I read a biography of John Muir, and his passion for nature inspired me to follow his footsteps into the mountains. But I hesitated. According to the bio, Muir believed that nature was love, goodness, an expression of God, and never evil, and he was often frustrated by his peers, whom he found materialistic, conformist, and indifferent to nature. But it seemed to me that logically, if humans are part of nature, then everything we do must be an expression of love and goodness, regardless of our attitude toward the wilderness.
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.
— John Muir
To resolve this paradox, I put down the biography and turned to the Internet, where Muir’s most famous quotations are readily accessible. Reading these quotes closely, I got the sense that civilized society had left Muir feeling “wounded.”
In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world – the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harness of civilization drops off, and wounds heal ere we are aware.
– John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, (1938), page 317.
The word “harness” brings to mind the image of a horse pulling a wagon; we feel the creature toiling as it drags a load while the tackle rubs sores in its skin. Nature heals these wounds, Muir argues, but the question is, what is so “galling” about civilization?
Our forefathers forged chains of duty and habit, which bind us notwithstanding our boasted freedom, and we ourselves in desperation add link to link, groaning and making medicinal laws for relief. Yet few think of pure rest or of the healing power of Nature.
– John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, (1938), page 234
Evidently civilization represents a loss of freedom, and even worse than a harness, it’s like “forged chains” that “bind us.” We’re left “groaning in desperation.” One sympathizes with Muir, because we all bridle from time to time at the duties, habits, and other constraints of society. But his criticism begs the question, how would society move forward if individuals refused constraint? Harness and chains remind us that work of any kind requires constraint (at least according to basic physics), otherwise the application of power would generate heat but achieve nothing.
Yosemite Park is a place of rest, a refuge from the roar and dust and weary, nervous, wasting work of the lowlands, in which one gains the advantages of both solitude and society. Nowhere will you find more company of a soothing peace-be-still kind. Your animal fellow beings, so seldom regarded in civilization, and every rock-brow and mountain, stream, and lake, and every plant soon come to be regarded as brothers; even one learns to like the storms and clouds and tireless winds. This one noble park is big enough and rich enough for a whole life of study and aesthetic enjoyment. It is good for everybody, no matter how benumbed with care, encrusted with a mail of business habits like a tree with bark. None can escape its charms. Its natural beauty cleans and warms like a fire, and you will be willing to stay forever in one place like a tree.
– John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, (1938) page 350.
Muir had no issue with physical work. He was a vigorous man, who thought nothing of hiking for days in the mountains on a loaf of bread; as a youth he walked a thousand miles from Indiana to Florida. What seems to have worn him down about society was the mental strain: the “weary, nervous, wasting” work, which leaves people “benumbed with care.” The reference to “business habits” calls to mind the stress of competition, fear of financial ruin, and endless frustration of dealing with partners, suppliers, customers, and workers. Muir would have well understood these cares, having taken charge of his wife’s family orchard which he ran for ten years.
Come to the woods, for here is rest. There is no repose like that of the green deep woods. Here grow the wallflower and the violet. The squirrel will come and sit upon your knee, the logcock will wake you in the morning. Sleep in forgetfulness of all ill.
– John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, (1938), page 235.
Nature is a place to rest, sleep, and forget, where “cares will drop off like autumn leaves” he wrote elsewhere.
I thought about Muir’s words for quite some time but couldn’t shake an uneasy feeling. The logical contradiction still nagged. For if nature is perfect, and man is part of nature, then logically the cares that Muir observed in his over-civilized peers — the frustration, irritation, fatigue, weariness, shaken nerves — these cares should all be expressions of love and goodness, too.
I was still thinking about Muir’s words one day as I ran along the Chicago lakefront into the teeth of gale-force winds, waves crashing against the shore and flinging foam across the trail. The cares of society seemed to me symptoms of the exertion we put into overcoming challenges and accomplishing goals that matter to people. Whether physical or mental, discomfort is the flip side of effort. Pain is a symptom of being alive.
The outdoors calls to me, too, but I don’t go there to sleep and forget. Often I feel the same symptoms of frustration and fatigue in nature as in society, for example, when my legs started cramping during a mountainous trail race, or when I momentarily got lost in a cloud forest, or went hiking barefoot in the cold.
I set out to follow Muir into the mountains, but his footsteps grew too faint for me. Perhaps with time I will understand more of what he saw.
Donald Worster, A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir
Sierra Club, Quotations from John Muir, selected by Harold Wood