Natural Rivals by John Clayton

Natural Rivals: John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and the Creation of America’s Public Lands     By John Clayton Pegasus Books, 2019

Outside of nature-related circles, John Muir and Gifford Pinchot, the two stars of John Clayton’s new book Natural Rivals, likely won’t be immediately recognizable. Both are towering figures in the history of American wildlife conservation; Gandalf-bearded Muir co-founded the Sierra Club and championed the whole idea of National Parks, and patrician Pinchot, founder of the US Forest Service, likewise devoted huge chunks of his life to the cause of wildlife management (he also gave a minor headache to President William Howard Taft in what Clayton accurately refers to as the “deservedly obscure” Pinchot-Ballinger Affair, which mainly arose because Pinchot, like Muir, was an insufferable know-it-all). But it’s only the passage of a century that’s worked to make the two men seem so similar; as Clatyon points out, there were subtle but ironclad differences that divided them:

In some circles, Pinchot is also famous as a counterpoint to Muir. Many historians use the two men to embody opposite philosophies. The romantic Muir is preservation: leaving nature alone so as to benefit from its holistic wonder. The practical Pinchot is conservation: using natural resources sustainably to serve what Pinchot called “the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run.” 

Clayton, surely the only person ever to compare Muir and Pinchot to Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, tells his readers that he originally might have conceived of a book chronicling a knives-drawn disagreement. Muir and Pinchot had known each other, had tramped much of the same pristine American wilderness, had even camped together at Montana’s Lake McDonald. Surely, Clayton initially thought, they bickered? “Maybe Pinchot would point out the first trees to be cut and the first valleys to dam,” he speculates. “Maybe Muir would fulminate that none of it should be touched, for any reason, ever. I could write a book titled Natural Enemies, with a plot in which the heat of their arguments grew to a boiling point.” 

In fact, as Natural Rivals relates in smart and very readable detail, something less dramatic and more interesting happened: the two - both prickly, both primadonnas, both alarmingly capable of conducting acrimonious disputes in public - found ways to work together in order to advance and refine the whole concept of public lands in America. Clayton boils the details of this complex picture into a story of big personalities and even bigger priorities, and it’s his own cri de coeur about those priorities that rings in the reader’s ear as the book concludes. Lake McDonald, Clayton writes, is “just water and rock and trees and sky. The notion that it’s a symbol of such harmony is merely my interpretation.” But he doggedly continues:

But should I stop thinking this way? After all, this is the same type of exercise that Muir and Pinchot helped America perform as a nation: using landscapes to stand for values. I believe these exercises are useful. What does nature mean to you? Where do you look for meaning? As individuals, we all have our own ways of answering those questions. As a nationwide community we must find ways to share them with each other in order to build something greater than their sum.

Where do you look for meaning? Anyone who’s ever been stunned into silence by the views of Lake McDonald’s Glacier National Park (not to mention its bristling array of wildlife) will be familiar with the meaning such sights can impart. They might have disagreed on particulars, but Pinchot and Muir would have agreed, even in this tempestuous new century, that such meaning is worth preserving.

Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Historical Novel Society, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The National, The Washington Post, The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.