Sunday, July 3, 2011

Thoreau, Muir, and the Styles of Utopia

From the time of first encounter, the Americas served as canvases of moral and political imagination. Despite their being already inhabited, they sparked in European minds the idea of a land not owned, nor governed by any dynasty or inherited law – a new world, where people could bring history in line with reason. Two classics of speculative geography show in high relief two different ways that Europeans, and later American settlers, imagined they might make themselves free. Thomas More’s Utopia, the ironically titled traveler’s report from “nowhere,” described an island whose inhabitants lived in peace because, by abolishing most private wealth, they had eliminated the inequality, jealousy, and ambition that cause of social conflict. The Utopians trained their young to regard gold and silver as unclean and gems and finery as fools’ toys, and those children grew up free of the wish to dominate others, or the fear of being dominate. Theirs was a quietly sociable existence, marked by six-hour workdays, edifying public lectures, and orderly self-government. By remaking their social world and training their desires, they had remade the human condition.

Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, also set in the far Atlantic, presented a different earthly paradise. Here, instead of transforming human desire to diminish conflict, the settlers had mastered nature to fulfill desire. As they explained to Bacon’s imagined emissary, their power rested on “the knowledge of causes, and secret motions of things; and enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.”[1] Bacon’s Atlantans commanded submarines, telephony, sources of heat akin to the sun, medicine well beyond the ken of contemporary Europeans, and means of producing meat from inert matter, as well as audio gear that today’s remixers would recognize: “we make diverse tremblings and warblings of sounds , which in their original are entire” and “diverse strange and artificial echoes, reflecting the voice many times and as it were tossing it: and some that give back the voice louder than it came, some shriller, and some deeper.” Like the Utopians, the Atlantans had remade the human condition, not by training appetite but by mastering the means of satisfying it.

More than two centuries later, Henry David Thoreau sounded the same themes while reflecting on nineteenth-century reformers’ proposals for North America. Thoreau contrasted “reform of the world,” which aimed ultimately at human character, with “reform of the globe,” which remade physical nature to satisfy human appetite as it already existed. In terms of this book’s themes, this seminal American thinker about nature was reflecting on the relation between the two types of emancipation that underlay the modern relation to the living world: freeing ourselves from unnecessary fear and violent passion by reforming our consciousness, and freeing ourselves from material need and vulnerability by mastering nature. These were also the alternative paths that More and Bacon laid for their fictional exemplars.

Thoreau’s occasion was a review of The Paradise within the Reach of All Men, without Labor, by Means of Nature and Machinery, a work by J.A. Etzler. Etzler, a follower of the French social visionary Charles Fourier, argued, with Bacon, that men could build a paradise on earth, within ten years of his 1842 publication date, if they only cooperated to unleash the untapped sources of power in the natural world. He promised a world of effortless plenty “in the most delightful gardens,” where human power would “level mountains, sink valleys, create lakes, drain lakes and swamps, and intersect the land everywhere with beautiful canals, and roads for … traveling one thousand miles in twenty-four hours.”[2] This image of a world physically transformed was in line with a long series of technological prophecies for the natural world, and particularly for North America. The Frenchman Count [ ] Buffon, the towering naturalist of his day, had forecast the rise of a “second nature” produced by human effort and insight, which he saw as the completion of divine design by human reason. While wild nature was wastrel, fruitless, and repugnant, nature properly engineered was bountiful, especially in service to God’s highest creation, humanity. When Thomas Jefferson and other early Americans indignantly protested Buffon’s claim that nature’s vital forces were weak in the Americas and that species tended to degenerate there, they were defending their continent’s eligibility to participate in this great reclamation of fallen nature by rational human effort. The socialist Etzler adapted this familiar story by making it entirely secular, wholly a matter of human self-emancipation, and by his confidence that a millennial transformation was not just possible, but a historical arm’s-length away.

Etzler emphasized pervasive sources of power that humanity had mostly ignored. The wind, the waves and tides, and the sun were his proposed replacements for human labor and the wood and coal that people procured and exploited with such effort. Thoreau readily granted that Etzler’s point was sound: air perpetually surged and plunged over the earth, and the few windmills men had erected here and there were a farcical tribute to its power. The waves and tides were still more powerful, as if the air’s motion were multiplied by the greater weight of water, while the sun’s vast energy was the source of air’s motion, and of practically limitless power, if only people could claim it. There was, then, no simply scientific reason to deny Etzler’s forecast that people would “lead a life of continual happiness, of enjoyments yet unknown” and “free himself from almost all the evils that afflict mankind, except death.”[3]

Yet Thoreau found Etzler’s program lacking at the most basic level. In the self-transformation of human life, Etzler gave priority to satisfying needs, Thoreau to refining them. Etzler celebrated the satisfaction of appetites, Thoreau their transformation. Thoreau insisted, moreover, that because consciousness was individual, putting changed consciousness ahead of technological change implied also putting individual transformation ahead of the collective sort. He wrote, in response to Etzler’s call for a new form of social cooperation, “Nothing can be effected but by one man…. We must first succeed alone, that we may enjoy our success together.”[4] The change Thoreau sought in individual consciousness was, indeed, far different from anything in Etzler’s social portraiture. Thoreau argued for the simplest means of satisfying bodily requirements, such as food, clothing, and shelter, and for refining the contemplative power, the appreciation of everyday experience, natural beauty, and thought and imagination, for themselves. As he put it, “When the sunshine falls on the path of the poet, he enjoys all those pure benefits and pleasures which the arts slowly and partially realize from age to age.”[5] In Thoreau’s view, while the material reformer labored to make nature more productive, the moral or spiritual reformer worked to make the sunshine brighter, winds sweeter, and birdsong more lovely – not spurious or satirical aims, but the benefit of a purified consciousness. So, where Etzler looked at the planet’s untapped forces and saw new ways of meeting human needs, Thoreau saw in them a metaphor for the moral sources of human activity. Taking off from Etzler’s calculations of the horsepower of wind and tide, Thoreau reflected, “Suppose we could say … how many horse-power the force of love, blowing on every square foot of a man’s soul, would equal.”[6] As New England’s windmills insulted the world’s winds by their paltriness, so her hospitals, poor-houses, and Bible societies insulted love’s power, showing “how little it is actually applied to social ends.”[7]

Thoreau does not fall exactly on either the Thomas More or the Francis Bacon side of the utopian imagination. Both Utopia and the New Atlantis imagined collective projects: the political decision to abolish private property underwrote the Utopians’ reform of human passions, while the Atlantans pursued technological power as a kind of civic religion. In a way, though, Thoreau sides with More, putting reform of human character before the increase of human powers. Indeed, Thoreau exemplifies this commitment in the American tradition. His difference from More highlights several ways that the idea of reforming human nature has developed in the American setting. It has been an individualist, frequently anti-political ideal, aimed at achieving and preserving integrity and self-knowledge one soul at a time. In line with Thoreau’s work, it has persistently associated integrity and self-knowledge with connection to the natural world, and, especially, the capacity to escape everyday social life into a rural retreat or, deeper still, into the wilderness. Because of these strands of political and environmental imagination, it made sense for Idaho Senator Frank Church to say in 19[ ] that Congress must preserve wilderness on public land because otherwise the country “would become a cage.”[8] For wilderness to be the thing that keeps us free, nature must be a storehouse of special wisdom and power, and that wisdom must be accessible to the individual who walks into the mountains for a night or a week.

The deep way in which Thoreau agreed with More, not Bacon, was in his understanding of American promise. Along with his friend, ally, and sometime landlord Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau belonged to the first small generation to argue in secular terms that American freedom was a spiritual challenge: it would not be enough to conquer the continent physically, satisfy material needs, and be free from direct coercion by government or other individuals. Instead, they argued, freedom entailed a new goal, what today we might call authenticity: acting from one’s own nature, conscience, and mind rather than from habit or tradition. It also meant a new definition of free activity: to act freely was to overcome rote and ritual and fully inhabit each moment of one’s action. Such action would become a kind of worship, a celebration of the self that could act freely and the world in which it acted.

Emerson was a major figure in his long life, though more a cultural and literary giant than a political man, as he, like Thoreau, tended to see politics as dross and illusion. Thoreau in his short life was a substantial literary figure but probably not, by his ambitious lights, entirely a success. At the younger man’s funeral, Emerson lamented Thoreau’s unfinished work, which was memorialized only in his massive and often beautiful journals. Thoreau matters in part because later figures canonized him when they made his twin themes of nature and spiritual freedom central to a broader public argument than he ever succeeded in producing himself. These thinkers, such as John Muir and Joseph le Conte, founders of the Sierra Club, gave Thoreau’s themes a new centrality and also inflected the American conversation about spiritual freedom, or the reform of character and will, in the individualist direction that Thoreau and Emerson had taken. They brought these themes fully into public language and environmental imagination, so that they infused both the founding generation of American conservation at the end of the nineteenth century and the later development of modern environmentalism in the twentieth.

