Sunday, 30 April 2017

“Perhaps if I knew them better I should like them better.” John Muir, People and Native Americans in 'My First Summer in the Sierra.'

As someone interested in history, in the environment, in wilderness, conservation, and writing, I am ashamed to say that I just learned about John Muir, the late 19th century Scottish- American naturalist, last month. From a comic. Muir is famed for petitioning the U.S government for the creation of Yosemite national park, and also for his involvement in the Sierra club and other moves for conserving wilderness in the U.S. I decided to read the only of Muir’s books my library had on offer, My First Summer in the Sierra, to dip into oldey-timey conservation and naturalist writing, hoping to find connections and optimism for movements today.
            It is hard not to feel deeply for the environment as Muir sees it; he admires all life, even the ferocious bears and irritating Douglas squirrel, and laments the very undergrowth that the flock of sheep he accompanies lays waste in its trampling past. It is no surprise then, that he feels deeply the wound capitalism has created between man and the ever-connected and brotherly web of nature he sees before him. This occurs mainly in his observations of Shepherds in California, whom are degraded and exhausted by their economic strife, and may only be driven by hopes of escalating in the capitalist system by saving up to buy a flock of their own. I can think of no better summarizing image than the one Muir paints of Billy, the shepherd he accompanies, who’s clothing becomes entirely coated over time with the greasy, fatty dripping of the lunch he ties to his belt, meaning that “instead of wearing thin [his trousers] wear thick.” Billy has no emotional connection to the sheep, remarking often when one goes astray that he is not paid enough to keep saving them.
            It is thus greatly surprising, considering Muir’s deep-felt empathy for nature and his lamentations about the Arcadian shepherd being broken by American capitalism, to read his shocks and spites for Native Americans, in this era still referred to widely as ‘Indians.’ From the off Muir writes of the feeble and weak ‘Digger Indians,’ who are never specified by tribe, culture or nation, instead just a taxonomic ugliness akin to the South African settler’s naming of the ‘bushman.’ Muir frequently writes of the Indians sustenance on nature, of which he is jealous of as he and his colleagues must rely on deliveries of bread and other supplies which runs dry for an uncomfortable time. He also writes of their skill in living in their environment, as he is startled a few times by the sudden and silent appearance of a Native in their camp. Despite these admirations, he still affords them little acknowledgement for their ingenuities. He remarks on their ragged clothing, their begging for whiskey or tobacco, without really acknowledging the corrupting effect of white capitalist invasion in the same way he affords the white shepherd.
            I am sure there are a number of ways to understand his perception of native Americans, but I find it most hard to digest as a result of his perceived special ‘Scotchness,’ which I feel Muir stresses to tie him stronger to nature within the capitalist systematics of shepherding in California. When commenting on the Californian shepherds ill education, grimy food and overall depressing life, he compares it to the Scottish shepherd, whom he praises alongside the ‘Oriental shepherd’ for maintaining a keen intellect and interest in culture. Muir also retells an event where, in the dead of night, he ‘felt’ that a friend of his was nearby, and in the morning found that his friend was indeed in the valley he felt him to be in, to everyone’s surprise. This is written as being an event of extraordinary ‘Scotch farsightedness.’ I want to believe that, as result of his belief in himself as Scottish and thus different in culture etc. to other Europeans, Muir would understand other cultural uniquenesses and admire them in the same way he would admire a forested valley. I am no great scholar of Muir, but I feel that, between his heightened Scottishness and his flippancy towards the fascinating lives of Indians who understand and admire their environments as much as, if not more, than muir, exists the kind of Celtic, white-supremacist mythologizing that helped spawn various blights to the development of American culture(s) such as the Southern confederacy, which borrowed the very flag design of Scotland for their own, and also the Ku Klux Klan, who borrowed the symbolism of the 'clan' for their own twisted ends. Like I said, I am not great scholar of Muir, and also never knew him personally, but on closer critical reading I have dug up this dull residue of his understanding of the Natives of the wild lands he so greatly admires.

            I have written the above without even dipping into his mentionings of ‘Chinamen,’ some vague myths he recounts of Indian surrenders, and also an event in passing that was of interest to me, wherein he claims to have enjoyed the company of a general of the Florida Seminole wars, one of many wars between white invader and Native Americans.

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