When Things Go South: On the Trail of John Muir, Part II


Of all the upness accessible to mortals, there is no upness comparable to the mountains. --John of the Mountains, The Unpublished Journals of John Muir (1938)

Night is coming on and I am filled with indescribable loneliness. Felt feverish; bathed in a black, silent stream; nervously watchful for alligators.--John of the Mountains, The Unpublished Journals of John Mur (1938).

Towards Savannah

He begins, of course, with "Up."

Up the mountain on the state line. The scenery is far grander than any I ever before beheld. . . . Such an ocean of wooded, waving, swelling mountain beauty and grandeur is not to be described. Countless forest-clad hills, side by side in rows and groups, seemed to be enjoying the rich sunshine and remaining motionless only because they were so eagerly absorbing it. All were united by curves and slopes of inimitable softness and beauty. Oh, these forest gardens of our Father! What perfection, what divinity, in their architecture! What simplicity and mysterious complexity of detail! Who shall read the teaching of these sylvan pages, the glad brotherhood of rills that sing in the valleys, and all the happy creatures that dwell in them under the tender keeping of a Father's care?--John Muir, 1000 Mile Walk to the Gulf

If ever we did not know what to do upon the occasion of a new day, this chance once again to do justice to the gift of consciousness of being alive on earth, surely reading this passage by John Muir would serve as our sunrise. Get up, sweet slugabed, Robert Herrick enjoins us in Corinna's Going A Maying (extensive research of at least three minutes on the internet provides evidence he did have access to coffee in such exuberance); let us arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, encourages W.B. Yeats, on a London street corner on a gray London day, thinking of Ireland. And this is the effect of the naturalist John Muir's words, like a poet, rousing us, up, up, to the occasion of the day--his reverent and exuberant words describing his "glorious walk" when he heads south: grandeur, beheld, beauty, perfection, divinity, glad, enjoying, eagerly, singing, happiness. Muir's words bespeak a transcendent delight in the vista, the scene at hand. Who can resist? This is a tweet I have to follow. And so inspired, I leave my Oregon perch, and make my way south and east, following in Muir's footsteps, guided by his journal, now heading south to Savannah.

On his trail, you would not take me at first sight for a John Muir look alike. I do not pretend to be a naturalist, nor a fellow enthusiast of adventure. I am a poet, in my seventh decade, a professor and John Muir scholar, at home in libraries, archives, and any place I can set up my computer, or settle with a book. Since I can remember, I have been inspired by the language of John Muir. His words have been with me throughout my childhood, camping in the West, first in Yosemite (brought there in a picnic basket at four weeks old), and then all over the national parks with my ecologist teacher father and nature-lover mother, who brought my father out to Yosemite and to California to live. I have been in Muir's terrain in the Sierras and Alaska, but over the years, I have realized that the Midwest (I did my graduate work in Indiana), and East (having lived in Washington, D.C., and South), are iconic Muir terrain. In fact, there is really no where in the world in which Muir's words are not brought to mind. The whole world is familiar--and rousing--through Muir's words.

So through the lens of Muir's words, I see the oaks, and indeed, they seem to spread their arms in welcome, to wave, a friendly, blessing presence. I see the radiance of green in the foliage; I recognize what I see because of his naturalist's excited and joyous and keenly observed responses to this earth.

So I am on an odyssey of Muir's path, seeking what I can learn by being in the lands he experienced and wrote about. In my first weeks of this trip, I am already a little chastened, having gotten myself bit by various invisible creatures, from lying on pine needles, his favorite bedding, and writing about the setting sun--the evidence being countless welts, blisters, swellings, eruptions, and skin rubbed raw. I have shrieked at the sight of alligators and the knowledge of the presence of poisonous snakes and snakes that climb trees.

But Muir's journal of his "1000 mile walk to the Gulf" does not wilderness-shame. In fact, his account of his odyssey is not an Eden without the Snake. Indeed, to my surprise, accustomed to his idyllic accounts of Sierra mornings, storms, avalanches, and all, where everything is UP, he acknowledges the human sides of travel. Nearing Savannah, he writes:

Night is coming on and I am filled with indescribable loneliness. Felt feverish; bathed in a black, silent stream; nervously watchful for alligators.

This cheers me; indeed, knowing he is nervously watchful for alligators, I feel in great company, not alone at all. I also have a headache, and have wondered what is lurking in the black, silent stream.

Muir admits he is warned about the trip, including from humans:

September 19. Received another solemn warning of dangers on my way through the mountains. . .
As I was leaving, he repeated the warnings of danger ahead, saying that there were a good many people living like wild beasts on whatever they could steal, and that murders were sometimes committed for four or five dollars, and even less. While stopping with him I noticed that a man came regularly after dark to the house for his supper. He was armed with a gun, a pistol, and a long knife. My host told me that this man was at feud with one of his neighbors, and that they were prepared to shoot one another at sight.

There were problems with amenities--
Most of the food in this house was coffee without sugar, corn bread, and sometimes bacon. But the coffee was the greatest luxury which these people knew. The only way of obtaining it was by seizing skins, or, in particular, "sang," that is ginseng 4 , which found a market in far-off China.

