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John Muir:

The Celebration of Wilderness

By Richard F. Fleck

Reprinted by permission of the author from Sierra, September/October 1979.

"The Sierra Cathedral, to the south of camp, was overshadowed like Sinai. Never before noticed so fine a union of rock and cloud in one form and color and substance, drawing earth and sky together as one; and so human is it, every feature and tint of color goes to one's heart, and we shout, exulting in wild enthusiasm as if all the divine show were our own. More and more in a place like this, we feel ourselves part of wild Nature, kin to everything."

- John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra

As biographers of Muir point out, young John Muir endured a harsh Calvinist upbringing in Scotland and Wisconsin. His father was a zealous fundamentalist who believed in ceaseless hard work, the sinfulness of human nature and an avenging, wrathful God. Herbert Smith states in his book, John Muir, that "Daniel Muir was the harsh taskmaster, physical and moral, who believed that sweat and pain were the only means to achieve heaven, that acts of childhood and love of nature were synonymous with evil, and that both represented dangerous tendencies to be whipped out of a boy." The moors of Scotland and later the woodlands of Wisconsin served as young Muir's release from such tyranny. He took delight in bird migrations, fern fronds and croaking frogs. In his autobiography, The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, Muir frequently juxtaposes the pure wilderness of the Wisconsin woods with thrashings from his stern father.

Muir left his father's household in 1860 to study at the University of Wisconsin, where he was introduced to the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. As Muir studied botany and other sciences, he naturally kept in mind the Emersonian doctrine of correspondence; like Thoreau, Muir saw transcendental relationships between plant growth and human growth. To him all life forms were sacredly interrelated. Each and every earthy creation was equally manifest with God's principle; and one need only closely observe palms, alligators or rock formations to discern the connectedness and the universal laws that became, as we shall see, clearer in Muir's later writings.

The combination of his Calvinist upbringing, love of nature and reading of Emerson and Thoreau contributed to Muir's sense of mission. In 1867 he walked one thousand miles southward, from Indiana to Florida, to study plant life and explore God's own creation. He kept a journal that became the basis of A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, written during his last decade. William Frederic Badè pinpoints Muir's literary and spiritual purpose in his introduction: "Muir's love of nature was so largely a part of his religion that he naturally chose biblical phraseology when he sought a vehicle for his feelings. No prophet of God could have taken his call more seriously, or have entered upon his mission more fervently." By the time he reached the mountains of California (via Panama) in 1868, he was irrevocably launched on his wilderness career. Here he would herd sheep, write and eventually fight for a national park system, becoming America's foremost conservationist.

Turning to Muir's writings themselves, one finds ample evidence of a deep spiritual quest and its fulfillment in the wilderness of North America. His writings, like those of others of the period, have stylistic flaws - Muir tended to overuse superlatives such as "glorious," "noble," "wondrous" and "marvelous." But at his best as a writer, in My First Summer in the Sierra and The Cruise of the Corwin, for example, he created descriptive prose that ranks among the finest in nature-writing. Take, for instance, this passage describing the arctic landscape seen from a high summit Muir climbed while on an Alaskan glacial expedition:

"The midnight hour I spent alone on the highest summit - one of the most impressive hours of my life. The deepest silence seemed to press down on the vast, immeasurable, virgin landscape. The sun near the horizon, as the jagged ice-boulders crowded together over the frozen ocean stretching indefinitely northward, while perhaps a hundred miles of that mysterious Wrangell Land was seen blue in the northwest - a wavering line of hill and dale over the white and blue ice-prairie! Pale gray mountains loomed beyond, well calculated to fix the eye of a mountaineer. But it was to the far north that I ever found myself turning, to where the ice met the sky. I would fain have watched here all the strange night, but was compelled to remember the charge given me by the Captain [of the Corwin]."

It is not known whether John Muir was familiar with the theories about sublimity propounded by his fellow Scotsmen Lord Kames and Hugh Blair, who revered beauty because it is morally uplifting. But he gave expression to them through the re-creation of this sublime landscape. Certainly he produced the effect of "mysterious awesomeness" in this passage and elsewhere in The Cruise of the Corwin.

