John Muir: The godfather of Seattle’s spiritual life — and a racist

The father of national parks profoundly influenced my country, my city, and me.

John Muir

John Muir is regarded as a father of the national parks system. His influence and impact on the West is legion, but his racist legacy has lately come under intense scrutiny. (Library of Congress)

We are living in a time of moral reckoning with the past. Beyond Confederate monuments and memorials, people are also reevaluating the work, beliefs and reputations of progressive figures.

The name of Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, for example, has been removed from the organization’s New York health center because of her advocacy for eugenics in the early 20th century. In addition to birth control and abortion, she also supported racist selective breeding. So did many prominent people in her day, from Henry Ford to Helen Keller.

A statue of Theodore Roosevelt, another early 20th century progressive and conservationist, has been removed because of its racial implications, and Roosevelt’s own beliefs. He carried a “great white hunter” image, worried about race-mixing hurting the “Anglo Saxon” race and pursued an expansionist colonial foreign policy.

Roosevelt was popular in Washington state, which he carried as a third party Bull Moose Progressive in the presidential election of 1912. He also worked closely with another icon undergoing renewed scrutiny: John Muir, the father of the wilderness preservation movement, promoter of creating our National Park System and founder of the Sierra Club, which has been devoted to this agenda since 1892.

In a recent statement, Michael Brune, executive director of the 3.8 million-member club, said that while Muir touted the sacred nature of the wilderness, he also had a history of making derogatory remarks about Black and Indigenous peoples, calling them “dirty” and “savages.” Other Sierra Club board members during Muir’s era touted white supremacy and eugenics, including the forced sterilization of people of color. Brune wrote that it was time for the club to “reexamine our past and our substantial role in perpetuating white supremacy.”

john muir
John Muir is photographed while sitting on a boulder in California’s Yosemite National Park during 1907. Muir initiated efforts resulting in the creation of Yosemite National Park in 1890. (Francis M. Fultz/Yosemite Research Library via National Park Service)

There has long been a critique in academic circles — and, more recently, in journalistic ones — about the role of race and exclusion in the wilderness and national park movements. The parks were designed as preserves for elite whites so they could escape urban life and enjoy a privileged, exclusive experience in nature. The railroads played a key role in boosting the parks and their lodges for an exclusive clientele.

The crisis of white masculinity

The nature boom also came at a time when white American “manhood” was being redefined for the modern era. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Roosevelt touted the virtues of the “strenuous life,” an ethic tied to the supposed moral purity gained from both vigorous living and the outdoors. The dude-rancher, big game hunter and park promoter former president offered himself as its exemplar.

The remaking of manhood was propelled by societal change: the gaining of power and the vote by women, the perceived threat of jobs and privilege lost to immigrants and people of color and a belief that post-frontier life was “feminizing” young men. The beauty and rigors of the outdoors were offered as an antidote to this presumed crisis of masculinity. Places like Yosemite, which Muir helped to create and promote, was no place for Indigenous people, he thought, but perfect for the well-to-do seeking refuge, challenge and inspiration, and men like himself seeking adventure and solitude.

Exclusionist ideas were part of the conservation movement both nationally and here in the Pacific Northwest, where racial exclusion had been the norm since the early days of the Oregon Trail. Bowdoin College professor Matthew Klingle, author of Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle, has studied the racism and elitism of the region’s outdoor movement in the early 20th century. Edmond S. Meany, a University of Washington professor and historian, was the face and voice of The Mountaineers outing club in the Northwest over parts of four decades in the early part of the past century. The Mountaineers was a WASP-dominated organization for men and women that encouraged well-connected and affluent middle-class people to party, climb, camp and hike together. Meany met and corresponded with Muir and was even referred to as the “John Muir” of The Mountaineers. According to Klingle, Meany touted the Northwest as a place “where the finest of the Aryan stock may find its rejuvenation only to evolve a still more robust, vigorous and brainy type.” In other words, outdoor recreation and the wilderness was itself a form of eugenics.

the author's father
The author's father somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. (Knute Berger)

Jon Christianson, an environmental history professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, critiques the overall idealization of nature that Muir personified: “The Muir ideal of the lone white man at one with nature in the wilderness excludes all kinds of people from that relationship.” At its conception, the modern environmental movement was designed as a kind of gated community. No wonder there is a persistent problem with people of color feeling excluded from the nation’s parks as that legacy has become embedded in the landscape.

