I, Jackass

jc-mg-200-names.jpgJon Christensen writes: Last Thursday, I woke up to find myself "a giant douchebag" on Reddit and a "jackass" on Twitter. "You are a moron" was the subject line for a simple email that said nothing more. An angry voicemail ended with the declaration: "We will never let you ruin our planet! Period!"

I went out to my front yard and picked up the cause of this wrath. There I was on the front page of the newly revived California section of the LA Times quoted in a story about rethinking John Muir, "the patron saint of environmentalism," as we approach the 100th anniversary of his death in Los Angeles on December 24, 1914.

Muir obit.jpgMuir's legacy is "just not useful anymore," I was quoted as saying to LA Times environmental reporter Louis Sahagun. It was right there in black and white, next to a picture of John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt in Yosemite. And then there was the kicker. "Muir's a dead end," Sahagun quoted me saying. "It's time to bury his legacy and move on."

I don't come here to dispute anything about Sahagun's story, especially the quotations attributed to me. My quotations are accurate and the story reflects a range of perspectives on Muir's legacy, including mine.

But I do come here to apologize to the many people I offended on Thursday and afterward as the story ricocheted around the Internet. I have heard you. I am sorry that I came across as disrespecting John Muir and his history. And I am especially sorry that I seemed to publicly denigrate your passion for understanding and caring for nature, because I share that passion. And the way that I stated my view was blunt, insensitive, and meant to provoke, like, well, a jackass.

I understand and respect that, as one friend said, Muir's "connection with the power of nature serves to inspire us with wonder" and "is valuable and abiding." That friend added, by the way, that I am "insane." Another friend reminded me that environmentalists owe "a great debt" to Muir, whose use of science and gathering of supporters for environmental causes are "as relevant today" as they were when Muir was alive. I meant no disrespect for people who feel this way, many of whom are my friends, or were before Thursday anyway.

I had meant to provoke and inspire a debate, a venerable form of exploring ideas in educational settings such as UCLA, where I teach, and beyond. I was being the devil's advocate in a debate with my colleague and friend Glen MacDonald, who was recently appointed to a new John Muir memorial chair in geography at UCLA. Glen shares many of the sentiments of Muir's most ardent admirers. "For all his flaws, Muir did a lot of great things and his enthusiasm for nature continues to inspire," Glen told the LA Times.

Together, Glen and I explored our different views of Muir in more depth-- and brought many more diverse voices into the conversation -- in the most recent issue of Boom: A Journal of California dedicated to "Thinking with Nature: A Century Beyond John Muir." We also brought contributors to that issue together with other thinkers and doers to widen the conversation in a symposium that brought hundreds of people to UCLA on Thursday. That was the peg for Sahagun's story in the LA Times.

One of the best things about academia is that we can argue intensely in a symposium or classroom about things that matter deeply to us and to the world. We can and often do disagree. And we can go out for a drink afterward and remain friends and colleagues.

One of Thursday's participants argued that is it my job as a historian "to make John Muir relevant in today's America." Another argued the opposite: "We need to find new stories." Both have dedicated their lives to important environmental work, for which I am grateful.

When I say I was playing the devil's advocate on Thursday, I do not mean to disavow what I said. But I was up against a man many revere like a saint, and so, I was, by definition, it turns out, on the side of the devil. And I now realize that the way I expressed my views in my informal debate with Glen, which Louis Sahagun reported in the LA Times, sounded rude to many people.

As a historian, I did not in any way mean to suggest that we should not teach our kids about John Muir, understand his great accomplishments, as well as his human flaws, and the great work he has inspired among generations of environmentalists. What I meant to argue has to do with the difference between history and legacy. I value the history of John Muir. But I also think that Muir's legacy -- what he means today -- is no longer very useful and in some ways stands in the way of what needs to be done today. His vision of a California divided in three -- between cities where people live and work, the economically productive landscapes of farms, ranches and mines, and the wilderness cathedrals of nature -- is no longer a useful way to think about people and nature in the 21st century. We need to value people and nature everywhere. And along with many others, including the environmentalist who told me it is my job to make Muir relevant, I worry that Muir's message "does not resonate with so many people" anymore. Not only does it not resonate, it also excludes many people who will have to be engaged if we want the love for nature that so many of us share to continue to thrive in California.

I have what I hope is a constructive reason for rethinking John Muir. That reason is this: John Muir was a terrific hero for the 19th and 20th centuries. And he accomplished amazing things in his own life and in the work he has inspired. But while we might take inspiration from Muir as a founder of the environmental movement, we can't count on him for guidance now, any more than we can turn back to George Washington as a guide to politics today. We need new conservation and environmental heroes. And those modern heroes will likely look very different from John Muir. They might be Latina, female, love cities, worry about social justice, and want a cabin in which to spend a night in a state park. They might be black, love car camping with their kids, and cooking outdoors. And, heck, one might be a young techie taking a long solo hike in the Sierra with nothing more than a crust of bread, climbing a swaying tree in a storm, and snapping a selfie to share on social media.

I'd like to meet all of them and include all of them in this conversation. So let's celebrate John Muir's heroic efforts on behalf of nature, but also recognize we need a whole new generation of heroes. And those heroes should not feel constrained by Muir's legacy, as long as they care for nature passionately in their own ways.

May I also add one more thing? I recognize that a lot of environmental and conservation organizations, including the Sierra Club, as well as park agencies--local, regional, state, and national--share these concerns and are determined to become more inclusive. These efforts are important. They give me hope.

I am sorry that my words were a divisive wedge. While I intended to provoke a debate, I did not want the debate to be polarizing.

Still stinging from responses to the LA Times story, I found myself in the men's room at the end of the day on Thursday feeling a little paranoid perhaps. One of the other guys washing his hands was a sturdy, stern-looking, elderly gentleman with a cane. I had a fleeting vision of being caned right then and there 19th-century style. And I glanced around furtively wondering if anyone would come to my defense.

But as we walked back out to the symposium, the old man turned to me. "Thank you," he said. "You made us think."

"You're welcome," I stammered in surprise. "That's what we're supposed to do here at the university," I said. "That's our job."

John Muir obituary from the Los Angeles Record from the Dr. Walter Lindley Scrapbook Collection, Hornold/Mudd Library at the Claremont Colleges, courtesy of Boom: A Journal of California.


More by Jon Christensen and Mark Gold:
Previous blog post: Overheard in Venice
Next blog post: Stories Books and Cafe
Recently on Native Intelligence
New at LA Observed

LA Observed on Twitter