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John Muir As I Knew Him

by Robert Underwood Johnson

From Sierra Club Bulletin, John Muir Memorial Number, (January, 1916).


Sometime, in the evolution of America, we shall throw off the two shackles that retard our progress as an artistic nation - philistinism and commercialism - and advance with freedom toward the love of beauty as a principle. Then it will not be enough that one shall love merely one kind of beauty, each worker his own art, or that art shall be separated from life as something too precious for use; men will search for beauty as scientists search for truth, knowing that while truth can make one free, it is beauty of some sort, as addressed to the eye, the ear, the mind, or the moral sense, that alone can give permanent happiness. When that apocalyptic day shall come, the world will look back to the time we live in and remembers the voice of one crying in the wilderness and bless the name of John Muir. To some, beauty seems but an accident of creation: to Muir it was the very smile of God. He sung the glory of nature like another Psalmist, and, as a true artist, was unashamed of his emotions.

An instance of this is told of him as he stood with an acquaintance at one of the great view-points of the Yosemite Valley [webmaster's note: Muir's account of this incident places it at Grandfather Mountain, in the Appalachian Mountains] and, filled with wonder and devotion. wept. His companion, more stolid than most, could not understand his feeling, and was so thoughtless as to say so. "Mon," said Muir, with the Scotch dialect into which he often lapsed, "Can ye see unmoved the glory of the Almighty/? "Oh, it's very fine," was the reply, "but I do not wear my heart upon my sleeve." "Ah, my dear mon," said Muir, 'In the face of such a scene as this, it's no time to be thinkin' o' where to wear your heart."

No astronomer was ever more devout. The love of nature was his religion, but it was not without a personal God, whom he thought as great in the decoration of a flower as in the launching of a glacier. The old Scotch training persisted through all his studies of causation, and the keynote of his philosophy was intelligent and benevolent design. His wonder grew with his wisdom. Writing for the first time to a young friend, he expressed the hope that she would "find that going to the mountains is going home, and that Christ's Sermon on the Mount is on every mount."

It was late in May, 1889, that I first meet him. I had gone to San Francisco to organize the series of papers afterward published in the Century Magazine under the title of "the Goldhunters of California," and promptly upon my arrival he came to see me. It was at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. I was dressing for dinner and was obliged to ask him to come up to my room. He was a long time in doing so and I feared he had lost his way. I can remember, as if it were yesterday, hearing him call down the corridor, "Johnson, Johnson! where are you? I can't get the hang of these artificial cañons," and before he had made any of the conventional greetings or inquires, he added, "Up in the Sierra, all along the gorges, the glaciers have put up natural sign-posts, and you can't miss your way, but here - there's nothing to tell you where to go."

With all his Scotch wit and his democratic feeling, Muir bore himself with dignity in every company. He readily adjusted himself to any environment. In the High Sierra he was indeed a voice crying in the wilderness: moreover, he looked like John the Baptist as portrayed in bronze by Donatello and others of the Renaissance sculptors - spare of frame, hardy, keen of eye and visage, and on the march eager of movement. It was difficult for an untrained walker to keep up with him as he leaped from rock to rock as surely as a mountain goat, or skimmed the surface of the ground, a trick of easy locomotion learned from the Indians. If he ever became tired nobody knew it, and yet, though he delighted in badinage at the expense of the "tenderfoot," he was as sympathetic as a mother. I remember a scramble we had in the upper Tuolumne Cañon which afforded him great fun at my expense. The detritus of the wall of the gorge lay in a confused mass of rocks, varying in size from a market basket to a dwelling house, the interstices overgrown with a most deceptive shrub, the soft leaves of which concealed its iron trunk and branches. Across such a Dantean formation Muir went with certainty and alertness, while I fell and floundered like a bad swimmer, so that he had to give me many a helpful hand and cheering word, and when at last I was obliged to rest Muir, before going on for an hour's exploration, sought out for me one of the most beautiful spots I had ever seen, where the rushing river, striking pot-holes in its granite bed, was thrown up into water wheels twenty feet high. When he returned to camp he showered me with little attentions and tucked me into my blankets with the tenderness that he gave to children and animals.