In his first major published essay, “Nature,” Emerson had followed certain strands of German Romanticism in treating the natural world as a source of an answer to an epistemic problem: in seeking authenticity, how could a person know who he really was? Self-trust, spontaneity, were always Emerson’s answers – a kind of inward light flashing through the dust of habit – but that, too, could seem more than a little open-ended. In a complex and sometimes opaque discussion in which he seemed (perhaps appropriately enough) to proceed as much by intuition as by strict logic, Emerson proposed that the highest view of the natural world revealed it as a kind of mirror of the mind. Though we could not prove it, we should feel and trust that nature arose from some underlying principle that guided all its activity, and that our minds embodied the same principle, taking shape with the same spontaneity and harmony as the natural world. The world thus served, for metaphysical reasons, as a kind of master analogy for one’s self, and to contemplate it was to turn an epistemic somersault and do what was otherwise impossible: to know one’s own self, if not directly, then at the nearest possible remove. This vastly egotistical view (the phrase seems merely accurate, not insulting) did not treat nature as a source of specific, didactic lessons, as Jonathan Edwards and others in his Puritan and evangelical lines had done. Instead, Emerson’s version of nature as analogy stood to those Christian interpretations as general providence stood to special providence: it was nature as a whole that had meaning, and its meaning was not propositional, not a series of instructions that could equally well be put in words, but intuitive, an apprehension of a living, ordered, spontaneous unity that was at once all reality and, mysteriously, coextensive with one’s self. One considered the whole universe in order to return to one’s self with expanded power to know and trust what one found there. Put less sympathetically, for Emerson to know himself, the universe had to become Emerson writ large, and he a microcosm.

Emerson, a sympathetic and supportive reader of Thoreau’s, claimed that his friend’s ideas were all Emerson’s own, only “very originally dressed.”[9] Whether that was fair or an instance of Emerson’s principle of self-knowledge through egotism, it does seem right that an important part of Thoreau’s task in his classic, Walden, was to turn Emerson’s all-consuming exhortation into a practical and personal engagement with the twinned problems of knowing nature and knowing one’s self. While the idea of retreating to a rural redoubt to draw a bead on the decadent capitals of culture and power was a classical one with plenty of American instances, from Philip Freneau’s pastorals to George Washington’s emulation of farmer-ruler Cincinnatus, Thoreau’s project was that of the ascetic hermit-errant, whose careful attention to his “life in the woods” (as the book’s sub-title had it) would inform his understanding of life at large. The backdrop of Emersonian faith helped Thoreau to declare that “the highest reality” came in contemplation, at once self-apprehension and that of the world’s natural wonders, and that in this fleeting state, “All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself.”[10]

Thoreau also shared with Emerson a spiritual attitude: always on the move, bent in anticipation toward new light about to rise, new harmonies, however fleeting, set to emerge. He concluded Walden with the prophecy that “the life in us … like the water in the river … may rise this year higher than man has ever known it, and flood the parched uplands,”[11] a sentiment of nearly religious expectation quite consistent with this formula from his review of Etzler: “The Divine is about to be, and such is its nature.”[12] It was the flow of experience through the lens of an intensely receptive consciousness, rather than its resolution into any very specific formula for living, that Thoreau described. Although Walden is sometimes imagined as story of settlement, it is very much one of transience, concluding with Thoreau’s explanation that “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”[13] The transient spirit was so strong that Thoreau expressed horror at “how easily and insensibly we … make a beaten track for ourselves,” as he had between his cabin door and the pond, and worried wryly that “other may have fallen into it” since his departure. If one had to choose a single piece of writing to exemplify Thoreau, it might well be the essay “Walking,” in which he exhorts his fellow Americans to realize their destiny by pressing always westward, not so much by the compass as into the unrealized wilds of their own experience, following the paths of pilgrims toward a holy land that is always receding from reach but also perennially present to the truly open eye of one free man.

In light of this, Thoreau was a natural source for John Muir and the members of the early Sierra Club, who helped to give, first voice, then life to a new American way of encountering and talking about the natural world. This mode was, above all, a secularized pilgrimage, a seasonal passage into sacred landscape, above all the Sierra Nevada high country of California. The sacral quality of the terrain came from its power to elicit the kinds of experience Thoreau evoked and urged. That power, of course, was not intrinsic to the terrain, but something the Sierra pilgrims had learned to find in it. They inducted one another into this aesthetic and emotional practice on their expeditions, and Muir, in person or in his writings, was their ultimate teacher. His sources, in turn, were William Wordsworth, Emerson, and Thoreau, reworked through his own years of summer expeditions in the Sierra and other high country of the West. He took Thoreau’s fine attention to nature’s smallest and most local details as a touchstone, the vision appropriate to “the sane and the free,” but excused his Emersonian taste for extreme landscapes and high sentiment by explaining that, in his dusty and busy time, few were sane and free.[14] Even this opening appeal to pervasive discontent with routine life was Thoreauvian: Thoreau had addressed Walden to “those who are said to live in New England,” and lamented that his contemporaries seemed enslaved by their unconsidered habits and ideas. The difference, although one of degree, was that Muir could attract a mass audience by calling up this discontent and offering a balm in nature. A further difference, it emerged, was that this view of nature became the basis of a new public language, which lent a soul-saving force to the nation’s public lands.

Thoreau’s remark that he left Walden because he had several more lives to live turned out to be true of his posthumous literary career, though his admirers never really let him leave the path between his door-step and the banks of the pond. This history is worth understanding because it marks critical lines in the public career of his concern with American freedom as requiring a transformation of the will. In his own time, he was mainly received as a writer of picturesque nature description, a provider of the same recreational pleasure in “the beautiful and sublime” as poets and the travel writers who lingered over landscapes in deference to popular taste. While reviewers often acknowledged that this nature writer had philosophical ambition, or conceit, they seemed not to make much of these, nor to find them worth engaging with any care. When he came into the literary canon of the late nineteenth century, inducted by the publishing decisions of Brahmins clustered around Harvard and the Atlantic – important institutions for him even in life – Thoreau continued to figure as a literary student of American nature. His most-anthologized writing was more or less pure nature description. Walden, which in the twentieth century came to be regarded as his touchstone masterpiece, stood more or less on all fours with much less philosophical, book-length accounts of expeditions on Cape Cod and the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. The first major event of his posthumous publishing career, the appearance in [1891] of a complete edition of his works, relegated “Civil Disobedience” to a tenth volume of “Miscellany,” along with his slashing, near-despairing attacks on the Fugitive Slave Law and his defense of abolitionist John Brown’s attempt to spark a slave revolt at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (later West Virginia). He was, in effect, being ushered into the pantheon of grand, hortatory, and pastoral men of American letters, alongside such New England giants as James Russell Lowell, [ ] Longfellow, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., the Renaissance-man father of the towering Supreme Court justice who has mainly eclipsed his memory.

The remarkable thing about Thoreau was that he survived, even thrived in, the storm that swept away this pantheon. From the 1920s forward, American critics re-oriented the country’s literary canon around an “oppositional”[15] tradition, a line of moral and spiritual criticism of the country’s complacency, materialism, and triumphalism. The shadowed, obsessive, mysterious, sometimes phantasmagorical world of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, all but ignored by earlier generations, consumed the sunny ground recently occupied by the Song of Hiawatha. Thoreau, whose supporters had always felt obliged to protest that he was an upright patriot and Christian despite his moods of cranky disrespect for both church and state, re-emerged as a dissenter with marked pagan impulses, a strange man who found himself a stranger in society and pointed others’ eyes to a differently strange nature both outside the villages and within the self. With some amendments and elaborations, this is the Thoreauvian spirit that American readers meet today.

