Glen MacDonald on Remembering John Muir

Remembering John Muir on the Centennial of His Passing:
Writer, Naturalist, Scientist, Activist, Geographer?

[Glen MacDonald also is organizing a featured panel session, “Geographers on John Muir: Assessing His Legacy and Relevance After 100 Years,” for the 2015 AAG annual meeting in Chicago, April 21-25. More information will be available soon.]

John Muir died in Los Angeles, California on Christmas Eve, 1914 with the pages of an unfinished manuscript on Alaska beside him in his hospital bed. As we mark the centenary of Muir’s passing what might we say about him from the perspective of Geography? Muir can claim many titles — writer, naturalist, scientist and environmental activist. Can we also consider him a geographer? Certainly Muir worked and wrote in a very formative period for American Geography and the Association of American Geographers. Although he received honorary degrees from the University of California, Wisconsin, Harvard and Yale, Muir never earned a formal university diploma. He did, however, attend the University of Wisconsin for two years starting in the 1860’s. Alas, this was long before the establishment of the Department of Geography there. But then founding lights of the AAG, including William Morris David, educated in the 19th century like Muir, did not hold degrees in the then incipient field of geography either. In Muir’s case his academic interests focused on chemistry, geology and botany. Through Ezra Carr, a Professor of Natural Sciences, Muir was likely introduced to the then revolutionary theories of Louis Agassiz regarding Pleistocene glaciation and this became a lifelong interest. Muir would also become acquainted with the controversial theories on evolution articulated by Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species. Although Agassiz was to remain deeply hostile to Darwin’s theory of natural selection, the ideas of both of these men were highly influential in the thinking of Muir as well as creators of the AAG such William Morris Davis. More than this though, Muir, like Davis and every geographer of the time, was profoundly influenced by that foundational figure of modern geography, Alexander von Humboldt. Indeed, in 1866 Muir wrote to his mentor and confident Jeanne Carr “How intensely I desire to be a Humboldt!” Muir’s regard for Humboldt, his intellectual development in the natural sciences and his intense interest in combining both geology and botany reflects the same scholarly, and at the time revolutionary, crucible that formed the science of Davis and Clements. By inclination and available education he was arguably as much a geographer as many of the founders of the AAG.

A scan of a more than 100-year-old photo of Muir by C. F. Lummis taken in 1901.
Owned by: Glen M. MacDonald
John Muir Memorial Chair
Distinguished Professor of
Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and
The Institute of the Environment and Sustainability
Los Angeles, CA

Like Davis, Muir was a sharp observationalist-inductivist who moved beyond the descriptive confines of natural history and sought to explain nature rather than simply observe and record. Within the earth sciences, Muir’s work on glacial features and evidence of past glaciation coupled with his theory on the glacial origins of Yosemite and other Sierra Nevada valleys stands as an important and lasting contribution. Physical geography is sometimes delineated from geology through its attention to modern processes and landforms. In this regard Muir showed a similar inclination. He was the first to discover living glaciers in the Sierra Nevada. This work, published in 1873 in the American Journal of Science and Arts must have been particularly sweet for Muir as it reinforced his position in a well-known scientific disagreement with Josiah Dwight Whitney, a Professor of Geology at Harvard and head of the California Geological Survey, who argued, incorrectly, that the Yosemite Valley was a tectonic feature. However, if geography is indeed the integrative science, then Muir was to more than equal many founders of the AAG in his desire and capability of spanning the earth and life sciences. Muir wrote many descriptions of the distributions of montane and alpine flora, but my favorite, and certainly most integrative was his study of the giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum). In his 1876 monograph published as a Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Muir analyzed the contemporary distribution of the species along the west slope of the Sierra Nevada, noted its environmental relations and particularly its disjunct distribution. The latter he attributed to the fragmentation of its range by Pleistocene glaciers emanating from the High Sierra. Now, today we know Muir had an overstated belief in the extent and role of glaciation and new research shows that the geographic distribution of giant sequoia may largely be explained by micro-climate, but the questions he asked remain topical. Muir also presaged the current focus of many geographers on the long-term trajectories and uncertain future of plant animal species in the face of human impact. Consider his pondering the future of the giant sequoia in his 1876 “What area does Sequoia now occupy as the principal tree? Was the species ever more extensively distributed in the Sierra during post-glacial times? Is the species verging on extinction? And if so, then to what causes will its extinction be due? What have been its relation to climate, soils and to other coniferous trees with which it is associated? What are those relations now? What are they likely to be in the future?” These are the same questions biogeographers are asking about a multitude of endangered species.

Muir’s scientific work and his writings were no doubt well known by many of the founders and first members of the AAG. What of his actual engagement with professional geography and his regard by the discipline at that time? It is notable that Muir was a member of the Committee for Arrangements, along with William Morris Davis and a number of eminent geographers for the 8th International Geographic Congress in 1904. His impact on our discipline clearly transcended his passing. It is striking to me that the 1958 Honorary Presidential Address by John Leighly at the first Annual Meeting of the AAG to be held on the west coast was entitled “John Muir’s Image Of The West.” I was alerted to Muir’s quote regarding von Humboldt through Leighly’s speech. Today, 100 years past his death, although citations to Muir’s scientific papers may be sparse, his ideas on the importance of past glaciations and his books such as My First Summer in the Sierra or Our National Parks remain widely known by geographers investigating questions of physical geography, conservation or human-nature perception and interactions. As Muir is in the pantheon of thinkers who developed modern environmentalism and conservation, it would be hard to find any geographer who has not been exposed to the work and philosophy of Muir in the course of their education. Geographer activists knowingly or unknowing are also taking a page from his book, most strikingly developed during his emotional and ultimately failed attempt to save the Hetch Hetchy Valley. For generations these ideas have undoubtedly helped formulate the thinking of geographers and through them the course of the AAG. So, although never formally a trained geographer, Muir was drawn by the same forces of curiosity and cross-disciplinary inquiry that have propelled geographers and geography over the past century.  I am inclined to consider him a true geographer and one of our seminal figures. As he so fervently desired in 1866, Muir was and is “a Humboldt.”  (John Muir: Born April 21, 1838, Dunbar, Scotland; Died December 24, 1914, Los Angeles, CA)

Glen MacDonald is distinguished professor and inaugural John Muir Memorial Chair in Geography at UCLA. He engages Geography with scholars, policy makers, writers, artists, activists and others to look at contemporary nature and people issues in the American West.

Glen MacDonald also is organizing a featured panel session, “Geographers on John Muir: Assessing His Legacy and Relevance After 100 Years,” for the 2015 AAG annual meeting in Chicago, April 21-25. More information will be available soon.

DOI: 10.14433/2014.0019