A year or two ago I launched a Twitter stream devoted to the thoughts of a hero of mine, John Muir, believing that no one better inspires a person to explore nature.
To be honest, found myself overwhelmed by life and dropped that thread for a while, only to pick up my current edition of Sierra magazine and find that the executive director of the Sierra Club writing a column about how if Muir were alive today, he'd be tweeting. In a piece headlined "Muir tweets."
Muir's newspaper and magazine articles described and exalted wilderness and opened the eyes of the American people to its value. Those short pieces, together with the detailed journals he kept during his travels, formed the basis for the books he wrote later in his life (he didn't publish his first one until he was 56). Muir had a gift for distilling profound thoughts into short sound bites. Sample "tweet": "None of Nature's landscapes are ugly so long as they are wild."
Well, in an Emersonian sense, Muir still is alive, and here's a tweet to prove it:
Warm and bright, the valley was spanned by fibrous bows of white cloud, heated masses of air from currentless ovens of chambered and bushy rocks lifted by newborn winds and bourne whole or in fragments about the open gulf of the valley...the richness of the light of these days recalls our best mellow autumns and springs.
After a few years in the Sierra, encouraged by friends, in the 1870's John Muir quit his job running a sawmill in Yosemite Valley and began to explore the Sierra mountains in earnest. At the same time he began to take scraps of paper along with him on his forays into the higher elevations, and writing down his thoughts by the campfire.
In one observation, still unpublished* Muir wrote:
Science never saw a ghost, nor does it ever look for any, but it sees everywhere the traces of a universal intelligence.
It's the "nor does it ever look for any" in that quote that echoes in my mind.
Is this scientific idealism he speaks of, or scientific blindness?
*John Muir's Transcendental Imagery, by Richard Fleck, in "John Muir: Life and Work," ed. by Sally Miller, University of New Mexico Press, l990, Albuquerque
Back in 1838 on this day, John Muir was born. He remains the most quotable of all environmentalists, and as the years go by, it's fascinating to see how his quotes take on new dimensions.
One of the most important of all his thoughts, sez me, is a simple question with no answer, about the Sierra and nature and death and immortality, from his journals in August of 1875:
We read our Bibles and remain fearful and uncomfortable amid Nature's loving destructions, her beautiful deaths. Talk of immortality! After a whole day in the woods, we are already immortal. When is the end of such a day!
As is so often the case with Muir, this is not a thoroughly worked-out essay, but a jotting in his notebook while in the mountains. Maybe it's not a coincidence that because he was inspired directly by the Sierra, the way a painter is inspired by a landscape, that his thoughts continues to set the imagination of other people afire, and inspire yet more trips to the Sierra, in search of the same inspiration.
Muir's belief in the "good practical immortality" of the Sierra, in other words, led to a good practical immortality for Muir himself. His selflessness helped make him part of the Sierra, forever...and he would, I have no doubt, rather I honor his inspiration than the man, even on his birthday.
In that spirit, he's a pic from one of the great Sierra photographers of today, Buck Forester, who shoots on film, and does not manipulate his image except with lens filters...and also selflessly encourages sharing. Thanks Buck! Here's the Pioneer Basin in the John Muir Wilderness...
Here it is April 21st, John Muir's birthday, and here is a quote from Muir's notebooks about another great Scot's birthday, Robert Burns. Like nearly all Scots, Muir was a huge admirer of Burns, and on his birthday in l906, wrote a long appreciation of him. Here's the part I want to highlight, from the great "John of the Mountains," his unpublished journals, put out by biography Linnie Wolfe in l938:
The man of science, the naturalist, too often loses sight of the essential oneness of all living beings in seeking to classify them in kingdoms, orders, families, genera, species, etc., taking note of the kind and arrangement of limbs, teeth, toes, scales, hair, feathers, etc., measured and set forth in meters, centimenters, and millimeters, while the eye of the Poet, the Seer, never closes on the kindship of all God's creatures, and his heart ever beats in sympathy with great and small alike as "earth-born companions and fellow mortals" equally dependent on Heaven's eternal love.
And that's the glory of Muir, who despite his remarkable scientific achievements, never lost sight of the "wee, helpless things," including the field mouse; the sheep, the cattle, the wounded hare, the "unfortunate daisy." The vastness of his love became the vastness of the landscape he loved, as in this picture of the Muir Pass from Yodod, looking back towards Lake MacDermand. Still miss you, Johnny.
I'll never meet you, but I feel I know you pretty well. I've followed you in your books up some of your trails. I've gone out of the city and up into the mountains and I've seen some of what you found up there.
Today especially I won't forget you. Sometimes you said you felt closer to absent friends when away even than when in your company, and sometimes I feel closer to you perhaps than I should.
I'm not alone, of course. Activists, botanists, conservationists, the makers of the national parks, nature lovers and poets and writers from around the world--everyone who knows the Sierras knows you, and many of them know the mountains because of you.
