Muir Woods gets its reckoning

September 2, 2021 • 12:45 pm

The Big Reckoning that’s sweeping America has made its way west to California’s Muir Woods, as reported by SFGate (click on screenshot below). If you’ve been to Muir Woods (and you definitely must go), you’ll know that it’s one of the few large stands of old growth coastal redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) left in this country, with trees up to 1200 years old. This is the world’s tallest species of tree, and they’re unbelievably tall, soaring like a verdant cathedral. (The tallest ones aren’t flagged to prevent vandalism.)

It’s always amazed me that within less than two days of driving in California, you can see the world’s oldest trees (the bristlecone pines), the tallest trees (coastal redwoods), and most massive trees (the Giant Sequoias). I’ve seen all three, and recommend them highly. It’s impossible to convey the height of the coastal redwoods in a photo, but here’s one anyway:


But we’re not here today to admire trees. Rather, we’re here to describe how the historical revisionists have hit upon Muir Woods as a way to point out the impurities of those who created this National Monument, and to honor those who were overlooked. Click on the screenshot to read:

John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club after whom these woods are named, has himself already been the subject of a deplatforming of sorts. I wrote about that a year ago, and decided that, since Muir recanted bigoted statements he made early in his life, as well as having been demonized for merely being associated with people who were impure in other ways, his denigration wasn’t really fair. (If it was, they should immediately rename Muir Woods!)

As always, I use two criteria for judging whether to engage in deplatforming or cancellation. First, is the person being honored for achievements that are admirable? Second, did the person’s life create a net good or a net bad? Given the circumstances I described a year ago, Muir shouldn’t be canceled.

But that’s not the question, which is this: “Should the exhibits at Muir Woods be changed to give ‘a more complete history’?” And you know what that means: ferret out all the stuff involved with the site that would be considered immoral today. The site’s exhibit has already been changed, with the collaboration of park employees who slapped signs and sticky notes on what was already there to revise the given history.

To me, this action is definitely a mixed bag. My take is that yes, some additional information should be added, but some information shouldn’t—on the grounds that it’s irrelevant. To why people visit the woods. They come to see the trees for crying out loud, and get a little education on the side, but they definitely don’t come to be propagandized.

For an example of the latter, take these changes, one of which is shown in the picture just above:

“Alert: History Under Construction,” the paper reads. “Everything on this sign is true but incomplete.”

The sign contains information about the park’s founding, along with a timeline of the park’s history and photographs. Credit for saving the park’s treasured redwood and creek habitat is given to “influential, philanthropic white men,” the paper explains.

“While they undoubtedly contributed to the forest becoming a national monument, part of our duty in the National Park Service is to tell the full story of how that happened,” the paper says. “Look at the timeline below to see the park’s history under construction.”

The “full story” of course, is how the white men involved with Muir woods were bad men: bigots.  And it’s true, they surely did things that we wouldn’t countenance today, but remember that the Woods came into being at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th. It wasn’t exactly an enlightned time, at least compared to our own:

For an 1898 item about the man referred to as “The Father of American Forestry,” the Muir Woods staff also felt more information was needed. “Gifford Pinchot appointed Chief of what is now the US Forest Service; advocates ‘scientific forestry,’” the item reads. The staff added, “… and eugenics, … defined… as ‘controlled selective breeding of human populations (as by sterilization) to improve the population’s genetic composition.’” Eugenicists often targeted nonwhite people, labeling their races as inferior and socially undesirable. Pinchot, who for 10 years served on the advisory council of the American Eugenics Society, has a Muir Woods tree named in his honor.

The question is whether Pinchot advocated sterilization, whether his efforts actually did anything to foster eugenics in the U.S., and what good he did as head of the U.S. Forest Service. Since I (and probably the employees) can’t answer the first question, it seems superfluous to tell visitors that he was on an advisory council of a eugenics society.

Likewise with this:

Another pair of timeline items added by the staff expound on the background of Congressman William Kent, who with his wife Elizabeth Thatcher Kent donated 295 acres that became Muir Woods. One note explains how Kent’s anti-Asian policy and rhetoric laid the groundwork for Japanese incarceration during World War II, while a second note emphasizes how in 1920, Kent “advances the expansion of California’s Alien Land Laws, preventing non-citizens from owning or leasing land. These laws complicate immigration from Asia and create a more hostile environment for Asian immigrants in California.”

