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Radical Transcendentalism:

Emerson, Muir and the Experience of Nature

by James Brannon

Palo Alto Center for Science and the Humanities

Reprinted from John Muir Newsletter, Vol. 16., No. 1 (Winter, 2006/2006)


The uniquely American Transcendentalist School which formed in Harvard-influenced 1830’s Cambridge brought a New Idea regarding man, spirit, and nature to a young country struggling to find its own voice. As its chief proponent, Ralph Waldo Emerson conveyed a philosophy that was considered radical in its time. The young John Muir, raised in an environment of harsh Puritan sensibilities and Christian dogma, took strongly to the Transcendental ideas as he was introduced to them at the University of Wisconsin. Much of his writing has a clear Emersonian ring to it which underscores his indebtedness to the sage from Concord. But his vision of Transcendentalism grew to be very unlike that of Emerson or any other of the New England group. For Muir, Transcendentalism was an experience of spirituality given meaning by direct physical immersion in nature - particularly her alpine areas. In contrast, Emerson’s experience of nature was typified by sight and vision modified by a very active and keen cerebral insight. Emerson as the “transparent eyeball” became symbolic for the way he experienced the world. How these two men encountered their Transcendentalist lives could not have been more different – in fact radically different. When they finally met in Yosemite in 1871, their pleasant visit belied the differing forces which compelled their thoughts and actions. The young Muir could only conclude that Emerson’s ideas of nature began and ended in an abstract metaphysical realm which was frustratingly insufficient to satisfy Muir’s spiritual yearnings.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was publicly known throughout mid-19th Century New England as a radical conveyor of a European Romantic derived philosophy. Transcendentalism was a uniquely American form of Kantian Idealism which imbued the world with congruence between a higher realm of spiritual truth and a lower one of material substance. Emerson, compared to many of his Transcendental colleagues, looked mildly conservative: Bronson Alcott, George Ripley, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau. But in turn, most of these people would comparatively pale next to a very physical spiritualist who would, by the close of the 19th Century, perhaps become the most radical Transcendentalist of them all – John Muir.

While attending the University of Wisconsin in the 1860’s, Muir came under the influence of several transplanted New-Englanders who were versed not only in the novel American Romanticism of Emerson, but who also personally knew the Concordian sage (1). Chief among these was Jeanne Carr, who would later pen a note to the young Muir suggesting he travel west to Yosemite. The extent to which he became personally familiar with Emerson’s essays, while in Wisconsin, remains unclear. Nevertheless, the Wisconsin influence gave birth to his brand of radical Transcendentalism – a type which compelled him to experience nature in a way that was completely foreign to the New England clique.

That Emerson in particular, and Transcendental thought in general, influenced the thought and writings of John Muir is without doubt. The following three sets of quotations from Emerson and Muir clearly show this congruence:


1. Nature as refreshing and uplifting:

Emerson, in concluding his first published essay, Nature, states: “Build therefore your own world…So fast will disagreeable appearances…vanish; they are temporary and shall be no more seen. The sordor and filths of nature, the sun shall dry up and the wind exhale. As when the summer comes from the south…so shall the advancing spirit… carry with it the beauty it visits and the song which enchants it.”(2)

Muir elegantly, and famously, states in Our National Parks: “Camp out among the grass and gentians of glacier meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of Nature’s darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as the sunshine into the trees. The winds will blow their freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”(3)

2. The trees in a wind storm:

Again, Emerson from Nature: “The greatest delight…which the woods minister…They nod to me and I to them. The waving of the boughs in the storm is new to me and old. It takes me by surprise, and yet is not unknown. Its effect is like that of a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me…”(4)

Similarly, Muir in The Mountains of California: “We all travel the milky way together, trees and men; but it never occurred to me until this storm-day, while swinging in the wind, that trees are travelers, in the ordinary sense. They make many journeys, not extensive ones,…but our own little journeys…are only little more than tree-wavings – many of them not so much.”(5)

3. The unity of all:

Emerson from Nature: “A leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment of time, is related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole. Each particle is a microcosm, and faithfully renders the likeness of the world.”(6)

In congruence with the above Emersonian vision, Muir states, less elegantly, in My First Summer in the Sierra: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”(7) (Muir’s quote was perhaps influenced by Emerson’s famous quote: “Hitch your wagon to a star.”(8))

Like Emerson, Muir came to understand Transcendentalism as representing that aspect of man’s spiritual makeup which seeks to connect with a higher, non-physical reality. But unlike Emerson, Muir knew that this connectivity could only be achieved for him by a direct and physical immersion in what he felt were nature’s most grand objects – the wild mountains of California. Both men would later come to realize their differing approaches, while maintaining a respectful interest in each other (9).

