Birthdays, Baptisms, and John Muir’s America: Part I

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Birthdays, Baptisms, and John Muir’s America: Part I

“Come next year, all of you. Come to the purest of terrestrial fountains. Come and receive baptism and absolution from civilized sins. You were but sprinkled last year. Come and be immersed.”

Excerpt: BOFAW, chap. 19, Carnival.

 I was saddened by the fact that in a nation blessed with glorious natural resources, we teach children the importance of bathing their bodies without mentioning the same need for their minds and spirits. It later occurred to me that it was a shame that in the Christian faith people are only baptized once. It seemed clear to me that people are spiritually starving and should be baptized many times. Not only that, they don’t need anyone else to help them. I have been baptized by Mother Nature, for Lord only knows how many scores of times, and it is always rejuvenating and often hilarious … carnival.

 I don’t know if John Muir enjoyed celebrating his birthday. I do know, however, that in addition to frequent moments of Nature-induced- ecstasy, he lived in an almost perpetual state of gratitude for his many, many spiritual rebirths. He described them in Wisconsin, Indiana, nearly dying while digging a well, and when he nearly blinded himself with a sharp file. All of these combined, however, could not equal the rebirth he experienced when, in the spring of 1868, he walked into Yosemite Valley. There were no cars, trucks or busses and only a couple hundred people loosely scattered in the area now occupied by Yosemite Lodge, NPS Headquarters, Yosemite Village and Curry Village. The fact that he wrote little more about it other than; “it is the most holy mansion of the Sierra Mountains,” could indicate that he was overwhelmed by its grandeur and beauty. He had to leave to find work in the San Joaquin Valley, but would return later and experience many more rebirths.

He was re-born 100 feet up a fir tree in a fierce wind-storm, riding an avalanche, clinging to slippery rocks behind roaring Yosemite Falls, and nearly dying on an Alaskan Glacier.

 We live in an anthropocentric, pedantic, secular, egotistical age and I will probably be considered a loon for suggesting that I strongly suspect that John Muir is fully aware that I (along with millions) have adopted him as a Godfather figure

[Nearly all indigenous tribes believe in a “happy hunting ground” (or its equivalent) and there is much Biblical (and other religious information), as well as much anecdotal evidence, that suggests that our Earthly life is merely one stage, “avatar,” or incarnation that continues after our “death.”]

 Muir’s vast writings are God-in-Nature centered and follow protagonist philosophers such as Plato and Socrates who claimed that a satisfactory life can only be achieved through constant self-evaluation and the continual search for truth, beauty and goodness.

I was only casually aware of most o Muir’s writings until the magical class of 1979 came along. It is not that the previous classes were deficient; however, for truly mysterious reasons, the Class of ’79 intuitively “knew” what I was trying to do, before and better than I even knew. The fact is that they completed the foundation that supported 18 more classes. They said and did many things that had never been said or done before. One of these involved discovering that my birthday would occur during our Yosemite trip. I carefully avoided the subject and hoped that the students would not become aware of it. During the free afternoon, on the last day, someone had the thoughtfulness of mind to go to Yosemite Village (or Curry Village) and purchase a wonderful book titled, John Muir’s America. Each student included a thoughtful wish and signed the book. The text was written by T.H. Watkins and included stunning photographs by Dewitt Jones.

It would become one of my most important (and cherished) references and had a profound effect on all subsequent Biodesign Classes. There are numerous outstanding quotes, anecdotes and photos, but two entries were of particular importance.

Paired with a beautiful autumn scene of a high Sierra Valley, Muir wrote:

 “Come next year, all of you. Come to the purest of terrestrial fountains. Come and receive baptism and absolution from civilized sins. You were but sprinkled last year. Come and be immersed.”