That’s a bit more problematic, because Kent’s donation of land is a very good thing (the park wouldn’t exist without it), but his efforts to incarcerate Japanese-Americans during WWII, and his promotion of “alien land laws”, is definitely bad. Should this be imparted to Park visitors, who come to look at the trees? I don’t know; it depends on whether you think that it’s important to tell this stuff to visitors.

What about these additions?

Before the staff marked up the timeline, which is entitled “Path to Preservation,” its first item was the 1872 establishment of Yellowstone National Park, the world’s first national park. And while that was certainly an important precedent, the staff of Muir Woods felt that other events that took place long before were also crucial to the establishment of the park. They added four sticky notes to a blank area to the left, starting with the stretch of time when 20,000 Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo people managed the land and conducted prescribed burns, taking care of the forest.

Other insertions include a note for 1769, when Spanish missionaries began using the labor of Bay Area’s indigenous people, who then grappled with disease, slavery and genocide (which created a disruption in the stewardship of the land). An 1861 note tells how Congress extinguished the Indian title to the land that became Muir Woods, and an 1869 note mentions how John Muir — the famous naturalist for whom the park is named — included racist language in writings about indigenous people.

The exploitation of indigenous people by missionaries is reprehensible, but has nothing to do with Muir Woods. The previous occupation of the woods by Native Americans, however, should be mentioned—it’s part of the site’s history. Whether you want to harp on Native American genocide is up to you, but remember that every square centimeter of North America was claimed by Native Americans before the colonists arrived, and once you know that, and the disgusting genocides that pushed Native Americans off their land (this should be taught in schools), you needn’t repeat it every time you give a lecture.

I don’t think Muir’s racist mentions of indigenous people should be brought up, because he repudiated those ideas later in his life. If you can’t change your mind in a way that makes your words or actions more moral, but must still be held accountable for things that you repudiated—and not under pressure—then we’re all doomed.

But here’s a good change:

The notes also address overlooked contributions of women, for instance, when the California Club — an elite women’s club — in 1904 launched the first-ever campaign to save the land that would become Muir Woods.

That’s part of the history that overlooks the contributions of an important group.

The impression I get is that this revision of the history of Muir Woods was done as a performative act rather than thoughtfully, and that while some of the history needs to be revised, it should be history that’s relevant to Muir Woods, not a litany of the bad things said by those associated with the Woods. This “revision” has all the signs of being a rush job intended to jump on the bandwagon of the times, and that’s kind of sad.

A photo of a “helper”:

(From article): National Park Service Ranger Rafael Velazquez stands next to a sign called “Saving Muir Woods” in Muir Woods National Monument National Park. Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

31 thoughts on “Muir Woods gets its reckoning

  1. Hopefully, if this is done completely and consistently, people will know without having to be reminded that white people were Bad, are Bad, and can only be Bad, and should feel bad about it. (sarcasm)

  2. 1. Yet, the “full history” of lowlifes throughout history can be expected to be met, rightfully, with a cold response. I think anyone would be able to name a few lowlifes, so I’ll leave that out.

    2. “Full history” is, in my impression, built right out of the rules in Orwell’s “Politics and The English Language” essay.

  3. I missed out on visiting these on my whistle stop tour from Las Vegas to San Francisco. In San Francisco, I visited Alcatraz and took a guided tour. Part of the tour was explaining the graffiti from the occupation of the island by the first nations. It was very well done and informative.

    I couldn’t help but over hear two Americans say they never realised how badly the native Americans had been treated. Was an eye opener on what is and isn’t taught in schools.

    1. Kieran: That reminds me of when I visited Muir Woods years ago. I was listening in on a ranger leading a group of tourists down the trail and he was explaining that the preserve is only a tiny fraction of what was once an immense redwood forest. There were audible gasps in the crowd — many had no idea of the scale of the Victorian-era clearcutting/ecocide. By simplistically injecting race into this tragic story, I fear that the true causes will be obfuscated — greed, unregulated capitalism, ignorance, etc — which are all-too-common in all races….

    2. Yes, treatment of Native Americans has/had been swept under the carpet for a very long time. Unless you did your own reading, you were unlikely to hear of it beyond perhaps the Wounded Knee Massacre. At least when I was a kid.

  4. I had the good fortune to visit all three on a long road trip in 1992. I suppose you could arguably simply remove all historical information and put up a single sign saying “big trees”, possibly with some further detail about the natural history and background of the trees, providing that this didn’t involve Latin names based on dead white men with dubious opinions.

    What I particularly like is: “Everything on this sign is true but incomplete.” I suspect that Wittgenstein (and Derrida) would have had something to say about the possibility of any text being true and complete.

