On the third day of complying with Napa County’s “shelter-in-place” edict, my mind drifted back to happier times at Yosemite Valley. Typically, during the Class orientation session on the meadow beneath the watchful eye of Half Dome, I shared Anne Frank’s reflection:
“The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature. As long as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will be comfort for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances may be.”
The contrast between Anne’s quasi-imprisoned life and where we were sitting was almost too schizophrenic to resolve.
For many very strange and mysterious reasons, the Biodesign Class was privileged beyond all imagination. Sitting in a sacred circle, with young curious minds, contemplating the works of John Muir and Mother Nature’s magnificent Yosemite Valley, often generated thoughts and emotions that defied description.
We were sitting on a meadow where American Indians lived perhaps 3,000 years ago, and the Awahnechee Tribe dated back 800 years. Perhaps their spirits conjured up Black Elk’s prophecy:
“I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw the sacred hoop of my people was one of the many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.
It seems that as a response to the covid virus, many people are following Anne Frank’s advice, even if they may not be going alone. Unfortunately, by flocking back to Nature in droves, many of the State Parks, beaches and recreation areas had to be closed.
The word “kything” became more widely known in 1973 when Madeleine L’Engle published, A Wind in the Door. Evidently she was looking for a term that described soul-to-soul communion and found the word, “kythe” in an 1856 Scottish Dictionary. I was elated by the glorious synchronicity that, although I don’t recall John Muir ever using the word “kythe,” he experienced an intense mystical event that evinced the etymology of the Gaelic-born word.
Excerpt: My First Summer In The Sierra, John Muir.
“August 2—Sketching all day on the North Dome until four or five o’clock in the afternoon, when I was busily employed thinking only of the glorious Yosemite landscape, trying to draw every tree and every line and feature of the rocks, I was suddenly, and without warning, possessed with the notion of my friend, Professor J.D. Butler, of the State University of Wisconsin, was below me in the valley, and I jumped up full of the idea of meeting him, with almost startling excitement as if he had touched me to make me look up.
August 3—Had a wonderful day. Found Professor Butler as the compass needle finds the pole. So last evening’s telepathy, transcendental revelation, or whatever else it may be called was true; for strange to say, he had just entered the valley by way of the Coulterville Trail and was coming up the valley past El Capitan when his presence struck me. Had he then looked toward the North Dome with a good glass when it came into sight, he might have seen me jump up from my work and run toward him. This seems the one well-defined marvel of my life of the kind called supernatural…”
I had never heard the term “kything” before 1988 when my soul-mate-wife gifted me with a copy of, Kything: The Art of Spiritual Presence, co-authored by Louis Savary and Patricia Berne.
The book grabbed my full attention, as the authors explored various methods of spiritual communication, however, I found it intriguing when they stated what “kything” is not. They asserted that kything is not mental telepathy, not an imaginary conversation, not channeling and surprisingly, not necessarily a religious experience.
They described it as the “Art of Spiritual Awareness,” whereby two souls can commune in perfect harmony without words. The idea may be based on the concept of “Oneness.” Apparently, applying the concept puts a person “in kythe” with that which he/she is concentrating on. Kything is portrayed as a way to be present with others without regard to space or time. The practice is waning in Scotland and is practically unknown in the US.
The book became a milestone epiphany for me. The concept was provocative and exciting. Even though the Bible is quite clear about the prognosis of life after death, most Christians are understandably often a bit unclear on the mystery. But the ancient Scotts seemed to be convinced that soul communion was quite natural among the living as well as the deceased. Savary and Berne provided a splendid challenge for me.
In the early years of Biodesign, we had experienced many mystical Jungian synchronicities at Yosemite, but I did not imagine that I was “kything” with the holy ghost of John Muir. However, if what they were claiming were true, it seemed as if that was a real possibility.
Over the years after discovering the book, I made a conscious effort to invoke the soul of Muir on our Yosemite trips. I did not have a “Professor Butler” epiphany, but there were countless events that Muir would have called, “supernatural.”
One year, just before we left on our Yosemite trip, I got a little heady and foolishly boasted to the class that we would see a rainbow. I rued my arrogance for five days until on the last day when a glorious rainbow arched above us. We stood in awe-struck silence. After a few minutes, one of the boys edged over and whispered, “OK, how’d you know?”
