John Muir’s Tormented Landscape

Why Conservation’s Original Sin Always Returns

Nature conservation and genocide. These twin phenomena, both legacies of the United States’ settlement, sit uneasily with one another in the nation’s history. The uncomfortable truth of their conjoining is captured in the late writing of the nation’s earliest proponent of the wild: John Muir.

Long before Muir hiked the Sierras, explored Alaska, or courted Theodore Roosevelt, he grew up in a migrant Scottish family that settled in rural Wisconsin in the 1840s. His accounts of resettlement, earliest years, and first adventures in nature are wonderfully recalled in one of his last published texts, The Story of My Boyhood and Youth.John Muir, The Story of My Boyhood and Youth (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1913).The book is Muir’s final reflection, even as it records his earliest memories and experiences.

As one might expect, the book features loving descriptions of North American flora and fauna. But Boyhood and Youth is notable in several ways, including providing hints of his father’s profound brutality.Steven J. Holmes, The Young John Muir: An Environmental Biography. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999), doi: 10.1086/ahr/105.3.940.Peter Loewenberg, “John Muir and the Erotization of Nature,” Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies 2, no.4 (2000):365–81, doi: 10.1023/A:1010127006859.More than this, however, Boyhood and Youth features detailed accounts of Native peoples, practices, and lifeways. Muir walks Native trails, observes Native hunters, and describes Native landmarks. Indians abound in the Wisconsin landscape of his early years.

This is remarkable insofar as the broader body of Muir’s writing is relatively silent on the role of Native peoples in occupying, forging, and tending the environments that he so often described as wilderness.William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, ed. William Cronon. (New York: Norton, 1995), 69–90.At times Muir described respect for Native practices, especially during his time in Alaska.Richard F. Fleck, “John Muir’s Evolving Attitudes toward Native American Cultures,” American Indian Quarterly 4, no. 1 (1978):19–31.But he rarely mentioned so much as a conversation with a Native person and often invoked his dislike of “Indians,” describing them as “dirty,” “deadly,” and “lazy.”Mark David Spence, Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000): 23.Nor does Muir commonly describe Native peoples as key actors in nature; they have “no right place in the landscape” of wild California.John Muir, The Mountains of California
(New York: Century, 1894): 93.Ross Wakefield, “Muir’s Early Indian Views: Another Look at My First Summer in the Sierra,” The John Muir Newsletter 5, no.1 (1994): 1
Spence, Dispossessing the Wilderness, 109.In Wakefield’s words, “The pedestal of John Muir’s Nature was too high for the Indian to attain.”Ross Wakefield, “Muir’s Early Indian Views: Another Look at My First Summer in the Sierra,” The John Muir Newsletter 5, no.1 (1994): 1.

The result is that Muir’s work, even when acknowledging or lamenting the status of Native peoples, is marked by the absence of reflection on either the removal of Native peoples from the “natural” lands he describes or the near-contemporary genocide of Indigenous communities in and around the exact locales he revered most in his writing.

None of this was unique to Muir. The “divine manuscript” of Yosemite’s landscape,John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra
(Cambridge, UK: The Riverside Press, 1911).
from which Muir sought to read lessons was, as Cronon reminded us,Cronon, “Trouble with Wilderness.”one widely described as fashioned by God, rather than crafted by people. As such, Muir’s profound invocations of these landscapes as unsullied by human influence were part of broader “habits of thinking” in the late nineteenth century. This led to the creation of a wilderness movement in which Native peoples and their impact on the continent played little symbolic or material role.Bruce Willems-Braun, “Buried Epistemologies: The Politics of Nature in (Post) Colonial British Columbia,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 87, no. 1 (1997):3–31, doi: 10.1111/0004-5608.00039.

Given the notable absence of Indians in Muir’s earlier work, why might they so haunt the narrated landscapes and experiences of his later writings in Boyhood and Youth? A psychoanalytic view would see in Boyhood and Youth the return of repressed memories, as Muir struggled to symbolically and materially repress traces of Native Americans recently and violently separated from the landscapes he travelled.

