Question 3: Wilderness as portrayed by Marsh and Muir

In both texts we read this week, wilderness is portrayed heavily. Interestingly, wilderness is presented in contrasting lights. In John Muir’s “The American Forests,” wilderness is seen as a religious experience, almost intertwining itself with the sublime trope we have seen earlier in the semester. George Marsh, on the other hand, uses pure logic and a scientific basis to present wilderness as a rapidly declining and unfairly treated commodity. Marsh’s rhetorical strategy presents wilderness through the light of contamination- the more humans impede upon our earth, the more wilderness is tainted, and, eventually, forever lost.

                John Muir’s presentation of nature follows Garrard’s discussion of “nature writing texts …as… “rhapsodic” celebration of natural beauty and wildness” (Garrard, 81) precisely.  Muir’s first sentence sums it up perfectly: “The forests of America, however slighted by man, must have been a great delight to God; for they were the best he ever planted” (Muir, 145). Muir goes on to describe trees as “lordly monarchs proclaiming the gospel of beauty like apostles” (Muir, 145). This intensely religious and rapturous discussion of nature in the first few paragraphs lulls the reader into a false sense that everything is “okay.” Although Muir later goes on to make a fervent argument advocating for the conservation and protection of our nation’s landscapes, it is seen as secondary to the celebration of the “lordly monarchs” (Muir, 145) discussed previously.

                Unlike Muir’s arguments, George Marsh discusses nature, and the almost ensured destruction of the earth, from a purely logical and scientific standpoint. After comparing the issues between human impact on the earth with that of lower animals, he begins to discuss the “partial reverse” (Marsh, 44) of earth’s destruction. Marsh states: “These achievements are more glorious than the proudest triumphs of war, but thus far they give but faint hope that we shall yet make full atonement for our spendthrift waste of the bounties of nature” (Marsh, 44). This discussion by Marsh, which basically says the way humans impact the earth means there is no possibility of saving wilderness, echoes discussion in Garrard’s book: “[A] construction of nature reinforces an idea of wilderness, in which any modification of the environment is a form of contamination… The ideal wilderness space is wholly pure by virtue of its independence from humans” (Garrard, 70-71). This idea brings to light the fact that Marsh is arguing the inevitability of earth’s downfall, in whole or in part, because of human’s destructiveness.

                Although both authors come from very different stand points, they both attempt to get the same idea across- that the way man is treating the earth has horribly negative implications for the future. The ways they go about this argument differ wildly, but their overall goal is the same: fight for our nation’s nature (what is left of it, at least) to be preserved for future generations.

Garrard, Greg. Ecocritism: The New Critical Idiom. Ch./Art: Wilderness p. 59-84. Pub. Routledge 2004

Marsh, George P. The Earth as Modified by Human Action. Ch./Art: Destructiveness of Man; Instability of American Life p. 33-55, 396-397. Pub. Arno Press 1970

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


One response to this post.

  1. I like the way you’ve compared the similarities and contrasted the differences in Muir’s and Marsh’s writings. Each writer has threaded apocalypse into their respective styles in a unique way – Muir as more of the pathos appeal (emotions), while Marsh is more of the logos appeal (reasoning). Ultimately, they are both aiming for a similar agenda – stop destroying the earth, save the planet. Reading these two writings definitely evokes some fear in me, which is a powerful motivator. As Garrard would say, the apocalypse trope has “provided the green movement with some of its most striking successes” (85). What stands out to me for Muir is that just by him describing the forests as so sublime and a gift of God, that is enough to build up an emotional attachment (pathos). Muir does not need to bang us over the heads with how much destruction is going on (like Marsh). Personally, I feel that Muir is more effective as a “green campaign” experience to change habits and perspectives.

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