Emerson’s 1836 publication of Nature provided insight into how Emerson preferred to experience nature. In the section entitled “Beauty,” he emphasizes the eye, sight, and vision. Indeed, in the second paragraph of that section the term “eye” gets used many times in phrases such as “the plastic power of the human eye,” “The eye is the best of artists,” “the eye is the best composer,” and “almost all the individual forms are agreeable to the eye”(10). Emerson’s literal and metaphorical use of the eye and vision underscores his preoccupation with this sometimes passive / sometimes active organ for ascertaining the physical world. In essence, Emerson’s chief means of interacting and experiencing nature is through the ocular sense. And, this mode of nature sensing was apparently sufficient to provide all the input he required, to make, in what is almost universally acknowledged, highly original and elegant sense of the human condition.

Caricature of the 'transparent eyeball'Emerson himself underscores this idea earlier in Nature when he states “I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all”(11). Cranch’s famous 1836 illustration of Emerson as a walking eyeball was in its day regularly taken as humorous, but essential, Emersonianism (12). As a principle means for communing with nature, sight and vision was apparently sufficient for Emerson – clearly not in the Muir-like manner of a thorough, multi-sense, immersion in nature. As Buell states in his biography, “When Emerson exhorts scholars to commune with nature and engage in manual labor, his real interest is invigoration of the mind”(13).

In contrasting irony to the ocular Emerson, the young Muir almost lost his sight when a sharp file accidentally pierced his eye. For a month he experienced near total blindness, and contemplated a life without sight. In time though, his vision recovered, engendering an epiphany as he vowed to waste no more time getting to the western wilderness. Said Muir, “God has to nearly kill us sometimes, to teach us lessons” (14).

And what a lesson he learned. Upon his 1869 arrival in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, Muir’s transcendental sense-of-self informed him that he had found his Home (15). Using a descriptive language of nature that many readers found new and enthralling, Muir informed a New York Tribune audience of December 5, 1871 about “Yosemite Glaciers”(16). This first attempt to write for publication actually revealed little of the nature-as-god passion which burned so brightly within the young Muir. A hundred years later, Muir’s antics and experiences in the Sierra became the stuff of legend: climbing a tree during a wind storm to experience the swaying back and forth of the tree tops (17); riding an avalanche down a Yosemite canyon (18); terrifying climbs and brutal experiences on Mounts Shasta (19), Rainier, and Ritter; climbing up Yosemite’s snow-laden Indian Canyon in a mid-winter wind storm to see snow-banners unfurled on the Sierra crest (20); crawling to the harrowing top edge of Yosemite Falls so he could look over the precipice (21); climbing to see the top of the 300 foot ice-cone that formed around the base of Yosemite Falls in winter (22); and, of course, providing an early written record (if not the first) of observing the multi-colored and spectrally variegated arc he labeled the “moonbow” through the nocturnal mist of a full-moon-illuminated Yosemite Falls (23).

Muir not only observed nature, but physically and emotionally immersed himself within it – a baptism so to speak. Consider this piece of Muir-ian mysticism (24):

“These blessed mountains are so compactly filled with God’s beauty, no petty personal hope or experience has room to be…the whole body seems to feel beauty when exposed to it as it feels the campfire or sunshine, entering not by the eyes alone, but equally through all one’s flesh like radiant heat, making a passionate ecstatic pleasure-glow not explainable. One’s body then seems homogeneous throughout, sound as a crystal.”

And as Muir said more directly to Emerson, in an 1872 letter which came less than a year after he and Emerson parted ways in Yosemite, “You cannot be content with last year’s baptism. ‘Twas only a sprinkle. Come be immersed…You will lose no time, nothing but civilized sins…Think of the soul lavings and bathings you will get…Think of the glow of your afterlife…Here are the shores of all our eternities…Here we may more easily see God” (25).

In pursuit of such bathings, Muir often found himself perilously close to death. Whether nearly falling to his death on Mr. Ritter (26), or surviving an overnight blizzard near the top of Mt. Shasta (19), Muir lived passionately. The great Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton once stated that “Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die…He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine” (27). And so did John Muir live his life – drinking in great gulps and living life to the fullest. The Transcendental nature in this man was clearly not of the same vintage as his less adventurous Harvard-trained New England forebearers.

In his essay Walking, Henry David Thoreau speaks of “Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free…I may say that mankind progress from east to west…we go westward into the future…Every sunset which I witness inspires me with the desire to go to a West as distant and as fair as that into which the sun goes down” (28). Similarly, Emerson states in Experience that “I am ready to die out of nature, and be born again into this new yet unapproachable America I have found in the West” (29). For all the clarity of thinking, and elegance of their wording, these gentlemen could only but dream of what Muir actually did. The irony of their words bespeaks individuals who clearly wanted to, but didn’t, take a higher step into the transcendental realm.

