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¡§When the Okies left Oklahoma and moved to California, it raised the I

Preserving California¡¦s Treasures                Margaret Chiu


Michael P. Cohen received his Ph.D. in literature from the University of California at Irvine, and presently teaches English at Southern Utah State College in Cedar City, Utah.  He spent ten seasons climbing in the Sierra Nevada, and is now a passionate fly fisherman in the summer and a skier in the winter.  Cohen strove to carry Muir¡¦s nineteenth-century ideas into the twentieth century, writing for the preservation of the mountains and to promote ecological consciousness in America.



Michael P. Cohen¡¦s The Pathless Way: John Muir and American Wilderness details the intellectual and spiritual evolution of pioneering environmentalist John Muir.  Though ground in biographical fact, Cohen¡¦s study focuses not only on names and dates, but assumes the shape of a spiritual journey that traces Muir¡¦s developing thought, his enlightenment in the Sierra Mountains and Yosemite Valley, and his attempt to translate transcendental convictions into effective public appeal and political strategy.  Cohen ultimately lays emphasis on Muir¡¦s progression from individual enlightenment to civic action: the result is an extensive campaign that stresses the ecological education of the American public, government protection of natural resources, the establishment of National Parks, and the encouragement of tourism in California.  Within his analysis of Muir¡¦s move from private amusement to civic call to action, Cohen suggests that Muir sacrificed some of his original values and practices for the sake of public appeal.  If, as Cohen suggests, Muir¡¦s anthropocentric public positions sometimes compromised his early, purer principles, the larger vision nevertheless subsisted.  It was the original belief that ¡§¡¥No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite¡¦¡¨ that would remain, to the end, the inviolable, cherished, and consuming core of Muir¡¦s life and thought.1 

From the first chapter, Cohen¡¦s account of Muir¡¦s life centers on his intellectual and spiritual questioning of human existence.  Cohen characterizes Muir as one who stood at a cultural crossroads between ¡§Franklinian practicality and a distinctively American mysticism.¡¨2 On one hand, Muir was characterized by inventive genius and a constant desire to find ways to maximize efficiency on the farm.  He hoped his work with practical machinery and his knack for finding cheaper and more cost-effective ways of producing goods was philanthropic to man.  On the other hand, Muir¡¦s ecological consciousness was already a nascent characteristic.  He claims, ¡§One of the greatest [advantages of farm life] is¡K gaining a real knowledge of animals as fellow-mortals, learning to respect them and love them, and even to win some of their love.¡¨3 Employing the ¡§machine¡¨ and ¡§flower¡¨ metaphors, Cohen charts Muir¡¦s transformation from the young mechanical genius to the mature philosopher of nature.  He identifies Muir¡¦s internal struggle with the opposing forces of scientific technology and Biblical spiritualism.  Work with machinery led Muir to spiritual self-conflict¡Xthe machine suggested that the world and God¡¦s Creation was a perfect clockwork mechanism, and perfection was, in turn, attainable by man and his technology.   The study of science drove Muir from God towards modern humanism, the belief that human problems are wholly soluble by people through technological or social means.  In 1860, Muir took his inventions to the state fair at Madison, where he gained admiration and prizes¡Xand more importantly, a friendship with Ezra and Jeanne Carr.  Active Grangers, the Carrs believed in an agrarian future for the West, practical education, and professional training for women.  Despite being followers of reason and science, Ezra and Jeanne Carr brought Muir back to the Bible and taught him to strike a balance between the intellectual and the spiritual, a concept central to Muir¡¦s future work with nature. 

