John Muir’s wholeheartedness enabled him to unify the diverse phases of experience that go into the appreciation of natural beauty. We have much to learn from Muir’s achievement. Nevertheless, we can wonder whether he took his achievement to excess. Did he rejoice in beauty so much that he did not acknowledge the ugliness that is also part of the creation we know? I here present what Muir could muster in his defense, but I do not go the length of probing a further question: To what extent is his defense is adequate? In my view, each side of the debate makes important points, and it is tricky to combine the insights coherently.
This post concludes our series on the beauties of nature. Please prepare to engage actively in September’s mini-course on artistic living.
Since Muir proclaims a God of love and regards the evolving physical creation as perfect in every detail, he needs to defend nature from the appearance of indifference to creature welfare. His defense uses several lines of thought. He holds fast to faith in a loving God whose wisdom and goodness prevail throughout everything. In addition to his scientific tracing of causes, he sees providence in a rain shower. “The streams and the lakes and dens and rains and clouds in the hand of God weighed and measured myriads of plants daily coming into life, every leaf receiving its daily bread—the infinite work done in calm effortless omnipotence.” He challenges critics directly: “Mother Nature is too often spoken of as in reality no mother at all. Yet how wisely, sternly, tenderly she loves and looks after her children in all sorts of weather and wildernesses.” He confronts the anthropocentrism of those who would measure everything by the standard of their human comfort: “Kalmia, one of the very dearest of our mountain flowers, . . . one of the purest and most outspoken words of love that God has ever uttered on mountain meadow, [Ruskin] calls a type of deceit because when he eats it, it poisons him—is unfit for his stomach—a good English reason for setting it on the devil’s half of Nature. But I have lived with and loved Kalmia many a day, and slept with my cheek upon her bonnie purple flowers, and I know that she is not a devil’s foil for any plant. She was born and bred in Love Divine and dwells in Love and speaks Love only.”
Muir focuses away from the decaying tree or rotting carcass to embrace the long-term perspective of death as nourishing the soil for the next growth of life. “One is constantly reminded of the infinite lavishness and fertility of Nature—inexhaustible abundance amid what seems enormous waste. And yet when we look into any of her operations that lie within reach of our minds, we learn that no particle of her material is wasted or worn out. It is eternally flowing from use to use, beauty to yet higher beauty; and we soon cease to lament waste and death, and rather rejoice and exult in the imperishable, unspendable wealth of the universe, and faithfully watch and wait the reappearance of everything that melts and fades and dies about us, feeling sure that its next appearance will be better and more beautiful than the last.”
Muir continually associates glories with the dangers entailed by wilderness adventure. The treasures we have experienced compensate for every risk taken. His sentiment is that even if we die, which we must do anyway, how glorious to die here, in this way! He celebrates a day full of many wonders including “ripe and ready death as beautiful as life, telling divine wisdom and goodness and immortality.”
Muir proclaims a positive attitude. Telling of seeing “the steeply inclined glaciers and cañons of tremendous depth and ruggedness” which render Mount Ritter almost inaccessible,” he sets forth a cosmic principle. “Difficulties of this kind only exhilarate the mountaineer.” He finds analogies to positive attitude in the animal kingdom. During a particularly a wild winter storm in Yosemite, the bird songs of all but one species lost their cheerfulness. “Their cowering, joyless endurance offered striking contrasts to the spontaneous, irrepressible gladness of the ouzel, who could no more help giving out sweet song than a rose sweet fragrance.” Muir shares his own passion for the wild beauty of the drama of high energy storms. “The days were growing short, and winter, with its heavy storms, was drawing nigh, when avalanches would be booming down the long white slopes of the peaks, and all the land would be buried. But, on the other hand, though this white wilderness was new to me, I was familiar with storms and enjoyed them, knowing that in right relations with them they are ever kindly.” He tells many stories of great risks and narrow escapes showing that “Providence guides through every danger and takes me to all the truths which I need to learn.” Thus he encourages others, adding that only the brave can expect Heaven’s care.
For all the heroism of his life and rhetoric, Muir compassionately acknowledges the mystery of suffering beyond what human wisdom can fathom. Replying to a friend’s letter, he wrote, “My heart aches about Janet—one of the sad, sad, sore cases that no human wisdom can explain. We can only look on the other side through tears and grief and pain and see that pleasure surpasses the pain, good the evil, and that, after all, Divine love is the sublime boss of the universe.” Finally, despite evidence of civilization in decline and profound disappointment of political defeat after investing much of the last years of his life in an unsuccessful effort to win the battle to save part of the Yosemite complex, Hetch Hetchy valley, from being dammed to make a reservoir, he persists in the faith that the right eventually triumphs.
