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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Celebrating St. John's Birthday

April 21, this coming Sunday, is the birthday of John Muir. Appropriately enough, the next day is Earth Day. Muir, called the father of the American environmental movement, gave us two great gifts. First, he taught us that time in the natural world heals humans by connecting us to our roots. And second, he initiated the U.S. National Parks preservation of pristine patches of that natural world from commercial exploitation, thus permitting us places to experience this healing. Plenty of reason to celebrate this eccentric Scotsman.

Muir’s family immigrated from Scotland to Wisconsin when he was eleven years of age. After a decade of unrelenting hard labor clearing land, farming, and building wells and barns dawn to dusk six days a week under the strict supervision of his religiously zealous father, Muir broke free and attended college in Madison for several years. Too unconventional for college, he set off for “the university of the wilderness” in 1863, wandering and doing odd jobs in Canada and the midwest before nearly losing his right eye in a factory accident in 1867. Upon his eyesight returning, he immediately took off on a thousand-mile-walk collecting plants through the wildest forests of the southern U.S., not stopping until he arrived at the Gulf of Mexico. Laid low by malaria for several months, and failing to find a ship to the Amazon, he settled on one to the Panama Canal and thence California, where he met his destiny in Yosemite Valley.

He spent most of the 1870s exploring the Sierra Nevada range by foot, from Yosemite to Mt. Whitney, and also Mt. Shasta to the north. He spent weeks at a time in the mountains with nothing but bread, tea, his journal, and wide-open eyes. He slept on tree boughs (incense cedar was the most comfortable, he thought) beside an all-night fire for warmth (blankets slowed him down unacceptably). He saw, in a manner no one else in America had, the life-giving beauty and power of the mountains, and the ability of care-worn city-dwellers to reclaim their health and zest for life in the mountains. “Heaven knows that John (the) Baptist was not more eager to get all his fellow sinners into the Jordan than I to baptize all of mine in the beauty of God’s mountains.” (Journal entry, October 1871)

Muir’s experience was that time in the natural world transformed humans both in spirit and in body. From a Journal entry of late 1872: “Wonderful how completely everything in wild nature fits into us, as if truly part and parent of us. The sun shines not on us but in us. The rivers flow not past, but through us, thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing. The trees wave and the flowers bloom in our bodies as well as our souls, and every bird song, wind song, and tremendous storm song of the rocks in the heart of the mountains is our song, our very own...”

His early writings in east-coast newspapers and magazines caught the attention of the elite. Emerson visited, and entreated him to come to Boston and curate the papers of Thoreau. The president of MIT offered him a professorship. Muir spurned all these offers and more. He was for the mountains. He discovered evidence that Yosemite Valley and indeed the entire Sierra Nevada had been shaped by glaciers, and upon being greeted with withering ridicule by the geology authorities (Josiah Whitney among them), he proved his point by discovering living (tho much reduced) glaciers throughout the highest reaches of the range (higher than the academics were able to hike to!)

The 1880s were largely spent studying the huge, abundant living glaciers of Alaska (the largest of which, in Glacier Bay, was named for Muir). He traveled by canoe along hundreds of miles of the Alaska coast, learning as much about the native Americans there as about his beloved glaciers. Always fearless and driven to see and experience everything, he came as close to death on numerous occasions in Alaska as he had in the Sierra Nevada. His brush with death crossing crevasses with the camp dog Stickeen became the most famous “dog story” of the 19th century and perhaps all time.

The voracious destruction of his beloved wild places by livestock, logging, and mining interests appalled him. In 1892, around a campfire in Tuolumne Meadows, he and Robert Underwood Johnson, an editor of New York’s Century magazine, devised a plan to form Yosemite National Park to protect the area. The same year he and other mountaineers formed the Sierra Club to help with the campaign, with Muir as its president. Muir and Johnson and the Sierra Club transformed the idea of protecting natural areas into actuality, and set in motion the creation of the National Park system and the dozens of parks we are blessed with today in America, from Maine to Hawaii and Alaska.

I came relatively late in life to an acquaintance with John Muir. I’d spent plenty of time in National Parks car-camping with family and friends in my thirties and forties, taking day-hikes into adjacent areas. In my fifties I began serious backpacking into wilderness areas with a group of fathers and our kids. Backpacks, water filters, camp stoves, mosquito nets over your head, ponchos, topographic maps, lightweight tents—the whole shebang. I’ve been doing that for nearly two decades now, and it’s been a blast, an experience I heartily recommend.

I’d read the classic short Muir quotations about wilderness, but really knew almost nothing about the man or his views. Then several years ago a college roommate from five decades ago asked me to write a chapter about Muir for a book he was editing. Sounded like fun, so I spent several months immersing myself in everything Muir had written, and having the great experience of getting to know a remarkable person.

How could you start getting to know this incredible man better? My chapter on Muir would be a good introduction, in an online journal called Religions, accessed here: www.mdpi.com/2077-1444/3/2/266. After that, read some of his books (avoid the “meditations of Muir” and the like, short excerpts that capture nothing of his adventures). Maybe My First Summer in the Sierras or Mountains of California or, best of all, once you know something of his journeys, John of the Mountains, a collation of his private journals. But do get to know this remarkable person better—your life will be enriched by him, as you take his message to heart and begin to spend more time in the natural world.

How to celebrate his birthday? I’m going to get out of the house and away from my study, to saunter among the trees in our local park and along the banks of Chico Creek. Maybe take time to look up and enjoy the clouds in the sky. Join me! Happy birthday, St. John!

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