By assuming the preservationist figure of the “father of the national parks system,” Muir helped to enact an agenda that continually severed Native peoples from the landscape while simultaneously disavowing his childhood memories of similar landscapes, replete with Native people. This personal and collective repression had significant implications for the wilderness preservation movement, supporting the creation of national parks in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the exclusion and displacement of Indigenous people, and producing a romanticized narration of the environmental conservation and preservation movements origins that overlooks the movements’ complex political underpinnings.

That Native Americans, so absent or ignored in Muir’s previous work, would return in such full force in a late reflection is no coincidence. Indians are on Muir’s mind at the end of his life, precisely because they were there from the beginning.


On its face, it is not surprising that Native Americans featured prominently in Boyhood and Youth. The land the Muir family settled on had recently and violently been taken from Native tribes after the short, violent, and decisive Black Hawk War, less than two decades earlier. In 1832, that event began when the Sauk leader Black Hawk crossed the Mississippi into Illinois from Iowa Indian territory, with a large number of Sauks, Meskwakis, and Kickapoos, to settle lands set aside by treaty.

The conflict that ensued resulted in several pitched battles across Wisconsin, including the final Battle of Bad Axe near present-day Victory, Wisconsin — so named for the final massacre, where as many as 600 Native warriors and noncombatants were murdered (Figure 1).Cullen W. Bryant and Sydney H. Gay, A popular history of the United States, from the first discovery of the Western hemisphere by the Northmen, to the end of the first century of the union of the states (New York: Scribner, Armstrong, & Co, 1876). This was followed by a ragged retreat, ending in Black Hawk’s surrender and the death of most of his warriors.

Figure 1: Native women and children fleeing the Battle of Bad Axe, August 1832. Engraving by Ernest Heinemann, from original by William de la Montagne Cary. New York Public Library, originally published in Bryant and Gay (1876).

The Black Hawk War, which ushered in an aggressive era of Indian removal throughout the Midwest, was of course only the latest atrocity in a long history of violent dispossession. The lands where Muir first settled from Scotland in 1849 at age 11 included those ceded by the Ho-Chunk in 1829, followed by further concessions in 1837 (Figure 2). These were only a few miles south of ones eventually ceded by the Menominee in 1848 and were just west of those ceded by the Potawatomi and Chippewa in 1833. Indeed, the area around Portage in which these settlers arrived had been a crossroads for Native intercultural exchange and commerce for centuries.

The mentions of “Indians” in the book reflect a specific moment that Muir deliberately sought to capture, one where historical Native presence is difficult to ignore and yet one in which Native peoples appear only in their most poignant condition of suppression and decline. Specifically, “Indian” is often used as a key modifier for numerous elements in the book. Muir and his brother ramble down Indian trails, interact with farmers of Indian corn, and encounter Indian ponies, Indian mounds, Indian moccasin, and Indian wigwams. Most facets of the landscape, save those notably few imposed from European architectural and agricultural technology, receive this same modifier. This is a wild landscape, certainly, but one whose constituent elements are uniformly part of Indian culture and practice.

The book provides contradictory images of Native peoples. On several occasions, it references Native hunters in action, spearing muskrat in a way that Muir describes with unmistakable admiration. Such descriptions are familiar from other works, again reflecting his often-respectful attitude to Indigenous skills and knowledge.Richard F. Fleck, Henry Thoreau and John Muir Among the Native Americans. (Hamden, CT: Arcon, 1985).

