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Earth Wisdom: John Muir, Accidental Taoist

A "hidden Muir" emerges from the journals of his wilderness adventures, one which replaces the West's anthropocentric worldview with a radical Gaiacentric one. Muir's "earth wisdom" offers us a path to becoming whole and enlivened by connecting with our roots in the natural world. The new worldview also offers humanity a firm basis for dealing with the existential challenge of climate change.

Reviews of Earth Wisdom

5.0 out of 5 stars In this wonderfully written and inspiring book
By George Scarlett on January 16, 2017

If the human race is to effectively take on the huge challenges posed by climate change and environmental degradation, we will have to do more than invent new technologies. We will have to change our worldview and develop a new spirit. Raymond Barnett shows us that in John Muir, we have the right guide to lead us. In this wonderfully written and inspiring book, Barnett connects Muir back to ancient Taoist wisdom and forward to the present – so that we fully appreciate the creative genius and relevance of the man. This is a must book for anyone wishing for both a great story and an informed and inspiring viewpoint for these troubling times.

5.0 out of 5 stars This book gives me hope
By Amazon Customer on January 27, 2017

A survival strategy for the entire planet as well as overdue homage to an extraordinary man.

5.0 out of 5 stars John Muir and the Tao: A Path To Survival
By Albert Vogel on January 18, 2017

This book offers to readers interesting biographical information and much, much more. John Muir's life was rich. Explorer, nature writer and evironmentalist, he now has what can be called a cult following. A lot has been written about this great man, a founder of the Sierra Club, and defender of Yosemite and all natural places. This book by Ray Barnett, a biologist and Taoist scholar, presents a really expanded view of John Muir.

There was another dimension to this man that has not received a lot of attention by biographers. Muir was deeply spiritual and his relationship with nature and the reality of life can seen very clearly from the traditional Taoist perspective. Barnett, with his knowledge of Taoism and environmental issues, gives the reader a foundation on which to build an understanding and appreciation of Muir's life and his work. We face environmental issues today that threaten the future of civilization and perhaps even the survival of the human species. John Muir's spirituality, interpreted from a Taoist perspective, gives us an understanding of why survival is at stake and a philosophical foundation on which to move toward solutions and a sustainable future. While discussing the horrors of our survival crisis makes for grim reading, Barnett gives us a survival strategy, and yes, hope. Technology too offers some solutions, but ultimately our crisis is spiritual. We simply at present do not have a relationship with our environment, the natural world, that is real and sustainable. John Muir, the "Accidental Taoist", offers us a way to correct our misdirected ramblings on life's path.

5.0 out of 5 stars Very relevant to today's world for those interested in learning about what can be done to prevent impending ecological disaster
By Henry Ganzler on January 31, 2017

Raymond Barnett's book about John Muir's philosophy, called "Earth Wisdom," and the history of the environmental movement is very well researched and clearly written. For anyone interested in how Taoism and Muir's philosophy are similar, this book provides very clear answers. It also demonstrates how Muir's Earth Wisdom is very relevant, even necessary, for those interested in preventing the ecological disaster facing the world today. Clearly, writing this book was a culmination of a lifetime of study and experience and a labor of love for Dr. Barnett.

5.0 out of 5 stars A Wonderful, More Complete View of an Old Friend Which May Bring Us Hope For the Future
By Marcia A. Moore, M.D.on February 7, 2017

This is an excellent book. John Muir has been a hero of mine all my adult life and I thought I knew the man from his prolific writings about the outdoors, his life as a “mountain man” and his energetic enthusiasm for the wilderness. But Professor Barnett, in this carefully researched book (using Muir’s little known journals) elegantly depicts a much lesser known side, a softer side, or the Yin side of John Muir which is as compelling as what we have come to know of the Mountain Man – really making him a more complete person.

The book’s worth, however, is more than its value as an historical account or a contribution to the rightfully deserved gratitude we owe John Muir, for it summarizes very clearly how we have failed in caring for the wilderness he taught us to appreciate. Barnett’s chapters summarizing those failures are exceedingly clear and useful as a resource. He details clearly the “flaws” of many environmental groups which rely on solutions depending only on the profit motive or technical fixes rather than a vision focusing on values. This leads to his chapters referencing spiritual leaders as current as Pope Francis and as ancient as the Taoist tradition. The book is engaging, thought provoking and creative. I highly recommend it as a challenging vision of a possible future of which our hero, John Muir, would very likely approve.