I then determined to push on southward regardless of roads and fords. After repeated failures I succeeded in finding a place on the river bank where I could force my way into the stream through the vine-tangles. I succeeded in crossing the river by wading and swimming, careless of wetting, knowing that I would soon dry in the hot sunshine. Out near the middle of the river I founds great difficulty in resisting the rapid current. Though I braced myself with a stout stick, I was at length carried away in spite of all my efforts. But I succeeded in swimming to the shallows on the farther side, luckily caught hold of a rock, and after a rest swam and waded ashore. Dragging myself up the steep bank by the overhanging vines, I spread out myself, my paper money, and my plants to dry.

Rattlesnakes abundant.

Strange plants are crowding about me now. Scarce a familiar face appears among all the flowers of the day's walk.

All day in dense, wet, dark, mysterious forest of flat-topped taxodiums. October 6. Immense swamps, still more completely fenced and darkened, that are never ruffled with winds or scorched with drought. Many of them seem to be thoroughly aquatic.
October 7. Impenetrable taxodium swamp, seemingly boundless.

And to make matters worse, he is having trouble hearing from home:

Reached Savannah, but find no word from home, and the money that I had ordered to be sent by express from Portage [Wisconsin] by my brother had not yet arrived. Feel dreadfully lonesome and poor. Went to the meanest looking lodging-house that I could find, on account of its cheapness.

In spite of his fears, loneliness, and being mired in inpenetrable swamp, he finds the terrain "charming and beautiful," a Paradise:

All the larger streams of uncultivated countries are mysteriously charming and beautiful, whether flowing in mountains or through swamps and plains. Their channels are interestingly sculptured, far more so than the grandest architectural works of man. The finest of the forests are usually found along their banks, and in the multitude of falls and rapids the wilderness finds a voice. Such a river is the Hiwassee, with its surface broken to a thousand sparkling gems, and its forest walls vine-draped and flowery as Eden. And how fine the songs it sings!

In fact, in spite of his issues, he still sees through an epic and Biblical vision of grandeur: I recall his way of describing his journey to people who thought he was out of his mind!

"Young man, what are you doing down here?" I replied that I was looking at plants. "Plants? What kind of plants?" I said, "Oh, all kinds; grass, weeds, flowers, trees, mosses, ferns, -- almost everything that grows is interesting to me."
"Well, young man," he queried, "you mean to say that you are not employed by the Government on some private business?" "No," I said, "I am not employed by any one except just myself. I love all kinds of plants, and I came down here to these Southern States to get acquainted with as many of them as possible." "You look like a strong-minded man," he replied, "and surely you are able to do something better than wander over the country and look at weeds and blossoms. These are hard times, and real work is required of every man that is able. Picking up blossoms does n't seem to be a man's work at all in any kind of times."
To this I replied, "You are a believer in the Bible, are you not?" "Oh, yes." "Well, you know Solomon was a strong-minded man, and he is generally believed to have been the very wisest man the world ever saw, and yet he considered it was worth while to study plants; not only to go and pick them up as I am doing, but to study them; and you know we are told that he wrote a book about plants, not only of the great cedars of Lebanon, but of little bits of things growing in the cracks of the walls. 2
"Therefore, you see that Solomon differed very much more from you than from me in this matter. I'll warrant you he had many a long ramble in the mountains of Judea, and had he been a Yankee he would likely have visited every weed in the land. And again, do you not remember that Christ told his disciples to 'consider the lilies how they grow,' and compared their beauty with Solomon in all his glory? Now, whose advice am I to take, yours or Christ's? Christ says, 'Consider the lilies.' You say, 'Don't consider them. It is n't worth while for any strong-minded man."'

. . . He earnestly entreated me to turn back and not to think of walking so far as the Gulf of Mexico until the country became quiet and orderly once more.

I replied that I had no fear, that I had but very little to lose, and that nobody was likely to think it worth while to rob me; that, anyhow, I always had good luck. In the morning he repeated the warning and entreated me to turn back, which never for a moment interfered with my resolution to pursue my glorious walk."

So as I enter Savannah, passing by the black-watered swamps with dense trees, I do not take for granted Muir's mindset of a glorious walk:

"There is nothing more eloquent in Nature than a mountain stream, and this is the first I ever saw. Its banks are luxuriantly peopled with rare and lovely flowers and overarching trees, making one of Nature's coolest and most hospitable places. Every tree, every flower, every ripple and eddy of this lovely stream seemed solemnly to feel the presence of the great Creator. Lingered in this sanctuary a long time thanking the Lord with all my heart for his goodness in allowing me to enter and enjoy it."

I would enjoy this passage, evocative of romantic poets, Wordsworth on steroids, but having a sense of what Muir was experiencing, soaked, dodging alligators, surely as bitten as myself, the onset of malaria, threatened with robbery and murder, seen as a fool or intruder or both, overwhelmed with snakes, penniless, lonely, knee high in black water and a way that was increasingly inpenetrable, and often blighted by war and poverty, it shows what kind of spirit Muir brings to the experience, and makes his ability to see beauty and feel reverence and blessing in nature stand out as a shining . . . sunrise, out of the darkness.

So let's proceed on this glorious walk--let's see it as glorious. Let's see what glory actually means. Tomorrow I will be in the city, and walk the almost five miles to the Bonaventure Cemetery, where Muir lived for a week, a place said to be haunted, and the setting for John Berendt's 1994 Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Clint Eastwood's film.