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John Muir: The Wilderness Journeys

The Introduction by Graham White


John Muir: The Wilderness Journeys
Edited and with an introduction by Graham White
1996
Edinburgh, Scotland: Canongate
( more bibliographic information )


1996 March 23

This omnibus restores to Scottish print The Story of My Boyhood and Youth and My First Summer in the Sierra , by John Muir; published for the first time as Canongate Classics in 1988. A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf and Travels in Alaska deal with other great autobiographical journeys of Muir's life. The inclusion of Stickeen may at first seem odd, for it re-tells an incident included in Travels in Alaska ; but adapted as a short story it reveals an aspect of Muir's concern for animals that is largely unknown in Britain, where it has rarely been available.

Together, these five books chart the epic journeys on which John Muir explored the geography and ecology of the American continent, from the snowy Alaskan glaciers, to the alligators and orchids of the Florida swamps. They record the Odyssey of this great Scottish-American, from humble origins in Victorian Scotland, to his eventual enthronement as the elder statesman of Conservation: adviser to Presidents, lauded with honours by the universities, scientists and philosophers of his day.

In America John Muir is famous as a climber, explorer, geologist, botanist and writer; but above all as the pioneer of conservation. In the 1870s, before 'mountaineering' existed as a sport in the USA, he made the first ascent of Mt. Ritter (13,000 ft.), the first ascent by the Eastern route of Mt. Whitney (14,500 ft.), and early ascents of Mt. Shasta (14,400 ft.) and Mt. Rainier (14,500 ft). He was first to ascend Cathedral Peak, a hazardous pinnacle in Yosemite National Park, and climbed many peaks in the Sierra Nevada range. However, it was not the desire for fame, or bagging summits, which led him to risk his life in scaling these heights; he climbed in order to understand the geography of the unmapped areas he was exploring. But a deeper need also drew him to these remote summits, for here he found the beauty, cosmic mystery and spiritual insight which gave him his deepest fulfillment. Along the way he pioneered 'clean climbing' in America, for he normally climbed without crampons, ropes or pitons.

A self-taught geologist and glaciologist, he was first to discover living glaciers in the High Sierra and to propose their role in sculpting entire mountain ranges. His theory, that slow-grinding glaciers had gouged out Yosemite Valley over vast epochs of time, was ridiculed by Josiah Whitney, the patriarch of California geology, who held to the 'catastrophist' doctrine, that giant earthquakes had dropped the valley floor. Whitney dismissed Muir's ideas with contempt: "what does the sheep-herder know about geology?", but Louis Agassiz, the father of glaciology, later proved Muir correct. As a botanist and pioneer-ecologist Muir was consulted by the great scientists of his day, notably Asa Gray of Harvard and Joseph Hooker of Kew. He guided them on expeditions of discovery and they even named some of the plants he led them to in his honour! Ralph Waldo Emerson, the transcendental philosopher of New England, journeyed over 3,000 miles to visit Muir in the 'hang-nest', a wooden ! shack he had built in Yosemite. Emerson wrote that this self reliant young Scot had the most original mind and powerful intellect of any man he had met in America; they became lifelong friends.

But it is as the founder of the conservation movement, the first person to call clearly for the conservation and protection of wilderness and wildlife, that we remember John Muir. By the time of his death in 1914 he had become an almost mythic figure in the American pantheon, where today he ranks alongside Emerson, Thoreau, Lincoln and Kennedy as "father of the national parks". John Muir is truly revered; not as some intellectual fossil, enshrined in a marble hall of fame, but as a living spirit -- an environmental zeitgeist, whose words reverberate through the conservation movement on both sides of the Atlantic, with increasing resonance and relevance.