Muir’s Thoreau stood somewhere between the pastoral canon and the oppositional one, in time and spirit. So did Muir and the version of American nature and identity that he drew partly out of Transcendentalist materials. Muir wrote travel narratives centering on description of landscapes, particularly those of the Sierra Nevada. At reliable intervals, the prose broke into soaring evocations of delight in nature’s beauty and announcements that this delight was morally instructive, even a form of revelation. These passages conveyed a cluster of ideas. Everyday life was spilled out in instrumental activity and drab settings, which left the eyes dull and the mind blunt. Muir offered his writing, and through it his sacred terrain, to the “tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized” who suffered from “the stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry,” and were “choked with care like clocks full of dust.” [16] In the most spectacular natural settings – mountain peaks, endless vistas, and sheer rock faces – something entirely different broke through in the mind: wonder, awe, even ecstasy. He wrote of coming into the Sierra, “Never before had I seen so glorious a landscape, so boundless an affluence of sublime mountain beauty…. I shouted and gesticulated in a wild burst of ecstasy.” [17] When opened to this place, “the whole body seems to feel beauty when exposed to it as it feels the campfire or sunshine, entering not by the eyes alone, but equally through all one’s flesh like radiant heat, making a passionate ecstatic pleasurable glow not explainable.”[18] These passages sound in the register of religious conversion, recognizable from accounts of the experiences of saints and, probably more pertinent, psychologist William James’s contemporary study of conversion in The Varieties of Religious Experience. The physical sensation of epiphany, a breaking-through the surface of palpable significance hitherto concealed within, was the paradigm of spiritual transformation in the time, shared between evangelical accounts of coming to Christ and spiritualists’ tales of more esoteric conversions.[19]

This experience revealed, by a kind of overwhelming intuition, that both the world and the human mind that could be moved by it were morally good, formed to harmonies that Muir frequently compared to mystical intuitions of divinity. Indeed, as in the Transcendentalists’ most rapturous episodes, mind, world, and sentiment mirrored one another, then merged into a spontaneous unity. A few passages from Muir’s portraits of the high country convey the style. He wrote of Yosemite Valley’s most distinctive massif, “South Dome … seems full of thought, clothed with living light, no sense of dead stone about it, all spiritualized, neither heavy looking nor light, steadfast in serene strength like a god.”[20] Seen in the proper light, as Thoreau might have put it, droplets of water passed from “form to form, beauty to beauty, ever changing, never resting, all are speeding on with love’s enthusiasm, singing with the stars the eternal song of creation.”[21] Indeed, “The whole landscape glows like a human face in a glory of enthusiasm.”[22]

Muir’s landscape has in common with Emerson’s “Nature” that all the world is co-extensive with, an answer to and embodiment of, the highest capacity of the human spirit. Where Emerson presented this vivifying harmony as an abstract exhortation, Muir made it stone and flesh, surrendering literary subtlety for candid declarations of mystical merger. He also placed this merger in a specific setting, where others could follow him in search of it: not Walden Pond, which was metaphor and set-piece, but Yosemite Valley and its environs, where Muir expressly invited his readers to repeat and deepen the track he had left. In a way, Muir solved a problem in Emerson’s celebration of sacralized experience: the intense elusiveness of such experience in everyday life as actually lived. By placing such experience at the end-point of pilgrimage routes, Muir instructed readers to expect it in one, specific place, the most spectacular high country, and not in the lowlands of a fallen and disappointing world. By giving it a dedicated location, Muir helped readers to segregate it in their time and identity, turning his predecessors’ high-aimed but hard-to-follow call for a general transformation of experience into a discrete aspect of an otherwise ordinary life.

Thus, even as Muir’s approach to nature and self-emancipation was more of a compromise with ordinary life than Emerson’s and Thoreau’s, it was also more practical, not just because its demands were more modest, but also because of a certain how-to quality that made his writing a field guide to epiphany. His widely read books and magazines worked an inheritance of Romantic aesthetics and spiritual ambition into training in experience: Muir’s writing enacted a journey on foot over spectacular landscapes; a precise, appreciative, even reverent way of seeing the landscape as one moved across it; and a register of overwhelming yet exquisite emotional response, with a benign interpretation latent in it. To read Muir was to begin learning to make that experience one’s own. It was nature writing as both aesthetic and practical instruction for a social movement of heartfelt high-country tourism.

The Sierra Club’s members continued that education for one another. They pursued epiphany en masse, in summertime high-country camps of hundreds, from which smaller expeditions set out for nearby peaks. They saw Muir’s accounts of alpine tourism as having inducted them into a new way of experiencing nature. Admirers described him as “a prophet[] and interpreter of nature,” who had trained others, as the favored metaphor had it, to see through his eyes.[23] The New York Times observed in 1917 that Muir had done, in effect, what Emerson and Thoreau had set out to do – produce a new mode of popular vision: “many who have sought a vision of truth beneath the surface of nature have found it through the eyes of John Muir.”[24] His admirer and Sierra Club comrade, William Frederic Bade, eulogized Muir in the same spirit, predicting, “Thousands and thousands, hereafter, who go to the mountains, streams, and can[y]ons of California will choose to see them through the eyes of John Muir, and they will see more deeply because they see with his eyes.”[25]

Bade tellingly titled his eulogy To Higher Sierras, a phrase Muir had used in describing the parting of a what he wished to present as a momentous encounter with Emerson, who, as an old man, accompanied by a small entourage, had visited Muir in Yosemite. As Muir told it, Emerson was tired and confined by his keepers, and although the younger man would have liked to talk all night around the fire, or dance amid the shadows of the trees (Muir was full of such demonstrations of enthusiasm), and thought he glimpsed an answering spark in the Sage of Concord, but the weary Emerson was soon escorted to his bed. When they parted, Emerson gave a wave, which Muir interpreted as a call onward “to higher Sierras.”[26] The meaning was (a bit overwhelmingly) clear: the Transcendental spirit, one of the great American sources, had exhausted itself in the cautious and aging precincts of the East. Its new home would have to be the vast and dramatic West, and its new prophets the men and women of that terrain, Muir first among them. In adopting for Muir the phrase Muir himself had taken for Emerson, Bade ratified the Sierra Club founder’s claim to prophetic succession on behalf of the one entity that really could make it good: the emerging conservationist public who made Muir’s reworked Romantic vision of nature the lexicon of their own experience.

Besides their annual expeditions, Club members’ great vehicle of mutual education was the Sierra Club Bulletin, which published continuously from 1895. It featured vivid and often emotional accounts of large, small, and solo expeditions and spectacular photographs of the Sierra Nevada. Contributors to the Bulletin described their high-country expeditions as full of small epiphanies and glimpses of the sacred. One correspondent described “[h]ours pass[ing] like moments” in “this sacred spot,” [27] while another reported, “We … learned to interpret and love the ‘various languages’ in which nature speaks to the children of men…. We were acolytes in the grand temple of the eternal.”[28] Marion Randall, a longtime club member, wrote that, on an outing, “For a little while, you have dwelt close to the heart of things … and in the whispering silences of the forest you have thought to hear the voice of Him who ‘flies upon the wings of the wind.’’[29] These passages are typical in mixing Biblical phrases with a nearly pantheistic sense of the sacredness of nature. There can be no doubt, though, that the Club’s sacred nature was intensely concentrated in the high Sierra, whose mountains and valleys served as cathedrals for their aesthetically charged spirituality.

These expeditions were not only spiritual, but also intensely social. In this, the Club’s members departed from the example of Muir, whose frequent solitude was part of his charisma. The Bulletin described Sierra Club expeditions as enabling members to see one another (as they might have put it themselves) face to face, an experience that only sharpened the contrast with the conventional roles and the social and ideological divisions of everyday life. Summarizing a trip that, in his telling, showed up the most profound oppositions of class and ideology as trivial, a correspondent explained, “[t]he varnish of civilization rubbed off, and the true strata of individual organism developed.” [30] As genuine qualities shone through the detritus of habit that obscured them in the lowlands, a transient “socialist utopia” emerged in which “natural aristocracy” prevailed and bonds formed around affinity and admiration, not wealth, status, or refinement.[31]

The Sierra Club’s members sought perfect respite from an imperfect world. For sojourners who believed that most lives were, in Muir’s phrase, neither sane nor free, high-country outings meant a measure of personal restoration, in which the projects and distinctions of ordinary life fell away for a few days or weeks. There was no doubt that the everyday world would reassert its claims when the summer’s expeditions were over: only Muir, the charismatic path-blazer, gave even the impression of a life devoted entirely to wild nature, and even his writing life was punctuated by decades of successful truck-farming outside San Francisco that supported a comfortable existence for his family. He spent his youth in the mountains and on other ambitious treks, and learning to write, and his older years as an activist and icon, but in the time between he took his share of agricultural fruits from newly tamed California. The Club’s other leaders and rank-and-file members were freer and more independent-minded than average, for they included many academics, artists, professionals, and scions of wealthy families; but their goal was not to change their lives, as Thoreau had set out to do, nor to change the world, as some of their contemporaries proposed, but to enrich their lives by participating in the beauty of the world.

The Club and its allies created a public language in line with this vision of nature and its human import. The experience they treasured would become impossible if nature’s most spectacular places, those that Romantic aesthetics would have called sublime, were developed or otherwise defiled. Their program came to be called preservation because they argued, for the first time in United States politics, that large areas of land should remain public, open, and outside the logic of economic gain that had underwritten the European and then American claims on the continent and defined more than a century of national land policy. They did this, as they understood it, to make possible a mode of experience – rapt appreciation of one’s continuity with the living world, spontaneous joy, free activity, and sincere, unaffected sociability – that was otherwise at risk of being pressed out of existence by a social world that sought to put every thing, every moment, and every human being to use. Theirs was, then, a genuinely Romantic social movement: they spoke for a lost continent of human value that they found answered, even elicited, in nature, and which had been pressed to the uttermost margins, in both people and nature.

