The Legacy of John Muir

Posted by on Apr 19, 2012 in Outdoor | No Comments

April 21 is John Muir Day. If you are willing and able, I suggest that you “…break clear away…and climb a mountain…. Wash your spirit clean.” Also of note is that e-book editions of many of John Muir’s writings are available for free at and the iTunes book store.

yosemite valley

Yosemite Valley, 1892. USGS.


“There is no repose like that of the green deep woods.”

~John Muir

Our world is cacophony. Chaos. Noise and excitement, speed and expediency. Our world is stock prices, cash registers, concrete and steel. We hurry from office to office, meeting to meeting; seeking promotion, status, and wealth. Around us everyone is anxiously engaged in the same vicious, eternal round. Our neighbors are strangers, anonymous, and blank. A cordial nod or wave, and we are off to the races once again. Another day in rush our, another meeting, more status, and if we are lucky, more wealth. We might escape for a week to an amusement park where our daily pattern is microcosmically repeated—rush, wait, rush, wait, rush, wait. Our lives are spent in perpetual hurriedness. Our only reprieve is artificial, fleeting, and unfulfilling. When we die, we are sick and tired, worried. We are left wondering if our circular efforts have left anything of substance or merit to those we’ve left behind, who themselves are busy grasping at their own endless pursuits.

We ought to slow down.

We ought to breathe.

What value is there to life, if when it is finished, we leave only a legacy of speed and a debt of expectation?

But all is not lost. Nor is there reason for cynical, gloomy despair. “In God’s wildness” wrote John Muir, “lies the hope of the world – the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harness of civilization drops off, and wounds heal ere we are aware.” Never before have those words been more appropriate. Technology has cascaded and tumbled into ubiquity, creating an automated, digital technocracy; a place where men and things are connected through a false sense of community and the self-aggrandizing dystopia of Likes and Followers. Our brains are becoming incapable of patient comprehension, our eyes capable only of scanning. Reading is mere looking; writing is stunted and amputated. However, in wild spaces we have no choice but to look closely, to be patient, and to listen intently.

John Muir

John Muir

In “God’s wildness” we—along with our worries and our cares—are insignificant, forgotten. In the wilderness we are free to soak in the cold solitude of stone and rock, wind and rain. Indeed, wilderness is Truth itself. In the mountains there is no deception, no false promises, and no unearned, pretentious glory. The mountains simply are. And we, in them, are nothing. But in that, our true nature is laid bare, our wildness manifest, our souls fed and nourished. “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread,” taught Muir, “places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.” He invited each of us to “climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”

Open spaces, far from the hoot and whistle of cities and the thundering proselytizing of advertisement, entertainment, and business, are vital spaces. Muir observed that “thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” Life, above all else, is our ultimate end. Thomas Jefferson listed life first among self-evident, unalienable rights. Our quests for wealth and wellness are rooted in the perpetuation and betterment of life. Prophets of every religion and every sect have preached eternal life. We are unwilling to settle for mortality, and so we seek eternity and life everlasting. However, we forget sometimes that all around us eternity is displayed in metaphor and in embryo. Muir reminded us that “this grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on seas and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.”

If John Muir were alive today, would anyone pay him any attention?

No doubt some would. But if he did manage to demand an audience, surely he’d be dismissed as an idealist, a dreamer, and one who is an “enemy of progress”. Progress is well and good. But even better than progress, is greatness. Today we stand at the crossroads of two very different futures. In one direction, grandiosity; and in the other, restraint. Which road will we take? Our posterity will judge for themselves whether our actions constitute greatness, and whether they are worth remembering in celebration or condemning as tragedy. But if the past is any indicator, and if our present attitude about our National Parks—controversial in their conception and infancy—is a barometric reading into the future, then we will be remembered, and judged, not for our ability to engineer, and not for the glorious cities and dams and bridges that we might build; but instead, for our willingness to perpetuate and foster life. We will be celebrated, as we celebrate our grandfathers, for our ability to stay short-term benefit, in order to preserve long-term gratification.

John Muir’s legacy is his tireless, brilliant, and poetic love for wildness. He claimed, absurdly to the practically minded, that our survival as a species was founded in wilderness. His recognition that “wildness is a necessity” changed the way that an entire nation thought about the mountains and meadows and deserts. His words touched the hearts of millions. He inspired the future conservation of land, but he also preserved an attitude; an attitude of patient, stoic reverence for the unmatched works of God’s hand. His bright, lively eyes gleamed with vitality and joy as he gazed at the wonders of the Sierras and the Sequoia, the Grand Canyon, and Alaska. When he wandered into wilderness his mind and body were healed. His health improved, as did his mood, and his spirit. Are any of us any different?

John Muir believed that “there is a love of wild nature in everybody… ever showing itself whether recognized or no, and however covered by cares and duties.” “Come to the woods” he insisted, “for here is rest… sleep in forgetfulness of all ill. Of all the upness accessible to mortals, there is no upness comparable to the mountains.” The mountains, in our fool’s errand for eternity, are our best and only substitute for heaven.

Can such sentimental, bromidic idealism survive our cynical, connected, artificial world? Are we too far removed from wildness to even bother with the upness of the mountains anymore? If so, then one must ask what plight we now find ourselves in if even our ideals are scoffed at, belittled, and scorned.

What will be our legacy?

John Muir is long dead. But his words are as true today as they ever were. And yet, even he was incapable of staying the relentless hand of “progress”. Not even its inclusion in Yosemite National Park prevented the damming of the Hetch Hetchy Valley, a favorite among Muir’s many beloved mountain valleys. “These temple-destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar. Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.” Today the Hetch Hetchy Valley is the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. Certainly its practicality is obvious, but at what cost was that practicality purchased?

Wilderness, like liberty, must constantly be nourished and protected. Not (always) by the force of government, as it is a fickle, unreliable guardian. Instead, the protection of wilderness must come from the people. If we, the people, are willing to exercise restraint, and pursue greatness rather than progress, we may yet perpetuate the legacy of John Muir. We may yet escape the burden of duty, steel, and business. We, like Muir, might as long as we live “…hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing… interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche… and get as near the heart of the world as [we] can.”

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