We welcome to the blog today a guest post by Christopher C. Sellers, author of Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in Twentieth-Century America, which will be available in paperback in February 2015. Although suburb-building created major environmental problems, Christopher Sellers demonstrates that the environmental movement originated within suburbs–not just in response to unchecked urban sprawl. Drawn to the countryside as early as the late 19th century, new suburbanites turned to taming the wildness of their surroundings. They cultivated a fondness for the natural world around them, and in the decades that followed, they became sensitized to potential threats. Sellers shows how the philosophy, science, and emotions that catalyzed the environmental movement sprang directly from suburbanites’ lives and their ideas about nature, as well as the unique ecology of the neighborhoods in which they dwelt.
In a previous guest post, Sellers reported on the September 21 People’s Climate March event in New York. In the following article, reposted with permission from Boom, Sellers reexamines the legacy of John Muir in light of the broadening environmental issues of the century that succeeded him. This essay originally appeared at boomcalifornia.com on 12/24/2014, the 100th anniversary of John Muir’s death. Sellers writes partly in response to Boom‘s Fall 2014 issue.
[As we mark the centenary of John Muir’s death], the inevitable outpourings of praise need to be tempered with both historical awareness and wariness.
Muir’s legacy runs to the heart of why Americans have had such trouble caring for nature in the places we actually inhabit. Extolling the High Sierra, Muir taught his readers and followers to appreciate a nature that could be truly found only in the most pristine of places, where the human hand seemed lightest.
Yet our biggest environmental problems have long lain not in places like Yosemite, but where human hands appear far more dominant, and nature itself is much harder to see. Muir’s legacy has often impeded our inclination and ability to heed ecological realities that are neither so pristine nor so grandiose, but that thread through our society and our lives. And so Muir’s legacy is inevitably being questioned on this centennial.
But there are other, earlier precedents for productively re-examining Muir’s relevance. The modern environmental movement, which took off after World War II in California as elsewhere, was often concerned with places that were far more populous and built up—suburbs and cities in particular—than Muir’s beloved Sierra.
For at least one prominent mid-century California environmentalist, caring for these places required overcoming Muir’s legacy. Richard Lillard was an English professor and author of Eden in Jeopardy: Man’s Prodigal Meddling with His Environment: The Southern California Experience, published in 1966, and the closest thing Southern California had in those years to an environmental prophet. A Muir acolyte when he first arrived in Los Angeles in the mid-1940s, Lillard never would have written his seminal book had he remained so.
At first, following Muir, Lillard abandoned the city whenever he could, spending his summers as a “naturalist” guide in Yosemite, and even holding his wedding in its outdoor “cathedral.” His tune changed while living in a house he had bought in 1947 in a canyon of the Santa Monica Mountains, close enough to the downtown to lie within the city limits of Los Angeles.
In search of a conservation that was more personal and “deeply lived,” Lillard got to know the natural world that lay around his own house. That growing acquaintance became central to his transformation. He “lovingly raised” his own home garden, and turned a keen eye to the local wildlife, even the weeds. When a disastrous flood and mudslide struck his and his neighbors’ homes, he launched into local politics, reviving a homeowners’ association that pushed city hall for tighter rules on hillside homebuilding.
Photo from the Richard Gordon Lillard papers, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.
Soon thereafter, writing in his private journal, he rankled at Muir’s legacy. Muir’s admirers, he decided, were “socially immature.” He affirmed instead the inspiration of a Thoreau or Andre Gide who “balance … things well”—the “humane world…of private love and public causes” alongside “the nature he makes his setting.” Part of the reason was that the place Lillard now lived in and cared for faced threats that Muir had never contemplated, threats more associated with suburbs or cities than with wilderness. The great contribution of Eden in Jeopardy was to highlight these threats across Southern California: the heedless paving of roads and rivers, the haphazard raising of roofs across valleys and farmland, the hurdling of tons of smoke and hydrocarbons into the Los Angeles basin’s air. Continue reading ‘Christopher C. Sellers: How a Mid-Century LA Environmentalist Got Beyond John Muir’ »