  5. Interpreting historical acts and people through current morality seems to be done in an incomplete way. In cases like this, it tends to assume that Indigenous people behaved the way they did in the past because they had superior moral understanding compared to white colonizers like Muir. That fails to take into account the present-day moral understanding and behavior of Indigenous people. In my country, Indigenous communities have diverse motivations and interests: some are strong conservationists, but others are committed to development and resource extraction including oil & gas and clear-cut-style forestry. If chainsaws and skidders and tandem tractor trailers could be transported back to 19th century California, I suspect that some Indigenous communities there would have happily cut down a lot of big trees, while others would have opposed this. But we’ll never know, in the same way that we’ll never know what kind of person Muir would have been had he been born in 1998 instead of 1838.

    1. “In cases like this, it tends to assume that Indigenous people behaved the way they did in the past because they had superior moral understanding compared to white colonizers like Muir. That fails to take into account the present-day moral understanding and behavior of Indigenous people.”

      This derives from the premise of the oppressor-victim relationship. Specifically, the norm that no criticism is allowed of the victim – commonly known as “blaming the victim”.

      This is not to say that we should lay into victims of specific injustices, nor disputing here the injustices of victims, but pointing to the presumed either-or relationship and what it leads to – the notion of the victim possessing “superior moral understanding compared to white colonizers”. In reality, everyone can be morally confused. It is inevitably an ugly party, when we get into it.

  6. The California Club and native American land use and caretaking are (IMO) definitely sign-worthy.

    Muir’s and Kent’s racism, and Pinchot’s eugenics support seem too unrelated to actual founding and preservation of the park to make it onto an in-woods sign to me. Absolutely they should include it in biographies and even one-pagers on the people themselves. But if I’ve got 50 words to put on a sign in Muir Woods, I don’t think its unfair or unbalanced to stick to the history or biology of Muir Woods.

    The location is not John Muir. Signs informing visitors about the woods should be signs about the woods. If you want to talk about John Muir the person, stick that sign on his home or in a book about him.

    To end with a quippy comment, if Mr. Velazquez sees it as important to mention the badness of the people talked about on Muir Woods signs, what’s he going to do about with the sign commemorating the 500 UN representatives who visited the woods en masse in 1945? Almost certainly lots of racists and religious bigots were in that group. The horror, the horror…

    1. “The California Club and native American land use and caretaking are (IMO) definitely sign-worthy.”

      “Muir’s and Kent’s racism, and Pinchot’s eugenics support seem too unrelated to actual founding and preservation of the park to make it onto an in-woods sign to me.”

      I fully agree.

    2. But… “the California Club — an elite women’s club — in 1904…”

      Elite? Oh noes! We can’t let that go without comment. They must have been wealthy white women dependent on underpaid servants and a rich, powerful patriarchy which exploited goodness knows how many in their lust for money and power.

  7. I visited Muir woods a couple of time back in the 80s, long before any of this history was posted. I think all the history of this or any other place on the planet is available if you want to find it or read it. It is also my belief that most people are not interested in history but we have the internet if anyone wants it. If I obtained a book on Muir woods I would expect to find all the history there. But the beauty of the woods should not be covered over with a bunch of posters. Should I post a sign in the front yard of my house explaining the Indians who once owned this land?

    1. “Should I post a sign in the front yard of my house explaining the Indians who once owned this land?”

      Clutch my pearls! Check your privilege! Of course you should!!!!!!!!!!!!! /sarcasm

  8. Gifford Pinchot has more than a tree named after him but an entire National Forest! It includes Mount Saint Helens and areas approximately 30 miles east, 40 miles north and south of there. Perhaps the woke haven’t discovered it yet. It’s only a matter of time.

    1. And one can only imagine what dirt they could possibly dig up about Alleyne Fitzherbert, after whom (apparently) Mount Saint Helens is named. He was a Baron and a British ambassador to Spain, from what I read, so surely, SURELY he’s going to be reprehensible. Or maybe it’s okay to name a volcano after such a person, since they are often destructive. What a conundrum. 😉

  9. At the very least, if they’re going to bring up the largely irrelevant point that Muir made comments that were racist, in the name of a full story, or whatever the term was, they should add the follow-up, “Later in life, Muir changed his views and publicly expressed regret about his former attitudes” or words to that effect (if that’s accurate). Otherwise, leave it all out and stick to what’s relevant.

    Any information on any sign, or anywhere else, is incomplete (even if true) and always will be. No one even knows the “whole truth” let alone having the wherewithal to include it on some display board that’s supposed to share information about some truly magnificent plants and the place in which they live.

