The dark side to John Muir – Mendip AONB Young Rangers at Chew Valley Ringing Station

In June 2015, I signed up for the Mendip Area of Outstanding Beauty (AONB) Young Rangers programme. I found out about it the previous year at the Chew Valley Bird-fair, but they only recruited every two years and so I had to wait for the next intake.

Blackdown, Mendip Hills
Copyright Mendip AONB

We started in September 2015 for the two-year conservation programme based on the Mendip Hills, not far from where I live in the Chew Valley, South of Bristol.

Everyone who started was either 12 or 13 years old and we all lived in places on or around the Mendip Hills. Quite a few of the others lived in Cheddar, so it was good for me to meet young people from new places. It is a two-year course, where you have to attend once each month and try something different each time. A lot of the focus is on the Mendip Hills and on its conservation.  Some months we visit somewhere to learn about the history of the place, like Wells Museum, and other times we visit places like a local quarry.

Mendip AONB Young Rangers, Navigating Session, Mendip Hills (Mya-Rose Birdgirl Craig 3rd from left)
Copyright Mendip AONB

At the end of the two years, we get the John Muir Gold Award for Conservation. That is fantastic, but there is a bit of me that feels uncomfortable with that. John Muir was a Scottish American conservationist living in the USA who did a lot for conservation, lobbying for the formation of Yosemite NP, California in 1864. We visited the park last summer and it is really, really beautiful. However, there is a lot more to John Muir, and a lot that is very unpalatable to me. This blog post in Scientific American is essential reading

“I was raised in the mountains of Northern California and walked the trails near the site of this [native american] massacre as a child. But I had never heard of John Savage nor the terrible events that lay behind the formation of Yosemite National Park, a picturesque symbol of the conservation movement and a vacation resort for millions. Rather it was John Muir, that storied wanderer and founder of the Sierra Club, whose name was synonymous with this national treasure. When my brothers and I climbed out of the family station wagon to witness the majesty of this glacier-carved valley, it was Muir’s name that adorned the signs along the manicured trails and the celebrated volumes in the gift shop. If the indigenous population was mentioned in any of the brochures or trail guides I have no memory of it and I left with no indication that the region had once been inhabited. The impression I received was that Yosemite had always been a pristine wilderness, as sparse and pure as the Ansel Adams portraits that hung on my family’s wall for years afterwards.

It was this skewed interpretation of U.S. wilderness that John Muir had successfully promoted, a vision that has haunted the conservation movement ever since. In his famous nineteenth-century travel writings in the Sierra Nevada Mountains Muir described Yosemite not just as a picturesque marvel of nature, but as something divine that was beyond human frailties. The landscape of the “Sierra Cathedral Mountains” was a “temple lighted from above. But no temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite,” he wrote. It was a place that was “pure wildness” and where “no mark of a man is visible upon it.”

[T]he main canyons widen into spacious valleys or parks of charming beauty, level and flowery and diversified like landscape gardens with meadows and groves and thickets of blooming bushes, while the lofty walls, infinitely varied in form, are fringed with ferns, flowering plants, shrubs of many species, and tall evergreens and oaks.

It’s not that Muir didn’t encounter native peoples in his travels. He did, but he found them to be “most ugly, and some of them altogether hideous.” For a wilderness as pure as his holy Yosemite, “they seemed to have no right place in the landscape, and I was glad to see them fading out of sight down the pass.” But, ironically, these “strange creatures” as Muir described them were the ones responsible for many of the features that gave Yosemite Valley its park-like appearance, the “landscape gardens” that Muir so valued. It is this forgotten legacy that has undermined many of the successes in the U.S. and even the global conservation movement today, one that traces directly back to John Savage and John Muir and the first protected wilderness site that later became the model followed around the world.”

I am not sure whether to accept my John Muir Gold Award or not; I have worked hard for it and it is recognised highly here. I think not, though I might refer in my CV to being entitled to receive it. For those who have been involved in race issues, what is your advice?

Of the twenty young people who started the course with me, two have dropped out, but the rest of us are good friends.

Mendip AONB Young Rangers – Caving Session, Mendip Hills (Young Birder Mya-Rose Birdgirl Craig)
Copyright Mendip AONB

On 18 March 2017, Mendip AONB Young Rangers visited Chew Valley Ringing Station which was organised by me and my Dad, Chris Craig who is Treasurer. My trainer, Mike Bailey, gave a talk about the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and why we do ringing (banding), about the SSRI and the types of nets and traps we use.  I then helped give a bird ringing demonstration, led a tour of the site and did some birdwatching. After that, we spent the rest of the day taking part in coppicing to create a new net lane. That was lots of fun and I think that everyone had a good time.

Mendip AONB Young Rangers – Ringing Session, Mendip Hills (Chris Craig 2nd from left)
Copyright Mendip AONB
Mendip AONB Young Rangers – Ringing Session, Mendip Hills (Chris Craig 4th from right) Young Birder Mya-Rose Birdgirl Craig 2nd from left
Copyright Mendip AONB

It was great to organise a session that connected the group to nature as so much of the conservation work we have done doesn’t actually involve that. Much of the Mendips is overgrazed with little vegetation or trees, so it would be good for it to be re-wilded, but we haven’t learnt anything contentious like this.

Mendip AONB Young Rangers, Beach cleaning Session, Mendip Hills
Copyright Mendip AONB


Mendip AONB Young Rangers Posters – Caving Session, Mendip Hills (Young Birder Mya-Rose Birdgirl Craig)
Copyright Mendip AONB

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