Muir’s empathy for all life began with identifying with the mind of the creatures whose intentions and moods he came to know.
“We worked with [oxen], sympathized with them in their rest and toil and play, and thus learned to know them far better than we should had we been only trained scientific naturalists. We soon learned that each ox and cow and calf had individual character. . . . The humanity we found in [oxen] came partly through the expression of their eyes when tired, their tones of voice when hungry and calling for food, their patient plodding and pulling in hot weather, their long-drawn-out sighing breath when exhausted and suffering like ourselves, and their enjoyment of rest with the same grateful looks as ours. We recognized their kinship also by their yawning like ourselves when sleepy and evidently enjoying the same peculiar pleasure at the roots of their jaws; by the way they stretched themselves in the morning after a good rest; by learning languages,—Scotch, English, Irish, French, Dutch,—a smattering of each as required in the faithful service they so willingly, wisely rendered; by their intelligent, alert curiosity, manifested in listening to strange sounds; their love of play; the attachments they made; and their mourning, long continued, when a companion was killed.”
Empathy, learned in the animal kingdom and then extended beyond it, is essential to the sense of expressiveness in nature. Muir found expressiveness everywhere.
Some people attribute this way of experiencing to imagination. If an Indian healer from Latin America is quoted on National Public Radio as saying that the earth is groaning and struggling during this time of environmental abuse, the average listener is expected to hear him sympathetically, as speaking not from poetic imagination but from deepened sensitivity—empathy. And, if and insofar as nature really is expressive, we might better speak of empathy rather than imagination. At the very least, we can say that both empathy and imagination affect perceptual life, and both bridge between perception and faith. Perception, abstracted from the fullness of experience, does not convey expressiveness. Muir’s empathy extended to embrace plant life and even the physical elements.
However, some of the expressiveness in which Muir delighted strikes the modern reader as simply a product of imagination. For example, Muir describes a glacier as like an oak tree in its “gnarled swelling base and wide-spreading branches.” But metaphor has been a normal tool of scientific description and should not be dismissed as a component of aesthetic experience. Muir uses metaphor to describe what he saw atop Alaska’s Genora Peak. “As I lingered, gazing on the vast show, luminous shadowy clouds seemed to increase in glory of color and motion, now fondling the highest peaks with infinite tenderness of touch, now hovering above them like eagles over their nests.” Here exquisite, imaginative, and playful sensitivity merges with a thorough identification with the processes of nature.
Muir connected physical and spiritual levels in describing the dance of sunlight on a waterfall as “the most divinely beautiful mass of rejoicing yellow light I ever beheld.” Here the distance between distinguishable sides, “subjective” rejoicing and “objective” light, falls away. Muir’s feeling of expressiveness in nature should not be too quickly dismissed as imaginative projection. If the physical creation is the work of an expressive Creator, then our efforts to empathize with natural phenomena may somehow reflect the feelings of God, even as knowing the laws of nature may count as human-level recognition of the thoughts of God. If God is on the other side of the phenomenon, so to speak, and if God is (in some analogous sense) rejoicing in the delight of the creature, then if Muir feels rejoicing “in” the yellow light, is it possible that his wild openness enabled him to gain an insight that a cautious mind would block? From a theistic perspective, an aesthetics that places all its weight on objective properties or all its weight on the response of the subject does not do justice to the Creator’s contributions to both sides of the equation.
What expressiveness do you feel in nature? How does your imagination play with nature?