Nature, as they conceived of it, underwrote a denial that the world was everywhere drab and wearying, as Muir often portrayed life’s less charismatic places and tasks as being. He was at pains to contrast the experience of the mountains with the lowlands in “these hot, dim, strenuous times ... [when people are] choked with care like clocks full of dust, laboriously doing so much good … they are no longer good for themselves.”[32] This is perhaps the master-theme of American Romanticism as a style of social criticism: that the incessant business of economic and social life, which the wealth of the new continent set its residents free to join, had become a form of oppression, a psychologically and socially enforced distraction from the real work of identifying one’s own path and becoming aware of the extraordinary universe in which one was set. The development that the country’s ideologues had promised as emancipation was, instead, a collective squandering of the potential for genuine freedom.

Anxiety, a certain restless weariness, was the major emotion of the lowland life that Romantic critics portrayed. Thoreau had made it a theme, most memorably in the famous description of most lives as composed of “quiet desperation.” The mountains gave it a balm. There one found “no pain … no dull empty hours, no fear of the past, no fear of the future.”[33] There was rest in the high country, and also inspiration, etymologically a breathing-in of a fresh spirit. When “one’s heart [went] home” to wild country, as Muir promised, it met “divinity,” something transcendent and benign that was immanent in nature and could be reached through it.

If one motive was to deny that life was inescapably gray and flat, another was to reject an image of “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” scene of a relentless struggle for survival. This Darwinist picture seemed to make traditional moral views obsolete and na├»ve, pious words mumbled over incessant selfish conflict, particularly when one considered the implication that customs emerged through the same evolutionary logic. In counterpoint to this unsettling conclusion, moral harmony in nature was the great lesson of Muir’s intuition. Encounters with nature’s most dramatic landscapes brought a feeling of fraternity among all living things. In one exemplary essay, Muir described climbing a towering Douglas spruce to experience an enormous wind-storm from, as it were, the point of view of the forest. As he told the story, he spend hours sweeping violently back and forth with the trunk where he had lashed himself, watching neighboring trees crash to the ground. When the winds died down, he reflected, “We hear much nowadays concerning the universal struggle for existence, but no struggle in the common meaning of the word was manifest here … but rather an invincible gladness as remote from exultation as from fear.”[34] This led him to a meditate on flow of forces throughout the mountains, from the waterways to the cascading winds that had just leveled the woods: “After tracing the Sierra streams … learning their language and forms in detail, we may at length hear them chanting all together in one grand anthem, and comprehend them all in clear inner vision…. The setting sun filled [the storm-wrecked trees] with amber light, and seemed to say, while they listened, ‘My peace I give unto you.’”[35] Violence might be one of nature’s basic facts, but its meaning resided an a larger harmony that an attuned observer could feel and share.

On the Romantics’ view, the American ideal of settlement and development had become a disenchanting force. It had recast nature as a mere storehouse of productive resources, obscuring its power as a source of inspiration, enlightenment, and spiritual restoration. It had pressed people, too, into endless activity that left them sheltered and fed yet also anxious and unaccountably weary, at once richer and poorer – if not poorer than their ancestors had been then poorer, surely, than they needed to be. Ironically, the ideas of those who settled the country had themselves emerged as a response to the earlier, Epicurean style of disenchantment that Hobbes urged, but for the American devotees of Romantic nature they had laid waste to a world of meaning. The Darwinist account of evolution, as a product of accident and competition, seemed to ratify this loss by writing out of nature any order that might confirm human values, as the theory of correspondences had done for the medieval world.

The Club’s members and leaders attacked this disenchantment on two fronts. On the one hand, the mode of experience they cultivated in their expeditions and inducted one another into seemed a practical refutation of disenchantment: when they felt the spirit of the mountains, that spirit was as real as emotional and moral perception could be. What more could one ask than a feeling of harmony and clarity that others shared and described in their own voices? On the other hand, the Club had origins in an explicit answer to the disenchantments of Darwinism, a counter-theory that drank to the same Platonic stream as Ralph Cudworth, Henry More, and John Ray. An interpretation of nature that one of the Club’s founders developed recast evolution, and the rest of the natural world, as an elaboration of the mind of God, a physically manifest logic in which human intelligence had a unique and essential role to play.

Sierra Club co-founder and longtime officer Joseph Le Conte was professor of geology at Berkeley and devoted much of his career to arguing that evolution was compatible with theism because nature’s patterns bespoke the orderly mind of God, finding its highest expression in the human capacity to appreciate the beauty and harmony of all lesser forms.[36] The world was thus at once natural and divine, and humanity both continuous with nature and distinct from it. A key to our special standing was aesthetic experience that, in which the human mind brought nature to self-consciousness and to consciousness of God. He wrote, “[I]n plants and animals, spirit is deeply submerged, and, as it were, drowned in Nature, and in perfect darkness. In man alone, spirit appears above the surface and emerges into the light. It looks downward upon Nature; it looks around upon other entities like itself; it looks upward to the heavens above. It rises out of Nature, above Nature, and becomes the interpreter of Nature.”[37] Le Conte thus answered an atheistic interpretation of evolution with “a God immanent, a God resident in Nature” so that “the phenomena of Nature are … objectified modes of divine thought.”[38] Apprehending this relation, he contended, would enable believers to “return home to our inner higher life.”[39] It was by understanding themselves as the highest expressions of “Nature, gestative mother of spirit,”[40] that people could turn to their role as “interpreter[s] of Nature.”[41] Le Conte’s highest human activity, to apprehend and interpret the beauty of nature, fit perfectly with the Club’s merger of aesthetic and spiritual concerns and Muir’s promise of a this-worldly homecoming for those haunted by the suspicion that life was an arena of meaningless struggle.

Under this philosophical flag, the Club brought a new agenda and new language into the American politics of nature. The moment was pivotal. After more than a century of finding ways to distribute land to settlers and developers, whether by sale or in exchange for settling, planting, draining, or irrigating it, the federal government had begun an entirely new kind of policy: reserving lands permanently under public management. Congress created Yellowstone National Park in 1872, in response to a range of interests, including those of railroads that hoped to carry tourists to admire its geysers. In 1891, a little-noticed legislative provision authorized the President to reserve forests for public benefit, chiefly in response to growing fears that rapid and inefficient harvesting was depleting the country’s timber reserves. A spate of reservations followed, answered by loud controversy, rife with accusations of “tyranny,” but an 1897 statute upheld the power to reserve forests and established a framework for their management. These debates came in the last decades in which extensive land of real potential value still lay unclaimed, and it focused attention on the questions of whether the government should retain large tracts of land at all and, if so, what counted as “public interests” or purposes that it should serve in doing so.

From its beginning, the Club worked to preserve of the open lands where its expeditions and epiphanies took place. Sierra Club meetings were devoted as early as 1895 to support for national forests, and, in the decade before World War One, the Bulletin dedicated increasing space to forest management and parks policy.[42] In 1911, it ran a series of technical reports on prospects for increased parks funding and unified management of the parks system under a single federal agency (which Congress created in 1916).[43] Editorials in the same year placed the club squarely in the midst of public-lands politics, staking out positions on creation of a Bureau of National Parks (for), expansion of Sequoia National Park (for), increased funding for Yosemite National Park (for), and development of Hetch Hetchy valley for San Francisco’s municipal water supply (emphatically against).[44] A movement founded in devotion to aesthetic and spiritual experiences of nature had become a major participant in land-use politics. One the one hand, the Club was simply part of a network of pro-conservation groups, including forestry associations, sportsmen, and progressive reformers worried that profit-seeking private enterprise was draining the country’s natural wealth. On the other, the Club’s Romantic commitments led it to articulate a distinctive rationale for preserving open lands, a novel one that would become increasingly central to environmental public language. In a representative missive to state governors attending a 1908 presidential conference on natural-resource conservation, Club representatives set out

[O]ur strong sense of the paramount value of scenic beauty among our natural resources. The moral and physical welfare of a nation is not dependent alone upon bread and water. Comprehending these primary necessities is the deeper need for recreation and that which satisfies also the esthetic sense … an ever present human desire. Our … wealth of natural beauty … is an untaxed heritage … whose influence upon the life of the nation, physically, morally, mentally, is inestimable, and whose preservation is the greatest service that one generation can render to another.[45]

This passage contains plenty of obeisance to the utilitarian reasoning that was standard among progressive reformers at the time: using the paradigm of resource management, treating public welfare as a touchstone, and honoring trusteeship across generations in order to take account of the interests of Americans not yet born. At the same time, the Club’s language introduced a distinctly Romantic perspective. Utilitarian considerations rest on a “deeper need” for recreation and “esthetic” satisfaction, meaning the spiritually revelatory and restorative experiences that were Club members’ touchstones. The “mental” and “moral” “influence” of natural beauty touches the same chords.