    1. Muir made comments that were racist, in the name of a full story, or whatever the term was, they should add the follow-up, “Later in life, Muir changed his views and publicly expressed regret about his former attitudes”

      Durchaus nicht!!!!

      You have forgotten the New Woke Commandment:

      – Thou shalt seek out the worst word spoken or deed done by every person.
      – Each person shall be marked and shamed with that worst word or deed, forever.
      – No person, by virtue of good works, shall ever rise above their mark of infamy.
      – When the Word of the Woke shall be slavishly and supinely obeyed by all, then shall only the pure, the perfect, the blameless, and unblemished be tolerated: The Perfect Woke, alone, shall be recognized.

      No growth in one’s lifetime is allowed! Once evil, always evil!


  10. Is it too provocative to point out that Native American tribes were waging war on each other long before the White Man turned up?

    But I like the idea of adding Post-It notes to official explanatory notices. Maybe those of us who object to such manifestations of finger-pointing might consider adding some counterpoints of our own!

    1. And among their favorite activities was kidnapping and enslaving their enemy tribe’s women. Certainly too provocative!

      You know they were all pacifist vegans, right?

  11. When I am out, I wear a hat. For some years that hat has a great big the Muir Woods emblem on it, as it was purchased there during a visit some years ago. So now I too am tarnished, I guess.

  12. I just learned this week about Elizabeth Thacher Kent, and she was amazing! Perhaps there should be less about William’s anti-Asian views and more about Elizabeth’s work as a suffragist?

  13. ” Kent’s donation of land is a very good thing (the park wouldn’t exist without it), but his efforts to incarcerate Japanese-Americans during WWII, and his promotion of “alien land laws”, is definitely bad.” Bad as it may be, his efforts to incarcerate Japanese-Americans during WWII must have been entirely spectral, inasmuch as he died in 1928.

    Congressman Kent was indeed notable for opposing immigration by Asians, a view that was also shared, in the late 19th and early 20th century USA, by the “progressive” activists of the labor movement. [An interesting, fictionalized account of this can be found in “The Living”, Annie Dillard’s beautiful novel of the Pacific Northwest .]

    As for Gifford Pinchot and eugenics, the revisionist note-writers are no doubt unaware of how favorably eugenics was viewed by some famous Edwardian Socialists such as the Webbs, H.G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw. Revisionist “reckonings” have become so tiresome.

  14. What in principle is keeping such “messages” being posted on MLK Jr.’s statue about MLK Jr.’s improper behavior with women? What in principle is any different from the Muir Woods messages?

  15. As you’ve said many times Jerry, these were men of their times. I wonder what Ranger Velazquez has to say about his Spanish ancestors and their church that wrought such hell amongst the indigenous.

  16. Gifford Pinchot was also twice Governor of Pennsylvania. In between his discontinuous terms he bought a schooner and sailed to the Galapagos, which was the way you got there in 1929. His charmingly-written account of that voyage, To the South Seas, is a good read, but if you don’t have time for that it was released as an audio book not all that long ago; the trailer(?) can be found on YouTube. There is not a scintilla of racism or dark eugenic references in the book.

    In 1960 his family mansion, Grey Towers, out near the Delaware Water Gap on the Jersey/PA frontier, was donated to the Forest Service, and it is maintained as a Historic Site and conservation conference site. It’s a very cool-looking place and one that I regret not having managed to visit yet.

    Forestry runs in the family, too. His great-great granddaughter Leila is a Research Ecologist with the Forest Service and she’s active with the American Chestnut Foundation.

  17. A further Pinchot reference just crossed my window – one that probably doesn’t even qualify as tangential here. I just tripped over it by complete serendipity and not from continuing down any Pinchot rabbit hole for the last four days. There I was, minding my own business, looking into the chronology of the Presidential yacht Sequoia, when I see mention of one Mary Pinchot Meyer, also noting the part about an order to destroy all personal logs of the yacht during the JFK administration, I had never heard of Mary Pinchot Meyer, but the Pinchot part made me look to see if there was any relationship with Gifford. Indeed, he was her uncle, and she grew up at Grey Towers.

    But from there, hitting a few highlights, she seems to have married into CIA and become JFK & Jackie’s neighbor at Hickory Hill and subsequently one of his girlfriends. But that all seems to have been off-radar after Nov ’63, and even after her still-unsolved murder in 1964 that has some elements of an assassination. Only questions remain, no answers.

    Bizarre, at the very least.

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