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Faces From The Past—xvi

July 2024
3min read

I might have become a millionaire,” he once said, “but I chose to become a tramp.” As a boy in Scotland, he had thrilled to descriptions of primeval America, to John James Audubon’s picture of passenger pigeons that “darkened the sky like clouds”; and fifteen years later in Wisconsin, on a March morning when the wild geese were heading north on the first warm wind, he said good-by to his family atid wandered away. He wanted to experience the wilderness, “not as a mere sport or plaything excursion, but to find the Law that governs the relations … between human beings and Nature.” It was a quest that lasted all his life.

In the manner of other families, John Muir’s tried to persuade him to go into business, to marry, to settle down, but he had already concluded that “civilization has not much to brag about,” and he wanted none of it. On his first wander, when he was twenty-five, he settled into a pattern he would follow for years: he took a “planless route,” preferring to whirl “like a leaf in every eddy, dance compliance to any wind.” He walked, it was said, with a stride like an Indian’s, moving quietly and swiftly, his eyes on the ground so that he would miss nothing, pausing now and again to examine a rock or an unknown flower through his glass. He was a natural climber (one friend said he moved up mountains like a human spider) and seldom halted until he reached the top. Totally unafraid—of danger, of loneliness, or of death—he never carried a gun, and usually he went for the better part of a day without food; the great staple of his diet was hard, thick-crusted bread, or oatmeal cooked in little cakes on the stones of his campfire, with some tea (all he had to do to get ready for an expedition, Muir said, was to “throw some tea and bread in an old sack and jump over the back fence”). He especially loved swamps—his Highland blood flowed bogward, he believed. And as he hiked, observing everything, contemplating the history of mankind along with the wilderness, he realized that to disturb the balance of nature was to produce flood or drought, as to upset the balance of human society was to produce war. The only course to follow, he concluded, was the universal law of cooperation.

Between these early rambles, John Muir drifted from one job to another, picking up enough money to enable him to travel again or to study, and leaving behind, wherever he paused, a trail of ingenious inventions and laborsaving devices. Even before he left home, he had built, with a few coarse tools brought from Scotland, a small sawmill with a double rotary saw; a “field thermometer” that could be read from nearby pastures, so sensitive that it recorded the slight changes in temperature caused when a person approached within a few feet of it; a number of remarkable clocks (one, made mostly of wood, struck the hours, indicated the date, started the fire in his stove and lit his lamp, and—by means of some intricate levers and cogwheels—upended his bed at the appointed hour in the morning). But at no time would John Muir take out a patent or capitalize on his ingenuity; all improvements and inventions, he believed, were the property of the human race, since every idea was inspired by the Almighty.

In 1867 an accident in a mill cost him the partial sight of one eye, and he decided then to give himself fully to the wilderness. With Emerson, he had to be true to himself; and he realized that he could have no real happiness away from nature. “As long as I live,” he wrote, “I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.” And after a i,ooo-mile walk from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico, he went, finally, to California, where he found his way inevitably to Yosemite Valley, the “most holy mansion of the mountains.” For years he roamed the Sierras, the Pacific Northwest, the Alaskan wilds, climbing, observing, measuring the movement of glaciers, exulting in the primitive glories of everything he saw. And then, in the seventies, the loggers moved into the great sequoia stands as they had swarmed into the pine and hardwood forests of Wisconsin, and Muir realized that if something were not done, the big trees would go forever. He saw speculators and railroads picking up land and water rights, sheep and cattle moving into the valleys, and his heart went out to “the thousands needing rest—the weary in soul and limb, toilers in town and plain, dying for what these grand old woods can give.” He determined to make the wilderness better known, so that future generations would cherish it as he did and preserve the great watershed forests. From then until the end of his life, in 1914, he worked incessantly to save his beloved wilderness, writing, lecturing, inspiring, persuading. His first triumph came in 1890, when the Yosemite National Park bill was passed, followed by creation of the Sequoia and General Grant National Parks. Other fruits of his work were the National Park Service and the Bureau of Forestry; and upon his advice the Petrified Forest and a portion of Grand Canyon were set aside as national monuments. But it was plain that only the most determined and continued efforts would stave off despoliation of America’s natural heritage. The last years of his life were spent in a valiant but unavailing fight against the plan to dam the beautiful Hetch Hetchy Valley.

After every trip to the “dead pavements” of the city, John Muir hurried back to the mountains, shouting, “I’m wild once more!” He was a man to whom every leaf spoke, whose lifelong devotion to nature he described in his journal: “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

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