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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Huck Finn in California

As I bicycled under the arched Valley Oak trees in the park yesterday, watching the gold and russet leaves twirling to the ground, I felt like a boy on an adventure. The seasons are changing, and I was abroad navigating the changing world. The child-like sense of wonder is one of the most precious gifts we receive as we move through the natural world. Certainly John Muir was sensitive to this wonder, and nothing better illustrates this than his incredible adventures in the fall of 1877.

“Even by Muir standards, the fall of 1877 was filled. In September the 39-year-old Muir guided Harvard botanist Asa Gray and the great English botanist Sir Joseph Hooker (both of them confidants and champions of Charles Darwin) on a botanising outing on Mount Shasta with General John Bidwell of Chico. Muir then floated 195 river miles down the Sacramento River from near Chico to Sacramento by himself, using a boat thrown together by Bidwell’s carpenter. At Sacramento he promptly caught a train to Visalia on the western shoulder of the Sierra, and thence by foot to the infamous gorge on the upper reaches of the Middle fork of the Kings river, which had the reputation of being too difficult to traverse. (The same claim had been made about Tenaya canyon above Yosemite Valley, and Muir had laid that claim to rest several years earlier.) Down the canyon he walked, crawled, jumped, dropped, slid, and often swam, emerging at the bottom of the gorge some twelve days later, having gone the last four days with no food, but showing that, indeed, the gorge was accessible—to John Muir, at least. After a meal, he took train and stagecoach north to the Merced River at Hopeton (to which it flows out of Yosemite Valley), constructed with his own hands a very crude boat from twisted fence boards, and launched himself upon the Merced for another float trip. Two hundred and fifty miles and two weeks later, having reached the San Joaquin river and rowed past Stockton into the Delta (“the tule region,” he called it) and through its length to the junction of Suisin Bay and San Francisco Bay, he finally docked his boat at the orchards of Dr. John Strentzel at Martinez. After two days replenishing his gaunt frame and ragged clothes there (Dr. Strentzel’s daughter Louie would become Muir’s wife three years later), he nonchalantly walked the twenty miles to Oakland, boarded the ferry to San Francisco, and took a breather to work on his writing and public lectures.” (Quoted from my 2012 article in the open access on-line journal religions (ww.mdpi.com/2077-1444//3/2/266).)

Muir’s autumn 1877 adventures on the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, California’s two greatest rivers, remind me strongly of Huck Finn on the Mississippi, though Mark Twain wouldn’t publish Huck’s “Adventures” until eight years later, in 1885. Without doubt Muir felt the same sense of freedom and exhilaration on his rivers as Huck did on his. I’ve made numerous trips down the Sacramento River myself in the company of various adventuresome buddies, and can attest there’s something special about being on a river, exploring the sloughs branching off of it, and sleeping beside the running water. Again—it brings out the boy (or girl) in you, that wonderful sense of belonging to a world of wonder. I imagine that Jesus had something like that in mind when he told his disciples (Luke 18:16) “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children.” (New Living Translation)

So let’s all get outside and wonder at the changing seasons, cultivating the heavenly sense of living in a world charged with beauty—channeling (as we say in California) our inner Huck Finn and John Muir.

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