escape a fairly abusive father. After a machining accident nearly cost him his eye in 1867, he undertook a 1,000 mile walk from Kentucky to Florida, then sailing to California. Upon disembarking in San Francisco, he declared he was looking for a place that was wild.
Over the next decade, Muir would spend time in Yosemite, Alaska, and other relatively untouched places in the American West. In 1881, he moved to Martinez, where he managed the fruit orchards of the Strentzel family. After marrying Louisa Strentzel, he would inherit the house and surrounding lands, what is now John Muir National Historic Site. From here, he was an activist, working to get Yosemite protected – successfully – and to protect Hetch Hetchy Valley from damming – unsuccessfully – among other projects. His desk, still intact in his office in the house, would be his battlefield.
In 2020, the Sierra Club was forced to publicly address the legacy of John Muir after statements he made came to light. It was a drastic move, forever tarnishing the legacy of one of the world’s greatest advocates for environmental protections. While the organization didn’t go as far as to remove Muir as a President For Life, they did acknowledge his views as abhorrent. Over the decades, John Muir had made incredibly derogatory statements about Blacks and Native Americans, as well as openly associating with – and endorsing the views of – other prominent conservationists with similarly racist views.
It baffles my mind that the same man who once wrote that “God never made an ugly landscape. All that the sun shines on is beautiful, so long as it is wild” also wrote that Native Americans “seemed to have no right place in the landscape” or that they were “strangely dirty… half-happy savages.” Similarly distasteful statements were made about anyone of color befouling his precious national parks, and he apparently privately commented to peers that he wished they could be barred from enjoying those wild places.
I walk through the Strentzel orchards, still producing fruit after so many years, and think. No person is perfect. Many icons of ages past have checkered – or worse – legacies. Where is the balancing point in how we see them today? Thomas Jefferson authored the documents founding modern democracy, but believed it was just to own other people. John F. Kennedy was an adulterer. Do we try to understand these people in the context of their times, or through modern morality? (Some, like Robert E. Lee and Christopher Columbus have their single defining thing being negative (fighting for slavery; getting lost and butchering native populations) that their legacies aren’t – to me – up for debate. But many others straddle the line.)
As of now, John Muir National Historic Site doesn’t have anything on this recent controversy, although a ranger tells me they are planning an exhibit on it. For now, the place makes the man out to be a near saint.
There is a movement within UCSD to rename John Muir College in the light of all this. It wouldn’t be the first in California. Hastings School of Law is being renamed, as Serranus Hastings committed acts of genocide against native Californians. Everything named for Robert Millikan, a strong believer in eugenics, has been renamed. So where do I come down? I tend to believe that thoughts, even those as disgusting as Muir’s, are worth less than deeds. And since Muir didn’t – to the best of my knowledge – actually try to ban people of color from the parks, I feel his good works outweigh those terrible words and beliefs. But he is on thin ice with this alumnus.
It is important to note, however, that while some things named after John Muir directly relate to his work, the college named for him is purely an honor. There can and should be different standards between removing the man’s name from Muir Woods – which reflects his work to start the National Park Service – and John Muir College, with which he had no direct connection.
A visit to John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez, California is meant to be a short pilgrimage to honor a man who did as much, if not more, as anyone to get natural places protected. But while that is certainly a worthy goal, it is incomplete without also taking some time to think about the controversy of John Muir, and about the concept of legacy as it pertains to anyone held in such societal esteem. All in all, I can think of worse ways to spend a morning.
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