My Idea, Mr. Muir: Part 2

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

The year is 1861.

John Muir is 23 years old. He is attending the University of Wisconsin, where he will develop an interest in botany.

In California, photographer Carleton Watkins, a contemporary of Muir, straps his 40-pound camera and accompanying paraphernalia to his mules and ventures into Yosemite Valley.

At some point Muir and Watkins will meet and become friends, connected by their love of Yosemite, their avid environmentalism, and photography.

Why Yosemite? Watkins will publish a book of his Yosemite photos that will prompt President Abraham Lincoln to pass a law designating Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove as a California state park.

Muir, as his career develops, will direct much of his advocacy towards establishing Yosemite as a national park.

Why photography? Watkins will create a portrait of Muir. Muir will walk the photographic route of Watkins book.

           Portrait of John Muir (c. 1875) by Carleton Watkins

Which brings me to part 2 Muir’s quote.

Part 2: Who reports and works the ways of the clouds, those wondrous creations coming into being every day like freshly upheaved mountains? And what record is kept of Nature’s colors – – the clothes she wears – of her birds, her beasts, her live-stock? (John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, pp. 220-221).

By asking these questions, was Muir commenting on the state of wilderness photography in 1875?

While Watkins was able to record great detail in his landscape photographs, clouds, and any sky detail, are conspicuously missing from his work.

This seems typical of photographs of this era, which hints at a limitation in the capabilities of the cameras at that time.

Example:  Photo taken by Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904)

And then there is Muir’s question about Nature’s colors.

Color photography was in an experimental phase in 1875 when Muir wrote those words. Techniques had not yet evolved that could reliably capture and preserve color in a photograph.

For Muir, nature’s colors, all the tones nameless and numberless, as he once described them when writing about the Grand Canyon, (John of the Mountains, p. 363) were essential to the authentic wilderness experience. (I wonder how he would respond to the photos of Ansel Adams.)

And then there was Muir the inventor. In addition to his gift as chronicler of nature, Muir was endowed with mechanical prowess and imagination. It isn’t surprising, therefore, that he would lament the lack of technological advancements in photography that could have opened up the possibilities for recording clouds and displaying Nature’s colors.

When I think of Muir’s desire for technological advancement, however, I think of the expression, be careful what you wish for.

Now that we have the technical skill to capture images of nature in a way that Muir might possibly never have imagined, there is the danger of the virtual experience replacing the natural, ironically, deepening our disconnection from nature.  But that would be the subject of a future blog.

In the meantime, watch this film of starling murmuration (thank you Joe Frank) and ask yourself, does this make you want to experience this live, or is this enough.  How do you think Muir would respond to this?  (Here’s some information about murmuration.)

6 thoughts on “My Idea, Mr. Muir: Part 2”

  1. What a delightful departure from reading the news! The flight if the starlings is amazing…the flock takes on it’s own life as it weaves and flows…I am thankful for the technology that provides the experience when you can’t see it in your “town square”. Still no video I have seen of the “moment of totality” in a total eclipse can compare with the experience of being there. While a picture can promote recall, I don’t think it can capture a totality! Thanks for your post.

    1. No comparison to the real thing, although the murmurations I sometimes see from my roof are not of this scale (murmurationlets?), it’s such a moving experience! When we first moved in there was a group of starlings who davenned on the roof of the next building at dawn, one group in a line on the edge of the solar panels and another along the front of the building, facing Jerusalem of course. I’m assuming they were divided by gender. Sometimes there was a kid starling who walked up and down the solar panels until they banished him to go sit with the women. As soon as the sun was fully visible over the Judean hills, they would all rise up at once and do some aeronautics. Once they circled my head seven times. I walked around in a daze all day–what an honor! I guess they daven someplace else now–place got gentrified or something not obvious to a human. But it was wonderful being able to be a spectator to their ceremony.

      1. A ‘moving’ experience. Spiritual. It’s all spiritual. They moved on, I think, to honor others with their wonder and ceremony. We’re all connected.

    2. Absolutely! There is nothing that can replace the experience of being in nature. Seeing it on film gives us a thrill. Seeing it in person connects us.

  2. My answer to the question posed at the conclusion of your Part 2 blog is “No.” While the
    photograph depicts a flock of birds in orchestrated group flight, nothing but actually seeing
    the activity in person qualifies as a complete experience. A silent video illustrates the
    coordinated flight of birds, however being able to also hear the collective flaps of their wings
    is a rich addition to the already engaging sight.

    For some individuals because of limiting factors (health/financial) experiencing a scene or
    activity in nature is not possible. In those cases, still images and videos provide their only
    opportunity to observe nature’s grandeur.

    1. Thank you for your response, Ed. Your comment about still images and videos being better than no nature exposure has been borne out by research. In one study, researchers exposed three study groups in a hospital to; no nature, videos about nature, and windows with actual nature. The results are that the ones who had visions of real nature did best in terms of medical and psychological outcomes and the ones exposed to virtual nature also showed improvements, although not as strong as those in the actual nature group, but both did better than the ones with no nature.

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