When I began teaching environmental biology (1964) it seemed prudent to join The Audubon Society. The society was formed in 1905 probably inspired by John Muir’s creation of the Sierra Club in 1892. The membership included a monthly magazine that contained stunning Nature photos and relevant current event articles. At the beginning of each issue, the editors included: “A Statement of Audubon Philosophy.”
We believe in the wisdom of Nature’s design.
We know that soil, water, plants and wild creatures depend on each other and are vital to human life.
We recognize that each living thing links to many others in the chain of nature.
We believe that persistent research into the intricate patterns of outdoor life will help to assure wise use of Earth’s abundance.
We condemn no wild creature and work to assure that no living species shall be lost.
We believe that every generation should be able to experience spiritual and physical refreshment in places where primitive nature is undisturbed.
So we will be vigilant to protect wilderness areas, refuges, and parks and to encourage good use of nature’s storehouse of resources.
We dedicate ourselves to the pleasant task of opening the eyes of young and old that all may come to enjoy the beauty of the outdoor world and share in conserving its wonders forever.
– Audubon: March 1954
It is no wonder that the opening line of “The Audubon Philosophy” became part of the title and foundation that The Biodesign Class was built on.
Although I knew the steps by heart, my relationship with “step 6” was purely intellectual and definitely not soul-stirring. That all changed in 1972 when Lettie asked her fateful question (Biodesign Out For A Walk, Page 2) which led to meeting John Muir and hundreds of Naturalists, saints, sinners, sages and poets who were seeking a spirit-filled life.
My relationship with students was not unilateral, but reciprocal. I was supremely blessed to see Yosemite, Grand Canyon and California’s Mendocino Coast through the eyes of over 700 students. Mother Nature may have been opening their eyes and in turn, they were opening mine.
This is exactly what the Audubon Society was promoting and it was an honor to identify with and represent their philosophy.
After whimsically describing John Muir as, “St. John of the Mountains,” I have come to suspect the designation may have been more Jungian and less whimsy. If so, his elevation to sainthood may not be an unrealistic overreach. In many ways he lived like an ascetic monk, welcoming hardships that few people would (or could) endure. He survived extended periods in the wilderness with a single wool blanket; tin cup, some tea and a pillowcase containing dried bread-balls.
“Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter.”
As a highly literate man, Muir was likely aware that his philosophy was closely related to St. Francis of Assisi and St. Ignatius of Loyola. Both men were devout Nature lovers and described all matters natural as the handiwork of God.
Denis Williams wrote in his book, God’s Wilds: John Muir’s Vision of Nature (College Station: Texas A&M Univ. Press):
“Muir saw nature as a great teacher, ‘revealing the mind of God,’ and this belief became the central theme of his later journeys and the “subtext” of his nature writing.”
Muir joined Henry Thoreau and R.W. Emerson in a brotherhood of naturalists who believed that a quintessential component of becoming fully human involved transcending the confining bonds of logic, reason and egoism in order to be spiritually born: Ergo, Mystery remains Supreme.
Perhaps it is also not a reach to deduce that if Muir had been a member of the Roman Catholic Church, he would have been canonized long ago. However, the reality is that he regarded the universe as his church and being the free spirit that he was, chose not to identify with any particular branch of religion:
“Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.”
As a child, he had memorized much of the Holy Bible and his writing often reflected Holy Scripture; as in the case of Psalm 8:
“When I consider Thy heavens,
the work of Thy fingers, The moon and the stars,
which Thou hast ordained;
What is man, that Thou dost take thought of him?” KJV
He also frequently sowed spiritual seeds with writings:
“From the dust of the earth, from the common elementary fund, the Creator has made Homo sapiens.”
“In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world—the great fresh, unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harness of civilization drops off and the wounds heal ere we are aware.”
Sometimes his words and deeds can be considered downright evangelical:
“I care to live only to entice people to look at Nature’s loveliness. Heaven knows that John the Baptist was not more eager to get all of his fellow sinners into the Jordan than I to baptize all of mine in the beauty of God’s mountains.”