Another Scotch trait was his surface antipathies. He did not hate anything - not even his antagonists, the tree vandals - but spoke of those "misguided worldlings," in terms of pity; yet he had a wholesome contempt for the contemptible. His growl - he never had a bark - was worse than his bite. His pity was often expressed for the blindness of those who through unenlightened selfishness chose the lower utility of nature in place of the higher.

Many have praised the pleasures of solitude - few have known them as Muir knew them, roaming the High Sierra week after week with only bread and tea and sometimes berries for his sustenance, which he would have said were a satisfactory substitute for the "locusts and wild honey" of his prototype. His trips to Alaska were even more solitary and we should say forbidding - but not he, for no weather, no condition of wildness, no absence of animal life could make him lonely. He was a pioneer of nature, but also a pioneer of truth, and he needed no comrade. Many will recall his thrilling adventure on the Muir glacier, told in his story entitled Stickeen, named for his companion, the missionary's dog. I heard him tell it a dozen times - how the explorer and the little mongrel were caught on a peninsula of the glacier - and how they escaped. It is one of the finest studies of dogliness in all literature, and told in Muir's whimsical way, betrayed unconsciously the tenderness of his heart. Though never lonely, he was not at all a professional recluse: he loved companions and craved good talk, and was glad to have others with him on his tramps, but it was rare to find congenial friends who cared for the adventures in which he reveled. He was hungry for sympathy and found it in the visitors whom he piloted about and above the Yosemite Valley - Emerson,Sir Joseph Hooker, Torrey, and many others of an older day or of late years, including presidents Roosevelt and Taft.

Muir was clever at story-telling, and put into it both wit and sympathy, never failing to give, as a background, more delightful information about the mountains than a professor of geology would put into a chapter. With his one good eye - for the sight of the other had been impaired in his college days in Wisconsin by the stroke of a needle - he saw every scene, in detail and in mass. This his conversation visualized until his imagination kindled the imagination of his hearer.

Adventures are to the adventurous. Muir, never reckless, was fortunate in seeing nature in many a wonderful mood and aspect. Who that has read them can forget his wonderful descriptions of the windstorm in the Yuba which he outrode in a treetop, or of the avalanche in the Yosemite, or of the spring floods pouring in hundreds of streams over the rim of the Valley? And what unrecorded adventures he must have had as pioneer of peak and glacier in his study of the animal and vegetable life of the Sierra. Did any observer ever come nearer than he to recording the soul of Nature? If "good-will makes intelligence," as Emerson avers, Muir's love of his mountains amounted to divination. What others learned laboriously, he seemed to reach by instinct, and yet he was painstaking in the extreme and jealous of the correctness of both his facts and his conclusions, defending them as a beast defends her young. In the Arctic, in the great forests of Asia, on the Amazon and in Africa at seventy-three, wherever he was, he incurred peril, not for "the game," but for some great enterprise of science.

But Muir's public services were not merely scientific and literary. His country men owe him gratitude as the pioneer of our system of national parks. Before 1889 we had but one of any importance - the Yellowstone. Out of the fight which he led for the better care of the Yosemite by the State of California grew the demand for the extension of the system. To this many persons and organizations contributed, but Muir's writings and enthusiasm were the chief forces that inspired the movement. All the other torches were lighted from his. His disinterestedness was too obvious not to be recognized even by opponents. To a friend who in 1906 made an inquiry about a mine in California he wrote: "I don't know anything about the X----- mine or any other. Nor do I know any mine owners. All this $ geology is out of my line." It was in his name that the appeal was made for the creation of the Yosemite National Park in 1890, and for six years he was the leader of the movement for the retrocession by California of the Valley reservation, to be merged in the surrounding park, a result which, by the timely aid of Edward H. Harriman, was accomplished in 1905.