I humbly shook my head in denial and said, “I didn’t, and I won’t make that mistake again.”
One class was sitting in the dark in a magical circle on top of Half Dome. We enjoyed a 360-degree view under a brilliant canopy of stars. The students were sharing journal reflections, prose, hopes and dreams in perfect sincerity. Suddenly, the whole Class seemed to be raised to a higher level of spiritual awareness. They conjured up Black Elk’s message:
“Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner…”
The next day one of the chaperones approached me with a solemn countenance and said, “I have never seen anything like that.” I agreed without suggesting that it could have been an extraordinary example of group kything.
Whether Muir’s spirit was present cannot be proved, however, the need for proof of an act of kything seems utterly oxymoronic.
Muir was too modest and shy to even imagine that his soul could remain hovering about Yosemite for eternity, but the possibility has become very real to the thousands of people who have “kythed” his spirit there. If asked to explain the soulful events they generally agree that there are no words to describe them; a perfect corroboration of “kything.”
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.
Watching the increasingly commercial emphasis during the Christmas Season, it is little wonder Albert Schweitzer described a kind of naïveté where people are unaware of the silent, spiritual battles within. Although blatant commercialism was far less intense during the time Henry Thoreau wrote “Walden,” (1850) it probably contributed to his efforts to strive to avoid reaching the end of his life and realize that he “blew it” and would not get a second chance.
Advent can be a special time of the year when, along with preparing to celebrate the birth of Christ, people can look forward to the beginning of a new year of spiritual growth and renewal.
As a wonderful example of this, after much contemplation, e.e. cummings resolved that he was a “Little Church,” and offered his opinion of what that meant.
i am a little church(no great cathedral)
far from the splendor and squalor of hurrying cities
-i do not worry if briefer days grow briefest,
i am not sorry when sun and rain make april
my life is the life of the reaper and the sower;
my prayers are prayers of earth’s own clumsily striving
(finding and losing and laughing and crying)children
whose any sadness or joy is my grief or my gladness
around me surges a miracle of unceasing
birth and glory and death and resurrection:
over my sleeping self float flaming symbols
of hope,and i wake to a perfect patience of mountains
i am a little church(far from the frantic
world with its rapture and anguish)at peace with nature
-i do not worry if longer nights grow longest;
i am not sorry when silence becomes singing
winter by spring,i lift my diminutive spire to
merciful Him Whose only now is forever:
standing erect in the deathless truth of His presence
(welcoming humbly His light and proudly His darkness)
Perhaps Cummings is offering a common man’s interpretation of the bold proclamation that St. Paul made to the Corinthians over 2,000 years ago.
“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;”
Whether approaching the Christmas Story from an anthropological, historical or religious perspective, it is without a doubt the greatest human story ever told. It is childlike, welcoming and inclusive and offers every living human the challenge of accepting that they are living, breathing sacred events.
Volumes have been written about the story of the Magi carrying precious gifts to Bethlehem:
“And when they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And they came into the house and saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell down and worshiped Him; and they presented to Him gifts of gold, and frankincense and myrrh.” Mattthew 2.
The Bible (and other corroborating stories) indicates that the Magi returned to their respective homes, however, little has been written about how the event changed their lives. In fact, if they did create the original “Epiphany,” perhaps they discovered that spiritual awareness is the quintessential essence of being human.
The great irony here is that they presented gifts to the Christ child but, in return, received the unspeakably perfect gift of the Holy Spirit and the realization that they too were made in the image of God. If so, there is little doubt that their journey home was filled with joy, merriment and laughter and they rejoiced and were exceedingly glad.
“I used to envy the father of our race, dwelling as he did in contact with the new-made fields and plants of Eden; but I so no more, because I have discovered that I also live in ‘creation’s dawn.’ The morning stars still sing together, and the world, not yet half made, becomes more beautiful every day.” John Muir
Like so many of Muir’s power-packed-paragraphs, there is a cartload of wisdom in this one. In two simple declarative sentences, he is acknowledging, thanking and communing with God. Furthermore, he is tacitly suggesting that the words “evolution” and “creation” are one and the same.