 Muir made no apology for intentionally sounding like a priest or pastor in an organized religion. He regarded both Hetch Hetchy and Yosemite Valleys as temples for people to play and pray. The Sierras in general, and especially Yosemite, healed the emotional scars that were inflicted by an abusive father, and in the process, he discovered an open window to the universe.  Like Moses (4,000 years earlier) he came down from the mountains like a bearded prophet with a message that altered the fate of human history. He dedicated his entire life trying to increase National Parkland and encouraging others to seek the process of being spiritually reborn.

 Thanks to Biodesign ’79, I was better able to understand and communicate Muir’s message about Nature’s healing powers.  I don’t think I was brave enough to share the above quote in a public school, but three years later another student would change that. We were coming down from Half Dome on The Mist Trail when Sean spotted the water at the base of Nevada Falls. “I want to get in that water,” he announced. I objected and said that we had to get back to camp and get the dinner crew started. He was equally adamant and repeated, “I want to get in that water.” I acquiesced and we took the short hike, on an “unofficial” trail, to the bottom of the falls. What happened next (for most) was transformative and in some cases miraculous. Hot, dirty and tired bodies were thoroughly refreshed; some were profoundly moved. There was an outburst of joy and enthusiasm that quickly spread through the group.

“I have never been clear on the concept of infant baptism, but John Muir’s description of Nevada Falls having the mystical power to foster born-again experiences was perfectly clear. For those students who stood under the 600-foot column of pounding water, a lot more than their bodies was being cleansed. Any revelations were natural, personal, and were not exclusive to any brand of religion. Even so, I worried about what my principal, the school board, and my critics might say. “Have you heard the latest? He baptized a whole class under a waterfall, and they were only wearing their underwear!” Miraculously, the event was never criticized.” BOFAW: Chap. 26, Soul Medicine.

 For many years, scientists have tried to discover and describe the cause (or causes) for the physical, mental and possibly spiritual changes that typically occur under a waterfall. Some have suggested that the falling water produces more ozone or other ionized particles that have rejuvenating powers.

Muir was a scientist and did much to describe the plant and animal activity of the areas he visited. He was also a poet, sage and mystic and would have heartily agreed with Meister Eckhart (13th century mystic) who boldly predicted that science would not be able to solve the great mysteries of the universe, including God.

The labor of Living–Loving–Learning

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The Labor of Living—Loving—Learning

“Your daily life is your temple and religion.” The Prophet, Gibran

For many people this means that careers, jobs and professions become their “temple and religion.” The word religion derives from the Latin: re-ligare, to apply a ligament.  I have long been fascinated that the origin of the word is biological and not “spiritual.” Evidently, whoever coined the word religion understood that it is the soul’s equivalent of holding the body together. After all, if climbing Half Dome is impossible without ligaments, perhaps it is equally impossible to climb spiritual mountains without a personal “religion.”

A huge amount of time and energy must be dedicated to daily labors which are necessary to survive. There is, however, a more subtle, Herculean struggle to discover who we are as individuals and how we can maximize our efforts of achieving our richest, fullest physical, mental and spiritual human experience.

Ralph Emerson challenged Biodesign students to write their own bibles. This was not a “religious” challenge in a literal sense, but merely a suggestion that they may want to begin collecting verses, phrases, books etc. that would help guide and enrich their lives. If “One day in the wilderness is worth cartloads of books,” (Muir) then, for many students, the experiential value of going to Yosemite, Grand Canyon and Mendocino could be enough to build a lifetime on. On the other hand, there were students who began a lifetime process of writing their own bible (with a little “b”).

The word bible is a shortened form of biblioteca which is a library of stories, history, legends, myths and socio-cultural information. It is heartwarming to know that some students have continued working on their personal “bible” for as long as 35 years. Actually, if Gibran is correct, all of our daily life and work involves nothing less than working on our “temple and religion.”