Emerson was not a robust individual, and could not engage nature on the same terms with which Muir did. In contrast, Muir’s constitution was as a fearless, strong–as-an-ox, mountaineer who gained energy the higher he went. Emerson’s way of experiencing nature was in many ways a cerebral hands-off approach. His vision, his sight, was but a limited window into the natural realm – his mind, his intellect, his acute “cerebral-ness,” being the principle portal. His relatively sedentary lifestyle found him more comfortable sitting at a desk with pen and paper, standing at a podium, or sitting in an easy chair conversing with his friends. Given his many ironic statements of the type “Intellectual tasting of life will not supersede muscular activity” (30), it is not surprising that fellow Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller sardonically quipped of Emerson “You are intellect, I am life” (31). By modern standards, Emerson was a sedentary observer, a car-camper, a relaxed, wine-sipping, cigar smoking viewer from the windows of a plush Pullman train car (32). In my favorite journal essay of Emerson’s, dated 11 May, 1838, he harkens the reader to “come out of your warm, angular house...into the chill” (33). But metaphorically speaking, the real Emerson did not venture out. Edward Abbey in his famous Desert Solitaire, irreverently as ever, addresses all people who would insultingly view Abbey’s beloved CanyonLands National Park from the comfort of their car by stating “…you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees…When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe” (34). Muir, in his approach to experiencing a higher transcendental realm, understood this. Emerson did not – or would not, or could not. Perhaps he understood his way as sufficient? It is no wonder that Mary Oliver, in her introduction to The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, states that “All his wildness was in his head – such a good place for it!” (35)

The only time Emerson and Muir met was in May of 1871 in Yosemite (36). At that time, the aged Emerson was more than twice as old as his young protégé. Muir was to find out that Emerson was more the philosopher of nature than the participant. It is common day lore that the tree-swinging, mountain climbing Muir carried a copy of Emerson’s prose works with him in his travels. But it is wrong to assume that this implied full intellectual agreement between the two. Muir’s copy contained an abundance of hand-written marginal notes, many of which were critical of Emerson’s thinking (37). Nevertheless, the enthusiastic Muir was ecstatic that the famous essayist would come to Yosemite. In the several days which they spent together, Muir repeatedly tried to convince Emerson to join him in wanderings among the high peaks and meadows. But all he obtained was a 25 mile horse ride with Emerson and his Boston contingent to the area near what is now known as Wawona. Nor would Emerson agree to sleep out under the stars and Sequoia trees as Muir had hoped (and as Emerson had initially promised). The next day as Emerson rode away from Muir, the frustrated mountaineer could only declare the incident “A sad commentary on culture and the glorious transcendentalism” (38). They were never to see each other again, but Emerson did send a note responding to the several letters that Muir had written. In that missive, Emerson retained the cultural and philosophical divide that lay between he and Muir. The essayist wrote “And there are drawbacks also to solitude, who is a sublime mistress, but an intolerable wife. So I pray you to bring to an early close your absolute contracts with any yet unvisited glaciers or volcanoes…” Of course, Muir would do nothing of the sort. As stated in John McAleer’s compendium on Emerson, “Muir’s glacial-daisy-gentian meadows…lay forever beyond the perimeter of Emerson’s world” (37).

In truth, there was no crossing the divide, or meeting of the minds, for Emerson and Muir. In many of Emerson’s essays he pointedly refers to the difference between Nature and nature. The more pantheistic Muir did not see that distinction. Muir’s essays often sharply contrast with those of Emerson, with the former’s expressing physical energy, sensual experience, and a religious immersion of the self into nature’s bounty.

Emerson’s essays, for all of their spiritual insight, elegance, and presentation of the New Idea, were reserved and did little to cajole the reader to become physically involved in nature. In The American Scholar Emerson’s contempt for finding truth in books, and bookishness, only ironically underscores what little desire he actually had to live as he wrote. Perhaps Muir similarly held contempt for finding truth in desk, pen and paper, and the lecture circuit. Like his comments about Thoreau and Walden (37), it was likely that Muir drearily believed that Emerson’s appreciation of nature began and ended in abstract metaphysics. Muir must have surely wondered how Emerson could possibly have been serious when he stated that “Life is not intellectual…but sturdy” (39). In his heart of hearts, Muir knew that Emerson did not have sufficient experience of the wild.

References


1. Holmes, S. J., “John Muir, Jeanne Carr, and Ralph Waldo Emerson: A Case-Study of the Varieties of Transcendental Influence,” J. Unitarian Universalist History, Vol. XXV (1998), pg. 25.

