by Christopher Sellers
As the centenary of John Muir’s death in Los Angeles approaches on December 24, the inevitable outpourings of praise need to be tempered with both historical awareness and wariness.
Muir’s legacy runs to the heart of why Americans have had such trouble caring for nature in the places we actually inhabit. Extolling the High Sierra, Muir taught his readers and followers to appreciate a nature that could be truly found only in the most pristine of places, where the human hand seemed lightest.
Yet our biggest environmental problems have long lain not in places like Yosemite, but where human hands appear far more dominant, and nature itself is much harder to see. Muir’s legacy has often impeded our inclination and ability to heed ecological realities that are neither so pristine nor so grandiose, but that thread through our society and our lives. And so Muir’s legacy is inevitably being questioned on this centennial.
But there are other, earlier precedents for productively re-examining Muir’s relevance. The modern environmental movement, which took off after World War II in California as elsewhere, was often concerned with places that were far more populous and built up—suburbs and cities in particular—than Muir’s beloved Sierra.
For at least one prominent mid-century California environmentalist, caring for these places required overcoming Muir’s legacy. Richard Lillard was an English professor and author of Eden in Jeopardy: Man’s Prodigal Meddling with His Environment: The Southern California Experience, published in 1966, and the closest thing Southern California had in those years to an environmental prophet. A Muir acolyte when he first arrived in Los Angeles in the mid-1940’s, Lillard never would have written his seminal book had he remained so.
At first, following Muir, Lillard abandoned the city whenever he could, spending his summers as a “naturalist” guide in Yosemite, and even holding his wedding in its outdoor “cathedral.” His tune changed while living in a house he had bought in 1947 in a canyon of the Santa Monica Mountains, close enough to the downtown to lie within the city limits of Los Angeles.
In search of a conservation that was more personal and “deeply lived,” Lillard got to know the natural world that lay around his own house. That growing acquaintance became central to his transformation. He “lovingly raised” his own home garden, and turned a keen eye to the local wildlife, even the weeds. When a disastrous flood and mudslide struck his and his neighbors’ homes, he launched into local politics, reviving a homeowners’ association that pushed city hall for tighter rules on hillside homebuilding.
Soon thereafter, writing in his private journal, he rankled at Muir’s legacy. Muir’s admirers, he decided, were “socially immature.” He affirmed instead the inspiration of a Thoreau or Andre Gide who “balance … things well”—the “humane world…of private love and public causes” alongside “the nature he makes his setting.” Part of the reason was that the place Lillard now lived in and cared for faced threats that Muir had never contemplated, threats more associated with suburbs or cities than with wilderness. The great contribution of Eden in Jeopardy was to highlight these threats across Southern California: the heedless paving of roads and rivers, the haphazard raising of roofs across valleys and farmland, the hurdling of tons of smoke and hydrocarbons into the Los Angeles basin’s air.
Lillard’s experience mirrored that of the group owing the most to Muir’s legacy, the Sierra Club. As late as 1955, it remained a small group centered on the West Coast and hewing closely to Muir’s vision. Sponsored trips exposed a membership mostly from cities and suburbs to the transcendent nature of the Sierras. Its political agenda remained confined to protecting the remote federal preserves where much of America’s wilderness could be found.
Only after the club began to take on more urban and suburban issues—not before—did the Sierra Club’s roster soar. Its causes expanded in ways that would have utterly puzzled Muir himself. By the early 1960’s, the Los Angeles Chapter had begun lobbying against the county’s dumps, pushing for a public preserve in the Santa Monica Mountains, and for protection of far less pristine parks in Boyle Heights and elsewhere downtown.
Where the Muir tradition most hobbled the Sierra Club from endorsing Lillard’s broader agenda was over environmental threats to human health. Enraptured by the High Sierra, Muir and his disciples mythologized their own strenuous and daring exertions across them. Rarely did they consider how vulnerable to these or any other surroundings human beings could be. Yet that was precisely the message hammered home by post-war environmentalists such as Lillard and Rachel Carson, whose Silent Spring, published in 1962, emphasized that human-made chemicals such pesticides did not just threaten birds and wildlife but people too.
Los Angeles’ worsening smog offered one of the nation’s earliest and gravest instances of how bad the most modern versions of pollution could become. Yet for decades, the Angeleno chapter of the Sierra Club shied away from regional political battles over smog. Only in the late 1960’s did they join in, after Lillard and many others had argued for smog’s relevance to ecological advocacy.
A century out from Muir’s death, humanity’s mounting influence on the planet, and what we now know about that influence, have made a truly pristine nature ever more difficult, even impossible, to find. No place on earth stays untouched by a phenomenon like climate change. To be sure, we still need our Yosemites, not least for the transcendent encounters that Muir and his descendants have helped us to find in them. Yet in a time when human impacts have turned planetary in scale, the project of protecting our wildest places has become far more bound up with what we do in our cities, suburbs, and factories than Muir ever imagined.
More than ever, we also need precedents like Lillard’s: ways we may see, appreciate and protect the natural world in those places where most of us live our lives, but where nature itself sometimes seems far more difficult to find.
Christopher Sellers is the author of Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in 20th-Century America, and a professor of history at Stony Brook University.
Photograph at top by Ken Kanouse via Flickr.