The distinctive language that the Club pioneered was soon at the center of public conversation about the parks. Romantic epiphany joined and often replaced the language of conservation and recreation. While serving as director of public education for the recently formed National Parks Service, Robert Sterling Yard argued,

[T]he national parks are far more than recreational areas. They are the supreme examples. They are the gallery of masterpieces. Here the visitor enters in a holier spirit. Here is inspiration…. The spirit of the great places brooks nothing short of silent reverence…. It is the hour of the spirit. One returns to daily living with a springier step, a keener vision, and a broader horizon for having worshipped at the shrine of the Infinite.[46]

This is the language of John Muir and Joseph le Conte on the value of nature’s most spectacular places. It took from the cultural dissent and spiritual exhortation of Thoreau and Emerson the idea that real national progress required spiritual development toward the freedom of self-knowledge and spontaneous activity. Reworked by the social movement of the Sierra Club, this idea here came to serve as public justification for a new public lands policy, which already accounted for the use of tens of millions of acres.

At the same time that the Sierra Club and other public actors carried forward this tradition of critique and exhortation, they also transformed it. In several ways, the approach to nature that they put at the center of twentieth-century public language departed markedly from its nineteenth-century roots. The changes were not just rhetorical, but also philosophical: they changed the meaning of in relation to the goal of human freedom that each generation of Romantics had connected with it. Perhaps the most basic change was a move away from the philosophical engagement with character, desire, and need that lay at the heart of Thoreau’s project. The basis of his quarrel with those who thought that renewable energy would produce a paradise on earth was that no sum of satisfied appetites would bring lasting satisfaction, or heal pervasive anxiety, before people had grown clear on what they valued, and why, which required a sustained inquiry into who they were in the first place. That insight was the goal of his expedition to Walden, and the touchstone of all his writing, because he believed that free activity required self-knowledge.

The Sierra Club’s spokespersons, notably Muir and le Conte, did set themselves against rote activity and materialism, and in this respect they carried forward the work of the thinkers that Muir worked hard to claim as predecessors. [*Le Conte on materialism and the limits of utilitarianism.*] Club members’ writing, too, suggests they saw their high-country expeditions as balm for the bruises that everyday life left on the spirit. At the same time, Muir’s prescription was essentially to take a vacation, some stimulating and restorative time off from the everyday life that he portrayed as corrosive and numbing. Whatever else this was, it was not a sustained practice aimed at exploring and transforming one’s own desires. It had to be fitted into a larger pattern of conventional living, as a supplement that might be subversive, but not so subversive that it spoiled a high-country pilgrim for the lowlands. The “springier step” that Robert Sterling Yard promised parks visitors was not the sauntering pilgrim’s stride that carried Thoreau across Concords’ woods while his neighbors were working, nor was it civil disobedient’s willing step across the threshold of a local jail to accept his penalty for refusing to pay taxes to a government that returned escaped slaves to the South and sent soldiers to conquer land in Mexico. As a practical matter, most sojourners in the high country did not feel they could afford to remake themselves too far. Muir and his comrades needed to appeal to the lower-built goals that led acolytes into the mountains. They also needed to fit their case for open lands to the conceptions of public welfare that public officials could embrace. So they did. In this, they were highly effective, and their legacy is magnificent. At the same time, they worked, in effect, within systems built on the very ideas of humanity and nature that they opposed: the market economy, child of providential republicanism and the settler ethic, with its demand for productive effort from all, and the administrative welfare state that progressive reformers built to make the fruitful but finite continent better serve the appetites of its inhabitants. Both those systems had as a deep premise that humans stood apart from nature and rightly treated it as a storehouse of goods to serve their appetites, and that limits to these appetites, if they existed, were practical rather than moral. Put differently, the shared premise was that people used nature to get freer by extracting from it what they already wanted, rather than by figuring out what seemed, on reflection, worth wanting. This was a vast departure from the Epicurean strain in Thoreau, with his governing commitment to a lasting practice of discerning and training desire.

This set of ideas expressed itself in very practical contradictions. Muir organized his1901 advocacy work, Our National Parks, around two values that he, like many in the Sierra Club at that time, presented as harmonious: the preservation of spectacular places and ready public access to them for recreation on limited time. The book promised readers a “profound solitude … full of God’s thoughts,” and assured them that thanks to highways and railroads, “in a few minutes you will find yourself in the midst of … the best care-killing scenery on the continent.”[47] It could not have taken much subtlety to appreciate that these promises were in some tension, that the solitude would have to be shared with everyone else who had come on the same train.

Muir and his allies also simplified the Transcendentalist inheritance in basic ways. There had been an ambiguity in Thoreau and Emerson’s work about the relation between nature and self-knowledge. On the one hand, Emerson often wrote as if he believed that behind all confusion and obscurity there resided a perfect and abiding True Self, whose manifestations might be flawed or oscillating, but whose essence was unchanging. On the other, he described identity as a flux, a river of experience, at once one and forever changing, ending only in death, to which one owed the highest degree of attention. It is possible to see his work as passing from the simpler, nearly Platonic view in early and hortatory work such as “Self-Reliance” to the subtler approach in late writing, especially “Experience,” which shares its title and some of its spirit with the last of Montaigne’s Essays. There are, however, flashes of the Platonic approach throughout Emerson. Thoreau had more in common with Montaigne: he tracked his thoughts through vagrant tacking, and his gift for describing moments and things, which in Emerson evanesced as soon as they touched his rarefying mind, gave the reader a sense of participating in his movements. Inasmuch as Walden described an experiment in Transcendentalism, and all of Emerson’s experiments were, in the literal sense of the word, essays, verbal excursions, Thoreau described something nearer a practice, farther from a promise of perfect answers.

The role of the natural world in this practice was, for Thoreau, more that of interlocutor, the prompt, whetstone, and provocatively imperfect mirror of thought, than it was to disclose neatly formed answers. He wrote in his essay on “Slavery in Massachusetts,”

I walk toward one of our ponds; but what signifies the beauty of nature when men are base? We walk to lakes to see our serenity reflected in them; when we are not serene, we go not to them. Who can be serene in a country where both the rulers and ruled are without principle? The remembrance of my country spoils my walk.

This is quite different from the “care-killing” role of nature that Muir offered and the Sierra Club’s early members flocked to accept. The Romantic nature that they cultivated was a reliable tonic, a healing force regardless of the state of mind one brought to it.

The sum of these developments was to shift the work of consciousness-raising, or at least relieving anxiety, from a mind engaged by nature to nature itself. The mind was to be less engaged in its own transformation. Nature, for its part, tended to one of two roles. On the one hand, it might become what Emerson in his more Platonic moments had promised, a way of knowing an indwelling true self. On the other, it might become just a reliable stimulant and comfort. This would mean giving up on the ideal of mental self-emancipation through self-knowledge and awareness of the natural world, in favor of simply enriching experience though diverse stimuli. Both tendencies persisted in the twentieth-century Romantic approach to nature.

At the same time, and for some of the same reasons, the movement that the Sierra Club pioneered took nature’s value much more literally than the nineteenth-century Transcendentalists had done. Even as sincerely interested a naturalist as Thoreau, when he praised swamplands as unsuspected sources of vitality – quite a heretical thought in the land-use theory of the time – or proposed setting aside village forest preserves, was taking the natural world as a metaphor for parts of human life. The Sierra Club drew the same lines between nature and experience, but its members were not dealing in metaphor.

Accordingly, their nature was quite literally charged with the significance that, for Emerson and, especially Thoreau, dwelt in the mysterious circuit of mind and world. This significance, though, was restricted to the most spectacular places, those most remote from everyday concerns: mountain peaks, valleys rimmed by sheer cliffs and plunging waterfalls, and vistas of white snow, blue water, and silvery stone. Muir captured the transformation in a telling passage written from Glacier Bay, Alaska: “In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world – the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness.”[48] Muir was following Thoreau’s iconic “in wildness is the preservation of the world.”[49] In “Walking,” the essay in which that phrase appears, Thoreau presents “the wild” as childlike playfulness, a principle of virtue (“all good things are wild and free”), a literary principle associated with Homer, Shakespeare, and the pathos of mythology, and an epistemic source connected with knowing one’s true nature by intuition and symbol rather than abstract propositions. In Muir’s semi-plagiarizing equivocation, these values of a mind at play with itself, its culture, and the natural world collapse into literal wilderness, open and undeveloped land, a change that left the idea of wilderness considerably less complicated and actual wilderness acreage a good deal more charged with importance.