5.0 out of 5 stars The Long Journey to Save Ourselves
By E. D. Bessey on February 6, 2017

This is a deep but very readable book. Author Raymond Barnett first describes the geographic journeys of Sierra Club founder and first American environmental activist John Muir, starting with his trek from His Indiana home to the Gulf of Mexico, then to the California Sierras, the Yosemite valley and finally to the glaciers of Alaska’s southeast coast. He describes in rich detail how Muir’s immersion in wilderness, in particular his rapture with the Yosemite Valley, leads him to a keen understanding of the physical and biological processes that form our earth even today.

Woven through the entire book is its spiritual dimension. As Barnett follows the progress of Muir’s extraordinary explorations of the American wilderness he simultaneously presents, through Muir’s own journals, the development of his understanding of the appropriate role of humanity in these processes. Barnett then introduces the 5,000 year old traditions of Chinese Taoism, which he cogently describes as “… approaches to understanding reality”. He demonstrates that Taoism and Muir’s own understanding share the same foundation.

If an American, through experience in, and careful observation of, natural processes in the American west comes to an understanding of those processes and man’s involvement in them, and this understanding is at its foundation the same as that of the ancient Chinese Taoists, perhaps there are spiritual truths to be recognized in them. Perhaps these are universal truths that are essential to us as 21st century humans living in a world that feels like it is increasingly, and terminally, stressed.

Barnett challenges us to consider that the only possible path to human survival on this earth is the spiritual one, a path founded on universal values and interests that can transcend geographic, ethnic and political/economic interests and be equally understood by the masses as well as the elite.

5.0 out of 5 stars This world is all we have
By E. K. Anderson on February 1, 2017

The words "immanent" and "transcendent" may not be part of your everyday vocabulary, but you'll think constantly about them whenever you read or hear a news item regarding the environment after you read Ray Barnett's gorgeously written book. In brief, mankind (with the emphasis on "man") has considered this world to be transcendent for the last 2,500 years, with men believing they should dominate the species and the world – but that was all right since there was a better world to come after death. But in the first part of his book, Barnett quotes extensively from the journals of John Muir, the father of the modern environmental movement, who believed that this world was, by observation, immanent – the only world there is, and one that must be carefully guarded and protected. Man is only one part of an interrelated cosmos, but with an equal role for women, must accept the responsibility to turn us back from the tipping point we're now teetering at, if humanity is to survive at all. And if we don't, after a very chaotic period of strife, we may simply become extinct – and the world won't care.


Extended Book Review (2023)
By Harold Wood


An updated and enhanced book review, based on an earlier presentation reviewing the book. This illustrated book review focuses on how John Muir's "accidental Taoist" world view replaces the West's anthropocentric worldview, offering a path to becoming whole with the natural world and dealing with the existential challenge of climate change. Hosted on John Muir Global Network.


Introduction to Earth Wisdom

As humanity faces the gravest challenge in its 200,000-year history, it is curious that the best hope of answering the threat of climate change comes from an eccentric Scotch immigrant who died a century ago. Before he died, though, John Muir left two legacies: a worldview, and a movement. With much luck, these may yet play a key role in pulling civilization back from the abyss.

Climate change’s floods, famines, epidemics, and mass migrations that every credible scientific and policy institute in the world sees in humanity’s near future—modern Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—have elicited calls from Pope Francis and thoughtful analysts for a “new way of thinking,” and a mass movement worldwide to persuade leaders to adopt the new approach’s insights.

Muir’s radical worldview, his Earth Wisdom, was forged from epic rambles in the wildest mountains and glaciers of 19th-century America. So unorthodox is it that his followers have let it remain largely hidden in his journals for a hundred years. Yet strangely enough, Muir’s Earth Wisdom seems crafted to provide the new way of thinking that could inspire an effective response to the modern challenges of global climate change. And stranger still, this worldview also arose, unknown to him, two thousand years earlier half a world away, in the Taoist tradition of China. Muir was thus the first American Taoist, albeit an accidental one.

But the confluence of Muir’s worldview and that of ancient China’s Taoists is not really so strange. Both developed from the habit of living among the mountains and unspoiled places of the planet. Both were grounded in viewing the world through keen eyes and unbiased minds. “Open eyes, Open minds, Will travel” characterizes the approach to life of Muir in the late 19th century, and the Taoists two millennia and more before.

