John Muir, nature's visionary

Choked in the sediments of society, so tired of the world, here will your hard doubts disappear ... and your soul breathe deep and free in God’s shoreless atmosphere of beauty and love.”— John Muir, 1903

The above quote was part of John Muir’s impassioned invitation to President Roosevelt and Vice President Howard Taft to join him in Yosemite to talk about preservation of the giant redwoods and the ecological wonders only John knew intimately. After camping there for two days, the Roosevelt administration created five national parks, 23 national monuments, and added more than 148 million acres of woodland to the national forest system. Muir also founded the Sierra Club, of which most of us are aware and some of us, members.

John Muir in 1907

Credit: - Francis M. Fritz

However, in my 20s I knew next to nothing about John Muir until I read the book, “Baptized Into Wilderness,” which is filled with many inspiring writings from his later years spent as a caretaker in Yosemite. How he managed to brilliantly overcome the trauma of living with his tyrannical father, a Scottish Calvinist minister of the worst sort who beat him daily, is nothing short of a miracle. As Muir wrote in his autobiography, “by the time I was 11 years of age I had about three-fourths of the Old Testament and all of the New by heart and by sore flesh.”

Fortunate to be nurtured by the love of his mother and sisters, and due to his fascination with nature and inventing, he grew into a strong young man, fully determined to make his own way in life once the family moved from Scotland to Wisconsin. Helping to clear land and create their homestead was no easy life, but in his free time, Muir invented all sorts of crazy things made from scraps of iron and wood. At age 22, he decided to show his inventions at the state fair in Madison and was a smash hit with his “early rising machine,” which tipped a person out of bed at an appointed hour. His father accused him of the sin of vanity.

He avoided the Civil War on the grounds of passivism while attending the University of Wisconsin, which he dropped out of after his sophomore year, little knowing that 34 years later he would receive an honorary degree, doctor of laws, from that same college. With a beard as bushy and long as any had seen, he headed to Canada on foot, botanizing along the way. The things of nature were always his first love.

After losing his sight due to a freak accident at a machinery factory, Muir gasped, “My right eye is gone! Closed forever on all God’s beauty.” His left eye also failed, leaving him blind. However, after endless nightmares and despair while convalescing in a darkened room, his vision slowly returned. Muir proclaimed, “Now I have risen from the grave,” and he forever shunned the work of factories. Instead, he took to further journeys on foot, with his plant press on his back, heading south to “anywhere in the wilderness” which took him through the Appalachian Mountains and swamps of Georgia. He sketched and journaled and pressed plants along the way.

That first long walk of 1,000 miles took him to Florida, along the Gulf of Mexico. However, his longest journey by foot, which he called “my grand sabbath day three years long” drew him West, climbing Mount Rainier, exploring glaciers in Alaska, and ultimately settling in the California Sierras. It was there that he wrote his most inspiring words, describing the beauty and wonder of the plant life, the animals, the boulders, the sequoias, and of experiencing ecstatic moments at the top of a tree during a hurricane. He proclaimed his reverence for all life forms, becoming a “voice for the voiceless” as he worked to convince others of the need to preserve as much of the untouched purity of the natural world as possible.

Muir’s invitation to go out and become “steeped in the wonder of creation” was not only for people back then. It is still an invitation to us all today. My own life has been shaped by Muir and many other voices for the voiceless; that is how I have come to write of my own passions to preserve and enhance wild places, allowing even more habitat on our properties and in our backyards.

Fortunately for us, there is a monthly meeting of Catoctin chapter of the Sierra Club at our library in Thurmont. Do come join us as we work on a variety of projects to help preserve the goodness of our planet for generations to come. With John Muir’s vision as our inspiration, we can make progress in spite of adversities.

Article by Christine Maccabee, Master Naturalist

Nature Note for 10/16/2016