Warming up to John Muir

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….

Out of the twenty-two stories, the first one that caught my eye was Muir’s encounter with a brown bear:

In my first interview with a Sierra bear we were frightened and embarrassed, both of us, but the bear’s behavior was better than mine. When I discovered him, he was standing in a narrow strip of meadow, and I was concealed behind a tree on the side of it. After studying his appearance as he stood at rest, I rushed toward him to frighten him, that I might study his gait in running. But, contrary to all I had heard about the shyness of bears, he did not run at all; and when I stopped short within a few steps of him, as he held his ground in a fighting attitude, my mistake was monstrously plain. I was then put on my good behavior, and never afterward forgot the right manners of the wilderness.

This was a fun story.  Muir’s voice was cheeky and self-deprecating, and he was sympathetic to the animal’s point of view as befits someone who was “fond of wild places and wild creatures.”  Further, with respect to bears, I realized that Muir and I shared certain experiences in common.  The first time I saw a black bear in New York’s Catskill Mountains, the animal impressed me by sliding down a tree like a fireman down a pole.  However, instead of running towards him with great elan, as Muir might have done, I ran away as fast as I could.

In his next bear encounter, Muir hides behind a tree and lets the animal pass, and this triggered another memory on my part.  Once I was out on a run with Odie the family Labradoodle, when he noticed movement at 12 o’clock:  three or four small bear cubs.  From the expression on his face, I could tell Odie was calculating the best angle of attack, and I had to caution him that when there are cubs there might be a mom — and sure enough, a second glance revealed a black furry object the size of a boulder.  I requested Odie return to the leash, which he reluctantly agreed to do — and then when I looked up, the bear family was gone.

One more story:  last year I was heading up Peekamoose Mountain early one morning when I saw an adolescent black bear shimmy down a tree and disappear into the forest.  After a long round-trip, I was back in the same spot around dusk and sensed that the bear, too, might have returned.  Sure enough, there he was up in the tree, and I imagined that now he had turned in for the evening and was brushing his teeth or reading a story or whatever it is that young bears do before bedtime.  I tip-toed by being careful not to disturb him.

In the collection of Muir’s stories, after bears came rattlesnakes:

One day…. I uncovered a large coiled rattler that had been hiding behind the flowers. Thus suddenly brought to light face to face with the rightful owner of the place, the poor reptile was desperately embarrassed, evidently realizing that he had no right in the cabin. It was not only fear that he showed, but a good deal of downright bashfulness and embarrassment, like that of a more than half honest person caught under suspicious circumstances behind a door. Instead of striking or threatening to strike, though coiled and ready, he slowly drew his head down as far as he could, with awkward, confused kinks in his neck and a shamefaced expression, as if wishing the ground would open and hide him.

Muir’s empathy for wild creatures is endearing, whereas I fall a little short in this area, especially when it comes to the occasional rattler I’ve encountered in the Shawangunk Mountains. Once I was running by myself up a steep a paved road near Sam’s Point, when I was startled by sharp buzz from the shoulder — a timber rattlesnake, coiled and ready to strike.  After jumping nearly two feet in the air out of surprise, I decided to mind my own business and keep going.  But after a few steps I started to get angry, feeling that I had not been treated fairly.  Determined to teach that snake a lesson in manners, I looked around for a rock, but when I got back to that spot, the snake was gone.  (Just as well:  people say that the local rattlers are not aggressive — unless you antagonize them.  If I had tossed that rock, I can just picture that snake getting really cross and chasing me up the road all the way to Sam’s Point.)