In the half-century or so after Muir’s death in 1917, a successful movement devoted to literal wilderness highlighted much of what was distinctive in the language he pioneered, and also showed its difficulties. This movement emerged in the 1920s from conflicts over how to run the national parks, and, at base, over whose conceptions of nature’s value the parks should serve. We have already seen the seeds of this conflict in the two promises that Muir tried to reconcile in Our National Parks, where he promised solitude and epiphany steps away from a railway platform serving routes to San Francisco. It was not long before these two promises came to seem mutually contradictory. Devotees of wild nature feared that their parks would be overrun as tourism rose with mobility, prosperity, and – ironically – love of scenic places. These disputes soon crystallized in decisions within parks policy. As wealth and mobility increased in the United States, especially with the rise of the car, visitors eager to follow Muir’s pilgrimage routes demanded roads to speed their way. The National Park Service, alert to the benefits of increased budgets, was generally eager to comply.[50] In the 1920s, major destinations such as Yosemite featured jazz concerts, bear circuses, and nighttime light shows dancing over the famous waterfalls.[51] Parks administrators sought funding for roads, hotels, and other facilities to bring ever more visitors.[52]

Such developments spurred conflict within the Parks Service. Director Stephen Mather supporting them as important recreational opportunities for the public, while Robert Sterling Yard, author of The Book of National Parks and the encomium to nature’s “cathedrals,” opposed them as profanations of sanctums.[53] After a series of clashes with Mather, Yard left the Parks Service to become an advocate for wild and primitive areas on public land as head of the independent National Parks Association. He then co founded the Wilderness Society, the center of the wilderness movement for the next forty years and an essential crucible of environmental imagination.[54] This new organization attracted purists and enthusiasts who wanted their Romantic nature unqualified by anything easy or popular. They created a new category of public land to meet this standard: roadless lands, free of built structures, and substantially unaffected by human activity.

Wilderness advocates had no doubt of the importance of wild lands, but they struggled – fruitfully, as it turned out – to express their value in terms that made sense in the public language of the time. After inventing the legal category of wilderness, they had also to invent, or at least recast, a vocabulary that captured their reasons for treasuring it. Early wilderness advocacy was something of a hodge-podge, as activists tied wild lands rhetorically to themes that had worked for earlier conservationists, such as cultivation of frontier virtues and relaxation for the overworked mind. Wilderness advocates also called on a value that had scarcely figured in civic and utilitarian conservation, and had been sacrificed to recreation in parks policy, but which would have been intimately familiar to Thoreau and earlier romantics: solitude. The Wilderness Society’s platform, published in the first issue of Living Wilderness, linked the Society’s raison d’etre to isolation, defining wilderness as “the environment of solitude.”[55] The platform contrasted this value to that of natural beauty, which the parks mainly served: “scenery and solitude are intrinsically separate things.”[56] The distinction made a difference because, while natural beauty might be compatible with populist policies to open up public lands, the opportunity for real isolation was not: “the motorist is entitled to his full share of scenery, but … motorway and solitude together constitute a contradiction.”[57] Solitude, and the wilderness that made it possible, should be sharply distinguished from the other goals of public-lands administration and the administrative styles that served them. Otherwise, wilderness might be quite obliviously “sacrificed to the mechanical invasion in its various killing forms.”[58] Both the emphasis on solitude on the animus toward drivers’ invading the parks carried through nearly three decades of activism to appear in the final language of the Wilderness Act of 1964, which was drafted by Society leaders and now protects more than 107 million acres of federal land as wilderness. T he statute’s preamble announces the purpose “to ensure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States”[59] and defines wilderness as areas as offering “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation” in “land retaining its primeval character.”[60] A new idea had won its acreage, joining its predecessors in the geography of American ideals.

In reaching that success, wilderness advocates had to find a way to defend solitude as a public value. Their early efforts look awkward and paradoxical in hindsight. The familiar way of justifying land conservation was as an aspect of resource management, whether the resource was timber, fertile soil, or natural beauty. The familiar argument was that the resource in question would best serve utilitarian ends – the benefit of the whole political community over time –if it were preserved under public management. So the 1935 platform designated wilderness “a natural mental resource … a public utility … [and] a human need rather than a luxury or plaything.”[61] This rhetoric tracked the arguments that Sierra Club leaders made early in their highly successful engagement in public-lands politics, when they expanded the utilitarian category of public benefits to include recreation and exposure to beauty, an idea that became a centerpiece of parks policy. Wilderness advocates faced a different challenge. They wanted to advance on utilitarian terms a value that, on their account, could not survive unless most of the public were excluded from it – at least at any particular time and place. Wilderness preservation was resource-intensive: solitude required a lot of acreage per solitary person, and, on the definition wilderness advocates gave, that land was closed to other types of users. So, when Wilderness Society co-founder Bob Marshall tried in a 1930 Scientific Monthly essay to provide a utilitarian justification for preserving wilderness, he instead wrote an inadvertent reductio ad absurdum of the idea that wilderness fit comfortably in a utilitarian frame. Marshall opened by bowing to utilitarianism, explaining that he planned to “balanc[e] the total happiness” that wilderness provided against that of development.[62] To keep his accounting clear, he offered a typology of the values that wilderness served, including physical fitness, mental relaxation, and natural beauty. He had, however, to confront the problem that most Americans seemed to find these values adequately served by the parks and other accessible public lands that wilderness advocates saw as desecration of their values or, at best, pale substitutes. Only a small minority believed, with Marshall, that life would be “scarcely bearable in its horrible banality” unless they could “tot[e] a fifty-pound pack over an abominable trail” or “snowshoe[] across a blizzard-swept plateau” – without another soul in miles.[63] Only a handful, that is, found that they could get their share of the recreation only from wilderness solitude and the most rugged kinds of adventure. Most Americans could do without strenuous solitude, and many lacked the health or means to travel on foot over wild lands. The challenge was to explain why a small minority should be able to claim many millions of acres for its exclusive use. When Marshall’s so-called utilitarian argument came to grips with this problem, it fell apart. On the one hand he claimed, against all plausibility, that wilderness devotees took so much satisfaction from their outings that their happiness swamped that of parks visitors and timber users. This argument cannot be believable on the ordinary assumption that everyone has about the same potential for happiness. Historically, utilitarianism arose as a leveling theory, a denial that some kinds of satisfactions, and some people’s satisfaction, should count more than others. Conceptually, its logic carries out this program. Unless wilderness enthusiasts were practically a different species from stay-at-homers or park-goers, they just could not be orders of magnitude happier than those other, competing resource users. On the other hand, Marshall quoted the nineteenth-century liberal thinker, John Stuart Mill, to argue that preserving wilderness was a means of respecting human diversity.[64] Mill had argued in On Liberty that because different people find satisfaction in different ways, tolerance was necessary for full human development. Otherwise, some would find their paths to fulfillment blocked and not realize their potential for satisfaction. Now, though, Marshall was caught in a fallacy. Mill’s argument was for tolerance of minority practices and attitudes, that is, for the negative liberty of not prohibiting or otherwise punishing them. Some paradigms of this kind of liberty are religious tolerance and the legal protection of unconventional kinds of intimacy, such as consensual adult sodomy. As a matter of resources, such tolerance costs society nothing. The question of how a society should use its resources, which always face competing demands from clashing interests, is an entirely different one. The fact that people have diverse sources of satisfaction does not imply that the government should spend limited public resources to promote any particular minority value. That, however, was what Marshall wanted. He was arguing that the federal government should dedicate vast tracts of public land to the use that mattered most to him and some comrades. An argument for tolerance could get him no further than standard utilitarianism. In the ways that they failed, both arguments highlighted how far the ideal of wilderness fell outside recognized ways of valuing public land.

Marshall was no marginal amateur theorist. As the Forest Service’s Chief of the Division of Recreation and Lands, he wrote the 1940 regulations that put the wilderness concept into effect and marked the path toward the stronger statutory protection of the 1964 Wilderness Act. The failure of his argument expressed, quite inadvertently, the deeper logic of the wilderness movement. Advocates for wilderness did not really care about increasing the sum of human satisfactions in a calculus that put wilderness excursions alongside railroads, circuses, and hospitals. Their argument took this form because they were following the ways their Romantic predecessors, the Sierra Club and others, had worked their values into the dominant Progressive language of utilitarianism. At base, though, they cared about a radical version of what had always mattered most in the Romantic tradition, and had always been pressed to the margins of public language: the quality of consciousness and the intrinsic value of nature as such, which might please the mind but was not to be measured by the degree of that pleasing. These values would return to the center of environmental public language at the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s. That shift was pioneered, and its terms tested and refined, in the argument for wilderness. In this way the wilderness movement formed a bridge between the conservation era and the age of ecology.

