You may as I have- seen on TV at one time or another the
biography of John Muir, the great environmentalist. Anyone
who truly appreciates what this extroardinary man did to
preserve so much wilderness and v irgin forests for posterity
will always hold him in great esteem. And. of course, what
better time to remind ourselves of his great achievments
than during April's Earth Week.
I loved watching his life unfold in that documentary and was
even surpised to learn that he was a married man. He married
a Polish woman, a nd he even managed the family's orchard
business for a time -bringing it to profitibility. But when
it became evident to his understanding wife that he needed to
reconnect with raw nature again, she sent him "packing" and
on his way. How lucky for him and us that he had such an
understanding wife. Sadly, she would not outlive him, and
she died at a comparatively young age.
I was happy to be reminded of him again in this month's April
Guidepost. Linda Lawrence Hunt's article entitled "The Wild
Places" with the subtitle - "Walking in the footsteps of an
American naturalist" did not disappoint, and indeed, I l earned
much more about him in this well-written article.
In college Muir had studied botany but believed that his love
of nature could only be a hobby. So he pursued a career as a
machinist and an inventor. Finding a job in a machine shop
however, would lead to a defining moment for him and change the
course of his life forever.
One evening when working on tightening a new belt drive, sharp
filings sprang up and blinded him in his right eye. Shortly
thereafter, he lost sight in his left eye as well. Now he feared
being "closed forever on all God's beauty." I realized then that
he must have been a religious person because he did not say -
"nature's" beauty but rather "God's " attributing all that he
saw in nature to God's creative hand.
Happily for him this bout with blindness would be short-lived,
and he would completely recover his sight in both eyes. With
his eyessight restored, he wrote - "It felt like a resurrection"
and he was now determined "to leave his inventions behind and
devote the rest of his life to the study of the inventions of
God." A beautiful quest, and it would have God's blessing.
In her post, Linda and her husband Jim relate their experience in
trying to retrace Muir's travels. I will "follow" them here too,
but basically my onus will be on his wonderful reflections of God
in nature. He would often find an appropriate Biblical reference
to his thoughts on nature. And so began his 1,000 mile journey
from Kentucky to Florida at the age of 29.
Muir start his historic trek in LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY. The first
thing he did was to draw a pen- and -sketch of himself - a young
bearded man kneeling at the base of a large oak tree -peering
over his fold-out pocket map which was spread out before him.
He also carried a light rucksack, a plant press, and several
books which included the New Testment and a journal.
Though obviouly not a church-going Christian, it was evident that
he found God daily in the beauties of nature. In his journal he
wrote that he was led by the Spirit and during his daily 18-20
mile walks he rejoiced in the "splendid vision of pines and palms
and tropical flowers in glorious array, not however without a few
cold shadows of loneliness."
The author also includes a beautiful picture of a flowering crab
apple tree in Kentucky-noting that Muir had found it a 'bit of
heaven.' Obviously, nothing of beauty -however simple and ordinary
would escape Muir's perceptive eyes and his deep appreciation of
Next his journey takes him through the Cumberland Mountains in
TENNESSEE. It was here that when hungry, Muir meets a black-s mith
farmer who gives him a simple meal of cornbread and bacon. When
the farmer asked him what he was doing there, Muir told him he was
looking at plants. The farmer asked him what kind. Muir replied-
"Grass, weeds, flowers, trees, mosses, ferns, almost anything that
grows is of interest to me."
The farmer was not impressed, and told him that picking up blossoms
didn't seem to be a man's work. Muir was ready with a reply. In
the Bible it was said that King Solomon had studied and collected
plants, and even Jesus urged his disciples to "consider the lilies
of the field." He asked the farmer whose advice should he take,
his or Christ's?
Being 1867 and after days of passing through the Tennessee war-
ravaged countryside, it was with great relief to Muir that he found
the Hiwassee River. Of it he wrote; "Every ripple and eddy of this
lovely stream seemed solemnly to feel the presence of the great
Creator." For Muir nature was a place of refuge and sustenance
especially for anyone who had seen what horrors man could do to
man in war.
His next destination- SAVANNAH, GEORGIA found him with only three
dollars in his pocket. He went straightway to the express office
hoping to find a package from his brother with $75 in it. No,
nothing. He was unable to find work or afford lodging. He then
decided to walk 5 miles to the Bonaventure Cemetery where he
erected a makeshift shelter under some sparkleberry bushes.
Spanish moss and palm fronds would make do for his bed.
For 5 days- even though faint with hunger, Muir made the trek to
the express office, and finally one day, it had arrived. As for
his time spent in the cemetery, he felt that it had been a place
of comntemplation. He wrote in his journal that he woke to the
sound of rippling water and the songs of birds and the buzz of
insects. He alo noted that "The union of life and death (is) so
apparent in nature's house and how fine the song it sings." For
him- the author concludes -life and death were a part of an
immutable natural process, linked in a divine harmony.
Now with the money his brother sent, he was able to purchase a
steamship ticket to FERNADINA, FLORIDA. Maybe this part of his
journey was something like a culture shock to him. Walking through
the swamps and forest- heading to Florida's west coast, everything
seemed strange and different to him. One time -lunging through
brackish water, he heard a rustle which made him step back in
fear. He thought it was an alligator and wrote: "I fancied I
would feel the stroke of his long notched tail and could see his
big jaws and rows of teeth closing with a springy snap on me."
How relieved he was to find instead a beautiful white crane and
he thought nature can be as divine as it can be dangerous. It can
hurt as much as it can heal.
Reaching Cedar Keys, he was struck down with malaria. He managed
to stagger to the bunkhouse of a lumber mill where he fell at the
foot of the stairs. The mill owners took him in and nursed him
back to health with quinine and calomel.
It took him three months to convalesce, but during this time he
realized that his earlier view of what he had encountered was naive.
His natural paradise could also be dangerous. Humans could be
eaten by alligators or poisoned by certain plants. One could
drown in a vast swamp or be felled by a debilitating disease as
Re realized now that his natural paradise could also be dangerous,
and it was presumptuous to think that the world was made especially
for man. Nor was nature just a warehouse of resources for human
use. Now he realized as he write "All things are hitched together.
Plants and animals were an equal part of creation with their own
reasons for existing. God's intention was the happiness of each
of his creations, down to the simplest flower or the smallest
microbe. Even the alligator was a creature of God's, not of the
Devil's as was commonly believed back then. Only God could create
the world and everything in it."
Per Jim Hunt, the journey changed Muir profoundly. Humbled by his
own limits and still recovering from malaria, Muir abandanded his
original plan of going to South America. Instead he traveled to
the dryer and milder climate of Yosemite Valley where he found his
And there for the next 30 years he wrote about the need to preserve
our wilderness and the places where people could find inspiration
John Muir had realized through all his adventures that "Nothing can
take the place of absolute contact, of seeing and feeding at God's
table for oneself. Our souls need wild places." Yes, we all need to
apreciate beautiful places which we can find no matter where we live.
He taught us how - the rest is up to us.