THE BLOG
04/22/2013 01:17 pm ET | Updated Jun 20, 2013

The Uncoincidence of John Muir's Birthday and Earth Day

Alamy

Earth Day is John Muir's birthday. Coincidence? No way!

John Muir is one of the most exuberant, exhilarated, enthusiastic earth-lovers, earth-celebrators who ever lived. He was shamelessly a lover of earth. His love was romantic, loyal, heroic, utterly sensual. My children used to tease me, on my fear of heights, keeping me from climbing Yosemite's daunting Half Dome: "I bet if John Muir were up there you would go." I told them, even if Muir were my contemporary and I were not already enthralled with my own Swedish squeeze, Muir would never give me a second look even if I scaled Half Dome's sheer face: "to get his attention, you'd have to wear bark." If you had anything about you like moss, I told them, or lichen, or fur, or cone, or stamen, or petal, or root, or glacial polish, he would love you, passionately. He would caress you. He would serenade you. He would sketch you. He would squat and behold you for ten hours. He would leap up and shout for you: "the glory!" He would lie down on top of pine needles and just breathe your essence, totally in love. Away from you, he would pine. Away from you too long, his spirit would shrivel. He might die. (His wife once sent him away, back to his beloved mountains, fear for his life if he stayed away longer.) His letters about earth are love letters.

Here we see his journal recording his first days as a shepherd -- his day job -- in the Sierras:

After gaining the open summit . . ., feeling the natural exhilaration due to the slight elevation of a thousand feet or so, and the hopes excited concerning the outlook to be obtained, a magnificent section of the Merced Valley at what is called Horse shoe Bend came full in sight -- a glorious wilderness that seemed to be calling with a thousand songful voices . . . all covered with a shaggy growth of chaparral, mostly adenostoma, planted so marvelously close and even that it looks like soft, rich plush without a single tree or bare spot. . . a heaving, swelling sea of green. . . a grand congregation of massive heights with the river shining between, each carved into smooth, graceful folds without leaving a single rocky angle exposed, as if the delicate fluting and ridging fashioned out of metamorphic slates had been carefully sandpapered. The whole landscape showed design, like man's noblest sculptures. How wonderful the power of its beauty! Gazing awe-stricken, I might have left everything for it. Glad, endless work would then be mine tracing the forces that have brought forth its features, its rocks and plants and animals and glorious weather. Beauty beyond thought everywhere, beneath, above, made and being made forever. I gazed and gazed and longed and admired until the dusty sheep and packs were far out of sight, made hurried notes and a sketch, though there was no need of either, for the colors and lines and expression of this divine landscape-countenance are so burned into mind and heart they surely can never grow dim.

Muir's sciency raptures are unembarrassed, charmed, overwhelmed by beauty, gazing and longing and admiring. Romeo could not be more eloquent. Muir's language bespeaks love passion of his "flesh and bone tabernacle": throbbing, charged, excitement, quivering, thrilled, breathless. Muir asks his earth lover's permission to continue this troubadorial courtship of an excited, exciting earth:

The evening of this charmed day . . . white glowing cloud-shaped masses down among the trees and bushes, like quick-throbbing fire-flies in the Wisconsin meadows . . . The spreading hairs of the horses' tails and sparks from our blankets show how highly charged the air is.
June 6. . . . We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us. Our flesh-and-bone tabernacle seems transparent as glass to the beauty about us, as if truly an inseparable part of it, thrilling with the air and trees, streams and rocks, in the waves of the sun -- a part of all nature, neither old nor young, sick nor well, but immortal. Just now I can hardly conceive of any bodily condition dependent on food or breath any more than the ground or the sky. How glorious a conversion, so complete and wholesome it is, scarce memory enough of old bondage days left as a standpoint to view it from! In this newness of life we seem to have been so always.

Through a meadow opening in the pine woods I see snowy peaks about the head-waters of the Merced above Yosemite . . . How consuming strong the invitation they extend! Shall I be allowed to go to them? Night and day I'll pray that I may, but it seems too good to be true. Some one worthy will go, able for the Godful work, yet as far as I can I must drift about these love-monument mountains, glad to be a servant of servants in so holy a wilderness.

Where did Muir get this starry-eyed view of earth, in an age which saw wilderness, according to the day's dictionary definitions, as wasteland, savage ,barren, desolate, ferocious? Where did he get his battling ethic by which he is known today as hot-blooded defender of earth, grandfather of the conservation movement and national parks?

Wilderness, n. [OE. wildernesse, wilderne,probably from AS. wildor a wild beast; cf. D. wildernis wilderness. [1913 Webster]
A tract of land, or a region, uncultivated and uninhabited by human beings, whether a forest or a wide, barren plain; a wild; a waste; a desert; a pathless waste of any kind. [A disorderly or neglected place. --Cowper. [1913 Webster]

Yet here is William Wordsworth, official Romantic, who saw earth's wildernesses and wild places disappearing before his eyes in the early nineteenth century, in his Ode: Intimations of Immortaity from Recollections of Early Childhood, and it is earth's early childhood he has in mind:

THERE was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell'd in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore--

Turn wheresoe'er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

. . . But yet I know, where'er I go,
That there hath pass'd away a glory from the earth. . .

To me alone there came a thought of grief:
I hear the echoes through the mountains throng,

--But there's a tree, of many, one,
A single field which I have look'd upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone:
The pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
And O ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves,
Forebode not any severing of our loves!


Muir is taught both rejoicing in nature and worry for what we do when we clearcut the trees and denude the meadows, making of Wordsworth's elegiac reading of earth a rallying cry heard round the world.

To read John Muir is to read an earth-struck poet; it is to read, through the lens of eyes gazing at mountains and forests, Milton. It is to read Wordsworth, and Shakespeare, and Homer, and Thoreau, of course Thoreau, Emerson and the Bible. Muir's soaring prose sings, because his muse is epic. How fitting that his ability to offer up wilderness to his fellow citizens as gloriously epic is rooted in literal epic Scriptures and canon.

What writer brings to consciousness earth in such an epic way that, in reading his lyric
prose, we want to stand up for trees, sing their praises, go to bat for them. We can weep for their plight being skinned alive, or rejoice in their joy in a windstorm. Reading his
lyric prose on the Sierras, we vote for preservation, restoration, resurrection of earth itself. We think of earth differently, as happy, as happy-making, as, in e.e. cummings' birth-day poem words, "the gay great happening illimitably earth."

Channeling Thoreau (a reader of Greek and Latin epic), Muir writes: "This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on seas and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls." (John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, (1938), page 438.) Everyday is earth day; every day is birthday. We think of John Muir's everyday birthday cards to earth and wish this lover, on this day, many happy returns.