Breaking from his initial identity as machine inventor, Muir gradually shed his obsession with ¡§man¡¦s work¡¨ and technology.  At this time, Muir began to notice Nature¡¦s grandeur in comparison to artificial, cultivated plants.  Progressively alienating himself from society, Muir began to take interest in the study of nature, namely botany and geology.  While a student at the University of Wisconsin, Muir took his first botany lesson. A fellow student plucked a flower from a tree and used it to explain how the grand locust is a member of the pea family, related to the straggling pea plant. Fifty years later, the naturalist Muir described the monumental day in his autobiography: ¡§This fine lesson charmed me and sent me flying to the woods and meadows in wild enthusiasm.¡¨4 But instead of graduating from a school built by the hand of man, Muir opted to enroll in what he called the ¡§university of the wilderness¡¨ and thus walked a thousand miles from Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico. This first trek, reflecting his earlier mindset of practicality, was meticulously planned and parceled into multiple journeys between major cities; however, Muir¡¦s later journey through California reflects a drastic internal evolution¡Xthis route was a radical escape from cities and main routes of travel.  Arriving in San Francisco in March 1868, Muir immediately left for a place he had read about called Yosemite.  He was captivated by Yosemite Valley¡¦s grandeur and plant wealth.  From that moment on, though Muir would travel the world, California became his home.  It was this first enlightenment in Yosemite Valley in the summer of 1872, Cohen claims, that represents both the climax of Muir's intensely personal search for self-knowledge and the enduring foundation of his ecological consciousness.  Giving himself up to the experience of wilderness with all the discipline and devoutness of a religious pilgrim, Muir came to embody the very meaning of his vision in the mountains of California. Reeducating himself in geology, natural history, evolution, and aesthetics with texts such as those of Agassiz and Asa Gray, Muir felt that for the first time, his education was being applied.  However, he gradually developed his own method of study that revolved around observation of nature, not adherence to men¡¦s theories.

Ultimately, Cohen emphasizes, Muir¡¦s ecological consciousness would generate an ecological conscience. It was no longer enough for Muir to individually test and celebrate his enlightenment in the wild. His vision, he felt, must lead to concrete action.  With the growing number of livestock in the Sierras, Muir realized that much damage was being inflicted upon the Sierra grasslands.  Throwing himself into his new role of preservationist with great vigor, Muir turned more seriously to writing, using it as a vehicle to expound his philosophy and the grandeur of California to audiences on the East Coast.  For example, Muir wrote a series of letters for San Francisco Bulletin between 1874 and1878; though these moderate writings might seem like tourist-trade material, they were effective in speaking to the most general audiences.  Muir had correctly predicted that while a path of moderation was not the best way to a true vision of nature, moderate articles would bring urban tourists.  In his narrative Picturesque California, Muir provided his readers with a safe and comfortable place to appreciate Nature.  Cohen claims that in creating a comfortable distance between Muir¡¦s readers and the actual wilderness, Muir sacrificed his earlier values and ¡§fairly drenched the reader in the language of artifice.¡¨5 Using anthropocentric and fashionable language popular to East Coast readers and press, Muir recognized, was the only way to captivate the public¡¦s attention and alert them about the precarious state of Yosemite. Muir additionally took the role of tour guide more seriously; becoming more than just an entertainer, he attempted to radically recreate public attitudes about the wilderness, thus laying the groundwork for an ecological conscience in 19th century America.

The major turning point in Muir¡¦s career as a preservationist came in June 1889.  Camping in Tuolumne Meadows with the influential associate editor of Century magazine, Robert Underwood Johnson, Muir showed him firsthand the damage a large flock of sheep had done to the grassland.  This action earned Muir Johnson¡¦s valuable endorsement¡XJohnson agreed to publish any article Muir wrote on the subject of excluding livestock from the Sierra high country.  While Johnson held ¡§anthropocentric view[s]¡¨ that showed his ¡§distance from Muir¡¦s appreciation of the wholeness of Nature,¡¨ the alliance between the two became an important model of the balanced relationship between tourist and guide.6 Johnson also agreed to use his influence to introduce a bill to Congress to make the Yosemite area into a national park, modeled after Yellowstone National Park.   Through a series of articles appearing in Century magazine, Muir drew attention to the devastation of mountain meadows and forests by sheep and cattle. With the help of Century, Muir worked to remedy this destruction.  In 1890, due in large part to the efforts of Muir and Johnson, an act of Congress established Yosemite National Park.

