Question 2: Muir’s Arguments

I think that the most important argument in this article is Muir’s allocation of responsibility from “God” to “Uncle Sam”. Muir positions the American forest as a specifically great and noble beauty, the product of divine creation, “the best [god] ever planted” (Muir 145). He continues by explaining nature as the forest’s steward, “working like a man”, to maintain and protect it. However, because of overwhelming western expansion—manifest destiny— Americans are unsustainably destroying the forests. They defend their actions with a suppose piety, related to the Christian appraisal of the environment as the dominion of man: to be used at his or her disposal. Muir contrasts this with other nations: France, Prussia, Russia, Norway, that treat the forest as “a trust for the nation as a whole,” keeping the good of the people as the primary motivating factor for conservation or exploitation. This contrasts with the American ideal that Muir presents as essentially capital driven.

But this is not to say that Muir is indicting all of American society as essentially destroyers of some pristine wilderness. Although I do think that a large portion of this article is to present a problem—and assign blame—what seems more important is to explain the possibility of equilibrium and the reasons for the current lack of one. This connects with Muir’s explanation of the various difficulties in reeducating the pioneers, who “will be hard to teach… that it is wrong to steal government timber” (149). This becomes tied into an argument of class struggle in which Muir maintains that the necessary steps for forest conservation cannot be taken with the basic hypocrisy between treatment of citizens and companies. Muir explains the indifference that rises in regards to this issue as due to people who are “sleepy with wealth…” or “sleepy with poverty” (156).

Finally I think another important connection Muir makes is between the ideal American government, “proud to welcome” people from other nations, and nature the provider. Both of these entities are explained as capable of sustaining expansion and growth, “the ground will be glad to feed them,” but the issue comes about when the goal strays from sustenance to the “spreading of death and confusion” linked with the pursuit of capital (156).

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 al002 on November 3, 2011 at 11:48 am

    You seem to have captured Muir’s arguments in an appreciated simplified form. I especially liked how you transitioned from Muir’s personification of the forest as human stewards then progressed into the comparison of America to European countries and their opinion towards nature. With the contrast between America and European view of nature and its resources do you think Muir would think these opinions would clash when European immigrates come to America? Or would they assimilate into the American Ideology? My guess is the later would have been shared by Muir.

  2. Posted by kwalley on November 3, 2011 at 12:04 pm

    I agree that although Muir spends much of the article blaming American society and its pursuit of capitalism his main focus is on what could be instead. What I like about your analysis is the realization that Muir understands this is not a simple process, as reeducating never is. It is interesting that Muir turns his argument about American society as a whole into a class argument. This transition, in my opinion, makes Muir’s argument slightly less effective. I think that his argument blaming society is more founded and makes a much more fluid argument in this context than that of the hierarchal problems existing in society at the time.

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