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John Muir authored sixteen books and countless articles. His most enduring legacy may be found in literature.
For this gift, I would turn to him on the trail and thank him. His voice, often rhapsodic and, at times, ecstatic, was urgent in his resounding call for wilderness protection.
He believed in geology and the language of glaciers. He fought against the damming of the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite, and lost, having to endure the flooding of ‘his temple’. Even so, his grief was borne through the endless wells of solace, in his own ground truthing of the Tuolumne Meadows.
His words survive him. “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.”
John Muir knew the world from the soles of his feet upward. “All the world seems a church and the mountains altars”, he wrote. Nothing exists in isolation. Nature is holy. The naturalist gleaned his spirituality in part from the great sequoias:
It took more than three thousand years to make some of the oldest of the Sequoias – trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty forests of the Sierra.
Through all the eventful centuries since Christ’s time, and long before that, God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand storms; but he cannot save them from sawmills and fools.
‘A clarion call for wilderness in the future’
Muir speaks in direct language with an eye toward politics. Here we can both see the remnants of religiosity of John Muir’s upbringing where his father, Daniel, was an ardent preacher for the Disciples of Christ (which Muir strongly rejected) and his own brand of mysticism, where he recognized a world animated by the spirit of creation.
He thus deeply understood that the world is interconnected and interrelated, that our evolution as a species, physically and spiritually, does not go unnoticed by the universe around us. And yet, despite his intimate knowledge of these things, Muir could not have predicted the future.
His vantage point on the flanks of Mount Ritter in 1872, the same year Yellowstone became America’s first national park, could not have prepared him for the scale of changes piled on to the Earth by modernity from his era to ours – neither Muir nor God could save the Earth from ‘fools’.
And how could he ever have imagined our present appetite of an expanding global population and the carbon load now weighing heavy on all of us?
We don’t need to denounce John Muir’s legacy, as some critics have suggested, believing his vision belongs to a privileged, sexist, racist white man of the early twentieth century. We need to broaden it. We need to deepen Muir’s ethos of the wild and expand our thinking about how environmental issues and social issues must be seen as issues of justice in a world increasingly weighted toward the advantage of the privileged.
Muir’s call for wilderness in the past may become a clarion call for wilderness in the future, one on which our survival as a species rests. We now know that if we are to ensure a livable future for our children and their children, we must keep close to 80 percent of all remaining fossil fuels in the ground.
This means keeping the public in our public lands where America’s protected wilderness is found.
Dances with trees
Detractors of wilderness in the past few decades have said, ‘Wilderness has become irrelevant before it has become resolved’ – suggesting the protection of wilderness no longer matters because wilderness itself is a human construct.
But with the era of climate change upon us, we are now recognizing that many of our most valuable carbon banks beneath the ground, insurance policies for the future, are found within our protected wilderness areas, national parks, and refuges. Protecting our public lands has taken on an added layer of urgency and import. These open spaces are also reservoirs for our spirit, where awe and majesty are fueled.
I like to imagine John Muir in conversation with the eminent biologist E. O. Wilson. Oh, how I would love to eavesdrop on the two of them discussing Wilson’s Half-Earth Theory, the overwhelming evidence that our capacity to flourish as a species is in direct relationship to leaving half of the Earth in a state of wildness.
When I first read John Muir’s description of climbing a conifer during a snowstorm and riding its top while all around him windblown trees crashed to the forest floor, I wanted to love and live that passionately in the world.
After cautiously casting about, I made choice of the tallest of a group of Douglas Spruces that were growing close together like a tuft of grass, no one of which seemed likely to fall unless all the rest fell with it. Though comparatively young, they were about 100 feet high, and their lithe, brushy tops were rocking and swirling in wild ecstasy.
Being accustomed to climb trees in making botanical studies, I experienced no difficulty in reaching the top of this one, and never before did I enjoy so noble an exhilaration of motion. The slender tops fairly flapped and swished in the passionate torrent, bending and swirling backward and forward, round and round, tracing indescribable combinations of vertical and horizontal curves, while I clung with muscles firm braced, like a bobolink on a reed.
A thousand bright Ambassadors of morning
Awe defines John Muir. Perhaps it began for him in 1863, sitting beneath a black locust tree on the Wisconsin University campus where he was a student. His friend Griswold showed him a flower from that tree and told him it belonged to the pea family.
“But how can that be”, Muir recounted in The Story of My Boyhood Home and Youth, “when the pea is a weak, clinging, straggling herb, and the locust is a big, thorny hardwood tree?” This insight stabbed deeply into Muir’s consciousness and changed the course of his life. “This fine lesson charmed me and sent me flying to the woods and meadows in wild enthusiasm.”
Griswold’s “fine lesson” also injected him with a case of wanderlust rarely seen since. He walked a thousand miles from Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico. He sailed to Cuba and from there to Panama, where he crossed the isthmus and sailed up the west coast of the continent to San Francisco. He walked across the San Joaquin Valley and first glimpsed the “Mighty Sierra”:
“Then it seemed to me the Sierra should be called not the Nevada or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light. And after ten years spent in the heart of it, rejoicing and wondering, bathing in its glorious floods of light, seeing the sunbursts of morning among the icy peaks, the noonday radiance on the trees and rocks and snow, the flush of the alpenglow, and a thousand dashing waterfalls with their marvellous abundance of irised spray, it still seems above all others the Range of Light.”
Along with the locust and the pea, this journey opened wide the lens through which he experienced the world. Muir both believed in God’s creation and supported Darwin’s theory of evolution. According to historian Terry Gifford in his book, Reconnecting with John Muir :
“The awe with which Muir viewed every part of the natural world – floods and storms as much as anything else – was intended in his writings to induce respect, humility, and, ultimately, conservation.”
It became his bridge between seemingly opposing banks of thought.
Everything must go!
In the nineteenth century, the American West was on the verge of selling itself to the highest bidder, and I believe we stand at this threshold again today. Only, now, there is so much more at stake – the very health and wealth of the planet.
John Muir and the community that surrounded him, including President Theodore Roosevelt, stopped this wholesale destruction of wild America through brave acts of conservation, be it the creation of the National Park Service or the importance of wild words on the page, which showed us that wilderness everywhere matters not only to the human spirit, but to life itself in all its evolutionary processes.
We are not the only species that lives and loves and breathes on this planet. Earth is terrain of transformation: dynamic, indifferent, and acutely personal. By that I mean a mountain stands its ground, regardless of whether we choose to approach it; but as John Muir has shown us repeatedly, if we do approach the mountain, it is we who are moved.
Awe, I believe, set Muir apart during his lifetime. Awe is his currency today.
May the words between these covers reach us now and inspire another generation to fall in love with wild nature, to care for it, to know that wilderness is not optional but central to our survival in the centuries to come.
May Muir’s writing remind us how to embrace this beautiful, broken world once again with an open heart, especially in the midst of what we stand to lose as temperatures rise.
And may the planetary consciousness John Muir found in all life – from the wonder of a pea plant to the grandeur of great rivers of ice, now receding glaciers – inspire us to engage in the great work of ecstatic observation, relentless wandering, and joyous-fierce actions on behalf of the Earth. May we use our own curiosity as a compass.
With this reader in hand, we have a map. John Muir walks with us.
This article is an extract from the introduction to ‘Selected Writings by John Muir‘ edited by Terry Tempest Williams.
The book ‘Selected Writings by John Muir‘ is published by Everyman’s Library and is out now.