Darwin’s, “The Origin of Species,” was published in 1859. Muir was 21, but after 50 years of researching his works, I have not found one reference to Darwin. I suspect that he would have regarded the so-called “great debate” of Creation vs. the theory of evolution a superfluous waste of time.
I find it intriguing that often, when John Muir lovers discover that he carried a pocket version of “The New Testament and Psalms” with him on his excursions, they become vexed, even defiant. I suspect, that in an effort to conform to “political correctness,” even USPS “interpretive naturalists” religiously ignore Muir’s depth of Christian spirituality (pun intended). Perhaps they do not know (or care) that, as a mechanical engineer, Muir regarded Yosemite as nothing less than one of God’s most “glorious” creations.
Unlike me ;o), Muir knew all of the Psalms by heart and I cannot help but think that he was the superb embodiment of Psalm 8. I know of no other naturalist who approached this level of perfection and therefore it is not surprising that many consider him the world’s greatest naturalist.
To that point, watching the ecological destruction of Planet Earth, if Muir were alive today, I am not so sure he would still think:
“The morning stars still sing together, and the world, not yet half made, becomes more beautiful every day.”
“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Many of the older Scots claim that they can communicate spiritually with deceased family members and friends by a process they call “kything.” If this is so, I am guessing that John Muir recently did the Scottish version of the “dance of joy” in his heavenly habitation (“God And The Angels Be True”).
Muir believed that Yosemite’s Half Dome was a high altar, appropriately situated at the east end of what he regarded as a natural cathedral, seven miles long by one mile wide. Altars are natural or man-made shrines that have been consecrated by the hearts of men for the purpose of religious or spiritual ceremonies or events. Muir expressed deep concern that many have forfeited their God-given gift of spiritual celebrations at these altars. Although regular church attendance in the US may be declining, for those who make the 5,000 ft. climb up to the top of Half Dome, it is not uncommon for them to triumphantly raise their arms.
With this being so, Mark Salvestrin recently committed a personal rite of sanctification by simply raising his hands (and a book) to the heavens. The book was inspired by John Muir and written by over 700 very curious and very courageous high school students. In the letter previously posted he wrote:
“Some of the concepts we learned and the ideas we shared took shape as threads that would be intricately woven into the fabric of my life.”
Following John Muir (and a plethora of mentors) Mark has immersed himself in Nature, evinced by the recent pilgrimage that he and his wife made to the top of Half Dome. Two weeks later, they doubled up with a hike to the top of El Capitan. The views from “El Cap” are as impressive as those from Half Dome and can be reached without experiencing “Disney Land” throngs of people crowding the trails.
My best guess is that Mark chaperoned at least 10 Biodesign trips. He will deny it but, in a splendid irony, the book he is offering to the cosmos would not have been possible without his loving support and guidance.
Furthermore, what he did not mention was that he, and over 700 other students, added threads that were woven into the fabric of the author’s life. Soul building was part of what we were about, along with accepting Muir’s challenge to get as close to the heart of Nature as we could.
The photo of Mark holding up a summary of 24 years of wilderness adventures gave me goose bumps. None of the adventures would likely have happened without a very perceptive girl asking a simple yet profound question. As Muir feared, I could have missed over 30 celebrations at his High Altar and spent my career dissecting fetal pigs.
It is my sincere wish that some of the lessons that Mark and I and hundreds of others experienced on our wilderness excursions, will be shared to lift the spirits and gladden the hearts of readers.
“Loren Eiseley is less concerned about man conquering nature than nature, in the form of God, conquering the human heart.” Time Magazine.
AFTER nearly 75 years, I have concluded that life is mostly (if not totally) a journey into mystery. E.g. how could I have possibly guessed that a simple, innocent question from a student would eventually guide me to climb Yosemite’s Half Dome over 30 times? Each visit was unique and not unlike meeting a long-lost friend with lots of catching up to do. Intriguingly, most of my trips were with students and seeing Half Dome through their eyes provided some of the most glorious moments of my life.
“I Conquered Half Dome” was the title of a Biodesigner’s post-Yosemite essay, and why not? Tom described the “emotional blood,” sweat and near-blisters that were required for him to hike the 10 miles from Yosemite Stables to the top of Half Dome in one grueling day. The altitude gain was nearly 5,000 ft. and YNPS listed the trail as “extremely strenuous” (and that is without a backpack.) It is a safe bet that his 50-lb. backpack made the trek at least twice as difficult.
