This earth day, many quotes will be circulated (tweeted, retweeted, or posted to Facebook) from America's most beloved environmental thinkers, who happen to be mostly white men. In this vein, John Muir once said, "I care to live only to entice people to look at Nature's loveliness." Unfortunately, in today's colorblind society, it is easy to forget that Muir didn't really mean ALL people, but white people. Indeed, our beloved John Muir was racist.
The establishment of the National Park System that Muir played a key role in relied on a conceptualization of wilderness that was pure and devoid of human (especially non-white) contamination. In My First Summer in the Sierras, published in 1911, Muir expresses disconcertion in encountering Indigenous peoples in his travels throughout the Sierras and into Yosemite Valley. For Muir, the Indians were unclean and didn't belong in the wilderness, despite their existence there preceding his own. "A strangely dirty and irregular life these dark-eyed dark-haired, half-happy savages lead in this clean wilderness," he commented.
Places like Yosemite National Park, were always inhabited by people, and their erasure both physically and symbolically was key to the establishment of white spaces of wild purity.
Before a week ago, I’d never been to Yosemite National Park. I grew up camping in Northern California with my grandparents, so I am used to being outdoors. For some reason, leading up to the trip I’d imagined that I’d be roughing it for a couple of days out in Yosemite. The only images that I’d ever seen of the Park made it seem so wild, or much more intense than anything I'd ever done before. Little did I know that I was about to enter what might be John Muir’s nightmare.
Yosemite is a nature-theme park, equipped with trolley service, multiple accommodation options (hotel, Park provided tents, condos, etc.), multiple dining establishments (including, but not limited to, a large cafeteria, bar, pizza and hot-dog parlor, grocery store, and coffee shop), a pool, and plenty of parking lots. The gift shop sells T-Shirts, stickers, coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets, and much more. Perhaps you forgot your tent at home on the way to your weekend getaway. No worries! You can even load up on extra outdoorsy materials from a store next door that resembles a well-stocked mini REI. Carabiners anyone?
On a hike up through the Valley of the Mist, I was struck by the melange of faces, hair types, clothing, and languages being spoken. An array of people of color, speckled the trail all the way to the top. For once, I wasn’t the only black dude in an outdoor setting! Contrary to what I’d read about as an environmental sociologist, people of color are visiting the parks and want their dose of natural beauty just like everyone else. This brilliant diversity of people coupled with the Park’s nonhuman elements (birds, squirrels, bears, rock formations, trees, etc.) combined to produce one of the most awe-inspiring scenes I’ve ever witnessed.
I don’t think that John Muir would feel the same way. Muir would likely view the park as too popular, and therefore tainted. I’m pretty sure he’d be offended by the idea of having a grocery/gift store, in addition to the other amenities that the Park now provides. Given his racist attitudes, he might also be offended by my own, and many other people of color like me, presence in the park. While I’m uncomfortable with the way that Yosemite resembles an amusement park rather than a refuge for nonhuman nature (apparently there is a three strike rule for bears…absurd), I think that the diversity of people that feel comfortable in that space is a welcome trade off.
John Muir is rolling in his grave, and I’m okay with that.
 See Merchant, Carolyn. 2003. “Shades of Darkness: Race and Environmental History.” Environmental History 380–94.
 The climbers out there will get that reference.