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Living and Writing in the Natural World

What Would John Muir Do?

A look at Muir's adventures and worldview

“Every excursion that I have made in all my rambling life has been fruitful and delightful, from the smallest indefinite saunter an hour or two in length to the noblest summer’s flight…All the wild world is beautiful, and it matters but little where we go.” –Muir journal entry June 1890
“One day’s exposure to mountains is better than cartloads of books.” –Journal entry late 1872

Recently a couple of outdoor-loving buddies have told me about opportunities they have to contribute to the education of kids about the natural world. My friend George is a child psychologist in Boston, who’s meeting with New England Aquarium folks to chat about how he might contribute to their excellent already-established youth programs. My friend Richard is the caretaker of a swatch of shortgrass prairie in Oklahoma, with a lodge nearing completion on site. What might they contribute, and how? Did I have any ideas for them?

My guiding principle in these questions has recently become to ask myself: “What would John Muir do?” This determination is a result of several decades of outdoor adventuring in conjunction with a close reading of Muir’s reflections on his own (much more impressive) “saunters”. Never have I encountered a person with a clearer vision of reality and a better understanding of what it means to be fully human than John Muir.

Muir was clear on two things, particularly. First, we are children of the universe, particularly our own planet earth, and to know ourselves we have to know our foundations. This means getting out of cities and away from smartphone screens on regular and frequent sojourns in the natural world that is our home. “Every excursion that I have made in all my rambling life has been fruitful and delightful, from the smallest indefinite saunter an hour or two in length to the noblest summer’s flight…All the wild world is beautiful, and it matters but little where we go.”

Second: we get to know our foundation not through reading books about it, but by experiencing the natural world, what he called “the wild world.” Books are all very good, but “one day’s exposure to mountains is better than cartloads of books.”

So if you want to inspire kids to take care of the natural world, to understand the importance of clean air and water, to realize the connection of carbon emissions to sea level, intensity of storms, and droughts—then those kids have got to have experienced the natural world, its wonders, the way everything is connected in it. More specifically, kids have got to experience particular habitats in the natural world.

So far so good. But all this is framed by our current situation with respect to climate change. I’m a scientist, trained to rely on objective quantitative data gathered by the scientific method. For a recent book on Muir and his legacy—including America’s environmental movement—I consulted and studied the evidence for climate change and the contribution of human activities to the phenomenon.

I came away persuaded that climate change is real and that its consequences—increasing frequency and intensity of droughts, wildfires, storms, and sea level rise, precipitating widespread infrastructure destruction, famine, economic chaos, and the migration of hundreds of millions of desperate people into temperate-region countries as the tropics and subtropics become literally uninhabitable—are in fact locked in if we continue our current reliance on fossil fuels. And not a century from now, but several decades.

As David Wallace-Wells’ much-anticipated 10 July 2017 climate change article in New York Magazine put it: “It is, I promise, worse than you think.” The article’s title: “The Uninhabitable Earth.” And as ethicist Lawrence Torcello of Rochester Institute of Technology observed in a 29 April 2017 article in The Guardian: “There can be no greater crime against humanity than the destruction of conditions that make human life possible.”

The body politic of the world’s countries are simply not responding adequately to this crisis. Even if the pledges of Paris 2015 are met—which is not likely, particularly with America’s current leadership under the well-paid influence of the petrochemical industry—there will be a 3 degree C rise in average temperature, well above the 2 degree goal that itself would result in severe economic and social disruption.

The situation, most knowledgeable and objective observers agree, is urgent. We are now in crisis mode, with not just human civilization in the balance, but possibly the extinction of the human race, as described in the Epilogue to my Muir book, Earth Wisdom.

World governments, particularly democracies susceptible to the corruption of “campaign contributions” of vast sums of money from the petrochemical corporations, are hardly doing anything to bring about the necessary large-scale change in the way the world’s people view the natural world and the way we live our everyday lives in it.

Meaning it’s up to private entities. Even the world’s environmental organizations seem to be devoting all their energies to legal challenges and organizing massive demonstrations of the already-converted against pipelines and coal plants. These are worthy goals, but they ignore what Muir correctly realized: there must be a sea change in the way people think of the natural world. People must realize that the natural world is their home, that without respect and nurture of their home, all is lost. And that you attain that knowledge and that respect not by reading books, not even by gazing upon wonderful exhibits in museums, but by spending time in the natural world.

The world’s people will compel their leaders to respect and save the natural world upon which we all depend only when they come to know and to love that natural world as a result of exposure to it. You must experience something before you can love it. You must love it before you will fight to protect it.

You won’t become a fervent protector of the ocean until you love it, and you won’t love it until you’ve spent hours there, smelling the tangy salt-and-sea odors, feeling the warm rush of seawater over your bare feet in a chilly breeze, digging for oysters on a muddy flat, discovering a living seashell on algae-covered rocks.

This is a completely different experience than reading about the sea, no matter how eloquent the book, no matter the beauty of its illustrations. The reality of a seashell in your hand trumps a picture of a seashell every time.

Museum exhibits provide a step in this direction. They are worthwhile, and introduce people to the ocean, say, but they are limited. Museums can provide focused displays, photos, and lots of words about the natural world. They can simulate an experience of the natural world, but they can’t really provide the real thing. There’s a huge and critical difference between the best display about the seacoast or the shortgrass prairie and the real thing.

Even bringing elements of a habitat into a museum display is no substitute. Standing before a huge tank of teeming fish in an aquarium is cool, but it’s a completely different experience than snorkeling off the coast of Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Island National Park and seeing a bat ray swim in front of you and a school of orange Garibaldi fish amongst an underwater kelp forest. The former is interesting; the latter is life-changing, because so many more senses are involved when you are immersed in the real thing.

