by Paul Willis, Professor of English
Last fall my wife and I lost our home in a California wildfire. Then, in the spring, we got the call in the middle of the night that all parents dread; minutes later we were in the emergency room at our local hospital, our son before us in a coma, his forehead crushed in an auto accident. Thanks to the healing hand of God, our son survived and is almost back to normal. And our house is being rebuilt in good time. What my wife and I have found, however, now that summer has just begun, is that it is we ourselves who are still in need of repair.
So it was that over the solstice we made a trip to Yosemite, the place where we first met. Backpacking into our first night’s campsite, I fell into the first creek and Sharon fell into the second. Somehow that didn’t matter. We were getting old, and out of practice, but we were in Yosemite, and we set up our tent under Jeffrey pines at the base of a sloping, sandy meadow that reached up and away to a shining cluster of granite domes. The next day we broke out the rope and climbed the highest we could see, and the day after that we hiked to a summit farther afield and from its spine admired the rocky sprawl of the Sierra Nevada, “gazing afar,” as John Muir put it, “over domes and peaks, lakes and woods, and the billowy glaciated fields.”
What we noticed was, we were happy again. Our anxieties and irritations had fallen away, and we felt grateful to be in the presence of one another in this good place. Not incidentally, this was just as John Muir, the patron saint of Yosemite, had predicted over a century ago: “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
Muir seems to be on to something, as my wife and I can and do testify from our own experience. The question for Christians, I suppose, is whether these “good tidings” so near and dear to John Muir’s heart have anything to do with the good news of the gospel. Is “nature’s peace” that which passes understanding or just some sort of pagan bliss? Why go to Yosemite when we could have been attending a Focus-on-the-Family marriage renewal seminar in some respectable hotel ballroom?
The answers to these questions about John Muir’s core beliefs are complicated. To guess at them we must briefly look at the family he came from, the mentors he found, and the life he chose.
Muir was born in 1838 in Dunbar, Scotland, the son of a reasonably prosperous grain merchant. His father, Daniel, ran the family with military discipline and evangelical zeal. Already the member of a local dissenting congregation, Daniel Muir became attracted to the newly formed Disciples of Christ, who wished to dispense with clergy altogether. At the urging of this group he took his family to Wisconsin in 1849 and broke ground on a farm north of Madison. From age 12, John Muir, the oldest son, labored from dawn to dark at the plow while his father traveled the region as a lay preacher. The farm was to support this ministry, no questions asked. The family was reduced to one vegetarian meal a day, and no reading material was allowed outside of the Bible. John Muir was made to memorize all of the New Testament and much of the Old. An inventive young man, when he displayed an “early rising machine” at the state fair (a contraption that literally catapulted the unfortunate sleeper out of bed), his father wrote him a long letter on the sin of vanity. When the son showed interest in being a naturalist, the father insisted that the study of geology was blasphemous, and botany almost as wicked. By the time John Muir left home at age 22 for the University of Wisconsin, he and his father were at implacable odds.
At the university he found mentors who approved of his interest in natural history and demonstrated ways to yoke the spiritual with the scientific. One faculty couple in particular, Ezra and Jeanne Carr, disciples and friends of Ralph Waldo Emerson, took Muir under their wing. (Later, when Muir came to Yosemite and the Carrs to the University of California in Berkeley, they would be responsible for connecting him to the wider world.) Muir found Emerson’s Transcendentalism appealing; the feeling and idea of a soul that inhabits and unites both nature and humanity healed the rift between world and spirit created and enforced by his father. But Emerson and Thoreau took their measures of nature in small, civilized doses; for Muir, immersion in the actual wild became an article of faith.
After three years in Madison, Muir began a series of wanderings above the Great Lakes, probably to avoid the draft in the Civil War. He worked in a Canadian sawmill, then after the war was employed at a carriage-wheel factory in Indianapolis. In both establishments he refined the machinery in ingenious ways that greatly increased production. But an accident at the carriage factory changed his life. The slip of a file pierced his eye, and he lay blinded for a month. When he began to recover, he gave notice and embarked on a thousand-mile walk to the Gulf. “I might have become a millionaire,” he later said, “but I chose to become a tramp.” When someone asked him what he was doing on this ramble, he replied that he was following the advice of Christ to “consider the lilies.”
From the Gulf Coast he made his way to California in 1868, where he remained for the rest of his life. He soon became a resident of Yosemite, and sang its praises in a way that the rest of the world came to hear—enough so that it became a national park in 1890, two years before John Muir founded the Sierra Club. Like his father, he had the temperament of an evangelist. The language he uses to describe the Sierra Nevada is biblical and ebullient. In his classic work My First Summer in the Sierra (1911), he speaks of “glorious conversion,” “old bondage days,” “newness of life,” and prays to do “Godful work . . . in so holy a wilderness.” Is this simply a rhetorical means to persuade a Christian audience to the cause of preservation? Or could it be that the faith of his abusive father never quite let go of him? While the first is a more logical explanation, the second may be the messier truth. I think of John Muir with one foot in Emerson’s Transcendentalism and one foot in what we would now call his father’s fundamentalism. The mixture is unconscious, potent, and at times rationally incoherent.
Do we, as Christians, need John Muir? I think we do. While we cannot follow him in regarding Nature itself as salvific, the passionate excesses of his thought and language and example are more than ever a necessary corrective to our suburban, mega-church separation from the wild. We are new creatures in Christ, but first and foremost we are creatures, in need of our fellow forest creatures and in need of all of God’s creation. My wife and I found that out all over again last week in Yosemite.
Next week is yours.
Works Cited and Consulted
Muir, John. My First Summer in the Sierra. Boston: Houghton, 1911.
___. A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf. Ed. William Frederic Bade. Boston: Houghton, 1916.
___. The Wilderness World of John Muir: A Selection from his Collected Work. Ed. Edwin Way Teale. Boston: Houghton, 1954.
Wolfe, Linnie Marsh. Son of the Wilderness: The Life of John Muir. New York: Knopf, 1945.
Worster, Donald. A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir. Oxford UP, 2008.