Confessions Under the Angel Oak: Trailing John Muir

Barbara Mossberg
Earth Planet-Universe
Journal May 1, 2016


No alligators were harmed in the writing of this story (although perhaps eaten).

(Charleston, South Carolina).

John Muir's 1000 Mile Walk to the Gulf strides off from his backpack journal, on which is written on the flyleaf--fly . . . leaf!--how perfect!--John Muir/Earth Planet-Universe, chronicling his first major trek encountering trees and their habitat--where, indeed, leaves fly. Here is his first entry:

My plan was simply to push on in a general southward direction by the wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way I could find, promising the greatest extent of virgin forest. Folding my map, I shouldered my little bag and plant press and strode away among the old Kentucky oaks, rejoicing in splendid visions of pines and palms and tropic flowers in glorious array, not, however, without a few cold shadows of loneliness, although the great oaks seemed to spread their arms in welcome.
I have seen oaks of many species in many kinds of exposure and soil, but those of Kentucky excel in grandeur all I had ever before beheld. They are broad and dense and bright green. In the leafy bowers and caves of their long branches dwell magnificent avenues of shade, and every tree seems to be blessed with a double portion of strong exulting life.

Rejoicing. Splendid. Glorious. Welcome. Grandeur. Beheld. Magnificant. Blessed. Exulting. These words applied to trees drew me in like a moth to the flame. Yes, flame. So here I am in his footsteps, John Muir himself, albeit in the guise of a plump 67-year-old lady with a new titanium hip and several healing skin cancer face surgery scars from sun bathing in days of yore, following his path, albeit in a rented Nissan Pioneer pickup truck, and my journal of my journey is chronicled on Facebook for my friends, but otherwise the very image of Muir, and just as Muir did, taking his notes and transforming them into letters to his friends and family, herewith is my first report, written in spite of 1454 bites and welts in places I didn't even know I had skin.

(Postings yesterday on Facebook--(I and Christer photographed in rocking chairs in front of Kiawah Island's Sanctuary), and Marge Ann Jameson saying it is not exactly trek behavior.
/react-text Doesn't look to me like you're trekking. Looks to me like you and Christor are lounging! Me, I have to go herd fans at the race track this weekend.

Unlike · Reply · 1 · Yesterday at 7:49am

react-text: 69 Remove /react-text
‪react-text: 75 Barbara Mossberg /react-text ‪react-text: 77 /react-text Busted! Routed!‬

‪The Troublemaker:

Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grasses and gentians of glacial meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of nature's darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. (Our National Parks , 1901, page 56.) As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature's sources never fail.

Well, yes, and as age is coming on, I am taking John Muir at his word, and I am in his footsteps. He loved mountains and glaciers, redwood forests, waterfalls and valleys, but he also loved oaks, and palms, and pines, perhaps first, and thus I have left my Oregon perch and set off for the South, making my way from Virginia/Kentucky through the South, to South Carolina and onto Georgia. I posted a photo of my husband and myself in a rocking chair, and received a reply from the keen-eyed editor and publisher of the Pacific Grove Bulletin and Cedar Street Times, Marge Ann Jameson, who noted it appeared I was not trekking at all, ‬

‪react-text: 107 Barbara Mossberg /react-text ‪react-text: 109 /react-text In fact it is arduous to investigappp‬

It is (before I was interrupted in my hard work) arduous to investigate joy and live UP to the gift of consciousness that Muir wrapped with moon bows in his rapture being present at the scene. (Thinking of our evolved PG book project Here For the Present) and Muir was a geologist. So I am ROCKing his scientific approach. ALSO I have 1454 bites (at last count) if that counts. All for scholarship. Rock, rocking it over here!

Then similarly keen-eyed colleagues wrote, noting that not only was I not trekking, I was not even wearing trekking boots, but sandals. I replied:

Your'all joshing with me invokes how slowing down to rock is very Muir-trek. His voluminous momentous scribbled notes for journals, letters, took so much time just stopped on log or ground or rock(ing chair), and beholding one flower along the way could take hours. One colleague said it could take ten hours to go one mile! Since he walked 1000 miles I'm trying to figure out how often he just stopped to behold, be filled with wonder and awe. And wrestle with the sweet anguish of how to capture it in words.