Far more commonly, however, the Indians in Boyhood and Youth are hungry beggars, thieves, and a frightful lurking presence. He describes “marauding Indians” performing all kinds of criminal acts, including the shooting of a pig. Reflecting on the crime, one of Muir’s father’s hired men tells the boy: “Indians thought nothing of levying this sort of blackmail whenever they were hungry.”Muir, Boyhood and Youth, 29.Among these criminal accounts, perhaps the most well-known is the theft and recovery of young Muir’s horse, which a local farmer returns to him: “When the Indian tried to sell [the horse] the farmer said: ‘You are a thief. This is a white man’s horse. You stole her.’ ‘No’ said the Indian, ‘I bought her from Prairie du Chien and she has always been mine’. . . . ‘You are lying, I will take that horse away from you and put her in my pasture, and if you come near it I will set the dogs on you.’”Muir, Boyhood and Youth, 34.

The most important, lengthy, well-known, and philosophical invocation of Natives comes toward the end of the book. Muir describes a spirited debate between his father and a neighbor, Mr. Mair, who disagreed about the justification for removing Indians from the land. Mair describes it as “pitiful to see how the unfortunate Indians, children of Nature, living on the natural products of the soil, hunting, fishing and even cultivating small corn-fields on the most fertile spots, were now being robbed of their lands and being pushed ruthlessly back into narrower and narrower limits by alien races who were cutting off their means of livelihood.”Muir, Boyhood and Youth, 72.

In response, Muir’s father reasons that it could not have possibly been the (divine) intention for Indians to rove across the landscape and “hold it forever in unproductive wildness, while Scotch and Irish and English farmers could put it to so much better use. Where an Indian requires thousands of acres for his family, these acres in the hands of industrious, God-fearing farmers would support ten or a hundred times more people.”Muir, Boyhood and Youth, 72.

Mair retorts that many modern, well-trained farmers could farm the land far more productively than any of the new, untrained, unskilled settlers like he and Muir could. Did God, he concludes, intend for them to be put off the land as well? Young Muir concludes that “Mair had the better side of the argument”Muir, Boyhood and Youth, 73.and goes on to make a more general argument about giving thought to the “welfare of others.”

In this exchange are hints at the larger issues underlying the book as a whole. It is hard not to detect in the repeated and haunting Native presence in Boyhood and Youth a combination of fear, violence, and even indignation over injustice in the landscape — where Native names and modifiers appear as scars from the wounds inflicted by the severing of Native people from their lands. Further, Muir engages, at least implicitly, in a moral dialogue over colonial settlement.

In short, Indians are not just a part of the story of Boyhood and Youth; arguably, they are the story. This last exchange on God’s intentions for the land also marks the final appearance of Native people in the book and, as it turns out, in all of the writings of John Muir. That is because this text, so replete with Native materiality and allegory, is among the last pieces of writing that Muir would publish. The work reached print in 1912 for the Atlantic Monthly and was published in 1913 by Houghton Mifflin. Muir would be dead just one short year later.

Figure 2: The Muir homestead site at Fountain Lake (now Ennis Lake) in 1849, surrounded by the recent cessions of land by native peoples in the years immediately prior. Map courtesy of the University of Wisconsin Cartography Lab.


Repressed memories do not return with ease. In a separate contemporary essay from late in life, Muir describes the writing of Boyhood and Youth as being extremely difficult. Invited by his patron Edward Harriman to join him in Harriman’s Pelican Bay Lodge in Klamath Lake, Oregon, Muir repeatedly experienced blocks to his writing. Harriman had to provide Muir with a stenographer, who followed Muir everywhere while Muir related his stories.John Muir, Edward Henry Harriman
(New York: Doubleday, 1912).
These rambling reflections, edited after the fact, became the heart of the book.

It is not difficult to conclude that the struggle to write Boyhood and Youth itself reflects the psychic struggles underlying these repressed memories. So, too, the very act of speaking the memoir to an attentive listener might best be viewed as a kind of therapeutic talking cure.

The return of repressed memory, though, never happens smoothly but instead takes the form of sometimes pathological rupture, or “trauma.” Trauma, Freud argued, “is characterized by the return of the repressed memories. . . . The re-activated memories, however . . . never reemerge into consciousness unchanged: what become conscious . . . and take the place of the pathogenic memories . . . are structures in the nature of a compromise between the repressed ideas and the repressing ones.”Sigmund Freud, “Further Remarks on the Neuro-Psychoses of Defence,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey, vol 3, (London: Hogarth, 1962), 169–70.