Americans have named over 200 sites in his honour, including: Muir Glacier, and Mount Muir in Alaska, Muir Woods and Muir Beach near San Francisco, and the John Muir Wilderness and John Muir Trail in the High Sierra. In 1964, Congress designated his Martinez home The John Muir National Historic Site, in recognition of his campaigns and the books in which he celebrated the natural heritage of the United States. This is just one of over 340 historic sites and parks, comprising over 80 million acres of wild land, cared for by the National Park Service, which Muir himself helped create. At Marquette County, Wisconsin, the John Muir Memorial Park is laid out near the Muir homestead at Fountain Lake. A granite slab among the wildflowers declares:

JOHN MUIR, Foster son of Wisconsin born in Scotland April 21, 1838 He came to America as a lad of eleven, spent his 'teen years in hard work clearing the farm across this lake, carving out a home in the wilderness. In the "sunny woods, overlooking a flowery glacial meadow and a lake rimmed with water lilies," he found an environment that fanned the fire of his zeal and love for all nature, which, as a man, drove him to study, afoot, alone and unafraid, the forests, mountains and glaciers of the west to become the most rugged, fervent naturalist America has produced, and the Father of the National Parks of our country.

After Muir's death President Teddy Roosevelt wrote:

"His was a dauntless soul. Not only are his books delightful, not only is he the author to whom all men turn when they think of the Sierras and Northern glaciers, and the giant trees of the California slope, but he was also -- what few nature-lovers are -- a man able to influence contemporary thought and action on the subjects to which he had devoted his life. He was a great factor in influencing the thought of California and the thought of the entire country so as to secure the preservation of those great natural phenomena -- wonderful canyons, giant trees, slopes of flower spangled hillsides . . our generation owes much to John Muir."
-- President Theodore Roosevelt , January 6, 1915

Awareness of that historic debt remains undimmed in the national consciousness. On April 21, 1988, the 150th anniversary of Muir's birth it was resolved:

... by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America: that April 21, 1988, is designated as 'John Muir Day', and the President is authorized and requested to issue a proclamation calling upon the people of the United States to observe such day with appropriate ceremonies and activities.

Congress acknowledged Muir's role in conserving wilderness and in stressing an ecologically sound environment as the basis of the quality of life for all people. The Rio World Summit on the Environment in 1992 highlighted the concept of "sustainability" as the acid-test for survival in the coming Millennium; but John Muir was writing about the sustainable use of the world's natural resources as long ago as 1870.

These books record expeditions of courage, endurance and extreme hardship; few would venture them lightly, even today, when rescue is only a mobile-phone away. Muir traversed unmapped wildernesses, the country of bears and mountain lions, with no prospect of help or of rescue beyond total self-reliance. He went alone, equipped only with hob-nailed boots, an old blanket, a hand-lens, pencil and notebook. His food was a sack of brick-hard bread, and "a screw of tea" to add to the river water. He never carried a gun to hunt game, or protect himself from grizzlies, pumas and desperados.

The Story of My Boyhood and Youth (1912) was written when Muir was over seventy, but he paints a sparkling picture of his Dunbar days with clarity and a wry Scotch humour. The opening paragraph is perhaps the most famous evocation of a child's vision of nature ever written:

When I was a boy in Scotland, I was fond of everything that was wild, and all my life I've been growing fonder and fonder of wild places and wild creatures. Fortunately, around my native town of Dunbar, by the stormy North Sea, there was no lack of wildness. . .with red blooded playmates, wild as myself, I loved to wander in the fields, to hear the birds sing, and along the seashore to gaze and wonder at the shells and seaweeds, eels and crabs in the pools among the rocks when the tide was low.

In this book Muir allows us to recapture a glimpse of the childhood Eden, from which most of us are barred as adults, to which somehow he always found the way home.

