Sermon: Easter People: John Muir

by Rev. Virginia M. Perason

with John Muir's Great-Grandson, Bill Hanna

First United Methodist Church of Napa, California

Sunday: Easter (Earth Day)
April 21, 2002


During these Sundays following Easter, we are introducing you to some people past and present who have lived lives of hope, expectation and resurrection. These are Easter People models for the kinds of lives that we, as followers of the Risen Christ, might be expected to lead, as well.

Tomorrow, according to many calendars, is Earth Day. Now, I know some purists insist that Earth Day can only be on the first day of spring, so there is some controversy about the date. But the Sierra Club and the EPA and others agree that tomorrow, April 22, 2002, is the date to observe the beauty and wonders of our global home and to take steps to preserve it. The statement for International Earth Day pretty well sums up the purpose of such a designation for at least one day a year:

All individuals and institutions have a mutual responsibility to act as Trustees of Earth, seeking the choices in ecology, economics and ethics that will eliminate pollution, poverty and violence, foster peaceful progress, awaken the wonder of life, and realize the best potential for the future of the human adventure.

In trying to think of a suitable Easter Person for you to meet when thinking of ecology, I came upon John Muir, and then found, by happy coincidence, that he was born on this date - April 21 - 164 years ago. So, I want you to meet John Muir today. Born on the north coast of Scotland, near the Firth of Forth, in a little city of Dunbar, John began school at the age of three years. He was the third child of Daniel Muir and Ann Gilrye Muir.

Oh, for heaven's sakes. Why am I trying to tell you about John Muir? We are blessed, as many of you know, to have his great-grandson right here with us. So, instead, let me introduce you to Bill Hanna. Bill and I have talked and shared stories that we know of John Muir and delighted in many of the quotations from his books.

Bill, I know that your great grandfather, John Muir, was born in Scotland and came with his family to Wisconsin in 1849, when he was 11 years old. How did he get interested in nature and the wilderness? Was he always interested, or did that love of nature begin when he came to America?

Muir's curiosity was innate but nourished by his maternal grandfather. Grandfather Gilrye took him for short walks around Dunbar to look for spring flowers or summer fruit. John's father gave each child a part of the garden in which to grow vegetables. That was the only joy the family shared together. The rest of the time, when Daniel was present, was a somber time of study of scriptures and school lessons. Even though their father promised to whip them if they strayed beyond the garden walls, John and his brother were not deterred. "Like devout martyrs of wildness, we stole away to the seashore or the green, sunny fields with almost religious regularity." When he arrived in the wilderness of Wisconsin he was enraptured by the plants and animals that surrounded him.

I see that he was quite an inventor and was very cleaver with his hands. He liked to invent things and had a curious mind. He didn't have much formal schooling, did he? I hear that he was known to get up at 1:00 am in order to read before daylight and his chores began. Yet, he enrolled in the University of Wisconsin. Tell us about his early years of education and direction.

His formal schooling ended when he left Scotland. A well-read neighbor recognized John's thirst for knowledge and loaned him books. His father caught him reading when he should have been in bed but when he saw the book was about the history of the church he told him to go to bed at night but he could get up before morning chores. John took him at his word and began getting up at 1AM to study and build some of his early inventions.

During his botanical ramblings during and shortly after his university years, he began to see the negative effects of human activity on the environment. He was torn between making his (economic) way in the world and studying the beauty of God's creation. He wanted to find the Law that governs the relations subsisting between human beings and Nature. He loved inventing mechanical devices but although many of his inventions were labor saving, they also put people out of work. He continually faced paradoxes in his choices. While struggling with his decisions about what to do with his life he was blinded in an industrial accident. While blind, he thought of all the natural beauty he had seen and despaired of ever seeing more. As he slowly regained his sight he made his decision. "This affliction has driven me to the sweet fields. God has to nearly kill us sometimes, to teach us lessons."

With a strong, some might say tyrannical father, and training in the Protestant work ethic, how did Muir decide to leave the productive, duty-bound life and become what many called a tramp? He wandered the country and, eventually, much of the world, and became well known as an author and advocate. How did he come to write so much and to share his vision of saving the wilderness?

Muir was asked how he could idle away his time studying plants and trees and rocks by a blacksmith he stayed with on his first major walk. He replied by quoting this morning's Gospel and stating "Jesus told his disciples to study the lilly. You tell me not to. Who is right?"