They saw the same thing. A world bursting with vitality and beauty, driven by the flow of grand natural processes inherent in matter itself. A world in which humans are but one component—interesting, prone to mischief, perhaps, but really nothing special in the overall scheme of things. A Gaiacentric world, rather than an anthropocentric one. And behind, under, in it all: the mysterious, wonderful, awesome presence of a Way, a Great Fountain, a Source of Sources, a God utterly unlike any previous conception of God in either Western or Eastern religions.

So that, oddly enough, when Pope Francis decries the modern technocratic paradigm whose “pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes,” he echoes Muir and Taoism. When he observes that “Our efforts...will be inadequate and ineffectual unless we strive to promote a new way of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature,” it is Muir and Taoism to which he unknowingly points.

Journalist Naomi Klein, perhaps the most thoughtful analyst of our modern dilemma, comes to the same conclusion as Pope Francis. In view of the overwhelming scientific consensus leading to the usually staid International Energy Agency’s 2011 conclusion that “quite simply, climate change has become an existential crisis for the human species,” Klein is persuaded that “fundamentally, the task is to articulate ... an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis.”

No need to conjure this saving “alternative worldview” from raw material, though; it exists already, in cultures West and East, in two distinct versions of an earth-centered, immanent philosophy focused on the here and now of our experiences in life.

In the West, Muir’s Earth Wisdom was distilled from his seven decades amongst mountains, glaciers, tycoons and presidents. His worldview is concrete and practical, resting upon what we may posit as three pillars that Muir saw as fundamental to the way the world works. First, the earth itself is our proper focus, and provides all we need. Second, all creatures on the planet are related in kinship, with humans but one part of the whole—a Gaiacentric stance replacing the traditional anthropocentric one. And third, females and the traits of cooperation, acceptance, and nurturing have critical roles to play in human society, a reflection of the complementary dualism intrinsic throughout the natural world.

In the East, this immanent outlook emerged two thousand years ago in the Taoist tradition. Though not hidden, as Muir’s Western version, Taoism has been relegated to the margins of society, branded as superstition, and only grudgingly tolerated by the urban elite imposing their rule over the people of the culture, then as now. Even so, the various strands of the Taoist tradition have developed a rich, all-encompassing worldview over many centuries. And this Eastern version of Earth Wisdom is strikingly similar to that discovered by Muir only a century ago in the West, marked especially by its recognition of the dualism inherent in reality, the yin and the yang of the world.

Muir’s second legacy is the worldwide environmental movement, of which he is the acknowledged father. The movement has grown and diversified these hundred years, and saved much of the natural world from commercial exploitation—yet its best efforts to meet the challenges of climate change have faltered. Even the December 2015 UN climate summit, widely hailed as the first of twenty-one such to achieve meaningful results, is acknowledged as failing to rescue human civilization without many more hard-fought changes.

It is now time for the hidden Muir to come fully into its own, for Earth Wisdom to partner with other immanent worldviews—China’s Taoism, science’s Darwinism, indigenous peoples’ cosmologies, immanent strands of existing religions—to re-energize Muir’s two legacies into an irresistible, worldwide mass movement transforming societies and economies, rescuing humanity from the modern Four Horsemen it has unleashed by climate change.

Join me, then, in a voyage of discovery. We shall begin with Muir, on a selection of his daunting rambles, from the post-Civil-War South, to the Sierra Nevada mountains, to Alaska’s glaciers. His resulting worldview of Earth Wisdom with its three pillars will be explored. We’ll delve into the Tao of Muir, the striking similarities between Muir’s Earth Wisdom and the Taoism of ancient China. Then the century-long saga of Earth Wisdom’s imperfect and patchy application by the environmental movement is considered. We follow its splits and rebels, its traitors and heroes, its successes and failures, from the tragic battle for the Hetch Hetchy Valley in 1913, to 2015’s United Nations conference in Paris grappling with the implacable issue of climate change.

Finally, we look at what Earth Wisdom tasks us to accomplish now, and promptly, to resolve the looming threat to human civilization, including the roles to be played by city planners, economists, politicians, and environmentalists. Organized religion, surprisingly, has a part to play, if it can find theological and communal ways to incorporate Earth Wisdom’s earth-centered outlook into its traditions.

Our story begins in 1867, as the young John Muir shoulders his plant press and a rucksack containing the New Testament, Robbie Burns’ Poetry, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. In long-legged strides he crosses a bridge over the Ohio River from Indiana to Kentucky, and begins a walk of a thousand miles through the war-ravaged South to the Gulf of Mexico. The walk will change Muir’s life—and that of his adopted homeland, as well.