Boyhood and Youth, where “Indians” appear in a landscape from which they had long since been removed, is an example of this psychological compromise. It’s a compromise between the repressed experience and observations of the young Muir, in which Native people have been dispossessed of their lands and eliminated from them, and the repressing ideas and preservationist practices of the older Muir, wherein national parks and wilderness were constructed and beatified as sacred places without people, and principally without Native people.

And so, what is notably absent as Muir acknowledges the repressed memory at the end of his life is any discussion of the very recent violence that had allowed Muir and his family to inhabit that place or that accounted for the presence of Native people in the subjectified state that characterizes Muir’s descriptions of them. Moreover, Native people reappear in Muir’s work in his childhood home, not across the magnificent western landscapes that Muir so famously described throughout his adult life.

Even in the famous debate between Muir's father and his neighbor, what is at stake, practically and morally, is God’s intent for productive lands. Preservation is not the point. Rather, what they debate is who can use those lands most productively — Native people, farmers like them, or better-trained farmers — and what claim to the land more productive use gives to them.

This is quite different from the claim that Muir, in the name of preservation, makes upon Yosemite. The compromise that Muir enacts then, with his trauma and his memory, is to situate Native people in his childhood Wisconsin, not Yosemite. Whereas the young Muir explores a landscape replete with Native presence, Muir the grown naturalist, “Father of the National Parks System,” creates a system of land preservation that relies on the erasure of people, especially Native people, from pristine nature.

At the end of his life, Muir’s compromise addresses his trauma while avoiding the cognitive dissonance that would unavoidably result from recognizing the Native creation of and exclusion from that which is truly sacred to him — namely the idealized notion of parks, wilderness, and nature in which both Native and non-Native people are absent.

Muir’s writing at the end of his life also tells us much about the ways that his trauma and repression informed so much of his work throughout his life. Because the repressed material always returns, repression requires continual repetition.Jacques Lacan, “Seminar on the ‘The Purloined Letter,’” in Ecrits, trans. Bruce. Fink (New York: Norton, 1966b) 6–48.That is, without awareness of doing so, the subject of trauma continually repeats or performs this trauma, often with very material effects.

Muir is unable to consciously acknowledge complicity in and benefits from the violent exclusion of Native Americans from the landscapes of his youth. Therefore, he continually disavowed Native presence on landscapes that he helped make into parks. And he repeatedly enacted their expulsion from those landscapes as the revolutionary progenitor to a national park system predicated upon the expulsion, both symbolic and physical, of Native peoples.

In Muir, then, we can find not only personal repression but the repression of collective trauma. While Freudian psychoanalysis treats repression as a process of individual psychology, Jacques Lacan argued that it is also a collective experience with symbolic and physical dimensions. Muir offers a portal to the psychic wounds emerging from the founding violence of the preservation movement. Muir’s historically crucial preservationist crusade and, by implication, the birth drive behind the national park system itself are examples of this type of repetitive compulsion writ large.

The 1832 conflict represented the final armed struggle of resistance to White settlement east of the Mississippi. From here forward, the erasure of Native presence and memory would be the key landscape practice in the “progressive” narrative of US settlement history. Understood as a reflection of collective trauma and repression, the National Parks System is a conscious and obsessive idea that replaces the repressed pathogenic memory of genocide.


While White settlers continually erased the memory of Native peoples, these peoples never materially went away. Most notably, ongoing efforts to remove the Ho-Chunk from the state now known as Wisconsin repeatedly failed because the expelled populations returned on foot and by canoe, again and again, to their ancestral lands.Patty Loew, Indian Nations of Wisconsin: Histories of Endurance and Renewal. (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2013).They remain today.