The question of excess arises: if beauty is the correlate of rejoicing, does excessive enthusiasm distort Muir’s discernment of the divine? Muir reported experiencing frequently throughout his life an overwhelming urge to go forth into the wilderness. This was more than a hobby, even more than a vocation; it was also a compulsion. He did responsible work when that was required, and harnessed himself to a decade of managing a fruit ranch when his children were young. But a taste of imminent wilderness rose a passion often impossible to deny. “We little know until tried how much of the uncontrollable there is in us, urging across glaciers and torrents, and up dangerous heights, let the judgment forbid as it may.” He confessed to “excessive enjoyment and toil.” “For the first few weeks [of the trip to Alaska in 1879] I was so ferverishly excited with the boundless exuberance of the woods and the wilderness, of great ice floods, and the manifest scriptures of the ice-sheet that modeled the lovely archipelagoes along the coast, that I could hardly settle down to the steady labour required in making any sort of Truth one’s own.” An 1889 letter contains a partial defense. “The love of Nature among Californians is desperately moderate; consuming enthusiasm almost wholly unknown.”
In his passion for storms and his overmastering desire to know and enjoy as much as possible, he would take extraordinary risks, examining waterfalls as closely as possible at their height, observing a burning tree in forest fire from underneath it, crossing wide crevasses in glaciers. True, he did soberly assess risks and avoided some, while taking others based on his decades of experience of getting out of many dangerous situations. But he took risks for others, too, pressing led guides and others with whom he traveled to go beyond what they judged prudent, not to mention the family that he periodically left behind. He even counseled his reader: “If you are not very strong, try to climb Electric Peak when a big bossy, well-charged thunder-cloud is on it, to breathe the ozone set free, and get yourself kindly shaken and shocked. You are sure to be lost in wonder and praise, and every hair of your head will stand up and hum and sing like an enthusiastic congregation.”
Muir’s writings show four steps in a tendency to mix his Christian theism with the religion of nature. [I take the term “religion of nature” from Catharine Albenese, Nature Religion in America] Shall we worship the Creator or the creation? Shall we commune in nature or with nature? A first, small step into confusion preserves balancing wisdom. “The white, rayless light of morning, seen when I was alone amid the peaks of the California Sierra, had always seemed to me the most telling of all the terrestrial manifestations of God. But here [in Alaska] the mountains themselves were made divine, and declared His glory in terms still more impressive.” Here is a suggestion that some mountains are Godlike, immediately followed by a restoration of sturdy faith. In fairness, one may note that religion gives a context that makes it safe to experience and express what phenomenologically escapes orthodox interpretation. A second step risks the concept of the human being. “Brooding over some vast mountain landscape, or among the spiritual countenances of mountain flowers, our bodies disappear, our mortal coils come off without any shuffling, and we blend into the rest of Nature, utterly blind to the boundaries that measure human quantities into separate individuals.” There is nothing wrong with self-forgetting involvement, but what are the implications of this sentence for our considered view of human personality? Muir does not elaborate. In one journal entry he conceives everything, from rock to human being as differently clothed fragments of God. “When a portion of Spirit clothes itself with a sheet of lichen tissue, colored simply red or yellow, or gray or black, we say that is a low form of life. Yet is it more or less radically Divine than another portion of Spirit that has gathered garments of leaf and fairy flower and adorned them with all the colors of Light, although we say that the latter creature is of a higher form of life? All of these varied forms, high and low, are simply portions of God, radiated from Him as a sun, and made terrestrial by the clothes they wear, and by the modifications of a corresponding kind in the God essence itself.”
It is as though the indwelling spirit gift poured out upon humankind were to be found in all other things too. The third step attributes the qualities of God to nature. “It is blessed to lean fully and trustingly on Nature, to experience, by taking to her a pure heart and unartificial mind, the infinite tenderness and power of her love.” Muir sometimes permitted himself to express the sense of a blended experience with an enthusiasm that collapsed the distinction between nature and God, making nature perfect and deifying the creature. Here we encounter a limitation of experience itself. However much a spiritual experience may lend itself to religious interpretation, it cannot not prove, for example, the personality of God. Thus phenomenology cannot generate faith; and a person with a dominant hunger for vivid experience takes another kind of risk. The final step casts the theistic framework away and replaces God with a tree. Muir begins a letter to a friend, “Do behold the King in his glory, King Sequoia!” He closes thus: “You say, ‘When are you coming down?’ Ask the Lord—Lord Sequoia.”
It would be misleading to cite these extreme moments to portray Muir increasingly losing his faith in God over the course of his life and replacing God with nature. On the whole, Muir conveyed peak experiences intending not to subvert religion but to expand it. “I wish you could come here and rest a year in the simple unmingled Love fountains of God. You would then return to your scholars with fresh truth gathered and absorbed from pines and waters and deep singing winds, and you would find that they all sang of fountain Love just as did Jesus Christ and all of the pure God manifest in whatever form. You say that good men are “nearer to the heart of God than are woods and fields, rocks and waters.” Such distinctions and measurements seem strange to me. Rocks and waters, etc., are words of God and so are men. We all flow from one fountain Soul. All are expressions of one Love. God does not appear, and flow out, only from narrow chinks and round bored wells here and there in favoured races and places, but He flows in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless over creeds and forms and all kinds of civilizations and peoples and beasts, saturating all and fountainising all.”
I am grateful to Dmitry Chernikov for kindly drawing my attention to this topic.