It turned out that fire was one of the most important elements in the Biodesign experience. Typically, every day of our studies at Yosemite and Mendocino ended with a circular celebration around a campfire. Often the combination of heat, light and the transformation of solid wood into gaseous flames served as a metaphor for mental transformation. The rising smoke mingled with the pine-scented air and surpassed the finest incense that is burned in the world’s greatest cathedrals.
We read excerpts from the great Naturalists, sang folk songs, told jokes and funny stories, but also shared reflections of revelations discovered during our days in the wilderness. Erin was shy and I noticed that she sat pensively not participating in the jubilant chatter. I wondered what she was thinking but respected her apparent need for privacy.
All of that changed on our final Yosemite campfire. They had slept under the stars the previous night on top of Half Dome and were basking in a spiritual afterglow. However, when there was a lull in the chatter, she timidly offered, “I like pinecones.” The three words hung in the chilled air and no one seemed to be sure how to process them. My first thought was an attempt at humor, but then I recalled, “still waters run deep.” Erin had a gentle spirit and I suspected that she was experiencing, not only a sensory overload, but channeling John Muir’s frustration when he wrote, “No amount of word-making will ever make a single soul to know these mountains.”
The news of Erin’s transcendence was shocking and reminded me of another of Muir’s aphorisms, only this one conjured up a comment from the Reverend Billy Graham: “Show me a marriage where there are no arguments and I will show you a marriage where one person is not necessary.” During my 60 years of walking and talking with John Muir, we have only had one argument and it involved Muir’s soliloquy on death:
“On no subject are our ideas more warped and pitiable than on death. Instead of sympathy, the friendly union of life and death so apparent in Nature, we are taught that death is an accident, a deplorable punishment for the oldest sin, the archenemy of life, etc. Town children, especially, are steeped in this death-orthodoxy, for the natural beauties of death are seldom seen or taught in towns … But let the children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life, and the grave has no victory, for it never fights. All is divine harmony.“
Although I fully understand the ecological importance of the circle of life and death, at the personal level, Muir’s philosophy is a total failure. Was he not heartbroken when his beloved Louie Wanda transcended before he did? Did he not experience the same devastation that the eminent scholar, CS Lewis described after the loss of his wife, in his classic book, A Grief Observed.
During our time together, Erin blessed me with the supreme gifts of camping on top of Yosemite’s world-famous Half Dome (when it was still legal) and sharing two nights at Phantom Ranch at the bottom of Grand Canyon. These experiences created the Shakespearean bond; “One touch of Nature and all men are kin.”
She was one of the sweetest, most delightful students I have ever encountered. She wore a permanent smile and was not capable of uttering an unkind word. She possessed angelic qualities and will be sorely missed by her family, loved ones and students.
Therefore, I reluctantly bid farewell to Erin, but only for a while. I am looking forward to the Great Biodesign reunion in heaven where:
“God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Rev. 21:4