John Muir: my guy.
A month or so ago, I was walking around in nature and my friend asked something to the effect of “who’s your favorite nature writer?”—and I gave a lousy answer. I think I said something like “Hands down, Muir. Then probably Thoreau. Emerson, I don’t consider him a nature writer. Burroughs probably third then.”
In other words, I gave the lamest most literal answer to a perfectly reasonable question that I could possibly have given. But there’s a reason for that. I’m not used to being asked about my content area, first off, but that’s not my excuse. My excuse is that when I talk about Muir, two things tend to happen: I get emotional and I don’t shut up. At the particular moment I was asked the question, I evaluated the situation and determined it wouldn’t have been appropriate to dominate the conversation for the rest of our saunter. So the lame answer stood. (I have no problem being emotional—I’m Italian. It’s in my blood. I can get emotional over anything—ask me about pizza sometime and see.)
I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few weeks thinking about Muir. Not because my friend asked me about him, but because Muir is meaningful to me. He’s a comfort, even, in his complicated, stubborn, ethically-oriented, trouble-with-words sort of way. He reminds me that it’s cool to look for the divine and find it in nature, and to struggle with religion in general—but still to be good. I get him. He’s my guy.
And, like the best things in life have always been, we crossed paths completely by accident. You see, five or so years ago, in my MA program, I was going to write a seminar paper about Emerson. I was taking a walk with one of my profs (who works on Emerson; the paper was for her husband’s class, who is also down with RWE) and we both wondered how Emerson’s conception of nature changed after he visited California—because let’s face it, California nature is bigger than Concord nature, lovely though the latter may be. The answer to that question is “don’t really know, because it was late in his life and he wasn’t writing anything new, but he did think Muir was pretty great and did name a tree in Mariposa Grove.” So there’s that. When doing my research for that paper I focused on the young upstart who would later become the dude on the California Quarter.
That little seminar paper turned into my MA thesis, which was roughly organized into three sections: all Muir all the time, Emerson and Muir, and Thoreau and Muir. My argument was all about how Muir was Emerson’s ideal Transcendental naturalist, and not Thoreau, althugh Thoreau so desperately wanted to be and Muir couldn’t have cared less to carry that title. The most interesting aspects of that particular argument (if I do say so myself) include how Muir spent his entire adult life struggling to reconcile his Calvinist upbringing, Emersonian thought, and the divine natural spaces in which he lived. I’ve written other stuff that has far more to do with interesting textual studies things, and how Muir wrote Yosemite into being, despite his consideration of texts as “dead bone heaps of words,” but it’s really Muir’s personal theology that gets me—mostly because I struggle mightily with my own.
Depending on which Muir texts you read—letters, journals, edited journals, dispatches from the wilderness, solicited travel writing or propaganda pieces, or edited compilations of his periodical pieces—Muir comes across as a religious zealot, or a stubborn environmentalist, or a scientist, or a family man…or all of the above, or none of the above. Some people think he’s a crap writer, some people can’t imagine an environmental writing course without something by Muir in it. Like I said, the man was complicated, as were his relations with people. But it’s not the complication that intrigues me; it’s the honesty of the struggle, and the failures, and the continued attempt to move forward and make better all those in his sphere—visitors, government officials, scientists, preachers.
We almost lost Muir to a work accident when he was a youngster. As a kid, Muir labored under a bona fide religious zealot (his father), which in turn profoundly affected his personal relationship with God and organized religion. Treated like a workhorse for fifteen hours each day, 363 days out of the year, the young Muir retreated to stolen books read at candlelight in the wee hours—until his father chastised him for “his frivolous interest in any book besides the Good Book.” Muir recounts the incident in The Story of My Boyhood and Youth in which digging a well almost cost him his life (this will be important in a second):
I had to sit cramped in a space about three feet in diameter, and wearily chip, chip, with heavy hammer and chisels from early morning until dark, day after day, for weeks and months. […] One morning, after the dreary bore was about eighty feet deep, my life was all but lost in deadly choke-damp,—carbonic acid gas that had settled at the bottom during the night. When, after a day or two, I had recovered from the shock, father lowered me again to my work.
That he managed to develop a love of the outdoors after having to work hard and often in a treacherous natural space is one thing, but that he overcame his father’s oppressive conception of Christianity—one that brooked no religion of nature and in fact (in the elder Muir’s estimation) considered scientific studies and exploration of the natural world as downright sinful—is quite another. But he did. And I get that. I wasn’t forced to work in a well as a kid, and my parents weren’t religious zealots, but we had our fair share of issues with our family’s Church (and that’ll really mess a kid up).
So, Muir’s a little bit of a model for me—right down to the stubbornness, it seems—in that he ran from the Emersonian “bad preacher,” and human-centered and book-centered religion, but not from the idea of God. He set out to worship in his own way: wilderness experiences, observations of the natural world, and a healthy dash of the same tenets that guided the Transcendentalists all mixed together into his personal theology. He chose not to frame his existence as one of potential good struggling against the inevitability of evil deeds, but instead as one in which he could see God’s light in the mountains and to worship in the cathedral of nature. Muir once wrote to his brother on a “Balmy Sabbath Morning in Yosemite”:
I have no patience at all for the man who complacently wipes his pious lips and waves me away from a simple rite which commemorates the love and sacrifice of Christ, telling me, “Go out from us for you are not of us” […] I was baptised three times this morning. 1st (according to the old way of dividing the sermon), in balmy sunshine that penetrated to my very soul, warming all the faculties of spirit, as well as the joints and marrow of the body; 2nd, in the mysterious rays of beauty that emanate from plant corollas; and 3rd, in the spray of the lower Yosemite Falls. My 1st baptism was by immersion, the 2nd by pouring, and the 3rd by sprinkling. Consequently all Baptists are my brethering [sic], and all will allow that I’ve “got religion.”
I can get behind that.
So, I read my Muir. And he reminds me to be good, and to find divinity in everything, but also to have a little fun. Unless we screw it up, nature will be there and will replenish the soul, and, if we’re lucky and good, we can work some God into the mix as well.
And there you go: that’s why Muir’s my favorite.