Reading about Muir’s mountaineering adventures was great fun.  His first winter in Yosemite, he was so passionate about exploring the natural environment that he was “out every day, and often all night, sleeping but little.”  As a runner, I was impressed by the distances he would cover with little to eat and minimal gear.  I’ve written about “going light” in races, but in comparison to Muir I’m quite timid.  For example, when he headed out to climb Mt. Ritter, the 13,300-foot “King of California’s Alps,” it was mid-October.  Muir notes that the “first winter clouds had bloomed, and the peaks were strewn with fresh crystals, without, however, affecting the climbing to any dangerous extent.”  Camping in a pine thicket at 11,000 feet on the way to the summit,  “I had to creep out many times to the fire during the night; for it was biting cold and I had no blankets.”  And he hadn’t brought a coat either.

Indeed, Muir rarely seemed to carry a coat, even when exploring glaciers in Alaska.  However, going light caught up to him during a climb of Mt. Shasta, when he and a companion were caught out in a storm.  For fear of falling on the way down, they were forced to spend the night in the open.  It was a long thirteen hours:

The weary hours wore away like dim half-forgotten years, so long and eventful they seemed, though we did nothing but suffer….Still the pain was not always of that bitter, intense kind that precludes thought and takes away all capacity for enjoyment. A sort of dreamy stupor came on at times in which we fancied we saw dry, resinous logs suitable for campfires, just as after going days without food men fancy they see bread. Frozen, blistered, famished, benumbed, our bodies seemed lost to us at times— all dead but the eyes. For the duller and fainter we became the clearer was our vision, though only in momentary glimpses. Then, after the sky cleared, we gazed at the stars, blessed immortals of light, shining with marvelous brightness with long lance rays, near-looking and new-looking, as if never seen before.

When they finally made it down the next morning, they had to slowly and carefully warm their frozen extremities to avoid permanent damage from frostbite.  Within a few days, however, Muir had fully recovered.

Having got half way through the twenty-two stories, I had decided that I really liked Muir, when now to my surprise, I found that he was not only climber, mountaineer, explorer, and nature-lover — but also a runner, of sorts.  He wrote about running as a child: “To improve our speed and wind, we often took long runs into the country.”  (He and his friends were concerned about ghosts and if chased wanted to be able to outrun them).

After climbing up a glacier, he’d “run and slide” all the way down, keeping of course a sharp outlook for crevasses.  In writing about how an earthquake had reshaped some of the features of Yosemite, he suggested the following experiment for those who might doubt the structural integrity of the resulting rock piles:

If for a moment you are inclined to regard these taluses as mere draggled, chaotic dumps, climb to the top of one of them, and run down without any haggling, puttering hesitation, boldly jumping from boulder to boulder with even speed. You will then find your feet playing a tune, and quickly discover the music and poetry of these magnificent rock piles

In Alaska, he left camp to explore the glaciers, “running out against the rain-laden gail” (followed only by a dog).  After a full day exploring the Sierra mountains:

I ran home in the moonlight with firm strides; for the sun-love made me strong. Down through the junipers; down through the firs; now in jet shadows, now in white light; over sandy moraines and bare, clanking rocks; past the huge ghost of South Dome rising weird through the firs; past the glorious fall of Nevada, the groves of Illilouette; through the pines of the valley; beneath the bright crystal sky blazing with stars.

Muir wrote that spending a few days in town left him feeling “blurred and weary.”  To recover his sense of vitality: “I determined, therefore, to run out for a while to say my prayers in the higher mountain temples” — a single sentence that seemed to summarize his view of life.

So why did John Muir describe nature as a source of “rest, refuge, and repose,” when in reality he was running in the mountains day and night, getting caught in the middle of storms, encountering bears and snakes, getting by with little food, sleep, or even clothing?

Maybe those preachy quotes were meant to appeal to people in the towns and cities, whose attitude toward nature was not very adventurous, but whose support would be critical to conserving Yosemite and other natural areas.  (If so, his choice of words must have been on target, judging by the huge impact he had on the conservation movement.)

And maybe Burroughs was right that Muir’s personality shone through more powerfully when he talked.  If so these first-person accounts, while still a form of writing, gave me a much different impression of the man.

Either way, I’m glad I read the book, and now you can count me as a Muir fan, too.

Warming up to John Muir

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