As early as 1935, Aldo Leopold, who a few years earlier was insisting that wilderness preserved the rugged virtues of pioneers and mountain men, had begun to make the case that wilderness was instead the key to a new consciousness, a fresh relation between humanity and nature. He wrote, “The Wilderness Society is, philosophically, a disclaimer of the biotic arrogance of homo americanus. It is one of the focal points of a new attitude – an intelligent humility toward man’s place in nature.”[65] Soon after World War Two, the Society’s longtime secretary and the editor of Living Wilderness, Howard Zahniser, made a similar, consciousness-based argument in response to a correspondent’s accusation that wilderness advocates were elitists addicted to extreme forms of adventure: “many [wilderness visitors] … experience a better understanding of themselves in relation to the whole community of life on the earth and rather earnestly compare their civilized living with natural realities – to the improvement of their civilization.”[66] The idea came from Leopold’s writing, and Zahniser increasingly placed it at the center of the Society’s case for wilderness, suggesting that he found it the strongest of the arguments that he and his allies had crafted. He put it forward when he had the chance to speak for the Society at pivotal moments, and allies in Congress and the broader conservation movement tended to pick it up, giving it wider circulation and the beginning of touchstone status.

One such moment came at the start of 1956, the Sierra Club Bulletin ran a back-cover statement by Howard Zahniser on “the underlying philosophy of the wilderness idea.”[67] It was a time of renewed self-definition for the conservation movement: several years of conflict over a proposed dam in Dinosaur National Monument had greatly increased the movement’s national visibility and brought its major organizations into what Sierra Club director David Brower called “new unity.”[68] A coalition of conservation groups, led in this case by the Wilderness Society, would soon turn its attention to the Wilderness Act.[69] A prominent showcase in the movement’s flagship Sierra Bulletin gave Zahniser the chance to argue for the priority of wilderness for the newly united movement. He wrote (as excerpted by the Club’s editors, probably meaning Brower),

[W]e have a profound, a fundamental need for areas of wilderness – a need that is not only recreational and spiritual but also educational and scientific, and withal essential to a true understanding of ourselves, our culture, our own natures, and our place in all nature. The need is for areas of the earth within which we stand without our mechanisms that make us immediate masters over our environment – areas of wild nature in which we sense ourselves to be, what in fact I believe we are, dependent members of an interdependent community of living creatures that together derive their existence from the sun … [original] We deeply need the humility to know ourselves as the dependent members of a great community of life, and this can indeed be one of the spiritual benefits of the wilderness experience. Without the … contrivances with whereby men have seemed to establish among themselves an independence of nature, without these distractions, to know the wilderness is to know a profound humility, to recognize one’s littleness.[70]

The same themes traveled from movement literature to Congressional debate on the Wilderness Act when supporters entered a canonical statement of wilderness values into the Congressional Record. They selected “Our World and Its Wilderness,” also by Zahniser, which, like his Sierra Bulletin excerpt, was devoted mostly to the ethics of ecological awareness.[71] Encounters with wild country, he argued, would keep Americans “in touch with the fundamental reality of the universe of which we are a part,” aware of their status as “dependent members of this great community of all life,” and alert to “our human existence as spiritual creatures nurtured and sustained by and from the great community of life on this earth.”[72] This awareness would induce a “a sense of ourselves as a responsible part of a continuing community of life” with “the understanding to deal wisely with all the resources of the earth.”[73]

Wilderness advocates, like other conservationists, had the habit of invoking their movement’s symbolic saints, above all John Muir and Henry David Thoreau. (As we have seen, Thoreau had already been reinterpreted several times, including an aggressive interpretation by Muir.) This tendency obscured the innovation and democratic energy that brought Romantic themes ever closer to the center of environmental public language between the end of the nineteenth century and the 1970s. Muir and his allies worked hard to create the public mood that could receive Thoreau as a prophet of wilderness, rather than the elusive, multifarious, and much more psychological “wildness” – let alone as the quirky, patriotic woodsman and picturesque observer of nature that his contemporary reviewers and first generation of canonizers made him out to be. It took another great exercise in imagination and persuasion to arrive where Leopold, Zahniser, and their allies took the wilderness movement, then persuaded the conservation movement as a whole to join them. To see the transformation, consider how the wilderness movement’s emerging focus on awareness of interdependence shifted Muir’s meaning in hindsight, as he had shifted Thoreau’s. Today, Muir is probably best remembered for observing that one cannot tug at anything in nature without finding it connected to everything else, an exemplar slogan of interdependence. That, however, is not the Muir whose acolytes created the Sierra Club: their Muir was a high-country pilgrim, a surveyor of nature’s sublime temples, whose importance was not that they were interdependent with lowland human habitats, but that they were radically apart.

Wilderness advocates aimed at a kind of awareness that Leopold had embraced at the end of A Sand County Almanac, where he argued that cultivating “perception” could advance the “job … of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.”[74] Muir and his allies had aimed at the receptive mind, too, but Leopold and others in the Wilderness Society offered a new emphasis: less on rapturous response to spectacular places such as Yosemite than on grasping the complex, interdependent character of natural systems and seeing oneself as deeply tied into them. The ideal of awareness here is two-sided and defined by its doubleness. We can love nature because it is intelligible to us, formed in an order that we can understand ever more richly. At the same time, it awes us because it is always more complex, older, and stranger than we can apprehend: in every direction it finally runs beyond our reach. Growing knowledge and practiced attention deepen both part of this experience, elaborating our understanding of what we know and making us attuned to what is unknown and mysterious. The world is a web of knowable relations set amid mystery, and it repays attention with deepened appreciation of both qualities. This was the new shape that wilderness advocates gave to the Romantic tradition of treating the politics of nature as a politics of consciousness.

The ethic of “humility,” a term that comes up again and again in these debates, had several aspects. Humility was part of the sense of wonder that advocates associated with wilderness: in the face of what it could not know, the mind stilled its quest for mastery and settled into partial knowledge of a world only partially knowable. Humility, then, called a partial truce in the centuries-old struggle for self-emancipation from nature, admitting that a part of knowledge was to know the limits of knowledge, even though this invited back into experience the essentially shadowed qualities that so much energy had gone into driving from it. Humility had a practical aspect, too, which the emphasis on “dependence” captured. It was beyond our power to be masters of nature, at least for the time being, and the natural world’s complexity might mean that perfect mastery was beyond us in principle as well. Humans came from and returned to the earth, could not go on without it, and could not entirely choose the terms of their relation to it. Indeed, the very idea that we were essentially and abidingly apart from earth, sojourners or governors here, was a mistake that tended to obscure dependence. By overcoming this mistake, humility invited a homecoming, not to the sublime mountains, as Muir had urged, but to a sense of ourselves as entirely native here.

Wilderness advocates associated these values with their favored landscapes for several reasons. For one, undeveloped land showed natural relations working with a certain freedom and fullness, because they were free from the often violent ecological simplifications of settlement and exploitation, whether timber culture, homebuilding, or the corn-soybean cycle. For one, the ban on development and motor-driven transport represented a deliberate relinquishment of mastery. Presenting oneself technologically naked, so to speak, was a kind of symbolic expression of the larger and subtler fact of dependence on nature. Nonetheless, this ideal had a logical tendency to press beyond the geographic bounds of pure wilderness. The qualities it prized described the human relation to the natural world as such. Wilderness was paradigmatic, to be sure, but as advocates voiced the idea, it did not seem to be in any way exclusive. The argument invited its own extension to debates about nature well outside the wilderness.

This may be partly because the wilderness idea also came increasingly to be about the value of nature as such, in itself, rather than as a source of certain human experiences. This was not, to be sure, where the wilderness movement had begun: its founders had embraced a radical, purifying version of the Sierra Club’s high-country pilgrimage. Implicit in all the talk of humility and dependence, though, was a deep premise: the natural world was good in part just because it was, because it existed. Although not a new idea, this has been at best a highly qualified note in the American environmental imagination. In earlier, religious thought, the nearest thing was probably Jonathan Edwards’s spirit of “consent” to the world’s dispensation; but that was, like everything natural in Edwards, moral and theological metaphor, rooted in the need not to resist predestination. In the ideology of republican development, nature was a problem and a task: it was good in potential, but that potential could be realized only through transformative human labor, which turned waste and wilderness into fruitful gardens. And as we have seen, American Romanticism, once it entered public language and imagination through movements such as the Sierra Club, advanced a morally divided nature, split between the fallen lowlands of everyday activity and the “cathedrals” of the high country.

