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Recollections of John Muir

by Charles Keeler


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


My earliest recollections of John Muir date back some twenty-odd years, to those golden days in William keith's rather stingy but glorious studio on Montgomery Street, when Muir would drop in from his Martinez retreat for a chat with his old painter friend. The two Scotchmen, who had camped together in Sierra wilds in summer outings, and cracked jokes at one another's expense in the studio or at one of the little French restaurants where they lunched during winter visits, were big elemental natures, both of them. The child-heart each had treasured in his own peculiar way. they were Willie and Johnnie in their bantering sallies.

Both were deeply religious natures, but emancipated from formalism and tradition. Both were students and lovers of nature, but where Keith saw color and atmosphere, poetry and romance, in mountain and vale, tree and sky, Muir's eyes were fixed on the ever-changing processes of immutable law.

Those who knew Keith's work best realized that it fell into two groups - a comparatively hard, literal portrayal of the facts of landscape, and a free, impassioned outburst of impressionistic depicting of nature's moods. In his own heart he scorned the former and frankly gloried in the latter. His naturalistic sketches in color were either studies of underlying fact or potboilers for the uninitiated who were not up to his dream rhapsodies.

Muir was at heart a seer. But for him the wonder and glory of nature lay not in its romance of atmosphere and its appeal to human emotions. He saw in it rather the embodiment of divine law, and in a picture looked for a naturalistic portrayal rather than an impressionistic interpretation. So it was that he failed to appreciate his artist friend's finest work. With his dry Scotch humor he loved to twit him in good-natured raillery. Both in the old Montgomery Street studio, and later in the larger Pine Street rooms, I have spent many a happy hour with these two great souls, looking at the pictures and listening to Muir's talk.

As his keen gray eye ranged over the pictures stacked in piles all over the place, he would fall upon a big careful objective study of a Sierra landscape.

"Now there's a real picture, Willie," he would exclaim. "Why don't you paint more like that ?" With a look of defiance the big shaggy-haired painter would draw from the stack a mystical dream of live-oaks, with a green and gold sunset sky, and stand it up on an easel with an impatient wave of his hand.

"What are you trying to make of that? You've stood it upside down, haven't you?" Muir would sally with a mischievous twinkle.

And Keith would finally give it up with:

"There's no use trying to show you pictures, Johnnie."

But in spite of these little pleasantries, which revealed a fundamentally different approach to nature, the two men had a life-long admiration and friendship for one another.

Never have I met another man of such singleness of mind in his devotion to nature as Muir. He lived and moved and had his being as a devotee. He was naturally a recluse, but if he did get a listener, whether of high or low degree, he would talk by the hour of his beloved mistress. It was the passion of his life, the awakening of the dull and circumscribed soul of the average man or woman to the ineffable splendor of the great outdoors.

During the memorable two months of the Harriman Expedition to Alaska, Muir and I were room-mates. He had the gentle kindliness of a father. Of himself he took little heed, but no zealous missionary ever went abroad to spread the gospel with his fervor in communicating a love of nature. And with him a love of nature meant an understanding of her laws. He has me that he found it necessary, in getting people to listen, to tell them stories such as his immortal tale of Stickeen, but - the real hope in his heart was to awaken their interest so they would want to go to nature themselves and to delve into the mysteries of her ways.

Our stateroom was filled with "brush" - pine and spruce boughs, with cones or blossoms, and other trophies gathered on shore rambles. "Look at that little muggins of a fir cone," he would say to me, lovingly stroking the latest accession with which he littered the room, to the despair of the steward who tried to keep it in order.

That other great child-soul of nature, John Burroughs, was with us in Alaska, and the coming together of these two men was an event in American life. Burroughs is naively human, Muir intensely aloof. But Muir's aloofness was never cold or hard. It was the result of his almost fanatical absorption in the thrilling play of nature.

We dubbed him "Ice Chief" in Alaska, because of his enthusiasm for the great ice sculptor of the Glacial Age who had carved out the mountains in their present form. In those far norther wilds he was in his element, for with glaciers thundering their bergs into the inlets and sweeping majestically down through rugged mountain defiles, it was easy for him to show how all the carving of the mountains of the West was the work of their Titan graving tools. He would not hear of earthquake faults as a factor even in the shaping of the Yosemite. It was all the work of the ice, although he had himself witnessed a great avalanche here as the result of an earthquake, and loved to tell about rushing up on the great mass of granite when the blocks were still hot from crashing down the mountain.

To have explored with Muir the great glacier which bears his name, to have wandered with him in the Yosemite and Kings River Cañon, is to have come, through his enthusiasm and vision, a little nearer the hidden mysteries of nature. Every tree and flower, every bird and stone was to him the outward token of an invisible world in process of making. He sauntered over the mountains in his blue jeans overalls, claiming kinship with the rocks and growing things and gathering them all to his heart.

Nor can I forget the simple kindly welcome at his Martinez home, the strolls about his broad acres of fruit and vine, and the evening talks, prolonged far into the night, in his study, littered with the trophies of a life-time of communion with the great out-doors in many lands. In the autumn, boxes of grapes would come to prove that Muir was not so absorbed in his studies as to forget his friends, and on his visits to Berkeley, shining gold pieces would be slipped almost shyly into the children's hands.

Here was a real man, one who would get lost on the city streets, but could find his way through any unmapped wilderness; one who had the outward bearing of an unsophisticated farmer but was at home with the most polished man of the world. Devoid of all shams and affectations, sincere to the very roots of his being, his deadly earnestness was saved by that touch of Scotch humor and that deep tenderness and sympathy which shone through his being despite the habitual absorption in impersonal matters. And that Muir was able to fight, those who know with what zeal and single-minded devotion to a cause he carried on his campaign to save the Hetch Hetchy Valley, can testify. Recluse and devotee of nature though he was, he could come out among men and with unflinching courage, untiring energy and rare practical sense, work to save his beloved trees and mountains from being despoiled.

Others may praise him for his keen eye, his grasp of nature's laws, his enthusiasm as an explorer, his grace and charm of literary style, but for me he was a personality that defies analysis - a great soul, a genuine friend, and I am grateful to share, with all who touched his life closely, in the consciousness that we are better and closer to the great primal things because we knew and loved him.

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


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