While Cohen praises Muir¡¦s successes with the national park system, he maintains that in the process of converting the public and Congress to preservationism, Muir disappointingly surrendered some of his key values.  As an emerging political man, Muir found success by ¡§taking a pose and speaking a language his audience wanted to hear.¡¨7 Soon after the creation of Yosemite National Park, Johnson proposed that Muir help form an organization on the West coast which would serve as a defense association to watch over and protect Yosemite from the assaults of stockmen and others who would diminish its boundaries.  In 1892, Muir and a number of his supporters founded the Sierra Club.  Different from other environment groups, such as the Forestry Association of the 1970¡¦s and the Civic Improvement Leagues of the East Coast, the Sierra Club paved the way for a newly distinct and identifiable character of the Muir-led preservationist movement.  The majority of the members of the Sierra Club were from the Bay Area, well educated, part of the middle class, and urban in outlook.  To these citizens, the outdoors and mountains were places for vacation; thus, the Sierra Club developed secular over spiritual aims, and sought to preserve the forests and other natural features of the Sierra for purely recreational purposes.  Despite the fact that the Sierra Club was truly effective as a trailblazer in the wilderness, something central to Muir¡¦s philosophy was lost as the preservation movement took on an institutional form and worldly objective.

Cohen states clearly in his introduction that The Pathless Way is not a standard biography; rather, it is an analysis of John Muir¡¦s intellectual and spiritual journey.  Through the compilation of this thorough account of Muir¡¦s psychological struggle, Cohen also often criticizes Muir¡¦s actions.  According to him, Muir was much less successful as a preservationist than as a naturalist.  This judgment is nonetheless fair and does not reflect badly on Muir.  In the words of David Rains Wallace¡¦s New York Times critique, ¡§Considering [Muir]¡¦s enemies¡Xcities; farm, logging, and livestock interests; government bureaucracies¡Xand the dubious loyalty of conservationist allies, his part in creating a number of national parks and the Sierra Club still seems impressive.¡¨8 Cohen rightfully criticizes Muir for sliding away from his original vision of attaining harmony with nature, an aspiration he came close to accomplishing in his earlier years as a naturalist.  Wallace applauds Cohen¡¦s portrayal of Muir, calling his account ¡§perceptive¡¨ and ¡§thorough.¡¨9

Himself a mountaineer who spent extensive time in the Sierra Nevada, Cohen is clearly an expert in this field; however, this shared interest with Muir is a factor in both the chief strengths and one of the main weaknesses of this book.  Despite the credibility of Cohen¡¦s sources, his thoughts are not wholly convincing.  Because this book focuses on the spiritual journey of Muir¡¦s character, Cohen dramatically emphasizes Muir¡¦s internal conflict and psychological struggle, describing environmental and political issues as ¡§prey[ing] on his conscience.¡¨10 In addition, Cohen, as a fellow naturalist and lover of mountains, shows an obvious bias in his biographical narrative¡Xalthough he somewhat condemns Muir for being artificially over-optimistic, he himself romanticizes and idealizes Muir¡¦s character, perpetuating the genial, picturesque nature-guide identity favorable to the public.  A look at other biographies, such as Stephen R. Fox¡¦s John Muir and His Legacy, reveals that Muir was a much more radical, shrewd, and divided man than the image Cohen portrays. 10

Furthermore, while the injection of Cohen¡¦s own thoughts into the narrative are mostly insightful and a provide nice change from the typical fact-laden biography, often the reader will tire of reading Cohen¡¦s marvelous first-hand accounts and pompous anecdotes.  As Roderick Nash concludes in his critique, ¡§It is clear after only a few minutes that The Pathless Way is as much about Cohen as about John Muir, and Cohen does not disguise that fact.¡¨11 Writing of his own experiences climbing the very peaks that Muir scaled one hundred years ago, Cohen writes, ¡§I have been there perhaps twenty times, once on the centennial of Muir¡¦s ascent, when the clouds sailed through the mountains, riding the west wind.  Each day on the Cathedral Park that I remember seems sacred.¡¨12 This statement, as well as Cohen¡¦s many others of the same voice and purpose, seems to be Cohen¡¦s showy verification or stamp of approval of Muir¡¦s opinions.