When I began writing Biodesign Out For A Walk, I did not consider it as a little “b” bible. After it was released, however, others may have read it differently. During our recent “Virtual Book Tour,” one person commented, “The book is highly controversial, ‘over-the-top’ with religion, but the author’s views were interesting.” After hearing about the book, a long-time friend of mine sarcastically asked me if it was “The Gospel according to Lowell”?  I am not a Biblical scholar, however it is common knowledge that the shortest sentence in the Bible is “Jesus wept.” As I was writing this, I burst into fits of laughter. The shortest line in BOFAW can be found in “The Revised Version,” ;o) page 211; “THEY LAUGHED!” It may be the most profound line in the book. The students faced many challenging ideas that adults are often afraid to face, some of which are currently causing wars, death and destruction. There were moments of intense pain and sorrow in each and every class, however, the overriding response to the lessons was to laugh.

In the US today, it may be politically and scientifically incorrect to refer to “The Holy Bible,” but there is nothing incorrect about students who accepted Emerson’s challenge and heeded Henry Thoreau’s warning by striving to avoid, “getting to the end of their life and realizing that they had not fully lived.”

Little wonder, it is with great pleasure that I paraphrase John Muir and regard the 700+ courageous Biodesigners as “Immortal.” It may also be apparent to some that I was truly like “Ishmael,” and supremely blessed to have been along for the journey.


Hawks, Eagles, Darwin, Intelligent Design

American Bald Eagle pic

In The Immense Journey, Loren Eiseley describes the boisterous reunion of a mated pair of sparrow hawks that may have revealed that they understand, and feel more compassion than scientists have ever guessed.

“I saw both now. He was rising fast to meet her. They met in a great soaring gyre that turned into a whirling circle and a dance of wings. Once more, just once, their two voices, joined in a harsh wild medley of question and response, struck and echoed against the pinnacles of the valley. Then they were gone forever somewhere into the upper regions beyond the eyes of man.”

Watching the Yukon live-feed eagle-cam proved to be pretty slow going until I suddenly saw a minor miracle. The female was nestled over two chicks, patiently waiting for her mate to return with their next meal. After awhile the male descended and carefully landed on the edge of the nest. Using beak and talons, he immediately proceeded to tear some flesh from a freshly killed rodent. He succeeded in tearing off three successive chunks and placed each on the nest in front of his mate. She quickly devoured each piece. With the fourth piece, however, she picked up the meat in her beak and raised it up to her mate’s beak. Instinctively, he engaged her in a protein tug-o-war as they reduced the larger piece of meat into bits that were small enough to feed her chicks. She stood up and the chicks immediately emerged from beneath her with beaks opened widely, ready to be fed. This process provided a wonderful miracle that Darwin’s Theory does not explain.

According to avian behavioral experts, birds are not able to comprehend the concept of time. They simply don’t have the neocortex tissue necessary to conceptualize the future or the past. Apparently they live in a continuous “now.” Does this suggest that they are incapable of experiencing any form of altruism? Lacking this, why would the male even bother to feed his mate? If Darwin’s Theory of “survival of the fittest” were the only factor at play, why would the male not keep all the meat for himself? What possible good could come to him for feeding his mate? Furthermore, why would he bother to feed offspring who, if they survive, would only increase competition for his food supply?  There is no immediate selective advantage for him to care for his mate or her chicks.

At the bare minimum, this suggests that there are genetically encoded behavioral characteristics that Darwin’s Theory does not explain. Either the bird brain experts are wrong about the bird’s ability to process abstract thought or Darwin’s ToE is flawed. Without this evidence, it is rational to hypothesize that there are mysterious forces at play which could include “Intelligent Design.”  These forces have somehow equipped male and female eagles with the motivation and ability to transcend the law of survival of the fittest and contribute to the greater good of maintaining the species.

“Intelligent Design” need not be connected with a Supreme Being; in fact, scientists are acting properly when they contend that “Intelligent Design” (or any theory ascribed to “God”) can not be accepted until there is definitive “scientific” proof.

