My Idea, Mr. Muir: Part 3


Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

Part 3: If one pine were placed in a town square, what admiration it would excite! Yet who is conscious of the pine-tree multitudes in the free woods, though open to everybody.  (John Muir. John of the Mountains, the Unpublished Journals of John Muir, p. 220)

John Muir was facing a challenge – in fact several challenges – in 1875 when he wrote those words.

He had been living in Oakland and was gaining respect as a naturalist and scientist through his many published articles about Nature. But it was early in his development as the conservation activist he would become, the one who would found the Sierra Club and serve as its president for twenty years. The one who would lobby successfully for the establishment of Yosemite as a national park and influence the direction of conservation and preservation legislation for years to come.

During that early period, despite his successes, Muir had been languishing in the city in what he described in a letter to Mrs. Ezra Carr as that strange Oakland epoch.

When I first came down to the city from my mountain home, he wrote in his journal, I began to wither, and wish instinctively for the vital woods and high sky. Yet I lingered month after month, plodding at duty. (John of the Mountains: the Unpublished Journals of John Muir, p. 192).

A major challenge for Muir was how to make a living and not lose himself. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get into the mountains to learn the news.

Besides magazine writing, Muir held many odd jobs that helped get him through this early period. The solution to his financial woes came after his marriage in 1880 when he went into partnership with his father-in-law and spent ten years managing their large and profitable fruit ranch.

A second dilemma for Muir was how to hold on to himself as a writer. As Michael P. Cohen pointed out, …working in and through a medium, with its own conventions, has a way of shaping the mind of the creator…..By falling into the occupation of a popular writer, [Muir] could endanger the very message he had a sacred mission to convey (The Pathless Way: Muir and American Wilderness, p. 132).

In other words, Muir was challenged, perhaps to rein in his effusiveness, to temper his tendency to anthropomorphize nature or to refer to trees and rocks, and all of nature as communicators with God, lest he offend, or simply turn off, his readers. In the end, Cohen writes, Muir wished to be as wild and immoderate as Nature. In practice, he had to compromise.

In an ironic turn of events, Muir would be faced with another challenge, the job of confronting what always had been a source of pleasure for him; efficient machinery. Muir was an inventor. He was ingenious at devising time-saving machines. This was the age of industrialization and urbanization, which championed efficiency and ingenuity, but which also brought with it pollution and weariness and social ills.

I know that our bodies were made to thrive only in pure air, and the scenes in which pure air is found. If the death exhalations that brood the broad towns in which we so fondly compact ourselves were made visible, we should flee as from a plague. All are more or less sick; there is not a perfectly sane man in San Francisco. (John of the Mountains, p. 191).

Muir understood the connection between health and wellbeing and experiences in Nature, and he  could be very clever about tying this relationship to the need for preservation and conservation.

As he does in this quote from Our National Parks, Chapter 1 (1901)…

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity and that mountains, parks, and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains for life.