One of the prerequisites of achieving sainthood is an act of performing a miracle. Because Muir was such a spiritual giant, few would argue that his life, works and legacy have provided inspiration, comfort, even healing for countless millions of people, many of who have experienced Nature-induced “born-again experiences.” His lofty vision of the importance of “eco-spirituality” has spread globally. Through his inspiration and guidance countless thousands of national, state and regional parks have been established worldwide. After Muir’s famous camp-out with Teddy Roosevelt, on top of Yosemite’s Glacier Point, Roosevelt signed into existence five national parks, 18 national monuments, 55 national bird sanctuaries and wildlife refuges, and 150 national forests. Millions of acres have been set-aside for the primary purpose of encouraging people to reconnect with Mother Nature.
“Everybody needs beauty…places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul alike.” JM
Muir wrote about “poets, philosophers and prophets” coming down from the mountains to improve humanity, but was too humble to realize that he belonged to that pantheon of sages. Countless millions of followers have joined the “Sierra Club” he founded, which has had a huge national and international impact, encouraging people to “go to the mountains” and seek a spiritual rebirth.
The final line in his marvelous story about his little wonder-dog Stickeen was:
“To me Stickeen is immortal!”
In what has become an extraordinary irony, it is truly John Muir who has become immortal in the hearts and minds of countless millions of Nature lovers around the world.
“St. John of the Mountains” has a nice ring to it.
I wonder what the person was thinking when he/she ordered this sign. Is the photographer standing outside and looking into “the wilderness”? Does the trail, with a beginning and destination, not disqualify the area as true wilderness? Does the sign not reflect man’s insatiable need to tame, name, define and label everything like an alpha-wolf “marking” his territory with a squirt of urine?
“The wild is more than a named place, an area to demarcate. It is a quality that beguiles us, a tendency we both flee and seek. It is the unruly, what won’t be kept down, that crazy love, that path that no one advises us to take-it’s against the rules, it’s too far, too fast, beyond order, irreconcilable with what we are told is right.” – David Rothenberg
“Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter.” – John Muir
Just because John Muir rarely complained about being uncomfortably hot or cold, wet or tired, stressed, thirsty, hungry, in pain or besieged by mosquitoes, it does not mean that he did not experience these discomforts. It does, however, mean that he regarded any non-lethal event as the price of admission for getting as close to the pure essence of God’s creation as he possibly could.
Here are some JM thoughts after finding a dead bear in Yosemite. (Teale)
“Toiling in the treadmills of life we hide from the lessons of Nature. We gaze morbidly through civilized fog upon our beautiful world clad with seamless beauty, and see ferocious beasts and wastes and deserts. But savage deserts and beasts and storms are expressions of God’s power inseparably companioned by love. Civilized man chokes his soul as the Chinese [bind] their feet.”
Muir’s love of the wilderness was only eclipsed by his love for his wife and two daughters. He didn’t marry until he was 40 and his wife was well aware of the importance of his love of Nature. In fact, after working for 10 years on their farm in Martinez, Ca., she described the farm as killing his spirit and that he must sell or lease it and return to the wilderness.
In a similar, but different way, in addition to my devotion to my wife and four children, my greatest joys were experienced seeing the wilderness through teenage minds.
However, in both cases, Muir and I became acutely aware that there were no words that could describe our most rapturous moments. How could anyone possibly describe sleeping on top of Half Dome under a canopy of 100 billion stars? Polaris marked the North Pole and the handle of the Big Dipper marked the hours of a cosmic clock. Frequently, either heaven came to Earth or creative, curious minds reached up to create a “mandorla,” an overlap of heaven and Earth.When asked to describe events like these, students would typically radiate warm smiles and say the experience was indescribable.
Likewise, standing on the rim or bottom of Grand Canyon, students would join John Wesley Powell:
“The wonders of the Grand Canyon can not be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor speech itself. The resources of the graphic art are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail.”
And finally, at the end of each year, students often stood on the Mendocino headlands, looking out over the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean and sensed wisdom that echoed from the beginning of time; off the granite peaks of Yosemite; into the depths of Grand Canyon, and thundered on the waves of Mendocino beaches—ancient echoes of time and the rhythm of the universe.