Poets and sages (especially writer O’Henry) suggest that life is nothing but ironic. Meister Eckhart, currently regarded as truly one of the world’s great theologians, was put on trial by the Catholic Church for ideas that they deemed “heretical.” Ironically, his teachings are now widely accepted by many faiths and include the opinion that the answers to mankind’s greatest mysteries will not be found in science. In another irony, it is now the scientist’s turn to regard all beliefs but their own as “heretical.”

In the end, the simple, yet profound, behavior of  Eiseley’s sparrow hawks and a pair of American Bald Eagles proves that the common denominator of both science and religion is mystery. Little wonder that Abraham Maslow (Religion-Values-Peak Experiences) suggested; “sooner or later we will have to redefine the meaning of science and religion.”

No Man Is An Island

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No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.          John Donne

Having Patti Rosellini discover BOFAW reminded me of Elton John’s “Golden Oldie,”  “Michelle’s Song.” A very, very long time ago (1975) I was not aware of the song until students used it in a slide-show to translate and communicate what they experienced on their trip to Yosemite. The current slide-show captures some of the joy and innocence that Biodesigners often experienced as they discovered the wonders of themselves, each other and Mother Nature. They were “casting pebbles in the water” that are still sending gentle ripples throughout the universe.

One of the most important themes of Biodesign out For A Walk is that The Class, and the book, were the result of a collaborative effort between students, parents, chaperones, scientists, sages and multiple mentors. Truly, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts and I was merely a “piece of the continent, a part of the main.”  It was truly an awesome privilege to be invited into the sacred realm of the teenage soul and I think it is important to share some of their insights.


Just For Fun and a Little More







 Mike Dunn posted an amazing video of a singer arguably reaching the lowest known notes recorded buy a human. It sounds very much like the lowest note capable of being played on the grand organ at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. The organ has over 7,000 pipes; one is about the size of a human pinkie finger, and produces a note over 5,000 Hz.. Many people can not hear it, but most dogs in the neighborhood can hear it just fine. The largest pipe is 8 inches in diameter and 32 feet tall. At 16 Hz, the human ear can detect the individual oscillations and the sound is more like a motorcycle driving through a tunnel rather than a note; thus the comment from Mike’s page, “it sounds more like a burp.” I doubt that either note is used in regular musical presentations.

In the earlier years of Biodesign, several classes visited the Army Corps of Engineer’s “Bay Model” in Sausalito, walked across the Golden Gate Bridge, and several points of interest, including Grace Cathedral. Albert Einstein is featured in one of the clerestory stained-glass windows and I had a friend (John Fenstermaker) who gave the students a demonstration of the grand organ. We were not there for “religious” reasons but to explore the spiritual capacity of man which includes science, music, art, architecture and so much more. The cathedral features replicas of the massive bronze “Gates of Paradise,” of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance masterpiece in Florence Italy.

 Fenstermaker demonstrated how Johann Bach wrote music that would leave the organ, travel down the cathedral and reverberate back. Music lovers who appreciate what he did, can sit in the center of the cathedral and experience waves and waves of music washing over them. It does not need a name, but many students experienced something that was not explainable in human terms. Fenstermaker ended with a version of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue” which blew all the cobwebs out of the cathedral as well as most of our minds.

The students were right next to a world-class concert organ-master and watching him work was extraordinary. He used all five keyboards as well as the foot pedals. Fingers flew up and down and he mastered the pedals with the heel and toe of each foot. This meant that he not only commanded ten fingers, but two heels and toes which meant that at every moment he was in command of an astonishing,  FOURTEEN variables.


For those who have read BOFAW, Chip Detro was in one of the lucky classes that got to tour Grace. It is near the top of Nob Hill and we decided to go top China Town for dinner. The street down to China Town is perilously steep, especially for someone in a wheel chair. Chip left his motorized chair home and was therefore at the mercy of his classmates. He described the descent down Nob Hill as the scariest thing he had ever done. We laughed all the way down as he kept shouting, “Oh my God! Oh my God! Don’t let go of me!” Little wonder, as he only had use of his right forearm, thumb and index finger.