Herbert Smith contends that "Muir's comprehension of the necessity for physical hardship to produce the sublime has an Oriental cast .... After exhausting himself physically with a hard climb, he was ready to absorb the beauties of the scenery revealed to him with his body totally passive, only his soul actively engaged." In such a condition he described the descent of Nevada Falls at Yosemite: "The Nevada is white from its first appearance as it leaps out into the freedom of the air. At the head it presents a twisted appearance, by an overfolding of the current from striking on the side of its channel just before the first free outbounding leap is made. About two thirds of the way down, the hurrying throng of comet-shaped masses glance on an inclined part of the face of the precipice and are beaten into yet whiter foam, greatly expanded, and sent bounding outward, making an indescribably glorious show, especially when the afternoon sunshine is pouring into it. In this fall - one of the most wonderful in the world - the water does not seem to be under the dominion of ordinary laws, but rather as if it were a living creature, full of the strength of the mountains and their huge, wild joy."

Muir's descriptions of the natural world are the more valuable because they express the author's evolving philosophy throughout his writings one finds in the "landscapes" an ecological philosophy a century ahead of its time. Sounding quite Emersonian, Muir wrote of nature that "whatever journeys be made, over ice or over the land, in summer or in winter, some new facts will surely be gained well worth the pains, for no portion of the world is so barren as not to yield a rich and precious harvest of divine truth. Whether Muir was in Florida or Alaska, he perceived divine principles through close observation of the natural world. Palms, Muir notes in A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, make no effort to outgrow each other - and thus create conditions harmonious to the entire plant community. Exposed rocks in Alaska gather delicate feathery crystals of ice to their windward; "Thus the rocks, where the exposure to storms is greatest, and where only ruin seems to be the object, are all the more lavishly clothed upon with beauty - beauty that grows with and depends upon the violence of the gale." Reminiscent of Walden, in which Thoreau describes nature as God's living laboratory, Muir writes, "Never before have I seen clouds so substantial looking in form and texture. Nearly every day toward noon they rise with visible swelling motion as if new worlds were being created."

One lesson Muir culled from his observations of volcanoes, glaciers, forest fires and the like was that creation and destruction are not simple opposites: "Reading these grand mountain manuscripts displayed through every vicissitude of heat and cold, clam and storm, upheaving volcanoes and down-grinding glaciers, we see that everything in Nature called destruction must be creation - a change from beauty to beauty." Perhaps the most profoundly significant principle Muir developed through natural observation (in this case, of domestic sheep whose wool is inferior to that of wild sheep) is found in his poignant, short essay "Wild Wool." "Indeed, every atom in creation may be said to be acquainted with and married to every other, but with universal union there is a division sufficient in degree for the purposes of the most intense individuality; no matter, therefore, what may be the note which any creature forms in the song of existence, it is made first for itself, them more and more remotely for all the world and worlds." This maxim is of great importance today as we begin to realize all the more how much we are but a part of the creation, not its center.

The wilderness became John Muir's Bible, where wisdom and truth could be discovered daily. To Muir, wilderness preserves seemed as essential for humans as formal religion, but wilderness, for its appreciation, requires an openness of spirit he did not see in most Americans of the late 1800s. In My First Summer in the Sierra Muir became somewhat caustic: "It seems strange that visitors to Yosemite should be so little influenced by its novel grandeur, as if their eyes were bandaged and their ears stopped. Most of those I saw yesterday were looking down as if wholly unconscious of anything going on about them while the sublime rocks were trembling with the tones of the mighty chanting congregation of waters gathered from all the mountains round about, making music that might draw angels out of heaven. Yet respectable-looking, even wise-looking people were fixing bits of worms on bent pieces of wire to catch trout. Sport they called it. Should church-goers try to pass the time fishing in baptismal fonts while dull sermons were being preached, the so-called sport might not be bad; but to play in the Yosemite temple, seeking pleasure in the pain of fishes struggling for their lives, while God himself is preaching his sublimist water and stone sermons!"

John Muir felt that Americans must at long last learn to view waterfalls of the Sierra, or sunrises on Mount Shasta, or damp fern forests in the Cascades as facets of a divine creation.

Richard F. Fleck is author of The Indians of Thoreau (Hummingbird Press, 1974) and has edited the Thoreau Journal Quarterly. He teaches English at the University of Wyoming.


Source: Sierra Club Bulletin, Sierra, September/October, 1979, p. 13-14. Reprinted on the John Muir Exhibit by permission of the author.


Life and Contributions of John Muir


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