“The forests of America, however slighted by man, must have been a great delight to God; for they were the best he ever planted. The whole continent was a garden, and from the beginning it seemed to be favored above all the other wild parks and gardens of the globe…These forests were composed of about five hundred species of trees, all of them useful to man, ranging in size from twenty-five feet in height and less than one foot in diameter at the ground to four hundred feet in height and more than twenty feet in diameter – lordly monarchs proclaiming the gospel of beauty like apostles…
Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed – chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones…It took more than three thousand years to make some of the trees in these western woods – trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty forests of the Sierra. Through all the wonderful, eventful centuries since Christ’s time – and long before that – God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools…” John Muir, “The American Forests,” The Atlantic, August 1897
There is a much to hear in this paean to the great forests of America – and too much that has not changed. Many of the forests Muir loved have been felled and we struggle still with fools and foolishness regarding trees, forests, and Earth.
I would particularly like to point out, though, Muir’s unabashed use of Christian language and imagery to make his case. Muir is using what was, and for most Americans still is, accepted and understood language of sacredness to express his love of these great forests. Unabashed, he speaks of God and of Christ to communicate his own anger and frustration and to evoke in his readers a sense that to destroy these forests is to desecrate a sacred place.
Muir’s use of religious language – and his deep personal belief that sacred places are created by God – was instrumental in his ability to communicate with a wide cross-section of Americans and to create the 20th century conservation movement. In the intervening hundred years, America’s environmental advocates have largely lost our comfort and fluency with such language and belief. As we have forgotten how to speak, we have lost the ability to speak to a large part of America in ways they can hear.
How can we regain this lost language on behalf of Earth? How can we learn to speak to those who don’t hear or understand technocratic enviro-speak? How can we re-create within ourselves an understanding and practice of Earth as holy? How can we re-learn that way of Christ that so moved John Muir?