Born on April 21st 1838 in the fishing town of Dunbar, East Lothian, just 30 miles from Edinburgh; the year following Victoria's accession to the throne and two years after Darwin returned from his epic voyage on the Beagle. John was sent to school at three, and at seven entered Dunbar Grammar School, where English, Latin, French, Maths, and Geography were beaten into him along with the three Rs. Here he supped the salty broth of Scottish culture from Bannockburn and Flodden, to Burns and the Border Ballads. William Wallace and Robert the Bruce were his school-book heroes, and with school-mates he re-enacted the Wars of Independence daily . These fierce battles took place around Dunbar Castle, where Bruce and the Wallace had fought, first each other, and later the English. Muir was a passionate devotee of all things Scottish throughout his life, and even after 60 years in America, spoke and wrote in vernacular Scots.

In the 1840s, letters and newspapers from America filtered back to Dunbar. John Muir's imagination was sparked with fireside tales: of vast prairies and endless forests, inhabited by bears, wolves, mountain lions and wild, war-bonneted indians; of maple trees dripping sweet sugar, and rocks studded with nuggets of yellow gold. A country where ospreys and eagles perched on every branch, and passenger pigeons darkened the sky from horizon to horizon, in uncountable myriads. Emigration offered the boundless possibilities of this young nation to millions of poor Scots and Irish people.

In February 1849, encouraged by Scots already in America, Daniel Muir set sail in search of religious freedom, cheap land and a better life. At the age of ten, John, with his sister Sarah and brother David, "sailed away from Glasgow, carefree as thistle seeds on the wings of the winds, toward the glorious paradise over the sea." This entailed six weeks of winter voyage across the North Atlantic, on a square-rigger packed with Scots and Irish emigrants, some fleeing the potato famine, others seeking land or gold.

The adults were wracked with anxiety, leaving their homeland to face an uncertain future in a strange new world. But Muir does not dwell on sea sickness or the stench of the steerage; he tells of his delight in the sailors' songs, the thrill of setting canvas in a stiff breeze, of dolphins playing in the green waters and of staring into the eye of a great whale swimming alongside.

On arrival the family faced a lengthy journey by boat up the Great Lakes and then by train and open wagon to Kingston, Wisconsin, where Daniel Muir purchased a section of virgin land. Near the end of his life, Muir remembered his first impression of Fountain Lake Farm:

This sudden splash into pure wildness -- baptism in Nature's warm heart -- how utterly happy it made us! Nature streaming into us, wooingly teaching her wonderful glowing lessons, so unlike the dismal grammar ashes and cinders so long thrashed into us. Here, without knowing it, we were still at school; every wild lesson a love lesson, not whipped but charmed into us. Oh, that glorious Wisconsin wilderness!

But it was dawn to dusk labour that dominated Muir's first decade in Wisconsin, a period when he slaved as unpaid "ploughboy, well-digger and lumberjack" under his father's despotism. Daniel Muir not only beat his sons frequently, but refused to call a doctor, or allow time from work, when John contracted mumps and even pneumonia. The boy survived; he escaped to the woods and the lake whenever he could, and immersed himself in books borrowed from Scottish neighbours. Self-taught from the age of ten, he showed signs of innate genius in his early teens, by the construction of a series of highly original machines. Clocks, barometers, thermometers, semi-automatic table saws, an 'early-rising machine' -- all flowed from his hands, whittled from hickory or with metal scavenged from farm implements. It was the fame of these inventions which led him to university at Madison, Wisconsin, where for the first time he encountered minds like his own, and set his course for the future.

The second book, A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf (1916) was published after Muir's death by William Frederick Bad%egrave;, his literary executor. Created from the journal written by Muir almost 50 years earlier, it recounts his epic walk to the Gulf of Mexico in the aftermath of the American Civil War. Muir had avoided the slaughter by dodging the draft for over two years in Canada, where he earned his living in a woodwork factory. Later, his skills gained him the post of foreman-engineer at an Indianapolis carriage factory, where he automated production.

