In a previous blog post, I expressed skepticism about John Muir’s message. Both nature and humanity are expressions of God’s love, he had written, but it was pretty clear he didn’t care for humanity’s towns, cities, factories, and social conventions. In some of his most famous quotations, he described nature as a place of “refuge” from the worries of everyday life, with the “healing power” to cure the wounds of society. The wilderness was a source of beauty that “cleans and soothes and warms” and a place for “repose,” “pure rest,” and “sleep.” As a runner, I had trouble relating to these metaphors and found the message a little preachy.
But then I read a comment by John Burroughs, America’s most popular nature-writer during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Burroughs lived in New York’s Catskill Mountains, on the other side of the country from Muir’s beloved Yosemite, but the two men had met during a trip to Alaska, and while their personalities were quite different, they shared many values, respected each other’s work, and became friends.
A unique character — greater talker than as a writer — he loved personal combat and shone in it. He hated writing and composed with difficulty, though his books have charm of style; but his talk came easily and showed him at his best.
— John Burroughs journal entry 1915
Based on this assessment, I needed to give Muir another chance. So I picked up a book called The Wild Muir: Twenty Two of John Muir’s Greatest Adventures, which contained first-person accounts of some his most interesting exploits. And now that I was hearing him talk (so to speak) instead of preach, I got a much better sense of the man….