When Congressional supporters made the case for wilderness, they sounded more in Muir’s key than in this new register. When Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon asserted that “one of the soundest reasons for support of the wilderness bill is from the standpoint of what it will do for the spiritual needs of Americans,” he echoed the language of the Sierra Club, rooted in Muir’s claim to have seen the face of God in the landscape of Yosemite Valley: “[Y]ou cannot go into the canyons, … through the primeval forests, you cannot associate with the grandeur of this great heritage which God Almighty has given the American people, and not come out of such a trip a better man or a better woman for having come that close to the spirit of the creator himself.”[75] Morse even claimed that such natural cathedrals offered more spiritual sustenance than the built kind. Recalling a visit to virgin forest, he reflected, “one knew that we were closer to the Almighty in that natural catedral than probably ever again we would be in any artificial cathedral, … because we stood in God’s cathedral, in the natural beauty of that forest.”[76] Morse claimed that if wilderness opponents had shared this experience they might well agree with him after all, a thought that reflected Club-style faith in epiphany, the moral instructiveness of aesthetic experience.[77] Frank Church of Idaho, too, praised “the spiritual values, the enrichment that comes from the solitude to be found in the wilderness,”[78] and warned that “without wilderness this country will become a cage.”[79] This language sounds the themes that Sierra-style politics had turned into a touchstone of public-lands management and the early Wilderness Society had transferred to wild lands. Senators Morse and Church sounded, though, as if the Wilderness Act extended the National Parks system’s protection of spectacular places, rather than protecting a new kind of land on a new set of criteria. There was overlap between wilderness and existing parks, but the novelty of the wilderness idea was lost in the senators’ own words, and so was the language of humility and dependence that was already transforming the conservation movement.

These changes would bear more political fruit in the next decade, when conservation politics took a new direction. The natural world returned to the center of American self-interpretation, becoming a key to diagnosing national discontents and a source for healing these. Americans concerned with the natural world did nothing less in those years than to invent something we now take utterly for granted, the idea of the environment. The nascent version of environmental imagination that centered on awareness, interdependence, and humility was at the heart of this invention.



[1] 181 of the Bacon Harvard Classics ed, under Essays Moral & Political.

[2] Thoreau review 39 (“Paradise (to be) Regained”) in Vol. X of the 1891 edition of his works.

[3] 39.

[4] 62.

[5] 66.

[6] 67.

[7] 68.

[8] Check quote and date from Cong. Rec.

[9] Henry Salt biography, “Doctrines.”

[10] Walden 237.

[11] Walden 439.

[12] 64.

[13] Walden 426.

[14] Opening pages of Our National Parks.

[15] Buell, Environmental Imagination, with acknowledgement of how much I’m getting from him here.

[16] John Muir, Our National Parks 3-5 (1901).

[17] See John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra 115-16 (1917).

[18] Id. at 131.

[19] Passages from WJ.

[20] Muir, My First summer in the Sierra 129”; 128 (droplets of water passing from; 124 (“, and the blue sky, pale around the horizon, bends peacefully down over all like one vast flower.”).

[21] Id. at 128.

[22] Id. at 124.

[23] See William Frederic Bade, To Higher Sierras, 10 Sierra Club Bull., 1916-1919, at 38, 40 (counting Muir among “prophets and interpreters of nature” and predicting, (); John Muir, Doctor of Laws, University of California (honorary degree), reprinted in 10 Sierra Club Bulletin, 1916-1919, at 24 (calling Muir “uniquely gifted to interpret unto other men [nature’s] mind and ways”).

[24] Notable Books in Brief Review: John Muir’s Account of His Historic Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf and Other Recent Publications, N.Y. Times, Jan. 21, 1917, at BR 4.

[25] Bade, To Higher Sierras, supra.

[26] Review this material from Our National Parks.

[27] See Helen M. Gompertz, A Tramp to Mt. Lyell, 1 Sierra Club Bulletin, 1893-1896, at 136, 141.

[28] John R. Glascock, A California Outing, 1 Sierra Cub Bulletin, 1893-96, at 147, 161.

[29] Marion Randall, Some Aspects of a Sierra Club Outing, 5 Sierra Club Bulletin, 1904-1905, at 221, 227-28).

[30] See Glascock, supra n. _.

[31] Randall, supra n.

[32] Muir, Our National Parks at 5.

[33] Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra at 131.

[34] Muir, A Wind-Storm in the Forests, in American Earth at 89, 95 (Bill McKibben ed., 2008).

[35] Id. at 97.

[36] See JOSEPH LE CONTE, RELIGION AND SCIENCE 269-81 (1898) (divinity expresses itself throughout nature, with increasing individuation, culminating in human consciousness).

[37] See id. at 281.

[38] Joseph Le Conte, Evolution and Its Relation to Religious Thought 282-83 (emphasis original).

[39] Id at 285.

[40] Id at 306.

[41] Le Conte, Religion and Science 143.

[42] See, e.g., F.E. Olmsted, Fire and the Forest – The Theory of ‘Light Burning,’ 8 SIERRA CLUB BULL., 1911, at 43, 43-47 (discussing methods of fire control on public lands); J. Horace McFarland, Are National Parks Worth While? 8 SIERRA CLUB BULL., 1911, at 236, 236-39 (praising the parks as balm for “times when the tired spirit seeks a wider space for change and rest” but lamenting the absence of any unified policy or federal body devoted to management of the parks).

[43] See 8 SIERRA CLUB BULL., 1911, at 217-39 (collecting various updates on parks management, funding, and prospects for legislation establishing a unified management system).

[44] See Editorials, 8 SIERRA CLUB BULL., 1911, at 205-07.

[45] Sierra Club statement submitted to Presidential Conference on the Conservation of Natural Resources, reprinted in Sierra Club Bulletin, June 1908, at 318.

[46] ROBERT STERLING YARD, THE BOOK OF THE NATIONAL PARKS 20-21 (1919).

[48] Donald Worster’s Muir Biography, 319.

[49] Thoreau, Walking, reprinted in Walden and Other Writings at 627.

[50] See Craig W. Allin, The Politics of Wilderness Preservation 60-68 (1982) (describing growing demands for parks access by recreationists and interservice rivalry for funds and lands); David Gerard, The Origins of the Federal Wilderness System, in Political Environmentalism: Going Behind the Green Curtain 211 (Terry L. Anderson ed., 2000) (tracing competition for funding between the National Parks Service and the Forest Service through the early and middle decades of the twentieth century).

[51] See Andrews, Managing the Environment at 156-58 (on Mather’s pro-development policies and their place in parks politics at the time); John R. White (Superintendent, Sequoia National Park), Atmosphere in the National Parks (Address to Special Superintendents’ Meeting, Washington, D.C., Feb. 10, 1936) (listing among the issues pertinent to parks management “campfire entertainments … dances, tennis courts, golf courses, artificial swimming pools, bands, loudspeaker public announcers, electric lighting”).

[52] Superintendents’ Resolution on Overdevelopment (Dec. 21, 1922) (“Roads and trails should be improved and extended, ample accommodations should be provided for visitors, and other improvements carried out … so that the parks may better fulfill their mission of healthful recreation and education to a larger number of people”) (Product of 1922 National Parks Service Conference).

[53] See Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind at 207-08 (on Yard’s move from the Parks Service to the Wilderness Society); White, Atmosphere in the National Parks, supra n. __ (arguing again entertainment and extensive on development on the grounds that “we want the national parks … to stand for something distinct, and we hope better, in our national life” than “the features and entertainments of other resorts” and the country’s “restless … mechanically minded” temperament).

[54] See Nash, supra n. __; Allin, supra n. __ at 65-66 (on Mather); Paul S. Sutter, Driven Wild: How the Fight Against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement 126-29 (2002) (on Yard’s response).

[55] “A Summons to Save the Wilderness,” Living Wilderness, Sept. 1935, at 1.

[56] Id.

[57] Id.

[58] Id.

[59] 16 U.S.C. sec. 1131(a).

[60] 16 U.S.C. sec. 1331 (c)(1)-(2).

[61] A Call, Living Wilderness, Sept. 1935, at 1.

[62] Marshall, Problem of the Wilderness at 142.

[63] Robert Marshall, The Problem of the Wilderness, 30 (2) SCIENTIFIC MONTHLY 141-48 (Feb. 1930).

[64] Id. at 147.

[65] Aldo Leopold, Why the Wilderness Society?, 1 LIVING WILDERNESS (No. 1) 6 (Sept. 1935).

[66] Frederick S. Baker & Howard Zahniser, We Certainly Need a Sound Philosophy: An Exchange of Letters, Living Wilderness, Winter 1947-48, at 1, 1.

[67] Howard Zahniser, What’s Behind the Wilderness Idea? Sierra Club Bulletin, Jan. 1956, at 32.

[68] David Brower, The Sierra Club on the National Scene, Sierra Club Bulletin, Jan. 1956, at 3.

[70] Zahniser, supra n. __ (emphasis added).

[71] See 1961 Cong. Rec. 18355-56 (Sept. 6, 1961).

[72] Id. at 18356.

[73] Id.

[74] Sand County Almanac 295.

[75] 107 Cong. Rec. 18,353 (Statement of Sen. Morse).

[76] Id.

[77] Id.

[78] Id. at 18,382 (Statement of Sen. Church).

[79] Id. at 18,365.