Seattle’s church of St. Muir

The Northwest is a bastion of so-called "nones" — people who belong to no formal religion but consider themselves “secular but spiritual.”

I belong to this undefined congregation. I was raised in the church of John Muir, a nearly sainted figure from my childhood on.

I grew up on a green, Olmsted-designed boulevard in a neighborhood shaped, like many in Seattle, by turn-of-the-century racist housing covenants. The landscape was designed to cultivate and preserve nature in the city, allowing appreciation of trees and such to flourish in our yards and parks. That landscape is what I knew and loved, from Lake Washington to Rainier Avenue.

My father, aunt, both of my sisters and I attended John Muir School in Mount Baker, from the 1920s to the 1960s. The school was originally part of the Columbia City schools, called Wetmore, and later York. In my father’s day it ran through the eighth grade; in mine it was an elementary school. The Muir name was adopted in 1921 to honor the man who made frequent and much-publicized visits to Seattle as he went to and from Alaska. He climbed most of the major peaks in the Cascades, including Rainier. Muir was a scientist who learned about how glaciers shaped the land, as well as an author and advocate. His name is on Camp Muir at Rainier.

After Muir's death in 1914, Edmond Meany gave a lecture on Muir “in memory of one of the great naturalists, poets, and philosophers of the Coast,” wrote The Seattle Times at the time. The lecture was held at a Unitarian Church on Boylston Avenue and was said to feature “seventy-five hand-painted stereopticon pictures of the mountains Muir loved.” It must have felt like a church service featuring mountain gods.

In the 1920s, the John Muir school was transformed from a typical Seattle school into a kind of chapel in the church of Muir’s nature worship. There are many ideas expressed in his writings. He regarded woods as temples and felt deeply the sacredness of nature. He described those who would dam Yosmite’s Hetch Hetchy as “temple destroyers,” selfish despoilers of every type, from “Satan to Senators.”

“The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness,” Muir wrote in his journal. If the view was exclusionist in conception, it was also attuned to powerful feelings evoked by witnessing the wilds, in standing with the natural world against what Muir saw as greed, commercialization and the brutality of industrialization. If Seattle’s John Muir students couldn’t climb mountains or walk remote tracts in their daily lives, they could still be imbued with the faith as they played in parks that sought to give them some hope of meeting the universe in their own neighborhood. Muir’s message was that the wilderness untamed offered spiritual uplift.

Pageants, trees and Camelot

In the ’20s and ’30s, the Muir school’s principal was a remarkable teacher named Jessie Lockwood, who ran Muir for more than 25 years and instituted a significantly progressive curriculum for its time. It aimed to mold children to a kind of Arthurian ethic — child knights urged to undertake a quest for truth and moral purity. She tied these values to Muir by engaging with nature and performing nature rituals. Students planted giant sequoias on the school grounds — some are still there, standing tall — and each year the school produced epic nature pageants, which told the stories of trees, ice and rock.

My father remembered walking down a flight of stairs along with a large number of other students, covered by a giant white sheet to replicate the movement of a vast glacier. Another Muir pageant participant was the late Jim Ellis, the civic dynamo who brought Seattle Forward Thrust improvements such as regional transit, the restoration of Lake Washington, Freeway Park and the Sound-to-Summit Greenway. Lockwood “instilled a lot of half-romantic idealism into us youngsters,” he said. The schoolwide pageants, he once told The Seattle Times, were her way to enshrine in their minds the school’s namesake. “She was a persuasive and long-lasting influence for conservation among most of her students,” he remembered. As part of his school activities, Ellis dedicated a Muir grove in the Cascade foothills. In his case, the church of Muir had profound environmental consequences for Seattle.