Tom meticulously recorded the events of the day including moments of inspiration, and frustration; stops for snacks, water and lunch. He also described the logistical demands of stopping to filter water and apply “Mole Skin” to hotspots before they became debilitating blisters. He noted the high level of camaraderie and playful banter that helped ease the fatigue induced by the steep switchbacks. He marveled at how everyone worked together with the stronger hikers quietly taking sleeping bags or tents from classmates who were struggling excessively.
This hike occurred in the early years of the Biodesign program when the trip was only four days. It involved a 4:00 AM departure and 5-hour drive to Yosemite Valley; one very demanding day to hike to the top of Half Dome to spend the night; one very long day to return to The Valley and the 5-hour return trip home. Due to the very demanding 4-day journey, it was quite reasonable for Tom to feel that he had indeed conquered Half Dome. However, the latter part of his essay took on a very different tone.
“I had never been so exhausted but I could not sleep due to the thousands of rapid-fire mental images of our long hike. Earlier in the evening, we huddled in a circle as you read John Muir’s story about his adventure with the ‘wee little dog Stickeen.’ Muir described their near-death experience in a storm on an Alaskan glacier. The ordeal lasted 18 hours and, although they were cold, wet and exhausted, they were happy to make it back to camp.
“We reached camp about ten o’clock, and found a big fire and a big supper. A party of Hoona Indians had visited Mr. Young, bringing a gift of porpoise meat and wild strawberries, and Hunter Joe had brought in a wild goat. But we lay down, too tired to eat much, and soon fell into a troubled sleep. The man who said, ‘The harder the toil, the sweeter the rest,’ never was profoundly tired.”
“Before the trip we discussed the geology of Half Dome and I was now aware that I was trying to sleep on rock that was over 100 million years old and was there when dinosaurs roamed the earth and perhaps some bird-like forms flew over Yosemite Valley.
I finally gave up trying to sleep and grabbed my flashlight and down jacket. I moseyed out to the “Eye Brow” and carefully dangled my legs over the edge. Interestingly, due to the darkness, the 5,000-foot drop was not as scary as in the daylight. I remembered you saying that Native Americans and “mountain men” could tell time using the “handle” of “The Big Dipper.” I was facing north and looked up to see the giant cosmic-hour-hand above me. And then, IT HAPPENED! A massive surge of adrenaline super-activated every nerve in my body. I was ecstatic, but it was not sublime. I was paradoxically exhilarated, but terrified and quickly began to suffer a panic attack. I could not move! I thought, ‘This is not a good place to be in the middle of the night.’ The panic seemed interminable, but either God or my “reptilian brain” took over and I noticed my hands and thighs slowly begin to inch my body back from the edge. When I stood, I was badly shaken and, with wobbly knees, returned to my sleeping bag.
If I live to be 100 years old, I will never feel the same degree of warmth, safety and comfort that my sleeping bag provided. And then the second major epiphany occurred! What a fool I was to think that I had “conquered” Half Dome! God, Mother Nature or karma allowed me to ascend Half Dome, however; there is still enough mystery and intrigue to last another 100 million years.”
At the youthful age of 17, Tom discovered that he was being conquered and not the conqueror, something more and more people will live and die without discovering.
I don’t think it is elitist for people who have climbed to the top of Half Dome to recalibrate their personal biography into “Pre-H-D” and “Post-H-D.” I don’t think it is possible to climb Half Dome and not have a life-changing experience, however, as John Muir noted about spiritual revelations, there are no earthly words to define them.
The walls of the world’s hall of shame are covered with millions of portraits of mostly men who have committed heinous crimes against individuals and humanity, sometimes their own children. Most of these men had the misfortune of being raised by one or more abusive parents. John Muir had all the qualifications to end up on the wall. His father, Daniel Muir, was a harsh, religious zealot who whipped (mostly his sons) with a leather belt, almost on a daily basis. John was required to memorize nearly three quarters of The Holy Bible before the age of 11.
