The Edge of the Wood

by John Messeder, Nemophilist & Ecological Storyteller

Pull the (racist) weeds, not the (conservation) garden

Of the (mostly) men I looked up to back in the day, several have turned out to be racist. Or misogynistic. Or both.

George Washington, for instance, was the Father of Our Country, though I was suspicious of the story about him being unable to lie. Young people generally are well able to cultivate an untruth when the situation warrants.

Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. Turns out he had some help, but I loved his supporting freedom of speech and press, and equality of “all men.”

In the North of my youth, most of my generation learned slavery was a Southern illness (it was not, solely) and had been eradicated by Abraham Lincoln (it had not, entirely). I don’t recall my U.S. History class ever mentioning that Washington and Jefferson were slave owners.

Now I am an environment writer, and have discovered my favorite hiker and conservationist, John Muir, also was a racist. He prompted Pres. “Teddy” Roosevelt to create the National Park System, but his conversation and friendships, we now learn, was seasoned liberally with denigrating comments and epithets about Native Americans and Black people.

There have been calls to erase Muir from our history books and sandblast his name from the leader board of his beloved Sierra Club – one of the nation’s strongest conservation organizations. The justifiable quest to right the wrongs of our past would have him piled onto the scrap heap of history with several other notables who took a strong hand in creating the nation that now encourages us to harbor such notions.

In applying 2021 moral standards to transgressions of our past, we fail to recognize how such admittedly xenophobic practices came to be. Hint: they were brought here by White Europeans who named and developed the future United States of America, a moniker which itself proclaims the imagined superiority of its founders, and pretends that populations of previous inhabitants were not already in place.

When they said “all men are created equal,” they meant, literally, “all men like us,” though a perusal of history reveals treatment of Irish, Polish, Jews and a host of others calls even that declaration into question. It remains a goal we have not yet fully attained.

We are at the leading edge of a complex history. We stand on the shoulders of Muir, Audubon, Roosevelt, Washington and Jefferson, as shaky as they sometimes are beneath our feet. We must adopt the position that our ancestors believed and did things we now understand were atrocities. But the apologies for past harms are meaningless if we do not sincerely invite everyone to share in the enjoyment – and the work – of cleaning up the mess.

I have read several books about our planet in recent years. The old ones were written by white men, for it was they who had the wealth and time to pursue such pastimes. Lately, there have been a few books written by women, who have finally been allowed openly into scientific endeavors.

Almost daily, I receive notices from booksellers of books I might like because of what I have read. So far, none of the recommended tomes have been by non-white authors. This week, with the thought that life and death are no respecters of political or racial boundaries, I went in search of books by non-white authors. There are, it turns out, many.

And maybe, as my reading history is updated in the databases of those who would sell me more books, I will learn of a whole treasure of environmental literature, fiction and non, by authors from a broadened variety of backgrounds and points of view.

I hope you enjoyed the ride. Thanks for coming along. Before you go, please share the story.


  1. Are you really saying you didn’t know till recently there were black authors? Or was the deficit only in certain genres?

    • John

      May 30, 2021 at 10:50

      The point was not that I was unaware, but that my reading was all-white, partly because the Kindle recommendations were based on what I had read. I had to deliberately look for Black environment writers to start finding them. My biggest error was in not looking sooner.
      Which was the main point of the column. I was raised in Maine (still a decidedly White rural state) on the likes of Muir, Thoreau and Leopold — White men all. A survey a few years ago revealed a very small percentage of Black people frequent our national parks. I live in a very White, very conservative region of Pennsylvania and though I know Black people live here and drink the water, yet there are none on the watershed alliance, the land conservation organization, or the “green” book club.

      And the only way I had to make that point was to write about it. (BTW, the book club is finishing up “Sand County Almanac” — a good time to consider recommendations for non-white environment authors. I am open to suggestions.

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