I VERY much enjoyed reading about the “wild youth of Scots naturalist” John Muir in The National on June 2. I look forward to the next two instalments covering the life of this important and influential emigrant to America.

As Scots we celebrate John Muir as the father of conservation and as the founder of the National Parks of the USA. This is, however, a partial and one-sided viewpoint which tends to ignore the perspective of Native Americans and establishes a view of the relationship between humans and nature that continues to cause serious problems for indigenous peoples of the world.

When European settlers set about “conquering the wilderness” of North America under the creed of “manifest destiny”, they had little care for the dire and often genocidal consequences for the human beings who had been living there for thousands of years before them.

The landscape and the natural world was seen alternatively as resource to be exploited for extraction and wealth or a pristine and mythic Garden of Eden to be protected from human interference. Both perceptions were alien to indigenous populations.

Oglala Lakota chief Luther Standing Bear said: “Only to the white man was nature a wilderness … to us it was tame. Earth was bountiful.” Native American societies had been managing, shaping and caring for their environment successfully for countless generations. However, 19th-century racism meant that these positive environmental impacts went unrecognised when the American national park model was invented.

Conservation leaders like John Muir believed that the indigenous people who had inhabited Yosemite for at least 6000 years had to go. Muir deemed them “lazy” because their hunting techniques yielded a good living without wasted effort. Indigenous people were evicted from almost all the American parks. Some were tolerated inside Yosemite for a few more years, being forced to serve tourists and act out humiliating “Indian days” for the visitors. In the end they all gradually died or left, with their last dwellings deliberately burned down in a fire drill in 1969.

Tragically this flawed model of conservation is alive and well today. The World Wide Fund For Nature has been pushing

for a new park in Congo at Messok Dja and has been backed with millions of (now suspended) euros from EU taxpayers. Survival International has reported that since the project started, park rangers have beaten, sexually abused, imprisoned and even killed the local Baka people who face eviction from their own land, poverty and marginalisation.

This is just one example of the “pristine wilderness” conservation model that has often been deployed across Africa and Asia.

John Muir held the natural world in great respect and reverence. In its beauty he recognised the face of God. But in celebrating this insight we should also recognise that the indigenous people, dispossessed by his version of conservationism, also saw the divine in the natural world and had evolved systems of living that did not destroy the ecology. If we as a species are going to survive the climate emergency that is now upon us, we would do well to learn lessons from those who are still too often ignored and swept aside in the name of “conservation”.

Alan Reid


I BOUGHT an omnibus of all Muir’s books some years ago and I would recommend them to anyone who loves the outdoors, even if they are not particularly John Muir fans. He may have said he had trouble with writing, but it certainly isn’t noticeable.

Joan Edington

via thenational.scot