Of nature, books, and our inheritance of friendships

Robert Cotner

ore places in California bear the name John Muir (1838-1914) than that of any other person. Such a tribute to this Scotsman, who, as his daughter wrote, was Scotland's gift to America, 1 is both appropriate and fitting.

It was Muir who, as an individual and the first president of the Sierra Club (from 1892 until 1914), quite literally gave us the inheritance of our National Parks. It was Muir who saved the Grand Canyon of Arizona and the giant Sequoias of California. It was Muir who, in his last major campaign, was unable to save the Hetch Hetchy Valley from flooding to create a reservoir. In his defeat, Frederick Turner observed, "we are best able to see the measure of his heroism." 2

Turner elaborated on his view of Muir's heroism and on heroism in general: "To enter history, to act in our world, to attempt translation of the untranslatable: this is to accept the inevitability of defeat. And still the hero tries, must try, and so must fall."3 Walking closely in the footsteps of Emerson and Thoreau, Muir elaborated on their Transcendental ideas and made permanent so many of the pristine natural habitats of the North American continent. He led the way for later generations of naturalists, including John Burroughs, Edwin Way Teale, Loren Eiseley, and others.

Muir's willingness to act "beyond self-interest and self-preservation, to bear witness, to defend the undefended and indeed the indefensible"4 was the driving force of his life and his accomplishments, as Turner says so well. These qualities define his heroism, age upon age.

In 1867, when he was but 29 years old, Muir took his famed—some have called it "epic" 5—1,000-mile walk from Indianapolis, Indiana, to Cedar Key, Florida, in less than two months. As he walked, he studied the flora and fauna of the land in the central region of the US. His record is an important history of the ecology of a land that would so dramatically change with the coming of settlers across the mountains.

But it was his work in California, beginning in 1869, for which he is best known and which impacted so greatly other regions of America. In the summer of 1869, carrying a copy of Emerson's Essays, Muir became a shepherd for an Irishman named Mr. Delaney, and herded more than 2,000 sheep up the steep slopes of the Sierra Nevada range in central California. He wrote of that experience in My First Summer in the Sierra. Teale observed that a great parallel exists between Muir's book and Thoreau's Walden. Both, he said, are "young men's books, filled with the strength and courage of youth."6 Muir was, however, of all the great naturalists who wrote, the "wildest, the most active, the most at home in the wilderness, the most daring, the most capable, the most self-reliant."7

One sees this wild but extraordinarily literate naturalist at his best in My First Summer in the Sierra. The book is a delightful daily record of his summer—from June 3 to September 22—of 1869. He saw the vast natural setting of the Sierras as a book and hoped, someday, to be wise enough to read with intelligence these "divine symbols crowded together on this wondrous page."8 He longed to become a fixture in the landscape himself: "Wish I could live, like these junipers, on sunshine and snow, and stand beside them on the shore of Lake Tenaya for a thousand years. How much I should see, and how delightful it would be!"9

He encompassed in his vision a remarkable wholeness in the family of nature: "Wrote to my mother and a few friends, mountain hints to each. They seem as near as if within voice-reach or touch. The deeper the solitude, the less the sense of loneliness, and the nearer our friends. Now bread and tea, fir bed and good-night to Carlo [his St. Bernard shepherding companion], a look at the sky lilies, and death sleep until the dawn of another Sierra tomorrow."10

He had the eye of an artist and the pen of a poet. Particularly sensitive to the subtle colors of the sky, forest, and mountains, he described one scene in this fashion: "Glorious pearly cumuli tinted with purple of ineffable fineness of tone."11 In another observation, he wrote, "How deeply with beauty is beauty overlaid!"12 He created a miniature essay in a paragraph of more than a page in length around this topic sentence: "How interesting to trace the history Of a single raindrop!"13 But it is his attention to the minutest details of the flora and fauna of the mountains that is most amazing. He names and describes hundreds of plants and animals in his sojourns, and we share our own personal affinity with nature through the genius of this master naturalist who left his gentle beneficence in books.