While movements associated with the wilderness of the West and California¡¦s frontier, preservation and John Muir¡¦s national park campaign were wholly influenced by events occurring in the Eastern United States.  Muir knew he had to appeal to the wealthy families living in the metropolises of the East Coast in order to gain influence with the public and the government¡Xwriting Picturesque California, Studies in the Sierra, and Century magazine were a few of Muir¡¦s vast efforts to establish a friendly and welcoming connection between the West and the East.  The ¡§bond between the eastern reader and the narrator of Muir¡¦s essays of the early nineties¡¨ was the single driving force that could perpetuate the preservation movement.13 Additionally, with the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, tourism and vacationing were gradually becoming popular recreational activities among Eastern American families.  Muir¡¦s movement for preservation of nature and establishment of national parks utilized this Eastern social trend to draw attention to the situation in California.

Once isolated from the rest of America by the Sierra Nevadas, California, with the work of John Muir, became most well known and treasured for that exact mountain range.  Events in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reflected a changing American society.  One tragic yet enlightening example is the debate over Hetch Hetchy Valley of Yosemite National Park in 1913.  California¡¦s Hetch Hetchy Valley had been one of the most attractive spots in California¡¦s Sierras, but when officials of San Francisco visited the region, they saw merely a cheap solution to their city¡¦s serious water problems.  When, after a long fight that polarized the nation, the Tuolumne River was dammed to create a reservoir for San Francisco, much wild grandeur was sacrificed and the shoreline became marred by mud and decaying vegetation.  Despite this severe loss, Cohen points out that the struggle had a larger meaning: for the first time, over a five-year period, the American public debated the aesthetic implications of a major public works project.  The Hetch Hetchy political battle was a turning point in which America began ¡§moving with tremendous momentum away from its Jeffersonian conscience¡K¡¨14 Wilderness preservation was, for the first time, on the public agenda, and California was suddenly more than a distant strip of uncharted wilderness.

Cohen¡¦s meticulous examination of John Muir reflects his personal experience with and extensive knowledge of the continuing efforts to preserve the Sierra Nevada and Yosemite Valley.  In The Pathless Way, Cohen explores and provides profound insight on Muir, on Cohen¡¦s ¡§own thinking¡K the thinking of a whole community¡K [and] generation.¡¨15 More than simply a biography of John Muir, and more than a mere description of an important movement in California history, Cohen¡¦s narrative boldly combines critiques of Muir¡¦s ethics and accolades of his monumental accomplishments.  By clarifying this balance and outlining his central consciousness as both naturalist and preservationist, Cohen illuminates Muir, his movement, and the magnetism of his beloved mountains. 

1. Muir, John.  A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf.  New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1916.

2. Salzman, Jack.  American Studies:  An Annotated Bibliography 1984-1988.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

3. Tolan, Sally.  John Muir.  Milwaukee: Gareth Stevens, Inc., 1990.

4. Muir, John.  The Wilderness World of John Muir.  New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001.

5. Cohen, Michael. The Pathless Way: John Muir and American Wilderness. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984, 241.

6. Cohen, Michael 257.

7. Cohen, Michael 280.

8. Wallace, David Rains. ¡§He Rode the Avalanches.¡¨ New York Times September 16, 1984.

9. Wallace, David Rains.

10. Fox, Stephen.  John Muir and His Legacy.  Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986.

11. Nash, Roderick. ¡§The Pathless Way: John Muir and American Wilderness.¡¨ The American Historical Review. 90 (1985): 761.

12. Cohen, Michael 359.

13. Cohen, Michael 257.

14. Cohen, Michael 328.

15. Cohen, Michael xiii.