A very strong influence on Muir's direction in life was Jeanne Carr, an amateur botanist and wife of John's geology professor. She recognized John's talents and encouraged and nurtured his dreams of studying nature. After he had been in California for several months he wrote to her complaining that he had made no friends because everyone was materialistic and cared nothing for nature. She wrote, "But you must be social, John, you must make friends among the materialists, lest your highest pleasures taken selfishly become impure."

Dr. Carr left U of W and secured an appointment to the faculty at Berkeley. Once the family moved to California they sent all the influential scientists and thinkers that visited the west coast to Yosemite to visit Muir. All, including Emerson, urged him to share his findings with the world. He initially wrote to share his joy and observations. He was later persuaded by Mrs. Carr and Robert Underwood Johnson, an east coast publisher and conservationist, that only by getting people to experience the beauty he saw could he build support to save it. He wrote both to entice people to view the beauty of nature and also to explain why it should be preserved. "Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity."

I understand that it was Mrs. Carr who also played matchmaker and later introduced John to the woman he would marry, Louie Strenzel. She seems to be a great example of how someone can sense the potential in another and be an advocate who makes a significant change. Praise God for Mrs. Carr!

Muir seemed to be devoted to many aspects of wilderness and nature - why? It's like he wanted to press all of nature into a book and save it for the future. Why was he so interested and care so much?

One quotation from Studies in the Sierra answers this question. "Everything is so inseparably united. As soon as one begins to describe a flower or a tree or a storm or an Indian or a chipmunk, up jumps the whole heavens and earth and God himself in one inseparable glory." Another familiar, though less poetic phrase is "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." I think he felt that the truest, purest way to God was to study and experience the creation; to experience the divinity, the part of God, that is in each and every piece of creation.

You told me the other day that Muir's father was a zealous man of faith and insisted that John memorize the Bible and lead a very holy life. And yet, John Muir was not a churchman. How did his faith affect what he did and why?

He attempted to explain this in a letter to Mrs. Carr. "But although the page of Nature is so replete with divine truth, it is silent concerning the fall of man and the wonders of Redeeming Love. Might she not have been made to speak as clearly and eloquently of these things as she now does of the character and attributes of God? It may be a bad symptom, but I will confess that I take more intense delight from reading the power and goodness of God from 'the things which are made' than from the Bible. The two books, however, harmonize beautifully, and contain enough divine truth for the study of all eternity." He also obviously felt that humankind, churched or not, was desecrating God's creation. "So truly blind is lord man: so pathetically employed in his little jobs of town-building, church-building, bread-getting, the study of the spirits and heaven, etc., that he can see nothing of the heaven he is in."

So, is it his faith that led him to be so outspoken about the need for National Parks and wilderness areas? He was also very adamant against damming the Hetch Hetchy for water supply and destroying the beauty of that wilderness area. Do his actions give you - and me (and all of us) some guidelines for action?

John Muir was but one voice but he had a vision. He had the eloquence and drive to convince others of his views. We do not all possess these gifts. We can, however, follow the philosophy that we are but a part of God's creation and we should not be the ones to destroy it. We should live in harmony with nature, and each other, and so demonstrate to others our beliefs. Muir admonished, "These temple destroyers, devotees of raging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and instead of lifting their eyes to the mountains, lift them to dams and town sky-scrapers." Gretel Ehrlick, a biographer, states, "We have only to dip into Muir's words to find a model for living unconditionally, which means getting on our hands and knees to see, hear, smell, and taste the Earth, and so to restore our sense of divinity with the freshness of all living things."

Wow. What a legacy he has left to you, to all of us! He was, indeed, an example of what I've been talking about an Easter Person. Any final words or quotes you want to leave us with?

John Muir rose from the darkness of blindness to become God's prophet of light, of the goodness and beauty of creation. During his indecision, Jeanne Carr wrote him: "Dear John, I have often in my heart wondered what God was training you for. He gave you the eye within the eye to see in all natural objects the realized ideas of His mind. He gave you pure tastes and the steady preference of whatsoever is most lovely and excellent. He has made you a more individualized existence than is common, and by your very nature and organization removed you from common temptations. Do not be anxious about it. He will surely place you where your work is." Towards the end of his life Muir wrote, "I am hopelessly and forever a mountaineer ... and I care to live only to entice people to look at Nature's loveliness."

Praise God for the life and legacy of John Muir! Thank you, Bill. Let us all observe Earth Day tomorrow and every day, as we celebrate the life and teachings of this man of the mountains!


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