In a wonderful synchronicity, I located this U-Tube video of Bach’s Toccata. It gives me goose bumps to listen and watch the video-graphic notes. Musicians may be able to watch the organist’s left hand (upper) right hand (middle) and bass notes (lower) played with heels and toes. I think the different keyboards are also color coded. Simply amazing!  


alpha woman 

 Excerpt: Biodesign Out For A Walk, Introduction.

 “They learned that Albert Einstein and Loren Eiseley agreed that every branch of science was cloaked in mystery and that it would be their challenge and privilege to contemplate those mysteries.”


 “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”


Eiseley: Excerpted from, The Immense Journey, Time/Life Reading Program.

“Professor Eiseley is one of the increasing number of contemporary scientists who insist that the mystery still exists, and that there is more to evolution than was dreamed of in the 19th Century’s refusal to philosophize. Moreover, he makes us feel that unless we too realize this we are in danger of ceasing to be truly human.” Joseph W. Krutch.

“Eiseley is less concerned about man conquering nature than nature, in the form of God, conquering the human heart. As he has written elsewhere” ‘whether we speak of a God come down to earth or a man inspired toward God and betrayed on a cross, the dream was great, and shook the world like a storm. I believe in Christ in every man who dies to contribute to a life beyond his life. I believe in Christ in all who defend the individual from the iron boot of the extending collective state…

I have been accused of wooly-mindedness for entertaining even hope for man. I can only respond that in the dim morning shadows of humanity, the inarticulate creature who first hesitantly formed the words for pity and love must have received similar guffaws around the fire. Yet some men listened, for the words survive.’

Darwin’s Doubt, Ichemoid Wasps, black Widows, Praying Mantises & Evolution

Caterpillar pic Linda    



Excerpt: Biodesign out For A Walk, Chap. ;21. Simple Gifts.

One of nature’s most outlandish displays of mystery is demonstrated

billions of time each year and goes mostly unnoticed and never

fully understood. It involves the “common” caterpillar. Whether

it spins a cocoon or secrets a chrysalis, what happens next is pure

mystery. Essentially, the pupa dissolves itself into a sort of cellular/

molecular soup. Molecule by molecule, cell by cell, all internal and

external systems are reconfigured. A score of legs are reduced to six.

Leaf-crunching mandibles are morphed into a tubular proboscis that

will suck nectar. The lethargic “worm” is transformed into a feather-light

gossamer that literally floats on the air.


Charles Darwin is arguably the Isaac Newton of the biological sciences. As such, however, he does not deserve the godlike status that some secular scientists have bestowed upon him, nor does he deserve the satanic status that as Fundamental Religious people have labeled him. He was a brilliant man who “thought outside the box,” and was more fortunate than Socrates, Jesus and countless other progressive thinkers who were put to death.

In a huge double irony, Darwin was not only unable to explain the Cambrian Explosion, but deeply troubled by the possibility that a “God of love” could create or allow some of the horrid examples of animal behavior that were necessary for his doctrine of “survival of the fittest” to occur.

 In a recent column by George Will:

“In 1860, Charles Darwin confided in a letter to a friend: ‘I had no intention to write atheistically, but I can not persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of the caterpillars.’

What appalled him had fascinated entomologist William Kirby (1759-1850): The ichneumon insect inserts an egg in a caterpillar, and the larva hatched from the egg “gnaws the inside of the caterpillar, and though at last it has devoured almost every part except the skin and intestines, carefully all this time avoids injuring the vital organs, as if aware that its own existence depends on the insect on which it preys.”

Although the story of the Ichneumonids may have been unpleasant to Darwin, nature is filled with gruesome, gory, heart-wrenching and cruel examples of disease, parasitism, and predatory animals drenched in blood, all for the sake of, “survival of the fittest.”

