One day I stood in the Shawangunks and stared at the Catskills. It was a cold winter day, and the distant mountains seemed carved out of blue crystal and white diamond. I remember feeling a surge of adrenaline, as if I could at that moment head off and run the thirty miles from here to there, although the icy wind dissuaded me.
This experience made me think of John Muir’s famous line in an 1873 letter to his sister, “The mountains are calling, and I must go.” He used similar expressions in his account of his first summer in the Sierras, when during 1869 he accompanied a sheep herd into the mountains. For example, when he first got high enough up in the foothills to look deep into the Merced Valley, he perceived “a glorious wilderness that seemed to be calling with a thousand songful voices.” Similarly, his diary entry from July 8 of that year notes: “Many still, small voices, as well as the noon thunder, are calling, ‘Come higher.'” In fact, every aspect of the natural wilderness called to him:
How interesting everything is! Every rock, mountain, stream, plant, lake, lawn, forest, garden, bird, beast, insect seems to call and invite us to come and learn something of its history and relationship.
Calling is a form of communication, and Muir heard nature reaching out to him in many ways. One evening he reported that the night wind was “telling the wonders of the upper mountains, their snow fountains and gardens, forests and groves; even their topography is in its tones.” When he stood beneath a tree during a storm, he heard the “hearty wind chanting overhead.” Spending a night camped next to a waterfall, he listened to the water “singing Nature’s old love song with solemn enthusiasm, while the stars peering through the leaf-roof seemed to join in the white water’s song.”
That Muir heard the landscape calling, speaking, and singing, is an example of how he saw life and sensed awareness and meaning in aspects of the landscape that are generally thought of as inanimate. In a similar vein, he saw a spiritual quality when he looked out at the mountains, perceiving a “landscape-countenance” which in his eyes glowed “like a human face in a glory of enthusiasm” or beamed with “consciousness like the face of a god.” In another passage in his account of that summer, he portrayed clouds as living creatures:
One may fancy the clouds themselves are plants, springing up in the sky-fields at the call of the sun, growing in beauty until they reach their prime, scattering rain and hail like berries and seeds, then wilting and dying.
Muir felt an intense connection with other life forms. For example, regarding the incense cedar, he commented, “I feel strangely attracted to this tree.” He described insects and plants as “people”: for example, while on the march to a higher valley, he discovered a beautiful lily and called it one of the “plant people” who stand by the wayside and preach nature’s message. Similarly, in describing the flowering dogwood tree, he noted that its showy white flowers “attract a crowd of moths, butterflies, and other winged people.”
Butterflies colored like the flowers waver above them in wonderful profusion, and many other beautiful winged people, numbered and known and loved only by the Lord, are waltzing together high overhead, seemingly in pure play and hilarious enjoyment of their little sparks of life.
Based on these quotations, we could describe Muir as an animist, i.e., someone who attributes life and spiritual qualities to plants, animals, rocks, and other natural phenomena. But that description misses the almost physical force with which Muir perceived the landscape. One morning during that first trip into the Sierras he described himself as “exhilarated with the mountain air, I feel like shouting this morning with excess of wild animal joy.” On another occasion, he startled his companion, a St. Bernard named Carlo:
Sunshine over all; no breath of wind to stir the brooding calm. Never before had I seen so glorious a landscape, so boundless an affluence of sublime mountain beauty. …I shouted and gesticulated in a wild burst of ecstasy, much to the astonishment of St. Bernard Carlo, who came running up to me, manifesting in his intelligent eyes a puzzled concern that was very ludicrous, which had the effect of bringing me to my senses.
Muir described the mountain vistas as “glowing, radiating beauty that pours into our flesh and bones like heat rays from fire.” Pierced by rays of beauty, the body turns into “one tingling palate.” The warm, mellow sunshine makes “every nerve tingle.”
Drinking this champagne water is pure pleasure, so is breathing the living air, and every movement of limbs is pleasure, while the whole body seems to feel beauty when exposed to it as it feels the camp-fire or sunshine, entering not by the eyes alone, but equally through all one’s flesh like radiant heat, making a passionate ecstatic pleasure-glow not explainable. One’s body then seems homogeneous throughout, sound as a crystal.
The days are not just “charming,” they’re “exhilarating,” and they make his “blood dance and excite nerve currents that render one unweariable and well-nigh immortal.”
July 2. Warm, sunny day, thrilling plant and animals and rocks alike, making sap and blood flow fast, and making every particle of the crystal mountains throb and swirl and dance in glad accord like star-dust. No dullness anywhere visible or thinkable. No stagnation, no death. Everything kept in joyful rhythmic motion in the pulses of Nature’s big heart.
This physical experience of beauty in turn seemed to call forth his physical strength. In the face of the scenery, “cautious remonstrance is vain,” Muir reported, “one’s body seems to go where it likes with a will over which we seem to have scarce any control.” He wrote that he felt “full of the strength of the mountains and their huge, wild joy.”
Based on my own experiences as a runner, I feel that perception of natural landscapes calls forth some of the body’s inner strengths, such as the ability to cover long distances across rough terrain or bear exposure to extremes of heat and cold, capabilities that our distant ancestors needed to survive and prosper. That’s how I interpret the sensation I felt when standing in the Shawangunks and peering at the Catskills. It’s also how I read the exhilaration and wild joy Muir experienced in the Sierras. The life and meaning he described in the landscape, and his connections with the plant and winged people, seems to be an expression of the energy he felt flowing through nature and himself.
So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to discover that Muir, who’s typically thought of as a hiker and mountaineer, was also on occasion a runner:
Toward sunset, enjoyed a fine run to camp, down the long south slopes, across ridges and ravines, gardens and avalanche gaps, through the firs and chaparral, enjoying wild excitement and excess of strength, and so ends a day that will never end.