John Muir’s Optimism

I was reading John Muir’s essay “The Grand Cañon of the Colorado” yesterday, when I ran across this aside in the midst of his complaint about railroads ruining wilderness areas:

The finest wilderness perishes as if stricken with pestilence.  Bird and beast people, if not the dryads, are frightened from the groves.  Too often the groves vanish, leaving nothing but ashes.  Fortunately, nature has a few big places beyond man’s power to spoil—the ocean, the two icy ends of the globe, and the Grand Cañon. (1)

Well, 110 years after Muir wrote these words, we have managed to despoil our oceans as well as the polar ice caps.  Humanity’s power is greater than Muir realized.  The railroad was only the beginning of modern industrialization.

Thankfully, that power has been used for good as well—the preservation of the Grand Canyon.  It is certainly not beyond out power to waste (never forget the efforts of Ralph Cameron), but we have chosen to keep it (mostly) wild for future generations.  Amidst so much bad news, that at least is encouraging.


(1) John Muir,  John Muir: Nature Writings, 790.


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