Whenever possible, Black Widow female spiders trap and devour their mate (after copulation). The classic, perhaps most bizarre case, is the female Praying Mantis who waits until her mate’s reproductive organ is firmly inserted in her body, before she turns her head around and devours him from the head down. Even after his head is gone, his thorax valiantly continues to throb and pulse, pumping vital sperm into her body.

Darwin knew that his theory had some missing links, but so did his childhood religion that presented God as the all-knowing, all-loving Creator. Perhaps, more significantly, he failed to mention the mysterious process of lepidopteron metamorphosis, whereby each caterpillar secrets a chrysalis (or spins a cocoon) and digests itself into cellular soup. It would be as if the most complex computer secreted a covering around itself, reduced all components to simple molecules, emerged in a totally new form and flew away on wings. Darwin knew that no utilitarian philosophy could explain the miraculous process and modern scientists are still at a loss as to how this can happen.

Happy Anniversary Christie

Happy Anniversary Christie

Excerpt: BOFAW, “In Thanksgiving.”

And finally, the omega factor is often the most important in a
list. If readers are not able to see, or perhaps more importantly feel
between the lines, and sense that Christie was the guiding light for
The Biodesign Class and this book, I will have failed. Her quiet life
of prayer and contemplation provided the unseen spirit that hovered
over the hundreds of circles we formed each year to compare, communicate,
and contemplate. Without her, I would likely have been
like Ingrid (class of ’84) who suggested that, “I could have been born,
grown up, grown old, and died without knowing what life was really
all about.”

It is a bittersweet realization to know that most visitors to Yosemite Valley can easily grasp John Muir’s metaphorical reference to The Valley being a Temple, but not be able to grasp that they are really seeing a reflection of the “temple” within. St. Paul was well aware of this when he wrote:

Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own.

This concept was beautifully illustrated to Christie and me, 15 years after we were married. We attended a “Marriage Encounter,” week-end which was conducted by 15 couples who had dynamic marriages and wanted to share their secrets of success. I came away with three powerful reflections.

1) Feelings are neither right nor wrong, but how you respond to them can be.
2) Each married couple is a “Little Church” and should be a center of worship.
3) In order to accomplish this, each couple should spend 20 minutes a day focusing on their strengths and areas that can be improved.

Neither Christie nor I like to have our pictures taken. We also do not appreciate the misguided idea that “we” were responsible for The Biodesign Class and BOFAW. We were convinced of this the last time we visited Yosemite and Mendocino. Although they were still beautiful, they were hauntingly empty without the laughter, pain, joy and sorrow that the students radiated as they were coming alive.
John Muir did not like being, “Propped up for the populace to gawk at,” and neither do we and so Linda Williamson’s “Foreword” to BOFAW is a little embarrassing.

I now realize that one of the great lessons of Biodesign was learning
how a strong marriage works. Christie was, and is, the strength
behind the scenes; the wind beneath Lowell Young’s wings.

However, I humbly agree with her assessment and hope that if one person (or couple) benefits from this blog, it will not have been written in vain.
After all, 49 years ago, I was minding my own business, in the girls dorm at SFSU, when she walked by, wearing a stunning pink sweater and pants that were discretely too tight.
June 20 marks our 48th wedding anniversary and she is more beautiful now than when we met and can still fit in her wedding dress. LOL We have four fantastic children, nine precious grandchildren and an assorted passel of God-children and “spiritual refugees,” all of who have enriched our lives beyond our wildest dreams.
It shouldn’t be a surprise if I describe our marriage as equivalent to climbing 1,000 Half Domes, hiking Grand Canyon 1,000 times and being lulled to sleep 1,000 times by the Pacific Ocean.

African story tellers often end their stories with this prayer;

“This is my story.
Take from it what speaks truth for you.
The rest, send back home to me with a blessing.”

From both of us.