But a terrible accident had left Muir physically and mentally traumatised, marking a violent turning point in his life. While prising a metal staple from a drive-belt with the tang of a file, the tool slipped, his hand flew upward and the spike pierced his right eye. As the jelly of aqueous humour slid down his cheek, he ran to the window and realised he was blind; the agony increased when within hours, the other eye failed. Remarkably, after weeks lying bandaged in a darkened room, he recovered his sight; but this intimation of mortality caused him to flee industry forever and to follow his daemon to the wild places of America, determined as the Zen text exhorts, "not to follow others, but to leave a trail that others might follow".

It was on this journey to the Gulf that Muir first reflected on the anthropocentric view of nature and began to see that, far from being 'Lord of Creation', mankind was just one small part of the web of life; that all living creatures, plants and even rocks, existed for themselves in their own right, not merely for our utility. Before the word 'Ecology' was coined Muir was already studying the 'inter-connectedness' of things. He saw humans as just one species in a world-community of beings -- advocating 'deep ecology' a hundred years before modern thinkers came around to the same view. Central to his insight was the concept of 'flow', of the transference of energy, materials and life itself:

One is constantly reminded of the infinite lavishness and fertility of Nature -- inexhaustible abundance amid what seems enormous waste. And yet when we look into any of her operations that lie within reach of our minds, we learn that no particle of her material is wasted or worn out. It is eternally flowing from use to use, beauty to yet higher beauty; and we soon cease to lament waste and death, and rather rejoice and exult in the imperishable, unspendable wealth of the universe, and faithfully watch and wait the reappearance of everything that melts and fades and dies about us, feeling sure that its next appearance will be better and more beautiful than the last.

The third volume, My First Summer in the Sierra (1911), published by Bad from Muir's journals of forty years earlier, is perhaps Muir's best-loved book. It deals with the period following his arrival in California via the Panama Canal, after the thousand mile walk. Landing in San Francisco in March 1868, he hiked across the central valley to find summer work as a shepherd in the Yosemite high country. For the next seven years, until February 1875, he was based more or less continuously in Yosemite, exploring the High Sierras, honing his skills in botany, geology and climbing. Self-taught as always, he would 'read from the great book of Nature', trusting only his own observations, verifying every fact and step along the way. The First Summer has been called "the journal of a soul on fire" and certainly Muir seems in a state of spiritual ecstasy and rapture as the glory of the Sierra peaks is revealed to him for the first time. A deeply spiritual person, though not in a conventional religious sense, he was steeped in scripture from his earliest days. In Dunbar, he had been forced to memorise the entire New Testament before the age of eleven, and claimed he had much of the Old Testament as well. But here, in the alpen-glow of the 'Range of Light', Muir forsook the narrow Scots Calvinism of his father for a new creed, whose prophets were Thoreau and Emerson, rather than Moses and Jeremiah. He remained a Christian but a profound nature-mysticism pervades all his writings from this period.

In the mountains he had what can only be described as a 'conversion experience' during which he saw a transcendent vision of Nature. Every rock, plant and animal in the landscape was transfigured into a divine manifestation; each one a golden thread in the infinite fabric of life, from which no fibre could be pulled without spoiling the whole tapestry. Muir sensed a Divine presence behind all things, shining through them, imbuing them with infinite meaning and profound beauty. Even today this remains a truly cosmic vision:

When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with all the other stars, all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty. This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on seas and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.

While others specialised in ever-narrower fields, gaining degrees and professorships, Muir allowed his jackdaw mind to roam free. Always seeking the inter-connections between things, rather than the limited perspective of just one field of study, he skipped from geology and geography to botany and zoology. The word 'Ecology' was coined in the late 1860's by Ernst Von Haeckel, but Muir was already ransacking the 'Earth household' and weaving his ecological synthesis, while the academics were still devising a label for his activities.

Travels in Alaska (1915) was also edited from Muir's journals by Bad%egrave; and published posthumously. The book recounts just three of Muir's seven journeys to Alaska and is filled with adventures, discoveries and observations of plants, fish, animals, birds, rivers, mountains, and above all glaciers. It includes his 'discovery' of Glacier Bay in the Klondike territory, and his exploration of the islands, rivers and glaciers of the remote Wrangell area. Here he was inspired to name glaciers in honour of two Scots: Hugh Miller and Archibald Geikie, his geology mentors. The greatest glacier here is of course named Muir Glacier.

