Rooting in the Dirt: On Robert Aquinas McNally’s “Cast Out of Eden”

By Andrew GraybillMay 12, 2024

Rooting in the Dirt: On Robert Aquinas McNally’s “Cast Out of Eden”

Cast Out of Eden: The Untold Story of John Muir, Indigenous Peoples, and the American Wilderness by Robert Aquinas McNally

ACROSS THE FIRST two episodes of his celebrated 2009 docuseries The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, director Ken Burns devotes more than an hour of screen time to the preservationist John Muir.

The program lionizes Muir for his unyielding commitment to wilderness in the face of the sweeping industrialization that transformed the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Muir scholar and reenactor Lee Stetson, who bears a striking resemblance to the man himself, reads long passages in his hero’s Scottish brogue.

But Muir’s reputation is not unblemished. He had a penchant for sanctimony and a clumsy approach to politics. Others note Muir’s stifling elitism, seen particularly in his perspective on who should be able to enjoy the national parks and how. Of late, much of the ire towards Muir concerns his racism, which prompted officials at the University of California, Davis to remove his name from the school’s Institute of the Environment in 2022, since it “does not symbolize positive elements of the current environmental and climate justice movement for all people and all communities.”

Robert Aquinas McNally’s new book, Cast Out of Eden: The Untold Story of John Muir, Indigenous Peoples, and the American Wilderness, prompts a fresh round of reconsideration by attending specifically to this side of the United States’ pioneering environmental crusader.

Muir was born in 1838 in a seaside village east of Edinburgh and raised by a tyrannical father, who—after converting to the Disciples of Christ—immigrated his family to the United States in 1849. They settled on a farm in south central Wisconsin, of which Muir later wrote: “Everything about us was so novel and wonderful that we could hardly believe our senses except when hungry or while father was thrashing us.” He took classes at the state university in Madison, including courses in botany and geology, but left before graduating and moved briefly to Ontario, in part to avoid conscription into the Union army during the Civil War. In fall 1867, he embarked on an epic trip by foot from Kentucky to Florida, which he later memorialized in the book A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf (1916).

The fulcrum on which Muir’s career turned was his first visit to California’s Yosemite Valley in May 1868, although as McNally points out, his introduction to the place “was far more pedestrian than the heavenly glory he ascribed to it in his later writings.” All the same, the mountains, meadows, and rivers of the landscape struck him as a veritable Garden of Eden, and while he lived and traveled elsewhere throughout his career, Yosemite remained his lodestar.

Muir’s indelible association with Yosemite made him a go-to authority and tour guide and led him to meet such luminaries as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Roosevelt. Considered his signal achievements, he established Yosemite National Park in 1890 and co-founded the Sierra Club, serving as its first president. But he may be best remembered for a battle he lost, which resulted in the damming of the Hetch Hetchy Valley.

McNally, whose previous books include a study of the Modoc War of 1872–73, finds traces of racism in Muir’s youth and especially in his reflections on his Southern walkabout. Muir took a dim view of some African Americans he encountered on that journey, observing during a stop in Georgia that “[o]ne energetic white man, working with a will, would easily pick as much cotton as half dozen Sambos and Sallies.” But above all, he was put off by his perception that they were unclean, an attribute he found most repugnant within any group, including the region’s poor whites. And it was the impression of filth, McNally argues, that also informed Muir’s initial impressions of the Indigenous people he met in the West. He wrote of one Indigenous woman in ragged clothes, “In every way she seemed sadly unlike Nature’s well-dressed animals, though living like them on the bounty of the wilderness.”

McNally suggests that Muir’s opinions may have been reinforced by the company he kept, like Joseph LeConte, whom Muir met in 1870 not long after LeConte accepted a professorship at the new University of California, Berkeley. Fifteen years Muir’s senior, LeConte had grown up on a vast Georgia plantation and studied at Harvard under the naturalist Louis Agassiz, who believed that human races had different origins. According to McNally, Muir embraced LeConte’s notion “that blame for the American system of racial oppression rested with the oppressed,” and the younger man was devastated by his friend’s unexpected death during a hike in Yosemite in 1901. To those who would object that Muir was merely emblematic of his times, McNally points to other Muir intimates who held different beliefs about Indigenous people, such as the writer and activist Charles Lummis and the scientist and ethnographer C. Hart Merriam.

McNally contends that the true measure of Muir’s own racial chauvinism is found less in his observations than in his silences. The names of Indigenous individuals who helped with his excursions into the Sierra Nevada or to the coast of southeastern Alaska rarely appear in his writings. He looked right through them to the beautiful spaces beyond, denying their connections to the land, in part, because he insisted that “[n]othing truly wild is unclean.” While Muir was hardly the first person to argue for a radical disjuncture between people and nature, as McNally explains, “Muir laid down key notions of wilderness and the human place in it that continue to shape the way Americans behold wild landscapes.” By this rationale, Muir was the intellectual architect of Indigenous exile from US national parks.

McNally is a fluid writer, and Cast Out of Eden moves along at a brisk pace. But the author’s claim that this story is untold is a bit of a stretch. Scholars have long noted Muir’s attitude toward Indigenous people as well as his hand in their removal, including the historian Mark David Spence, whose brief but essential Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks (1999) offers the best introduction to the wider context. (Spence’s work does appear in McNally’s bibliography.)

Others may chafe at the relentlessness with which McNally prosecutes his case, and especially its implications of guilt by association. While it is true that Muir grew up in the Midwest on territory taken from Indigenous people, it seems unfair to saddle him with the full weight of the settler-colonial project. After describing “Yosemite’s genocidal backstory”—the slaughter of tens of thousands of Indigenous people during and after the California Gold Rush—the author criticizes Muir for failing to grasp the region’s dark past, even though he arrived on the scene at the tail end of the violence. And while Muir had friends who held deeply unsavory ideas about race, there is scant evidence that Muir himself believed in race science or eugenics. McNally’s heavy-handedness may drive off otherwise sympathetic readers.

Perhaps the most notable debate about Muir’s legacy arose in 2020 when the Sierra Club’s executive director issued a statement that was critical of the organization’s past, writing that Muir “made derogatory comments about Black people and Indigenous peoples that drew on deeply harmful racist stereotypes.” The statement went on: “As the most iconic figure in Sierra Club history, Muir’s words and actions carry an especially heavy weight. They continue to hurt and alienate Indigenous people and people of color who come into contact with the Sierra Club.”

The response to the post exposed a sharp divide among club members: some praised the gesture, while others threatened to cancel their membership because of the slight to Muir. One particularly thoughtful reply came from the provost of John Muir College, a unit within the University of California, San Diego, who acknowledged his own ambivalence about Muir but was grateful that the statement had created space for an open and honest conversation about the namesake of his college. Perhaps, then, Cast Out of Eden will promote much-needed further dialogue.

LARB Contributor

Andrew R. Graybill is a professor of history and the director of the William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University.


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