High school history classes taught me many half truths about my heroes: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, for instance, created a land of equality for all.
Later I learned of John Muir, founder of one of this nation’s foremost conservation organizations. He has recently been revealed to have seasoned his conversation with denigrating comments and epithets about Native Americans and Black people he met on his wild wanderings.
Two-time Pennsylvania governor Gifford Pinchot initiated forestry programs and was appointed by President Teddy Roosevelt to head the nascent U.S. Forest Service. He also was a leader of the American Eugenics Society, a movement dedicated to preventing inferior humans from polluting and eventually outnumbering the white upper class to whom being the ruling class was both a right and a responsibility.
Muir and Pinchot, like Washington and Jefferson, were descended from White European forebears. When they said “all men are created equal,” they meant, literally, “all white men of European ancestry.” They may have known, or at least suspected, better, but then, like now, anyone who promotes an unconventionally accepted behavior may be treated harshly by the conventional majority because, in today’s vernacular, “It is what it is.”
But we often change our views as our perspective changes. Snuggled between the mea culpa and the recognition of “significant and immeasurable harm” caused by Muir and others of his lineage, there is a growing whisper that his views changed later in his life.
We are not to blame for the sins of our ancestors, unless we continue them. White people comprise 95 percent of Adams County population, according to the U.S. Census bureau. The number makes it easy to, like Muir, pretend we alone have the privilege and responsibility to protect the environment of which we are part.
In 2016, National Public Radio reported, quoting a survey commissioned by the National Park Service: of the more than 300 million reported recreational visits, only about seven percent were African-American. Hispanics rang in at only nine percent.
It would be easy to assign blame, but we all share it, most of us without realizing it. We hang with our crew without realizing someone who would like to be included sees a wall with no entrance. Every newspaper picture with only white folks sends a message about who is not invited. We don’t necessarily mean it that way; we just let it happen.
“If you want to change a generation, start with kids,” said a friend, who counts several hunters in his extended family. “A kid that spends time in the woods, rivers, and lakes will take that into adulthood.”
He lamented that young people of his complexion spend too much time playing video games indoors, or restrict their out-of-home activities to organized sports. That description does not paint only non-white kids.
But when one group of us causes lead to poison the water of another, or when we dump coal ash near the homes of people whose houses are less expensive, we pollute the ground on which all of us walk.
Whenever I wander the local mountains I see more proof we and the environment are not separate parts. Plants, rivers, critters and us comprise a single existence, each part shaping the others, on this whirling blob of mud and rock, careening through the universe toward an unknown destination.
Muir deserves our gratitude for helping point the way to conservation, but he was wrong to reckon only his people were capable of recognizing its beauty. Correcting that misjudgement is our job.