John Muir: riding trees in windstorms

WHEN John Muir left his job as a machinist in Indianapolis, at 29, he acted with his typical forthrightness and personal sense of drama. He walked to Florida, by the wildest ways he could easily find. The immediate cause of his departure was an accident that made him feel life was too precious to be devoted to machines. More profoundly, he saw it was simply time to give himself to his love of the natural world. Having made this decision, he never looked back. As he later put it, he could have become a millionaire, but he chose to be a tramp. In the end, no mere millionaire could ever replace Muir in the American consciousness or in his effect on the American landscape.

Independence was not new to John Muir. As a boy in Dunbar, Scotland, Muir had explored seacoast wild places with his friends, though his father forbade it and punished him for it severely.

After the family moved to Wisconsin in 1849, for the father's religious reasons, and the children were put to hard labor on the farm, the young Muir had come to rise even earlier than the usual 5 a.m. to read and work on a series of inventions that fascinated him.

At 22 this pattern of irrepressible independence caused him to leave home for the University of Wisconsin with little money and unknown prospects. There he survived his self-induced privations, formed lifelong friendships, and became more fascinated with the natural world and things mechanical.

In leaving for Florida, Muir had decided in favor of the natural world. Completing his thousand-mile walk to the Gulf, he took ship for Cuba and New York, and soon boarded a packet for San Francisco. Once there, he walked immediately to Yosemite Valley.

He was captivated by the place. By tending sheep in the Sierra, sawing fallen timber in Yosemite Valley, and as usual living on nearly nothing, Muir made the area his focus for about nine years. In that time he began a career as a nature essayist and conservationist; he also explored the mountains extensively and traveled to other wild areas, including Alaska.

Muir's later life included marriage, two daughters, and operation of a fruit farm in Martinez, California. It also included worldwide travel, the founding of the Sierra Club in 1891, and hard work in gaining national park status for Yosemite Valley. But after he first arrived in the Sierra, his life fell into a single developing pattern of devotion to things natural.

Though he had found precedents in American transcendentalism, especially in Henry Thoreau, no one else could have done what Muir did. He was a remarkably gifted amateur, an authentic genius. His combination of abilities was exactly right for what he came to do with his life.

Besides his independence, endurance and joy wove together in Muir's character. Typically, he set off for the mountains in summer or winter, walking, wearing an old suit, and carrying a sack of dry bread, perhaps with a little sugar or tea included, as his only provisions. These would last him for weeks of hard climbing and exploring.

And yet his capacity for joy in what he saw fed him. His writings show him in near-ecstasy in the mountains. Typical of 40 years of journal entries is this 1870 description of the falls of Yosemite: ``Constant floods - thousands of torrents and slipping streamlets - come curving and leaping over the rocks, fine and white like warped and crinkled strips of silver. The falls in glorious dress and voice.''

His abounding joy made him fearless to the point of recklessness. When the Yosemite area experienced a strong earthquake in 1872, Muir awoke and dashed outside, shouting, ``A noble earthquake!'' While others hid, he exulted in the fall of huge rocks from the high cliffs in a shower of friction-struck sparks, taking stands of trees with them. He even ran to the spot and began climbing the rocks before they had fully settled themselves. Later, in a strong windstorm, he climbed a tall Douglas spruce to feel the full force of the wind as a tree would.

Outdoors, wherever he looked, he saw beauty and reveled in it, not only for its own sake, but as it was evidence for him of divine presence. Eventually the line between the divine and the phenomena he loved blurred, and his expression became pantheistic.

Muir's obvious love of solitude combined with his ability to make and hold a large number of friends. He treated people alike. His loyalty, generosity, and abounding good humor allowed friendships to survive his strong opinions, as when he returned to the home of friends after a soaking walk in the rain and his hosts commiserated with him. He replied, ``Don't pity me. Pity yourselves. You stay here at home, dry and defrauded of all the glory I have seen. Your souls starve in the midst of abundance!''

But Muir was more irrepressible than prickly. He knew some of the most influential people of his time. He found respect despite his eccentricities. He had a strong talent as a publicist. People sought him out to lead conservation efforts, perhaps because of his ability to convey the joy he felt in the wild and his desire that others share it. He inspired loyalty and returned it. A humorous garrulousness tended to make his strong opinions more palatable.

As one of the first voices in favor of the wild in a time better known for unchecked destruction and exploitation, his opinions had to be strong. He could be ironic, as when comparing mountain sheep to the herds of ``hoofed locusts'' that pastured in the mountains: ``These are clean and elegant, the others dirty and awkward. These are guarded by the great Shepherd of us all, those by erring money seekers.'' But more often his note was of joy and invitation, encouraging people to see, as he did, the challenging loveliness of wild places. His work in transforming public consciousness is irreplaceable. It was work that needed someone with his combination of a quick and various discernment of beauty and a sturdy independence.

Muir was born 150 years ago this year on another continent from his beloved Sierra. Groves of its sequoias still grow because he helped people see them as majestic presences, not board feet of lumber. That alone is a significant legacy for someone who chose to be not a millionaire but a tramp.

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