I think (as birds now speak--if not to me, then to whom? For surely my ears were made to hear these sounds)-- and wind roars through the fronds, the sound of waves, that Muir in fact spent much of his time, most of his time, writing.

This is my first insight being on his trail: most of the time he had to be hunched over a rock or log, scribbling, trying to get words down. His journals at the University of Pacific Holt-Atherton collection show him writing and editing his journals with scrupulous care.

Second, for all the talk about glory and splendid and rejoicing, he had to be uncomfortable. He had to. Yes, rapture, going on about the soft bed of nature, but . . .

I think of these pine needles, so soft to walk on, knowing this is how he slept, and discovering that they are peopled (his word for nature's denizens) with vicious black tiny-biting-vigorously ants, whose bites have made my feet and legs and cheeks and scalp and wrists and neck volcanoes of welts, blisters, raw red wounds. These are the kind of bites that actually hurt so much when you get them that you burst out, "Ow!" Then there are the mosquito bites that you rub raw and bleed.

Meanwhile, there are three kinds of poisonous snakes here--cottonmouth, rattlesnakes, and water moccasins, as well, of course, as alligators, and four or five kinds of snakes that climb trees as well as crawl and swim, over five feet long. This is where he was sleeping--my efforts to walk his talk, follow in his track, trek his trail of words, result in malarkey to my skin and terror to my psyche, even as I am prepared wholly to rejoice in the splendid magnificence of what is to be beheld.

John Muir's writing does this to you. It leads you in.

