Saint of the Sierra

By Anne Rowthorn

No single American has done more to preserve our wilderness than John Muir (1838-1914), the Scottish-born naturalist, Christian, and founder of the Sierra Club. Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints commemorates him, and General Convention would show wisdom in confirming this choice. Muir had already become the most ardent defender of the American wilderness by 1903 when he guided President Theodore Roosevelt on a three-day camping trip in Yosemite. As a result of this trip, Roosevelt would establish 148 million acres of national forest, five national parks, and twenty-three national monuments during his years in office.

Until Muir wrote about America’s mountains, valleys, deserts, forests and canyons, wilderness was commonly understood as something to be conquered, tamed, used, and exploited for commercial gain. It took Muir to commend the idea that nature has meaning, beauty, and value in itself. Neither before nor since has God’s earth had such an ardent advocate as Muir. He consistently pointed to the majesty of God and the sublime glories of creation: everything that is and was, every creature that walks, swims, crawls on the earth, and flies in the realms above.

Muir did not worship trees, mountains, brooks and meadows; instead, like them, he clapped his hands in adoration of the creating God who had called them into being. Listen to these words recalling his first summer in the Sierra: “Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, inciting at once to work and rest! Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God” (My First Summer in the Sierra, 1911, p. 82). Muir’s words reflect the graceful poetry of the Benedicite in which the “mountains and hills” are summoned to “glorify the Lord,” along with “all green things that grow upon the earth.”

Muir’s writings are steeped in biblical imagery describing the magnificence of creation, sacred because it was created by God. Following a storm in the high Sierra, Muir wrote in his journal, echoing the words of Walter Chalmers Smith’s hymn, “Immortal, Invisible, God only Wise”:

Now the storm is over, the sky is clear, the last rolling thunder-wave is spent on the peaks. God’s messenger, angel of love sent on its way with majesty and pomp and display of power that make man’s greatest shows ridiculous. … From form to form, beauty to beauty, ever changing, never resting, all are speeding on with love’s enthusiasm, singing with the stars the eternal song of creation. (My First Summer, pp. 169-70)

During another storm, Muir climbed a tree to feel it swaying in the ferocious wind:

When the storm began to abate, I dismounted and sauntered down through the calming woods. The storm-tones died away, and, turning toward the east, I beheld the countless hosts of the forests hushed and tranquil, towering above one another on the slopes of the hills like a devout audience. The setting sun filled them with amber light, and seemed to say, while they listened, “My peace I give unto you.” (The Mountains of California, 1894, pp. 255-56)

Muir’s writings prompt us to pay attention to “God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth” — strange to say, the person of the Trinity most often neglected or ignored. Still, despite his reveling in all the wonders that God created, Muir never lost his devotion to Jesus Christ. This is well illustrated by the original manuscripts of two letters to friends which I discovered in the archives of the Wisconsin Historical Society and which are transcribed here for the first time.

The first letter, written in 1861, is addressed to E.W. and Frances Pelton following the death of their 20-month old daughter and only child, Fannie.

What can I say, what can I do? Well, well do I know how little letters of consolation can do — your little blessing is away, but Mr. and Mrs. Pelton, you know that Jesus loves this little dear, and all is well, and you will go to her in just a little while though she cannot come to you. Blessed, blessed will you be if washed in Jesus’s blood you be found sinless as she.

Love Jesus the more. He knows the strength of this love.

In 1914, the last year of his life, Muir wrote to Emily Pelton Wilson, niece of the Peltons:

How many things have changed since you wrote last. The happy childrens’ voices that used to sing with the merry birds as they got posies on our lovely hill are not heard now — now wrinkled [we are], now borne about by every wind. … “We all do fade as a leaf” [Isa. 66:6]. As the leaf on the ripples of a lake, generation follows generation. … How good it is to obey and love God who gave His Son to redeem us and fit us to live forever.

Now, almost a hundred years after Muir’s death, we need him more than ever. Our planet is in peril. Global warming is remaking the global village. Storms, fires, droughts, floods, tsunamis, earthquakes, blistering temperatures, melting Arctic ice, the extinction of species — the earth is suffering severely. In such a context, the flourishing of human life on Earth is severely compromised, to say the least.

We need to restore the connection between the human world and the world of nature. Nothing short of a conversion — a turning around — to the earth will do, so we may see it with fresh eyes in all its extreme beauty and fragility. This is why we need the wisdom of John Muir. He builds that essential bridge between the natural world and our imaginations. His passion for the natural world evokes our own passion. Earth’s wonders are everywhere — the dandelion poking its face up through the cracked city sidewalk, the falling autumn leaf, the rhythm of the rolling tide, the burst of spring in every tree and flower. We only need eyes to see, ears to hear, hearts to embrace and a passion to stand up for Earth’s rights. As Muir said: “Try the mountain passes. They will kill care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action” (Mountains of California, p. 328).

If a saint is one who shows us an aspect of God or someone who enlarges our vision and opens a window to God’s loving activity in the world, then Muir is a saint for our times. Furthermore, including Muir in the calendar will help people who have a passionate love for nature to grow into a similar passionate love for the Creator.

How enriched we would all be to have the mind of John Muir, who wrote to his friend Janet Douglass Moores in 1887: “It is a blessed thing to go free in the light of this beautiful world, to see God playing upon everything, as a man would play on an instrument, His fingers upon the lightning and torrent, on every wave of sea and sky, and every living thing, making all together sing and shine in sweet accord, the one love-harmony of the Universe” (Life and Letters of John Muir, 1924, ch. 15).

Anne Rowthorn’s most recent book is The Wisdom of John Muir: 100+ Selections from the Letters, Journals and Essays of the Great Naturalist (Wilderness Press, 2012).

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