John Muir (1838-1914) grew up in Dunbar, east of Edinburgh, where he developed an early love for wild places, scaling the treacherous seaside cliffs nearby. Aged ten, he emigrated to the United States with his family. He was fascinated by everything in nature – from mosquitoes to mountain ranges – recognising that all of life is connected.
His passion for wild places led to a life-long quest to protect them. Muir’s writings helped people to understand the importance of wildness and inspired the creation of the world’s first national park system.
The Mountains of California, published in 1894, is John Muir’s first book. It is an exploration and examination of the mountain ranges of California, particularly the Sierra Nevada, during the late 1860’s to the early 1870’s.
Muir’s writing is a celebration of nature. It is a vivid and detailed expression of his overflowing love for wild places where nothing escapes his notice, from the towering Sequoia to the tiny Douglas squirrel. His keen awareness and compelling insights are instructive, inspiring a commitment to preserve what is good.
In conveying his passion for ‘wild places’, Muir shows us what is needed to live fully.
If you want to understand something, immerse yourself in it.
“Immerse’ means ‘to plunge into, to become completely involved in something, to be enthralled, engaged, fascinated, to be held spellbound.’
There are no shortcuts to understanding. Muir nearly lost his sight in a factory accident in 1867. This proved a turning point and he resolved to return to nature with a newfound sense of purpose and conviction. He spent the next decade of his life immersed in the wild, particularly in the Sierra Nevadas in California.
Some may regard Muir’s actions as ‘an escape to the wild,’ but Muir understood immersion to be ‘an encounter with the wild.’ He found that avoiding wild places may seem a safe option but in doing so you deny yourself the wonder, the beauty, and the knowledge that enlarges life and strengthens resolve.
You will never know what you are made of – the courage, the determination, the fearlessness, and the endurance to overcome hostile environments – until you take on something bigger than yourself.
Wild places cannot be tamed but they are subject to change.
Muir wanted to understand the world and the natural world became his tutor. He says,
‘As long as I live, 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.’
Muir witnessed the beauty and majesty of the mountain ranges of California when the wild places were largely pristine and untouched. Muir revelled in the mountains, glaciers, lakes, and forests. He reflected on the workings of wind. storm, and weather on the mountains. He delighted in the activities of squirrels, birds, the bighorn sheep, and the bees who made the mountains their home.
Muir accepted the inherent risk of being in an environment both exhilarating and dangerous. Despite the difficulties he encountered and the hardships he endured he maintained a positive outlook. He never saw reason to complain, even if cornered by adverse terrain or treacherous conditions.
While climbing to the peak of Mount Ritter, at an elevation of 12,800 feet, Muir faced a sheer precipice, blocking his progress. His concern centred on the lack of secure footholds. Muir embraced the challenge, knowing the potential danger. He says,
‘After scanning the cliffs face again and again, I began to scale it, picking my holds with intense caution. After gaining a point halfway to the top, I was suddenly brought to a dead stop, with arms outspread, clinging close to the face of the rock, unable to move hand or foot either up or down. My doom appeared fixed. I must fall. There would be a moment of bewilderment, and then a lifeless rumble down the one general precipice to the glacier below.’
For a moment, Muir felt powerless. He could not shake off the fear of falling and his mind ‘seemed to fill with a stifling smoke.’ Fortunately, the confusion and uncertainty lifted, and he was able to move forward with confidence and precision.
On another occasion Muir climbed to the top of a Douglas Spruce tree to experience the full force of a windstorm. He says,
‘I kept my lofty perch for hours, frequently closing my eyes to enjoy the music by itself, or to feast quietly on the delicious fragrance that was streaming past.’
(3) Awe & Wonder:
The wild places never failed to produce feelings of awe and wonder in John Muir. He could be overwhelmed by the expansiveness, feeling small by comparison and yet connected.
Awe and wonder are essential to the human experience. Although they are often used interchangeably, they are not the same. Researchers Ulrich Weger and Johannes Wagemann explain it like this. They write, “Wonder inspires the wish to understand; awe inspires the wish to let shine, to acknowledge and to unite. When feeling awe, we tend to simply stand back and observe, “to provide a stage for the phenomenon to shine.”
Wonder fuels our passion for exploration and learning, for curiosity and adventure while awe leads us to cooperate, share resources, and sacrifice for others. Some researchers even believe that “awe-inducing events may be one of the fastest and most powerful methods of personal change and growth.”
Muir’s writing is evocative, shining with a poetic love of nature. The following paragraph captures his sense of awe and wonder. He writes,
‘Now came the solemn, silent evening. Long, blue, spiky shadows crept out across the snowfields, while a rosy glow, at first scarce discernible, gradually deepened and suffused every mountain-top, flushing the glaciers and the harsh crags above them. This was the alpenglow, to me one of the most impressive of all the terrestrial manifestations of God. At the touch of this divine light, the mountains seemed to kindle to a rapt, religious consciousness, and stood hushed and waiting like devout worshippers.’
(4) Health & Wholeness:
John Muir found that visiting wild places helps us grow as people and is important for recharging mind and body. He says,
‘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.’
There is now a growing body of evidence which highlights the power of wild places to support and enhance our wellbeing – emotionally, spiritually, physically, and mentally.
Researcher, Jake Robinson, from the University of Sheffield found that regular engagement with natural environments such as woodlands, parks and lakes had multiple benefits, promoting physical activity, psychological restoration (the ability to recover from stress) and social cohesion.
Wild places can have a profound effect on people who are battling addictions.
Steve Sylvan works as a Crisis Progression Coach for Crisis Skylight South Yorkshire. He leads Wellbeing Walks in the Peak District for homeless people to help rebuild their confidence, resilience, and self-esteem. Steve says,
‘When you are stood in nature, there is no space in your head for worry or anxiety, just the here and now, the feeling of freedom. A chance to take a breath. I love the outdoors, and I am passionate about the power of nature to restore.’
Listen again to the passionate words of John Muir who believes experiencing the wildness is necessary for our wholeness.
‘Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilised 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.’
John Muir was something of an all-rounder – an explorer and adventurer, mountaineer, conservationist, botanist, amateur geologist, inventor, writer of distinction, and dreamer. His passion for wild places led to a life-long quest to protect them. He was an active campaigner against inappropriate development and an advocate for the wild in word and deed. His writings helped people understand the importance of wildness. His activism saved Yosemite Valley in California and helped create the world’s first national park system.
It was Muir’s view that it is not enough for people to be in sympathy with the plight of the natural world, but that they must become ‘active conversationists’ – as campaigners, practical project workers, scientists, artists, and writers – believing implicitly that wild places will outlast human endeavour.