In addition to the pageants, the Mount Baker neighborhood eventually funded and commissioned a large stained-glass window that was installed in memory of the pioneering Jessie Lockwood a few years after her death in 1938. The window depicts Sir Galahad, one of King Arthur’s legendary knights, pursing the Holy Grail, an image in glass suffused with heavenly light.

At its dedication, Seattle Times columnist Virginia Boren wrote that Lockwood required all Muir students to do public service work (the school was the first in Seattle to have a safety patrol), and that “she used the theme of knighthood” to inculcate the values of “loyalty, justice and purity.” The window then in the main hallway of Muir was dazzling. It made the school feel even more like a place of worship. (It was certainly more impressive than anything the nearby Mount Baker Presbyterian Church had to offer.)

The Muir curriculum was still in place during the 1960s, when I attended. We were active in paper drives and were put through our physical education paces with a program touted by President John F. Kennedy. A new John Muir stamp was issued in 1964. My fourth grade class sent away postcards with the new stamp featuring the saintly image of Muir in a redwood grove; on it he was honored as a “nature lover, inventor, scholar” who “persuaded Theodore Roosevelt to establish Nature Parks and Forest Reservations.” I still have that postcard. Not surprisingly, the term “bigot” was nowhere to be found.

John Muir School in Seattle, 1924. (Seattle Public Schools [256-2])

Black Lives Matter at Muir

The old school was torn down in 1989 and reopened in the early ’90s. New giant Sequoias were planted by the entrance. While the Sierra Club undergoes soul-searching regarding its legacy of white supremacism, the Muir of today has transformed into an exceptionally diverse grade school, with over 80% students of color, the majority of whom are Black. It is shuttered because of the coronavirus for the time being, but pre-pandemic signs made by kids saying “Black Lives Matter” appear in class windows; a banner saying the same hangs over the front door, beneath an architectural feature on the new building’s façade, which features a small grove of evergreen trees.

My upbringing at home was right in line with the Muir religion. Both my parents loved the outdoors. We camped and hiked. Neither of my parents was an avid churchgoer, and I stopped attending when they stopped insisting. But for a brief time, my mother and I attended a Unitarian church in Bellevue. My mother loved it because the sanctuary looked onto a forest of evergreens. She said that the clear glass window framing the trees was better than any stained-glass window in any church ever. On walks in the woods, she treaded slowly and reverently, as if on holy ground. For her it was, as Muir said, an entryway to the larger universe. She felt that. I felt it, too.

It is common to feel let down, even devastated, to learn of the moral flaws of people who were your heroes, let alone spiritual leaders. In reading Muir’s works as an adult, I was appalled to learn of his bigotry. As I read and learned more about the context of his conservation movement, I grew uncomfortable with the exclusionary assumptions of Muir and many of his compatriots. My neighborhood wasn’t any better. The Sunday school where we were taught about the miracles of nature and imbibed the rain, the cedar and the salmon was built on the same foundations as Muir’s church. While the old property covenants in Mount Baker were no longer enforceable, redlining and its effects are persistent to this day.

I was raised on and still adhere to the importance of wilderness and our connections to the outdoors and wildlife. It is in me and part of me. Muir was ambivalent about humanity, our tendency to destroy and exploit. What he perhaps didn’t realize was that his own life offered lessons in those human failings. We might be inspired by his words and actions, and by the nature he preserved, but his motives and unexamined attitudes can’t be ignored.

Times of reckoning can also be times of awakening. Unless we look — as organizations like Planned Parenthood and the Sierra Club are looking right now — at the other side of good intentions, our goals and hopes will be incomplete and cruel. Our deep moral errors will remain intact. The good that Muir did cannot be measured until we fully assess the harm that was done by him or by many of us in his name, following in his footsteps. I feel like someone who has discovered his church has acted antithetically, perhaps blindly, to its purported values. I must now reconcile how something I once thought was an absolute good cast a deeper shadow than I knew.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.