I’ve seen kids crowd around a falconer with a hawk on his arm in a science center, really excited. But I’ve also seen kids hiking in a preserve watch a hawk plunge out of the sky to the ground and rise with a snake in its talons. It staggers them, astonishes them. They remember it for life.

The best thing a museum can do is to inspire a visit to “the real thing.” An exhibit about the seacoast hits the bullseye when the kid walks out of the museum and says: “Let’s go to the coast and see what we can find in a real tidepool, Mom.”

Please don’t think I’m being antagonistic to museums. I devoted over a decade working very hard with a wonderful group of community leaders to found a science museum in my home town. The Board in fact officially declared me “The father of the museum.” I’m proud of that. Museums are important, and offer first steps in the right direction. But they are most important when they inspire kids and adults to go to specific habitats and experience the real thing, the whole thing in all its smells and sounds and feels. Then they’ll fall in love with that habitat and its creatures, and devote endless hours to protect that habitat, whether it be the sea, the coastline, or the prairie.

Museums are “the hook” to get kids (and adults!) interested in specific chunks of the natural world. Muir’s “wild world” is real only as it is experienced habitat by habitat, coastline by coastline, mountain by mountain. Once a museum visitor is sufficiently interested and intrigued by an exhibit about a specific part of the natural world, then the real work begins when they go spend some time in that place and get to know it. Feel it, smell it, handle it. So in addition to exhibits and aquariums, museums should make it easy for kids and adults to visit the “real thing.” They should sponsor programs (buses, facilities, guides) to take people out to the coast or the shortgrass prairie or wherever, and spend some time there.

So my humble suggestion would be that the New England Aquarium create (or expand, if they’ve already got them) programs to take kids out of the museum gathering place and on field trips to tidepools and cranberry bogs and offshore islands. Let the kids slosh through water and collect some of the creatures that live there. Watch sets of waves come in as a researcher talks about efforts to turn those waves into electricity. Visit a working offshore windmill and see how it generates clean electricity also.

See a museum researcher don a wetsuit, disappear into the chilly waters, then come up with buckets of seaweed which the kids can then turn into Christmas cards in a lab by gently spreading a frond in a large sink and ever so gently bringing a thick paper card up underneath it, then letting both slowly dry. Top off the day by gathering around a campfire and roasting s’mores! Talk about how to change our behavior to reduce carbon emissions by using public transportation and electric cars.

Of course, all this is expensive. It takes the provision of transportation and lunches and the time of scientists in the field (well, make ‘em grad students; that’s what grad students are for!) True. But if you’re interested in protecting the natural world and all of us who rely on it, then “the public” has to come to love the natural world, and that comes from experiencing it first-hand.

Loving specific chunks of the natural world, people will change “normal” behavior and do what it takes to dramatically lower carbon emissions. The kids will persuade their parents to put solar panels atop their roof and drive an electric vehicle (now costing no more, and in many cases less, than gas-guzzling, carbon-belching cars powered by barely-controlled explosions of gasoline). (See my blogs of 9 May and 29 Nov. 2017) Rather than driving or flying between cities, they’ll insist the parents liberate themselves from the iron grip of convenience, and take trains and buses on medium length trips. This is what we need to work toward--as well as making Amtrak better funded with more routes.

Ever been on Amtrak? It’s a gas—woops, wrong metaphor. It’s enjoyable, and pleasant, whether going a couple of hundred miles (which I do to San Francisco from my home town every month or two) or a couple of thousand miles across a continent (which I did, twice, this summer; see prior blogs of Aug. 16, Sept. 3, 15 of 2017). A bit inconvenient at times, perhaps, but considering the stakes, well worth the effort.

Let’s move from the sea and coastline of New England to shortgrass prairie in Oklahoma. If you’re lucky enough to have your hooks on some of it, then bring schoolkids out to the site. Live-trap some 13-lined ground squirrels, white-footed mice, collared lizards, and jackrabbits so the kids can see who lives there. If you’re a falconer, let the kids see your raptor gathering its food for dinner; they’ll be thrilled. Locate (or make) a wide spot in an existing animal trail through the prairie, or at the edge of a pond; smooth it and water it the evening before; and let the kids identify the prints of the coyotes and brush rabbits and raccoons and quail that traversed it overnight. Get a grant or a donor to give you 30 binoculars and teach the kids how to use them and spot the nearby scissor-tailed flycatchers and meadowlarks and vultures.

At the end of the excursion, grill some (uncured) hot dogs, warm up beans, and let the kids enjoy the spectacular sunset “as the wind comes whistling down the plains” (as Curley sang in the musical). Show ‘em Georgia O’Keeffe’s amazing early paintings of sunsets over the prairie. You’ll end up with some 30 people (and the escorting parents) who know a ton about shortgrass prairie and will support the conservation and management of more of it.

Part of the experience will be letting the kids—and their parents—know how driving internal-combustion-engine cars will affect this shortgrass prairie, as well as human civilization in general. Letting them know that electric vehicles, and more use of public transport, will be critical to saving this prairie and this human civilization. Don’t sugar coat it.

Yes, it’ll cost something to provide this experience. Grants or donors or environmental groups will be sources of funds. You might even get a corporation to throw in the vans or bus to get the kids there. All for a good cause.

Oh, and be sure you tell the kids and their parents about John Muir somewhere during their experience of this slice of the natural world. His jaunts up and down the Sierra Nevada. His many trips to Alaska’s glaciers by canoe up the uncharted coast. His clear-eyed realization that the earth is our home, its wild places our ancestral heritage and teaching grounds. Drink a toast (of hot chocolate) to St. John’s adventures and understanding of the importance of experiencing what is, after all, our home.

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