In recent decades, the Ho-Chunk people have had lands restored (only in small part) in the state now known as Wisconsin and currently hold more than 9,800 acres scattered across 14 counties. This occurred only after a 1974 Indian Claims Commission found the tribe to be victims of fraudulent treaties. The Menominee now hold more than 200,000 acres but only after a harrowing period of tribal status termination between 1961 and 1973.Loew, Indian Nations of Wisconsin.

Does this tangled history defeat the possibility of learning and reconciliation? By no means. It is certainly fair to say that Muir’s views on Native cultures and peoples evolved over his long career of writing and travel, especially during his time in Alaska. As Fleck noted,Fleck, Henry Thoreau and John Muir.Muir’s “vital contact” with American Indians unquestionably enriched his spiritual experience and his iconic writings of the land. Although the problematic (and highly colonial) myth that Muir was named an honorary chief of the Tlingit people during his time in Alaska has been convincingly debunked,Mike Dunham, “How John Muir became an Indian chief — or not,” Anchorage Daily News, last modified December 8, 2016, is no question that Muir’s impressions of Native people there affected his thinking profoundly. So, too, US wilderness preservation has at times embraced the ethics, knowledge, and practices of the continent’s Native people.

But Muir’s late revelations and their limits hint at something more. In the wake of the Black Hawk War, the promulgation of land cessions and treaties, and the rush of White presence onto a landscape not yet fully evacuated by those who had tended it for centuries and millennia prior, Muir’s final work suggests that the return of repressed memory was symptomatic of a larger rupturing and political forgetting. It was enacted not only on the bodies of Native people but also onto the landscapes they inhabited and that White settlers entered and mythologized. The formulation of an American environmental culture was part of — arguably essential to — this forgetting.

Muir’s chief achievement, the preservation of public lands, occurred during a period of increasingly intensive land use and resource exploitation. Preservation was understood contemporaneously as a struggle between the developmental impulses of a young, growing, and ascendent nation and a nascent conservation movement dedicated to preserving the sacred, unpeopled, and monumental landscapes of the American frontier.

The birth of early environmental culture marks a shift. A largely unitary national developmental culture bent upon taming nature at the frontier is confronted by a new conservation culture bent upon preserving a frontier that has already been conquered, with the latter contesting the former’s claims to productivist stewardship. Lost in this conflict regarding the relationship between “man” and “nature” is the originary genocidal memory, the violence enacted by “man” upon “man.”

But this latter memory can never remain fully repressed and reannounces itself throughout the history of modern US wilderness preservation. Even today, as a modern and far more progressive conservation movement has recognized the violence and dispossession from which it was born, it continues to find ways to reify sacred notions of wilderness as being prototypically devoid of people. The problematic “public” in whose name parks and wildness are held in “trust” has still not been resolved.

Indeed, today, many prominent conservationists advocate returning vast swaths of public lands to Indigenous people. Such reversions of rights have precedent worldwide and Canada has demonstrated the productive possibilities of co-management between First Nations and the settler state.Claudia Notzke, “A new perspective in aboriginal natural resource management: Co-management,” Geoforum 26, No. 2 (1995): 187-209.

Having said this, many environmentalists live under the romantic assumption that Indigenous peoples will manage those lands in a manner consistent with how conservationists would like them to be managed. In other words, having long since eradicated Native people from the landscapes that they care about, conservationists now advocate restoring those lands to Indigenous populations. It is hard not to see in this a settler project in which conservationists now propose to restore these lands to Native populations, only to exclude uses and users to which they object. True sovereignty of Native peoples, conversely, means that no such conditions can or should be applied.

As in Boyhood and Youth, where Muir’s unconscious points to the scars left on the land of his childhood by the violent eradication of Native populations, conservation today continues to seek compromise between sacred notions of nature and the violent histories upon which those notions rest. Return of people, return of land, and return of violent memory are forever entwined in a landscape of ongoing trauma. In a United States still seeking to reconcile itself with the history of its own tormented landscape, revisiting Muir’s Boyhood and Youth therefore provides lessons for us all.