I recall going to Sanibel Island with the Society of Women Geographers-
I did not deserve to be in the Society of Women Geographers. Amelia Earhart and Margaret Mead's deal. But my conscience could not over-ride my kick in the Fall annual luncheon meeting, at which little ladies in St. John knits with blue hair wearing hat and cotton gloves stood and reported on their summer. Holding her purse against her knit sweater, one would say, in a quavering voice, Well, I was in Cairo, so I went over to Nepal to do the trek with Annie, we took the new North Ridge route, and we worked on the Sherpa school project and Ethel's Library Committee was so helpful, and then we went on the submarine under the Pole with the Uger Expedition, I am transcribing my notes for the National Geographic Special for my PBS interview next week, and on the way back I visited my sister Martha in Tulsa and we went out to lunch.
Me, I would be sitting there thinking, and you are thinking now, what was I doing there? It seems I was a groupie of people who have been somewhere and tell us about it. Even though she said I'm Nobody and never left her bedroom, Emily Dickinson told us how the sun rose (a ribbon at a time). John Muir told us how it was to lie nights in the summer Sierra. My heroes.
So when the Society of Women Geographers met at Florida's Sanibel Island, I flew in at night, checked into my hotel, left my luggage standing, and set out to explore. Left to my own devices I would never go anywhere in nature alone, let alone in the dark, in a place I did not know. But now I was left to my own devices, and I thought of all the explorers who did not mock me but were confused as to what I was doing here.
And what would John Muir do, I thought. Explorers are never afraid. So I went outside, alone, into the darkness, no one knew. I was Joyce's artist as a young woman, all right a middle aged woman, alone and free and near to the wild heart of life. I felt my way in the total darkness through shrubs to the beach. I had no idea where I was, what was here. This is what they do, I said. We do. I lay down on my back in the midnight sand and was Muir, to behold the canopy of stars. I was so the adventurer. I lay alone on this strange beach and was part of the universe, Rumi's bowl of light. Yes, my skin was tingling, but I thought it was the cool sand, excited heart. I decided to not worry about patrol jeeps running me over, beserk men blanketing me, because I was an adventurer. I was a reporter on the scene, to tell what the world was up to that you can only know when you are alone in the wilderness.
I remember reading this article--I kept it:
From the Monterey Herald, March 5, 2014
The allure of a stunning sunset Tuesday led to a woman spending a cold night in a half-submerged boat in chilly Monterey Bay waters. The 45-year-old woman, who took a motorized dinghy from the Monterey wharf area to watch the sunset from an open-water perch, was rescued after being spotted by a fishing boat about 9:20 a.m. Wednesday." . . . Her condition was "well for being out there for approximately 15 hours in very cold water and cold air," Stanley said. No one had reported the woman missing, Stanley said. Her name was not released. The rubberized dinghy started to lose air, then the motor fell off, then it got dark and a fog swept in over the water. The woman shot off a few flares during the night, but no one saw them probably because of the thick fog, Stanley said. The half-submerged boat apparently drifted throughout the night. But details of the woman's ordeal were a little fuzzy because of her hypothermia, Stanley said. The fishing boat that spotted her was just passing by the area, and its crew alerted the Coast Guard.
I tried to have my little John Muir trek-hood adventure--, alone, pondering the difference between poetry and adventure. The next day when he arrived my husband said what happened to you? I was laid up on the bed, swollen to twice my size with welts from what they said were no-see-um bites which did not sound serious enough for what I actually had. The conference went on without me, all the reports from space and exotica earth, paddling in the Adirondacks, trekking Nepal, going under North Pole ice. But I understood when I read about the woman who wanted to see the sun set off Pacific Grove Lovers Point and set out all by herself. No one had reported the woman missing, Stanley said. It wasn't that they didn't care. They didn't know. Oh, she was so proud of herself. To rent a boat! Out in the ocean! A motor! This was epic! Odysseus! No one knew she was here. This was hers. She was in this dinghy all alone, the old woman and the sea, a mile out, on this glorious expedition, and everything happened the way it always did for seafarers, it was losing air, and the motor fell off, she was adrift, and she figured out how to use the flares--yes, she!--pink in the white fog, and no one heard her cries, and it became dark, and when they found her fifteen hours later, slumped in the half submerged craft, "details were a little fuzzy because of her hypothermia." So what she was going to tell us about the sunset we do not know. After all. But why she went--I can tell you all about it.
And so in the footsteps of Muir, his spirit of adventure. I am not sure I am cut out for it. I remember when I was in Sicily, excited to go to the Aolian Islands written about by Homer in The Odyssey, and ending up on the volcano that appeared as an island, Stomboli. Of course we had to climb the mountain and get its good tidings--the UPness of mountains, Muir said. We scrambled over rocks and boulders, and the way was clear--just keep going up. At a certain point, about half way up, on a narrow trail about eleven inches wide, the ground began to roll. The mountain itself began to shake under our feet.
Oh, yes, we were on a volcano. I remembered that. It was erupting. I had been concentrating on getting up and over rocks, climbing upwards. I looked down for the first time. Then I remembered something else: I am afraid of heights! What? You are now asking yourself, privately, as to not hurt the feelings of an elderly lady, sincerely bent on trying to emulate John Muir, just what she is thinking, after all. Is she really UP for this? I can see where you are going with this, Dear Reader. I was on the shaking trail of the trembling mountain, shaking with fear, trembling with terror, looking down 2000 feet, as lava just to my left flowed swiftly down to the sea below, making for white billows of waves and steam. I was dizzy, crouching down on my narrow perch, holding to a rock, and trying to multiply by eights to distract my mind. Why did I choose eights? Thinking about it now it seems possible I was thinking of the musical scale, which I would play every morning from the time I was six to sixteen. 8, 16, 24, 32 . . .: this was a good exercise since I am famously terrible at math, so terrible that people thought my SAT score in math was a mistake (it wasn't). The point I am making is that being brought to these new lows, in such heights, was all John Muir's fault, his words inspiring us to get UP to the mountains for lyrical highs, into the woods for healing and nourishment of the spirit.
As I continue this journey from Oregon's forests (and volcanoes, which he loved--but that's another story), to Savannah's cemetery where Muir slept six nights, and I try to sleep there at Bonaventure, stay tuned: like Muir, who waited there for his family to bail him out by sending money for bread and tea, I may need to be bailed out as well, and discover another reality of what it meant to be the indefatigable trekker of thousands of miles on this earth.