If you study pre-modern history in any depth, one of the most startling things you will discover is that “traditional” societies usually had an adversarial relationship with “nature.” They fought the wild tooth and nail in a never-ending effort to bring it under human control. It never really occurred to them that this effort at pacification–and the wanton destruction it brought–was wrong. On the contrary, it was man’s right. As the Hebrew Bible says, God gave man “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Nature was ours, to do with as we pleased.
John Muir was among the first people to take a different and more “modern” view. He, like others of the Romantic movement, felt that nature and divinity were intertwined. We should no more destroy a wilderness than we should take the Lord’s name in vain, for both the one and the other were sacred. In his remarkable A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir (Oxford UP, 2008), Donald Worster tells us how Muir came by these rather odd sentiments and how he put them into practice. You know about Muir’s work: the Sierra Club, Yosemite National Park, Sequoia National Park, Muir Woods National Monument. Now read Worster’s wonderful biography and learn about the man himself.
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