2. Emerson, R. W., “Nature,” in Ralph Waldo Emerson: Nature and Selected Essays (L. Ziff, Ed.), Penguin Books, New York (1982), pg. 81.

3. Muir, J. Our National Parks, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco (1991), pg. 42.

4. Emerson, “Nature,” op. cit., pg. 39.

5. Muir, J., The Mountains of California, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco (1988), pg. 194.

6. Emerson, “Nature,” op. cit., pg. 60.

7. Muir, J., My First Summer in the Sierra, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco (1988), pg. 110.

8. Emerson, R. W., “American Civilization,” Atlantic Monthly (1862).

9. Emerson added Muir to his list of “My Men,” an esteemed compilation of 18 names that included Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Carlyle. He also referred to Muir in an 1872 letter as “the right man in the right place.” Muir, in his own way, complimented Emerson in a letter dating from the previous year, saying “I would willingly walk all the way to your Concord if so I could have you for a companion.”

10. Emerson, “Nature,” op. cit., pg. 42.

11. Emerson, “Nature,” op. cit., pg. 39.

12. Cranch’s cartoon is copied in Buell, L., Emerson, Belknap Press, Cambridge (2003), pg. 93. The online edition on this web page is courtesy of http://www.swarthmore.edu/Humanities/kjohnso1/cranch.htm (accessed July 3, 2006).

13. ibid., pg. 94.

14. As quoted in Nash, R. F., Wilderness and the American Mind, Fourth Ed., Yale University Press, New Haven (2001), pg. 124.

15. Muir’s first wanderings in the Sierra Nevada are famously described in his My First Summer in the Sierra, op. cit.

16. Stoll, M. R., “God and John Muir: A Psychological Interpretation of John Muir’s Life and Religion,” web article as part of the on-line “John Muir Exhibit,” see: http://www.sierraclub.org/john_Muir_exhibit/frameindex.html?http://www.sierraclub.org/john_Muir_exhibit/life/. - 11 -

17. Muir, J., The Mountains of California, op. cit., pg. 194.

18. Muir, J., The Yosemite, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco (1988), pg. 48.

19. Muir, J., Steep Trails, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco (1994), pg. 40.

20. Muir, J., The Mountains of California, op. cit., pg. 34.

21. Muir, J., The Yosemite, op. cit., pg. 15.

22. Muir, J., The Mountains of California, op. cit., pg. 34.

23. Muir, J., The Yosemite, op. cit., pg. 27.

24. As quoted in Cohen, Michael P., The Pathless Way: John Muir and American Wilderness, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison (1984), pg. 19.

25. As quoted in McAleer, John, Ralph Waldo Emerson: Days of Encounter, Little, Brown and Co., Boston (1984), pg. 606.

26. Muir, J., The Mountains of California, op. cit., pg. 52.

27. Chesterton, G. K., Orthodoxy, Ignatius Press, San Francisco (1908), pg. 99.

28. Thoreau, H. D., “Walking,” in The Essays of Henry D. Thoreau (L. Hyde, Ed.), North Point Press, New York (2002), pg. 158.

29. Emerson, R. W., “Experience,” in Ralph Waldo Emerson: Nature and Selected Essays (L. Ziff, Ed.), Penguin Books, New York (1982), pg. 302.

30. Emerson, R. W., “Experience,” ibid., pg. 294.

31. As quoted in Buell, L., Emerson, Belknap Press, Cambridge (2003), pg. 91.

32. McAleer, John, Ralph Waldo Emerson: Days of Encounter, Little, Brown and Co., Boston (1984), Chap. 72.

33. Emerson’s journal entry of 11 May, 1838 can be accessed on-line at: http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/eng385/JourRE-HT.htm

34. Abbey, E., Desert Solitaire, Simon and Schuster, New York (1968), pg. xiv.

35. Oliver, M., “Introduction,” in The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (B. Atkinson, Ed.), The Modern Library, New York (2000), pg. xvi.

36. For a detailed account of Emerson’s journey to California in 1871, see the article entitled “John Muir,” in McAleer, John, Ralph Waldo Emerson: Days of Encounter, Little, Brown and Co., Boston (1984), Chap. 72. - 12 -

37. McAleer, John, Ralph Waldo Emerson: Days of Encounter, ibid., pg. 607.

38. As quoted in Nash, R. F., Wilderness and the American Mind, Fourth Ed., Yale University Press, New Haven (2001), pg. 124.

39. Emerson, R. W., “Experience,” op. cit., pg. 294.

© 2006 James Brannon, reprinted by permission of the author.


 


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