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Yearning for the Land: A Search for the Importance of Place
John W. Simpson
304 pp., $24.00
God's Wilds: John Muir's Vision of Nature (Environmental History Series)
Dennis C. Williams
Texas A&M University Press, 2002
264 pp., $39.95
by Walter Brueggemann
Environment as Creation
These three books meditate on care of the environment in the United States across a wide range of issues, from Native American religion to emerging public policy. The questions they raise—above all, the unresolved tension between environmental care and business growth—are not new, nor are they easily answered. Nevertheless, thoughtful women and men of faith do well to think again and again about land as God's gift and about the environment as the habitat of the creator's will for creation—especially because at the present time, the tilt in public posture and policy is all toward economics at the expense of the environment.
In Yearning for the Land, John Warfield Simpson contrasts older European practices of land ownership with the new attitudes inspired by the seemingly limitless available land of the U.S. frontier. This contrast is illustrated through the life of John Muir, a transplanted Scotsman who became the key advocate and educator of the United States on land care. Muir supported the preservation of Yellowstone National Park, was decisive in the founding of Yosemite National Park, founded the Sierra Club, and, through contact with Gifford Pinchot, influenced the great environmental policies of Theodore Roosevelt.
Simpson visits the original Muir home in Dunbar, Scotland, where he reflects that in Scotland—and in Europe generally—land is not purchasable because it has all been owned in families—for a very long time—and is transmitted from generation to generation. When young Muir and his family arrived in Wisconsin in 1849, they were surrounded by endless cheap land, a setting in which everyone could start again, regardless of previous economic history.
Simpson takes this American frontier reality as an unambiguous good. An alternative reading, while acknowledging the democratic accessibility of land, might suggest that in the new environment land is pure commodity to be bought and sold without regard to the deep connections of land and occupant. This critical alertness ...