The book recounts the 500 mile canoe trip he made with the Stickeen indians, who made him an honorary chief and gave him the pet dog named 'Stickeen'. We witness encounters with the Sitka and Chilcat indians, whose lodges he slept in, and with whom he navigated hundreds of miles of remote rivers and sea-passages in an open canoe. Later, as geological and botanical adviser to the Corwin and Harriman expeditions, he sailed over a thousand miles further North, to the Behring Straits and the coast of Siberia, and was present when Wrangell Land was annexed for the United States.

Stickeen is a much-loved story derived from a famous incident in which Muir almost lost his life in a desperate attempt to bridge a crevasse on an Alaskan glacier. He was a compulsive raconteur and this tale was told to friends and family at a hundred dinner tables. He finally wrote it down for his daughter Helen's amusement, but it reveals an interesting side of Muir's nature-philosophy. In the 1890s scientific-materialists proclaimed that animals were merely 'animated machines', devoid of soul, mind or intellect. Muir retorted that the little dog Stickeen, who shared his perilous adventure on the glacier, had convinced him that even a dog had a mind and soul. Stickeen expanded Muir's vision of all living beings; it is a deeply affectionate tale, written as a kind of moral fable for Muir's daughter, but it remains relevant to todays debates.

During the 1870s Muir witnessed signs of environmental degradation in Yosemite and other areas which he had first encountered when pristine and undamaged. Everywhere he travelled he saw over-grazing of cattle and sheep, the clear-cutting of virgin forests, the devastation of mountains by hydraulic mining and valleys drowned for reservoirs. He knew that uncontrolled development would soon destroy the country's natural heritage, inexhaustible though it had once seemed. Encouraged by Robert Underwood Johnson, the influential editor of Century magazine, Muir began to write and lobby for the protection of wild places as national parks. But scientific arguments and inspirational writing would not guarantee protection; political struggle and legislation was the only way forward. In 1893 he played a key role in founding the Sierra Club to fight for conservation; as first president he led the battle to enlarge the protected boundaries of Yosemite Valley, as America's second National Park.

Muir's success can be gauged from the fact that, during his lifetime, he influenced Presidents Roosevelt, Wilson and Taft in designating over 50 national parks, 200 national monuments and 140 million acres of National Forest. In the 1930s his example inspired David Brower, an unemployed student, to make first-ascents of over twenty peaks topping 13,000 ft in the High Sierra. Brower's experience of mountain beauty soon led him into the conservation movement and, following Muir's path, he became Director of the Sierra Club in 1952. After seventeen years he resigned as Director in 1969, and went on to found Friends of the Earth, which now has chapters in 53 countries. Muir's influence, working through people like David Brower, now extends across the globe.

But what of Scotland, the land of John Muir's birth, where he is still largely unknown to the majority of people. It is the most extensively de forested country in Europe, with over 99% of its trees long-gone, and its natural heritage sadly impoverished as a result. There are signs that John Muir's spirit is at last coming home to inspire a new generation of conservationists. In 1976 the steady trickle of American pilgrims to Muir's birthplace in Dunbar inspired East Lothian District Council, under the prompting of Frank Tindall, the County Planning Officer, to designate John Muir Country Park; eight miles of wild sea-coast stretching from Belhaven Bay to Tyningham and beyond. In 1981 the Council opened the John Muir House Birthplace Museum at 128 High Street, Dunbar, which attracts visitors from all over the world. About the same time, the National Library of Scotland was given a complete microfilm edition of the John Muir Papers, containing copies of virtually every journal, book and letter that Muir ever wrote. This was gifted by the Holt-Atherton Institute at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, where John Muir's original papers and much of his personal library are held. This historic archive is now available to scholars in Scotland and the United Kingdom for research into any aspect of Muir's writings.

