The following essay is excerpted from a special edition of John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra, produced by Hat & Beard Press. It is part of a larger exploration of the history of California, a conceptual, agitprop artistic movement, titled The Free Republic of California, produced by artist Cole Sternberg.

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Cole Sternberg has offered photographs of a remarkable space, physical and psychic. The project is, for lack of a better word, furtive, but in no way disingenuous. The images ask us to interrogate the images John Muir would have us imagine while reading his journal. The images quietly point out that we all, finally, see through our own eyes, a kind of testimony to a sense datum theory of perception.

That we owe gratitude to John Muir for his part in establishing not only a national attitude about the preservation of the wilderness but for our nationals parks’ existence is certainly true. However, like most big gifts there are some strings attached and some baggage to unpack.

There is an excuse that people like to give those of the past when it comes to racism and bad thinking in general, that the people of earlier times cannot be judged by today’s standards. I read an editorial from the LA Times excusing John Muir of his racist ideas by stating that he was a mere representation of his time, that there was slavery over most of the planet and that, and this is the one I like, there was even slavery in the Bible. Now, this is an extremely simple-minded view and excuse for Muir’s attitudes, and as I hate the building of straw men, I will forget about this. But I will say that there were people who embodied better thinking and more fair attitudes about other people, even in Muir’s day. Bigotry was not simply an unchosen, necessary condition.

I am not interested in the rather well-documented case for Muir’s racist attitudes, mostly and perhaps entirely from his own pen, but in the persistent, insidious, and cloaked way his idea of white superiority is present in his attitudes about the wilderness.

In his 19th century style, Muir never paints a subtle picture of the wilderness he is experiencing:

An eagle soaring above a cheer cliff, where I suppose its nest is, makes another striking show of life, and helps to bring to mind the other people of the so-called solitude—deer in the forest caring for their young; the strong, well-clad, well-fed bears; the lively throng of squirrels; the blessed birds, great and small, stirring and sweetening the groves; and the clouds of happy insects filling the sky with joyous hum as part and parcel of the down-pouring of sunshine. All these come to mind, as well as the plant people, and the glad streams singing their way to the sea. But most impressive of all is the vast glowing countenance of the wilderness in awful, infinite repose.

— July 26 from My First Summer in the Sierra

One can open My First Summer in the Sierra to any page and find something just like this. The hyperbole, the personification, the rhythm are consistent and ever-present. But in this passage I am fascinated by the use of the word people, the fact that bears are well-clad, that the birds are blessed, that the insects, mosquitoes and black flies included, are happy and humming, but that the actual humans that inhabited the range are not present. In fact, Muir worked to have the indigenous folks moved off the land on which they had lived and arguably maintained, managing animal populations, setting small fires to prevent larger fires, for generations because he found them lazy and dirty. During his trek through the South, a trek considered remarkable, mythic by many Muir lovers, a walk that many Cherokee people made frequently, by the way, he happened upon a family of black slaves in Florida and wondered why they could not be clean, like the deer were clean.

At the end of the passage above is the word awful. This, of course, comes out his religious upbringing. A terrible god is not a bad thing, as I understand it. The wilderness is something beyond the sum of its constituent parts. Wilderness is not something one can point to, but it is there. It is god. Yet, Muir is no pantheist. But he is one of the privileged, clear-visioned elite who can recognize the Wilderness and further state that we need to protect it. It never occurs to him that this might be the very reason Native people had chosen the Sierra as their home. Nor does it occur to him that they might see the Wilderness in the same way, happily biting and humming insects notwithstanding. The awful Wilderness is not to be feared, but to be worshipped and that’s okay, but the religion must be managed by, you guessed it, white people.

To state what places are to be named worthy of setting aside and worshipping is an exercise of ownership of the land. There is a deep-seated white American anxiety about owning the land, the anxiety that, as Vine Deloria pointed out, often leads to white Americans claiming tenuous Native American ancestry. And this connection to the wilderness is another site where white America seeks to establish a special place. Starting with James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo, our literature often depicts the hero emerging from and dissolving back into the wild, mysterious, unforgiving, awful landscape. It does happen however that the places chosen as examples of nature’s beauty and grand existence are, in fact, grand and beautiful. For this we can agree with Muir that these lands should, perhaps must, be preserved. Preserved. For whom? Muir wanted the indigenous people of Sierra gone. The Wilderness was not to be preserved for them. It was to be set aside for “the nation.” I will leave to you to guess what that might mean. I do not mind that Muir considered the true appreciation of the wilderness the purview of the elite. That was the thinking of his time, as many have pointed out and for the sake of argument I suggest that we allow it as excuse. The parks are indeed wonderful. The choices are the product of bad arithmetic, but special, and perhaps correct, nonetheless. They may have outgrown their racist and elitist underpinnings to the point that having set them aside has encouraged the kind of visitation that, sadly, threatens them. That irony aside, these places are special not merely because John Muir said they were, but because they are examples of our space, the space where we wished we lived, even if the people who lived there don’t.

What the images here do is suggest the complicated formation, not of the geology and topography, but of concept. What the Sierra contains within its boundaries is a statement not only about the physical beauty of North America, but an accounting of how this nation wants and chooses to see itself. The work in this book is not only a portrait of a place, but a portrait of us.

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Percival Everett is a novelist, poet, and Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Southern California.