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John Muir and Alaska

June 25, 2012

While visiting Juneau, AK for the ASLE off-year regional symposium (Environment, Culture & Place in a Rapidly Changing North), I decided to explore my surroundings as much as I could, given my time and mobility limitations. From an overheard conversation on a bus trip to the Mendenhall Glacier, I learned of a nearby hike, about 8 miles round trip–totally doable in an afternoon–with the intriguing promise of “John Muir’s cabin” at the end of it. I had to see it for myself.

Unable to locate a walking buddy, I trusted my knowledge of bears and, also, that a trail so near the university would be well frequented (the latter proved true and the former was not, thankfully, put to the test). I kept myself occupied as I (ineffectually) dodged mud and tree roots marveling at the vital exuberance of a rainforest in early summer, thinking about the legacy of John Muir in Alaska and wondering why, exactly, he had a cabin on a mountain in Juneau.

John Muir troubles me. He is a sensual writer, kidnapping his readers into evocative worlds of touch, taste, sight and sound. He uplifts us to the height of a Sitka Pine as he and the tree whip around in a storm’s frenzy and then, just as swiftly, we are down to the miniscule wonder of an alpine flower. We expand across watersheds, continents, eons! and then contract to the summer lifetime of a single bumble bee.

He writes passages like the following about the arrangement of a group of islands in Alaska’s Southeast:

Viewed one by one, they seem detached beauties, like extracts from a poem, while, from the completeness of their lines and the way that their trees are arranged, each seems a finished stanza in itself.

And yet, while his Travels in Alaska has been influential in helping turn “this far northern area into one of the chief battlefields of modern conservation” (David Wallace, Introduction to the 1998 edition), it was also this book that first encouraged modern attention (in the form of tourism, mineral exploration, settlement and later, the making of Glacier Bay National Park) to the southeast panhandle of the newly purchased Alaskan territory. As any Tlingit (or anyone else indigenous to the area now called Alaska) will tell you, Alaska was not even Russia’s to sell to the United States, let alone the United State’s having the power to remove people living in the areas now called wilderness–the most enduring of Muir’s legacies–pristine and human free that then become tourist only visiting spots. I think the commemorative plaque in “John Muir’s Cabin” explains the troubling, even complicit, nexus of tourism, wilderness ideals, the exploitation of resources and the imaginative project of making a history in a land you subconsciously know is not your own:

John Muir Cabin–USFS

This cabin was built by volunteers in 1980 Juneau’s centennial year, in honor of John Muir the naturalist. In 1879, while exploring southeast Alaska, he observed and reported mineralization in rock in the area where Joe Juneau and Richard Harris discovered gold and founded Juneau in 1880.

Did Muir envision the extent of the infrastructure needed to support access to the wilderness areas he wrote about so intimately and enthusiastically? The wooden boards across trails worn into the tundra, deep with mud. Sturdy bridges across ravines and swift flowing rivers, built from felled trees hauled on ATVs or dropped from helicopters. Cabins (with stoves for winter sleeping, needing wood to burn). Steps built into steep hillsides with wood or non-local rocks. Gasoline powered tour boats. “Facilities” (outhouses, cafes, visitor centers). Paved parking lots.

Muir knew he was writing a travel book. Travel books are written for the profit of the writer so that he can pursue more travel and their function is to tell people about places they have never been–it makes unknown places known, it makes them within reach, desirable, achievable. In this fashion, Travels in Alaska is a colonial text: it appropriates a space that is uneasily owned into the national imagination and encourages visitation, entitlement, ownership.

In a keynote address at the conference from which I was currently, guiltily, absent, Ernestine Hayes (author of Blonde Indian: an Alaska Native Memoir) spoke about uneven power dynamics that are maintained through the rigid policing of culture, history, and art. She spoke about what counts as a “creation myth”, asking the audience (predominantly, but not all, white academics) to think about the creation myths of American culture, the stories told and retold about freedom, equality, liberty, happiness for all. What happens to our own stories when we think of them in terms that we reserve for others, those that have been dispossessed of those very rights? I would add wilderness to our creation myth–the land without humans, untouched, reserved in perpetuity for desire only. Muir is complicit in the settlement of southeast Alaska by people who, like him, thought they had more right to the land than those currently living there because they knew the worth of the land in terms of dollars, souls to be Christianized or the so-called “intrinsic value” of land that has been so lightly touched by the hand of man that those only recently arrived could call it pristine, virgin, pure.

But a cabin built of imported material dedicated to a naturalist that pointed out the gold that would bring future massive resource exploitation–the cognitive dissonance of this project beggars belief, yet here we are, this is modern Alaska. The people traditionally living in what is now Glacier Bay National Park are forbidden to live or subsist within park boundaries, yet logging continues in the Tongass forest, mines operate in the mountains behind the glaciers and receding glaciers reveal new mineral wealth, and thousands of visitors tramp through the wilderness or ride on chugging boats through the inside passage.

If there were no protected places would resource extraction run rampant? If Alaska’s native people had not been colonized, would they make alliances with the oil industry who will let them stay on the land, when Congressional wilderness acts push them off? As a lover of the solitude and serenity that can be found on a well marked path through some lightly touched country, what is my responsibility to the current state of affairs? These are not questions that can be answered in a word, a sentence, an exclamation point. These are on-going projects, for thought an action, for a lifetime. All I can say right now is that I’ll continue down the path to John Muir’s cabin, but I hope I never arrive.

I want to express my gratitude for being made welcome to Lingit Aani. Gunalchéesh. All photos (and their deficiencies) are my own. For more information about hiking to or sleeping at John Muir Cabin, USFS or Hiking Alaska, p. 332-333.

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