In 1983 Muir's life inspired the creation of the John Muir Trust in Scotland, established to conserve wild land and protect it for future generations through purchase. To date the Trust has acquired four areas of wild land in Scotland: Li and Coire Dhorrcail in Knoydart (3,000 acres 1988), Torrin on the Isle of Skye (5,000 acres, 1991), Sandwood Bay, Sutherland (11,000 acres 1992), Strathaird and Bla Bheinn in the Skye Cuillin (15,000 acres 1994).

None of these areas is true 'wilderness' or 'wild' in the American sense; they all have crofting communities and people have farmed here for hundreds of years; possibly thousands. Whatever the label, these landscapes are among the most unspoiled in Britain and are sublimely beautiful. The John Muir Trust aims to demonstrate exemplary management of these areas, sharing responsibility with local communities for the sustainable use of the landscape, wildlife and natural resources. The Trust's Information and Education Committee, also aims to foster a much wider knowledge of Muir's life and work, here in Britain.

In 1994 a group of local people founded Dunbar's John Muir Association, with the support of the John Muir Trust. This new body aims to enhance knowledge of Muir and to reclaim him as a Scottish figure, for the educational and economic benefit of Scotland and Dunbar. It has submitted a bid to the Millennium Fund, for the creation of a John Muir Centre in Dunbar, as a beacon for environmental education and sustainability in Scotland. The Centre will function as an environmental gateway for visitors to Scotland, with stunning audio-visual facilities. It will allow children to experience distant wildernesses, anywhere on the planet, using advanced computer facilities, and will also enable schools to share environmental information and projects.

Every country needs heroes to fire the imagination with all that is excellent and provide inspiring role-models for children. Europe has no conservation hero to stand comparison with John Muir and it is timely that the John Muir Trust and Dunbar's John Muir Association are working to bring him home in time for the Millennium. Muir's life and achievements represent a unique contribution to world conservation and it is vital that he should be brought back into the mainstream of Scottish culture and education.

John Muir never forgot his Dunbar roots and Scotland was always in his heart. His first decade in East Lothian was undoubtedly crucial. The foundations of his character: his dogged self-reliance; his hunger for knowledge; his endurance; his thirst for adventure and his profound love of nature, were laid down upon the sandstones and basalt of this rocky shore. Muir was not a systematiser; he wrote no text books and occupied no university chair. But it is arguable that the legacy of his books and successful battles on behalf of conservation, will ultimately have more enduring world-impact than any scientist or statesman of his day.

Late in life he wrote his "Thoughts on the Birthday of Robert Burns": "It is glorious to know that one of the greatest men to appear in the last century was a Scotsman -- Robert Burns -- ... this lesson of divine love and sympathy for humanity ... which he sent forth white hot from his heart, has gone ringing and singing around the globe, stirring the heart of every nation and race. The men of science and natural history often lose sight of the essential oneness of all living beings in their seeking to classify them in kingdoms, orders, families, genera, species etc. ... while the Poet and Seer never closes on the kinship of God's creatures and his heart ever beats in sympathy with the great and small as earth-born companions and fellow mortals dependent on Heaven's eternal laws."

Muir was a one-of; a unique personality who broke the mould from which he was cast: Poet, Philosopher and Preacher as much as he was botanist or geologist, he is not amenable to simple analysis. The questions he posed about the survival of wild landscapes and wild creatures are as relevant today as when he first asked them. And his great vision of the whole of Nature as a divine manifestation, shining with beauty, brimming with purpose, filled with meaning, is one of the most potent rejoinders to the materialist and reductionist world-view that has ever been made.

It is a vision that the world sorely needs as we approach the Millennium, when mankind's search for spiritual truths, environmental values and practical strategies for sustainability has never been more urgent.


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