Even as a write, two more of your admirers are following your first great California walk, from San Francisco to the Sierras, the lucky bums.
I shall be quietly content for now to be what another of your admirers, Waldo Emerson, called "an unknown friend."
You always had a way of asking questions, John. Even before we had the words to describe some of your ideas, you asked us: why not?
"The hall and the theater and the church have been invented, and compulsory education. Why not compulsory recreation?" you wondered, back at the dawning of the age of the outdoor recreation industry. This concept has been translated, dully, into what American schoolkids call "p.e." but some traces of your insistence on beauty and health still remain, in our hikes and parks and wilderness parks. "How hard to pull or shake people out of town!" you reminded us, again and again, in a thousand ways. "Earthquakes cannot do it," nor even plagues."
It's no better now, John, I write this in a virtual reality almost complete devoid of matter, and yet it pulls us all out of the natural, indoors, away from what you loved most.
Most of all this past month, after reading a book by a mountain scientist, "The Weather Makers," I've been thinking about a question you asked about the moutanins that often has been raised by others again, from Michael Cohen in "The Pathless Way," to Frederick Turner in "Rediscovering America." First published in l938, in a notebook you wrote sixty years earlier, you asked:
"I often wonder what man will do with the mountains--that is, with their utilizable, destructible garments. Will he cut down all the trees to make ships and houses? If so, what will be the final and far upshot? Will human destructions like those of Nature--fire and flood and avalanche--work out a higher good, a finer beauty?"
You distinguish between the earth--the rocks--and the life upon the rocks (what scientists call the biosphere). Even at our worst, you remind us, we're not likely to greatly imperil the earth itself.
Touchingly, with an idealist's openness to fate, you assume that if we destroy a tree, we will get some use out of it.
John, I must tell you the truth. I believe you would want it. You always wanted to see everything possible to see; storms, the tops of mountains, trees waving wildly in the wind, oceans, bears, dead and alive--nothing terrestrial was ever foreign to you. You first great find was a rare lily in a Canadian swamp far far beyond the reach of the maps of the time. You would want to know.
"The final and far upshot" of the fate of the mountains at the moment is not good.
Somehow, I suspect this won't surprise you.
"That anyone would try to destroy such a place seems incredible," you wrote of the Hetch-Hetchy Valley, before San Francisco and the Congress drowned it under a reservoir. "but sad experience shows that there are people good enough and bad enough for anything."
Of mountains around the world today, Australian scientist Tim Flannery writes in The Weather Makers:
"Nothing in predictive climate science is more certain than the extinction of many of the world's mountain-dwelling species. We can even foretell which will be the first to go. This high degree of scientific certainty comes from three factors. First, the effect of rising temperatures on mountain habitats is easily calculated, and past adjustments in response to warming are well documented. Second, the conditions that many mountain-dwelling species can tolerate are known. And finally, as the climate warms, mountains species have nowhere to go but up, and the height of mountain peaks worldwide has been precisely ascertained. Given the rate of warming, we can calculate the time to extinction of most mountain-dwelling species." (Chapter 18)
Not only will we destroy the mortal "garments" of the mountains, John, but not for any reason, but out of sheer carelessness.
For example, the Canadian Forest Service reports that "the largest insect epidemic ever to infect North America" is devastating British Columbia and is expected to spread east and possibly south.
The Washington Post reports that lumber mills are running "flat-out" right now but as soon as the "beetlewood" runs out, the mills are expected to close, and the small towns around them degrade. The epidemic is firmly linked to what we call global warming.
We've put ourselves in the soup, John, and turned up the heat. The glaciers you found in California and Alaska; well, we've burned through a half-billion years of summers heating our houses and driving our smoky cars and trucks and busses and boats and planes. They're shrinking from our touch. We've changed the look of the earth, the magnitude of our forests, strewn lines of clouds in the sky and pollutants in the seas, and now, inevitably, we've changed our atmosphere too.
But as I say, perhaps you wouldn't be too surprised. Once, as a young man, your father had you chip a well through stone eighty feet down, only to have you hit a pocket of "choke-damp."
We call it carbon dioxide. It nearly killed you.
It's not doing us much good, even at a mere 380 parts per million, though I guess the plants like it.
But you always were one to look for practical solutions--even invented a bed that would put a late sleeper on his feet in the morning. We're inventing anew, as well, perhaps we'll be able to work it out. And certainly some people find ways to live in harmony with this earth for some of their lives.
But this much I know: As soon as you came out of that poisoned well, as soon as you got back on your feet, you set out walking and you didn't come back.
You wanted to see all you could see of this "grand show" of ours, and by God you did.
In your honor, I'm taking the dogs and anyone else around here who chooses to go, and I'm going out for a sunset walk, to see again the vast sweetness of this world.
"I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in."
Happy 168th, John. I'll see you in the light between the mountains and the stars.