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Earth Day With John Muir: Part Two

Updated on September 28, 2018
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Richard F. Fleck is author of two dozen books, his latest being Desert Rims to Mountains High and Thoreau & Muir Among the Native Americans.

John Muir in 1872

Muir in 1872
Muir in 1872
Muir's handwriting from manuscript edition
Muir's handwriting from manuscript edition

John Muir: Mr. Earth Day Part Two

John Muir was close to Henry David Thoreau in his ability to see, as Thoreau puts it, "Heaven Under Our Feet." For both writers, the wilder the place, the greater was their perception of unity and harmony. Muir was in accord with Thoreau's concept in "Higher Laws" of Walden (1854) that Nature is difficult to be overcome, but she must be overcome by a heightening of spiritual perception. Muir writes, "No sane man in the hands of Nature can doubt the doubleness of his life. Soul and body receive separate nourishment and separate exercise, and speedily reach a stage of development wherein each is easily known apart from the other." The more one experiences wild nature, the more one nourishes the soul and overcomes the body. For both Thoreau and Muir, then, Nature is the paradoxical key to overcoming Nature that weds spirit to body.

Impact of Yellowstone

Of the Yellowstone wilderness, Muir writes, "A thousand Yellowstone wonders are calling, 'Look up and down and round about you!' And a multitude of still, small voices may be heard directing you to look through all this transient shifting show of things called 'substantial' into the truly substantial spiritual world whose forms, flesh and wood, rock and water, air and sunshine, only veil and conceal, and to learn that here is heaven and the dwelling-place of the angels" (Our Natinal Parks,1901). Because Muir constantly sensed a spiritual world behind our material world (as did Nicholas Black Elk), he sincerely believed that "transcendental dreaming seems the only sensible and substantial business one can engage in." Muir carried New England Transcendentalism to its ultimate through apparent out-of-body experiences. He avidly desired to loose the bonds of his flesh and penetrate the inner substance of flowers, rocks, trees, and waterfalls in order to detect "heavenly harmonies:" in his journals (not published until 1938), he plaintively observes, "Alas, how little of the world is subject to human senses!" And again he writes, "If the Creator were to bestow a new set of senses upon us, or slightly remodel the present ones, leaving all the rest of nature unchanged, we should never doubt we were in another world, and so in strict reality we should be, just as if all the world besides our senses were changed."

Transcendental Influences

The following remarkable journal passage describes a unique application of New England Transcendentalism beyond the body:

"In like manner the soul sets forth at times upon rambles of its own. Our bodies, though meanwhile out of sight and forgotten, blend into the rest of nature, blind to the boundaries of individuals. But it is after both the body and soul of a mountaineer have worked hard, engaged hard, that they are most palpably separate. Our weary limbs, lying at rest on the pine needles, make no attempt to follow after or sympathize with the nimble spirit that, apparently glad of the opportunity, wanders alone down gorges, along beetling cliffs, or away among the peaks and glaciers of the farthest landscapes, or into realms that eye hath not seen, nor ear heard; when at length we are ready to return home to our flesh-and-bone tabernacle, we scarcely for a moment or two know in what direction to seek for it." (John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, 1938)

From such a free vantage point, Muir could readily see that our good planet Earth is far more than it seems! Eventually Muir could read the language of Alaskan glaciers and steaming volcanoes. He could see rays of light emitted from rock faces of mountains, red dust particles in an Alaskan sunset, and light from nighttime glaciers on Mount Rainier, Washington. He could sense an inner musici, an inner harmony permeating all of our Earth. His spirit, independent of its body, participated in natural forces: "The sun shines not on us but in us. The rivers flow not past, but through us." And, "trees wave and flowers bloom in our bodies as well as our souls, and every bird song, wind song, and tremendous storm say of the rocks in the heart of the mountains is our song, our very own, and sings our love." Muir writes that "Even death is in harmony here. Only in shambles and downy beds of home is death terrible. Perhaps there is more pleasure than pain in natural death...Livingstone declared that the crushing of his arm by a lion was rather pleasurable than otherwise." Death and seeming destruction are but re-creation in and endless song "out of one beautiful form into another."

America was indeed fortunate to have this Scottish immigrant come to our shores to translate the Earth's multiple languages into English for our understanding. Earth Day is for seeking insight into our very complex and delightful planet.

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