In 1896-7, when the Forestry Commission of the National Academy of Sciences, under the chairmanship of Professor Charles S. Sargent, of Harvard, was making investigations to determine what further reservations ought to be made in the form of national parks, Muir accompanied it over much of its route through the far west and the northwest, and gave it is assistance and counsel. March 27, 1899, he wrote: "I've spent most of the winter on forest protection - at least I've done little beside writing about it." From its inception to its lamentable success in December, 1913, he fought every step of the scheme to grant to San Francisco for a water reservoir the famous Hetch Hetchy Valley, part of the Yosemite National Park, which, as I have said, had been created largely through his instrumentality. In the last stages of the campaign his time was almost exclusively occupied with this contest. He opposed the project as unnecessary, as objectionable intrinsically, and as a dangerous precedent, and he was greatly cast down when it became a law. But he was also relieved. Writing to a friend, he said, "I'm glad th fight for the tuolumne Yosemite is finished. It has lasted twelve years. Some compensating good must surely come from so great a loss. With the New Year comes new work. I am now writing on Alaska. A fine change from faithless politics to crystal ice and snow." It is also to his credit that he first made known to the world the wonder and glory of the Big Trees; those that have been rescued from the saw of the sordid lumbermen owe their salvation primarily to his voice.

Muir's death, on Christmas Eve of 1914, though it occurred at the ripe age of seventy-six and though it closed a life of distinguished achievement, was yet untimely, for his work was by no means finished. For years I had been imploring him to devote himself to the completion of his record. The material for many contemplated volumes exists in his numerous notebooks, and though, I believe, these notes were to a great degree written in extenso rather than scrappily, and thus contain much available literary treasure, yet where is the one that could give them the roundness of presentation and the charm of style which are found in Muir's best literary work?

One almost hesitates to use the word "great" of one who has just passed away, but I believe that history will give a very high place to the indomitable explorer who discovered the great glacier named for him, and whose life for eleven years in the HIgh Sierra resulted in a body of writing of marked excellence, combining accurate and carefully co-ordinated scientific observation with poetic sensibility and expression. His chief books, The Mountains of California, Our National Parks and The Yosemite, are both delightful and convincing, and should be made supplemental reading for schools. When he rhapsodizes it is because his subject calls for rhapsody, and not to cover up thinness of texture in his material. He is likely to remain the one historian of the Sierra; he imported into his view the imagination of the poet and the reverence of the worshiper.

Muir was not without wide and affectionate regard in his own state, but California was too near to him to appreciate fully his greatness as a prophet, or the service he did in trying to recall her to the gospel of beauty. She has, however, done him and herself honor in providing for a path in the High Sierra, from the Yosemite to Mount Whitney, to be called the John Muir trail. William Kent, during Muir's life, paid him a rare tribute in giving to the nation a park of redwoods with the understanding that it should be named Muir Woods. But the nation owes him more. His work was not sectional but for the whole people, for he was the real father of the forest reservations of America. The National Government should create from the great wild Sierra forest reserve a national park, to include the Kings River Cañon, to be called by his name. This recognition would be, so to speak, an overt act, the naming of the Muir Glacier being automatic by his very discovery of it. It is most appropriate and fitting that a wild Sierra region should be named for him. There has been but one John Muir.

The best monument to him, however, would be a successful movement, even at this late day, to save the Hetch Hetchy Valley from appropriation for commercial purposes. His death was hasted by his grief at this unbelievable calamity and I should be recreant to his memory if I did not call special attention to his crowning public service in endeavoring to prevent the disaster. The Government owes him penance at his tomb.

In conclusion, John Muir was not a "dreamer," but a practical man, a faithful citizen, a scientific observer, a writer of enduring power, with vision, poetry, courage in a contest, a heart of gold, and a spirit pure and fine.


Source: Sierra Club Bulletin, Vol. 10, No. 1 (1916 January)


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