When Daniel moved his family to “Hickory Hill Farm” in Wisconsin, there was no water available. Because his 17-year-old son John was the strongest, he was assigned the task of digging a well. The well site was selected and the three-ft.-diameter bore was begun. After a few feet of soil and mixed stones were removed, John encountered mostly uninterrupted sandstone that had to be chipped into chunks using mason’s hammers and chisels. The work began at dawn each day and continued until dark. Daniel and John’s brother David would come to the well at noon and together they would raise the tailings to the surface, extract John and go to the house for “dinner.” Then it was back down into the well until nightfall. Muir later wrote that the project took several months to complete. One of Muir’s neighbors was quoted as saying, “Daniel Muir treats his animals better than his sons.”
Although the progress was painstakingly slow, he eventually chipped his way down to a depth of 80 feet. Then one morning, disaster struck. Daniel Muir had been warned about the danger of “choke-damp,” but elected to ignore the warnings. Often, when water trickles into caves or wells, carbonic acid gas accumulates. Sometimes the gas includes carbon monoxide, which can be instantly fatal to breath and sometimes the oxygen in a well can be purged out by heavier carbon dioxide gas, which then becomes indirectly toxic. One day, when Daniel and David lowered John down to the bottom of the well, he was overtaken by choke-damp and slumped over against the wall of the well. Nearly unconsciousness, he feebly murmured, “Take me out!” But when Daniel began to crank the windlass, he could tell immediately that his son was not in the bucket. In wild exasperation he shouted, “Get in! Get in the bucket and hold on.” Fortunately, Daniel and David were able to retrieve a badly gasping John.
At that time, choke-damp was purged from wells by placing a 5-lb stone in a gunny sack. The sack was then filled with straw and the open end gathered and tied with a 100-foot rope. When the sack was dropped into the well it would plummet to the bottom. By the process of “drafting,” fresh air was sucked down into the well and the toxic air was purged out. When the sack was rapidly retrieved, the process was reversed. Toxic air was “drafted” up and fresh air replaced it in the shaft. This process was repeated several times to make the well safe.
From that point on, Daniel and both sons took time to purge the well of toxic gas every morning and at noon before John reentered the well.
Several years later, and after countless Nature-induced epiphanies at Yosemite, John Muir described his near-death experience in the well as poignant metaphor for the dangers of the “galling harness of civilization.” I suspect that he regarded people being seduced by comfort, luxury and materialism as nothing less than Greek sailors foundering at sea due to the lethal attraction of the Sirens.
Yosemite cured Muir of many of the emotional scars that his father so cruelly inflicted. Perhaps ironically, he knew St. Matthew’s Beatitudes by heart and experienced first hand that; “man does not live by bread alone.” Little wonder he regarded himself as a modern John the Baptist who came down from Yosemite proclaiming: “No synonym for God is so perfect as Beauty.”
Fortunately, over our 50-year marriage, my wife and I were rarely “down in the well” at the same time. When one of us was “down” the other could rally as a spiritual cheerleader and exclaim, “Get in the bucket and hold on.” It became one of the most important lessons of our life.
On an unscripted whim, I had them close their eyes and asked them how many of them had a soul? Every hand shot up. “Hands down,” I said. “How’d we vote?” someone asked. I answered, “One hundred percent positive. I guess this class has a lot of soul.”
“The soul is the name for the unifying principle, power, or energy that is the center of our being. To be in touch with soul means going back to the sacred source, the site of life-releasing energy, the activating force of life, the god-grounds; to venture forth and confront the world in all its marvelous and terrifying forces, to make sacred our hours here; to learn to pay such supreme attention to the world that eternity blazes in to time with our holy longing. Soul-making this.” TheSoul of the World, by Phil Cousineau and Eric Lawton.
One year, shortly after we reached the top of Yosemite’s Half Dome, a group of rock climbers were completing climbing up the face. They were surprised to be greeted by a welcoming party of excited young adults. I was setting up our camp area about 200 yards away, but voices often travel clearer and farther in the mountains.
Climber: “What are all you guys doing up here?
Student: “We are all in a high school advanced biology class.”
Climber: “You’re bullshittin’ me!”
Student laughing: “No it’s true.”
Climber: “So, your biology class just happened to wander up here?”
Student: “No, our teacher led us up here.”
Climber: “Damn! He must have big balls!
