I finished reading a book of John Muir’s writings before I went away to Andalucia last week to see the autumn bird migration. Muir was a prolific writer and I wasn’t sure where to start. I had read about him and seen quotes of his over the years but never made the effort to read him myself. One of my favourite quotes which he wrote in his journal late in life is: ‘I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.’ A perfect statement of ecotherapy.
I had this image of an energetic Scotsman going over to North America before it was truly industrialised and him just being blown away by the vast American landscape and its wild nature. Then being inspired to write from the heart about what he experienced. Well I wasn’t disappointed. The book I read was:The Wilderness World of John Muir, a selection from his collected works edited by Edwin Way Teale. Muir seems to have had such a strong sense of self and what was right for him, and this was despite being brought up by a fanatical christian father who beat him at any opportunity. Once he left home he studied at university and worked for a while. He could have become a pioneer industrialist given his engineering skills and inventiveness but the pull of nature won him over and he decided to explore North America on foot. He survived by doing occasional work until his writing became popular and by living on very little. By that I really mean very little! He describes climbing up mountain peaks and sleeping rough like a tramp (no sleeping bag or tent), carrying a bag of tea and dried bread in his rucsac. Throughout his writing there is an almost electric charge of human energy firing him up each day. He is excited by any natural phenomenon whether it is a beautiful flower or a mountain ridge. In mountaineering circles he is a hero for the challenging climbs he did, all without ropes and wearing no special gear. On one occasion there was a violent storm and while everyone else is locking the window shutters Muir is out in the forest climbing 100 ft up tall trees to get a view from the top. In ecstasy he describes all the multiple sensations experienced up in the canopy; noting the sounds different species of tree make in the storm and sensing the different smells carried on the wind. He describes his reluctance to return home after being swayed around in the tree tops for hours on end. Muir was a scientist with the technical skills of precise observation while he was making botanical records or describing new mountain climbs. He was also someone imbued with a deep spiritual connection to nature which he could communicate in poetic language. Showing by example that it is possible to be both a rationalist and feel deeply connected to nature. Without him I doubt if we would have the Grand Canyon in its wild state. Muir was the Victorian free spirited hippy who used his energy to persuade President Roosevelt to conserve the wilderness, Create national parks, set up the Sierra Club and write so many inspirational books.