1.) Apocalypse trope in John Muir’s, “The American Forests”

John Muir’s, “The American Forests” is certainly heavy with the ecocritical trope of apocalypse, and it is dominantly tragic, although often sarcastic, but I would not consider this characteristic strong enough to categorize this text as comic. Muir does not generalize the destruction, and certainly not the use, of nature as an act of evil, but is logical and ethical in his stance against the trend of land and resource use in America, especially as it concerns the settlers / immigrants, and miners / foresters, who are thematically juxtaposed in “The American Forests”. The settler / immigrant is the more honest, noble tenant of the land, at least at heart, and the miner / forester is what he frequently deems a “thief”. He defines an ecological settler as the “good men of every nation, seeking freedom and homes and bread” (156), the likes of which America welcomes. There is a great difference between these and the “mere destroyers” and “tree-killers” looking to turn the land to cash. Muir believes that North America represents an absolute treasure trove of natural resources – the best in the world, in his opinion – but it is being abused and destroyed faster and more recklessly than any other: “So far our government has done nothing effective with its forests, though the best in the world…” (148). Muir contrasts American forest policy against a number of other nations to prove his point, including France, which has sold no government forests “since 1870” (147), Prussia, which treats its forests “as a trust for the nation as a whole” (147), Switzerland, which established its forestry school in 1865 (147), and “Even Japan…when, in the latest civil war, the Mikado government destroyed the feudal system [and] it declared that the forests that had belonged to the feudal lords to be property of the state” (148). Much of John Muir’s beef with land policy falls on the guilty shoulders of the US government, which he believes, like its European and Asian counterparts, should effectively protect and regulate the use of forested lands, lest they be destroyed entirely by the “invading horde of destroyers” (147) and “timber-thieves” (149). Muir points out that most of the waste and needless destruction is the result of poor planning and foolish decisions to sell land cheaply, in most cases 160 acres at two and a half dollars per acre, where “a single tree [is] worth more than a hundred dollars” (151). What’s more is that nothing is being done to see that illegal activities are not properly apprehended and punished, and nothing is being done to keep large corporations from illegally obtaining great tracts of land, “ten thousand to twenty thousand acres or more” (151). Though “The American Forests” builds itself up on a snowball theory, in agreement with the apocalypse trope, which suggests the dangerous and violent hurtling toward disaster, Muir does not believe that disaster is certain and unavoidable, but makes it clear that, though it is not too late to make changes, “it is high time for the government to begin a rational administration of its forests” (155).

Muir, John. The Atlantic Monthly. 70/178 Ch./Art: “The American Forests” p. 145-157. pub. Atlantic Monthly August 1897


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by yribaf on November 1, 2011 at 11:37 pm

    I don’t think Muir looks at the forests as treasure troves of natural resources so much as a piece of nature that should be preserved and protected in something resembling a national park. He’s advocating for America to protect the forests left and use them wisely like other countries that he discusses in his text. He finds it wasteful that Americans have wrought so much destruction upon the trees. “With no eye to the future, these pious destroyers waged interminable forest wars;……..and smoke of their burning has been rising to heaven more than two hundred years” (147). Muir is looking towards what America will be in the future because of this destruction, and the apocalyptic trope jumps up through this excerpt from his text. The trees burning for two hundred years seems like an ominous foretelling of what’s in store for Americans if they do not conserve and manage the forests.

    Muir, John. The Atlantic Monthly. 70/178 Ch./Art: “The American Forests” p. 145-157. pub. Atlantic Monthly August 1897

  2. You mentioned that Muir uses more logos and ethos to appeal to the reader, with statements about the policies of other countries, and describing the characteristics of Americans. I would disagree – I believe that Muir is definitely more about “pathos” in appealing to the emotions of the reader, such as with the name-calling of “timber-thieves” and “tree-killers.” Behind all of his statistics of dates and quotes on prices for trees simmers an emotional charge that is quite powerful. For example, he describes this scene of the settling of the country: “in the blindness of their hunger, the early settlers, claiming Heaven as their guide, regarded God’s trees as only a larger kind of pernicious weeds, extremely hard to get rid of” (146). Muir seems to only be discussing events, but of course his language is riddled with bitterness, which appeals to pathos.

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