I laughed out loud, but was suddenly embarrassed by what I considered to be a crude metaphor and that I had been eavesdropping. More importantly, however, I was tempted to hurry over and tell him that it was the students who were the courageous ones. I wondered if he had read Carl Jung:
“Whenever there is a reaching down into innermost experience, into the nucleus of personality, most people are overcome by fright, and many run away…The risk of inner experience, the adventure of the spirit, is in any case, is alien to most human beings.”
Jung etal, described the spiritual journey as potentially far more scary than any physical or mental challenges. On the other hand, maybe the climber was acting out Joseph Campbell’s purpose of life; “The Soul’s High Adventure.”
Perhaps it didn’t matter. After all, The Class was not only experimental, but experiential and existential. This meant that any discoveries that students made would be their own and not of my doing. Over 24 years there were many books that I discovered that would have been very helpful, but they also would have altered the many paths of discovery that were vital to the students’ spiritual growth. The best example of this (and now one of my favorite treasures) is a small (but powerful) book, “The Soul Of The World.” Phil Cousineau paired amazing quotations with Eric Lawton’s spectacular photos into a breathtaking book. It has been a deep source of inspiration for me since it was released in 1993. Cousineau included profoundly inspiring “poems, prayers and promises” from men and women from all walks and major religions, including people who are Red—Yellow—Black—White. He paired the inspirational lines with photos of some of the most beautiful and or sacred places on planet Earth. The book proved to be a powerful validation of the collaborative journey that about 500 students had shared with me. I was able to draw freely from it for the last five years of the class.
Nearly 15 years after the Biodesign Class of 1979 decided to embark on a journey of the soul, Cousineau and Lawton confirmed just how spiritually aware those students were. Jung, Thoreau and John Muir were correct when they noted that many people will live their entire life without probing their own spirituality. John Muir wrote: “Most people are on the world, not in it—have no conscious sympathy or relationship to anything about them—undiffused, separate, and rigidly alone like marbles of polished stone; touching but separate.”
The rock climber demonstrated tremendous courage climbing the face of Half Dome, but I wonder if it equaled the courage that it took for each of the 700 students to follow Loren Eiseley, Carl Jung and John Muir by embracing wonder and terror and thereby discovering that “Going out For A Walk was really going in.”
Christmastime is a wonderful time to awaken us to the fact that the journey we are on is a “spiritual journey,” a journey that would not be possible without the gift of Soul.
“These temple-destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar.” John Muir
The Fb photo of Yosemite Valley and the quote, “We love being the third most popular National Park,” was posted by, “Yosemite Nation.” I have seen many of their posts without knowing who they were. A quick check on their website reveals exactly who they are and what they are dedicated to:
Yosemite/Mariposa county bureau of tourism.
John Muir would properly observe that they are dedicated to the “Almighty Dollar.” How else could they claim to “love” the fact that 20,000 visitors are encouraged to enter Yosemite Valley each day in August? This number does not account for 1800 YNPS summer employees who live in The Valley or commute from Mid-pines, El Portal, Mariposa or Foresta. It also does not reflect the nearly 2,000 Delaware North employees or Yosemite Conservative volunteers who live in The Valley. There appears to be about 10,000 potential beds and sleeping bag spaces at DNC hotels, lodges, and campgrounds.
I don’t k now if there is a known peak daily total number of humans in two square miles that includes YNP headquarters, Yosemite Village, Yosemite Lodge, Curry Village, the stables and Ahwahnee Hotel, but the number is probably in the mid-30,000 range. Historically, these numbers only occurred on the three summertime national holidays, but are now common on most August days. The results include terrible traffic jams, trails with hordes of people that look like masses flocking to rides at Disney Land. Daily garbage is no longer measured by cans, but tons, and human sewage and waste-water is pumped to lower elevations in millions of gallons per day.
John Muir disliked crowds of people, hotels and crass commercial development. Yosemite Nation, Yosemite Conservancy and Yosemite NPS, have converted The Valley that Muir called a cathedral into a huge cash cow and desecrated his memory and vision.
The Ahwaneechee and other Native American tribes lived in the Yosemite Valley area for an estimated 3,000 years. There are a growing number of YNPS critics who point out that some of the damage they are doing may be irreparable and will surely not survive another 3,000 years.