On August 2 he was sketching the North Dome in the Yosemite range when he "was suddenly, and without warning, possessed with the notion that my friend, Professor J.D. Butler, of the State University of Wisconsin, was below me in the valley." This premonition of the presence of his Greek and Latin professor, the most important influence in his college days, was so powerful that he left at once and proceeded down the mountain to the hotel in the valley. Upon arriving the next day, he found that "last evening's telepathy, transcendental revelation, or whatever else it may be called, was true." The two men had a delightful reunion in the wilderness.14

Muir's most significant visitor in the early years, however, was Ralph Waldo Emerson, in 1871. Carlos Baker's biography of Emerson gave the best detail of the arrangements of the visit of the 68-year-old Emerson to the 32-year-old Muir. Traveling by train from Boston, Emerson's party of 12 persons came to Chicago, where George Pullman arranged for the group to board a "well-stocked private Pullman car, the Huron,"15 and travel west. They stopped in Salt Lake City to meet Brigham Young, the Mormon president, and then went on to San Francisco, where they stayed in the Occidental Hotel. Emerson spoke four times in San Francisco before departing with his group, traveling by train, wagon, and horseback into the central valley and the foothills of the Sierras. Hearing of Emerson's presence in California, Muir invited Emerson to visit him. Emerson accepted the invitation, went to the sawmill, which Muir was tending at the time, and then made a rugged but "consummately beautiful" 25-mile ride to see the giant Sequoias of the Sierras.16

Muir himself wrote of Emerson's visit: "of all men he would best interpret the sayings of these noble mountains and trees."17 Finding Emerson, "as serene as a Sequoia" Muir proposed an "immeasurable camping trip back in the heart of the mountains." Emerson seemed ready to go, but members of his party, "full of indoor philosophy," Muir noted, prohibited Emerson's going, for his own health and safety. So after only five "tourist days in Yosemite he was led away." Muir proposed an overnight camping trip for Emerson, and he "consented heartily." But Emerson's companions, fearing their leader might take cold in the night air, declined on his behalf. "You don't catch colds from the night air but from houses and hotels," Muir replied, but to no avail.

Disheartened that the person who had been such great inspiration for his own work was protected by the "house habit" of his companions, Muir watched as the group descended on horseback, leaving Muir standing at his campsite. He described his last view of the great man: "Emerson lingered in the rear of the train, and when he reached the top of the ridge, after all the rest of the party were over and out of sight, he turned his horse, took off his hat and waved me a last good-bye. I felt lonely, so sure had I been that Emerson of all men would be the quickest to see the mountains and sing them."18

But it was Muir who assumed the mantle of leadership, who took the theories of the great Transcendentalists and put the power of legislation to them, who sang the mountains in rich, dense poetry, creating a new testament for the vast land called America. This has been the inheritance of John Muir, a legacy touching the life of every American. And through his books, he stands, like the junipers in the high Sierras he cherished, as companion and friend of all who love Creation. v


1 Shirley Sargent, John Muir in Yosemite, Yosemite, CA: Flying Spur Press. 1971, p. 7.

2 Frederick Turner, "Foreword," John Muir, My First Simmer in the Sierra, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988, p. xvi.

3 Turner, p. xvi.

4 Turner, p. xvii.

5 John Earl, John Muir's Longest Walk, Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1975, p. 9.

6 Edwin Way Teale, ed., John Muir, The Wilderness World of John Muir, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1982, p.106.

7 Teale, p. xi.

8 Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra, p. 104.

9 Muir, p. 115.

10 Muir, p. 93.

11 Muir, p. 142.

12 Muir, p. 89.

13 Muir, p. 87.

14 Muir, pp. 124-135. In a chapter entitled, "A Strange Experience," Muir details this meeting with Prof. Butler.

15 Carlos Baker, Emerson Among the Eccentrics, New York: Viking, 1996, p. 488.

16 Baker, pp. 490-491.

17 Muir, "Emerson at Yosemite," Teale, p.162.

18 Muir, "Emerson at Yosemite," Teale, p. 165. This essay was first published in Our National Parks.

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John Muir

John Muir—a self-portrait. (From "John Muir Exhibit," Sierra Club website.)

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