One of my cardinal rules is NEVER take a group of master naturalists on an interpretative hike. With their incessant field guides, new-fangled cameras and fancy binoculars, it’s worse than herding cats! What is it about nature that commands this endless curiosity? Why are we so engrossed in the wonders of the natural world? What cellular need tugs at us to understand the workings of nature? Why do we join organizations like Texas Master Naturalists? Alas, we all share a common calling . . . but it sounds a bit presumptuous and imposing doesn’t it: Texas Master Naturalist. There’s a bunch of background and baggage that comes with that title!
What of the supernumerary naturalists, the ones who dedicated their lives to conservation, preservation and education? Those who are totally consumed by this fire in their hearts? The singular naturalists, the exceptional ones we read about in our curriculum who made stunning contributions and left marks on history and on our planet? What accounts for them?
While Texas boasts a distinguished legacy left by such people, for me the ultimate icon of the true naturalist was John Muir. The idea that he never spent much of his considerable talent in the Lone Star state is our loss; he was drawn to places of—forgive me—extraordinary majestic beauty.
Muir was utterly helpless, carried away by the need to know and experience nature first hand—often to the point of disregarding common sense and personal safety. Can you imagine Ferdinand Lindheimer climbing up into the trunk of a pine tree for hours to experience the sounds, tumult and fury of a high mountain thunderstorm? Would Aldo Leopold, accompanied only by his dog, risk death on frigid unknown glaciers and icy mountaintops for the pure joy of experiencing the power and beauty of nature first hand?
I cannot think of any one single man who did more in his lifetime to force us to examine our relationship with nature. Muir is regarded as a kind of philosopher of American nature worship that endures in activist environmentalism today.
A Scottish-American, he attended but never graduated college. At the age 22 he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. There, under a towering black locust tree, he took his first botany lesson—it changed his life! Later in his autobiography, Muir described the impact of his introduction to the science of nature, “This fine lesson charmed me and sent me flying to the woods and meadows in wild enthusiasm.” He went on to absorb geology and chemistry classes in an eclectic combination of topics that, while they supported his interests, did not relate to a particular degree program. He had bigger fish to fry.
It’s not a small thing for a young man to throw away a college education to follow an inner compass, totally unafraid, free as a bird and brimming with confidence. These people will always exist; they just won’t exist in large numbers. Think Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg.
Muir cut short a promising career in industry (he had a natural flair for inventions and apprenticed in a factory) to satisfy his wanderlust. It would be a roundabout circuit and would take a while to complete, but this first trip would eventually take Muir to his lifetime’s work in California. He managed to walk from Indiana to Florida, creating botanical sketches along the way. While walking was more common during the mid-1800s, it seems unthinkable in an era where “wild” now is what blurs by your windshield on the Interstate at 75 mph. While walking across several states, a man gets to know himself and his surroundings pretty well, I imagine.
From Florida Muir sailed to California and once again walked from San Francisco to the Sierra Nevada – the “Range of Light” that would transform his life with his “unconditional surrender” to nature. He worked as a sheepherder for a time, then got hired to build a saw mill in Yosemite Valley in 1869. Later, he traveled to Alaska’s Glacier Bay and Mount Rainier in Washington; his writings would bring attention to two future national parks. He was smitten!
The son of a preacher, Muir believed that God revealed himself through nature and he felt a spiritual connection for the entirety of his life. He possessed an unbelievable gift in his ability to describe and record his feelings in journals. In his later years, much of this writing was used when he began writing nature articles for newsletters, newspapers and magazines. His writing skill eventually brought national fame for him. His lyrical style reflected his faith . . . and reads more like poetry. An example:
“All the merry dwellers of the trees and streams, and the myriad swarms of the air, called into life by the sunbeam of a summer morning, go home through death, wings folded perhaps as in the last red rays of sunset of the day they had first tried. Trees towering into the sky, braving storms for centuries, flowers turning faces to the light for a single day or hour, having enjoyed their share of life’s feast—all alike pass on and away under the law of death and love. Yet all are brothers and they enjoy their life as we do, share heaven’s blessings with us, die and are buried in hallowed ground, come with us out of eternity and return into eternity.” .JOURNAL ENTRY/NO DATE
John Muir quickly became the public voice of preservation-related causes. His love of outdoors had become a natural antecedent to educating others in the need to conserve and protect our wilderness. He defended protection of the Petrified Forest and the Grand Canyon in Arizona, argued vehemently for setting aside the high country around Yosemite Valley as a national park in 1890, as well as for General Grant and Sequoia national parks.
John Muir was the first president of the Sierra Club and he was successful in convincing authorities to transfer the new Yosemite National Park from state to federal control in 1906.
In his book Coyote America, Dan Flores writes, “But when the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 resulted in the damming of Hetch Hetchy Canyon, a large and scenic portion of Yosemite National Park, as a water source for the city, the anguished outcry from preservationists finally produced the creation of a National Park Service. The year was 1916.” John Muir, was the principal voice of that outcry.
He usually spent his evenings sitting by a campfire in his overcoat, reading Emerson under the stars. As the years passed, he became a “fixture in the valley,” respected for his knowledge of natural history, his skill as a guide, and his vivid storytelling. Visitors to the valley often included scientists, artists, and celebrities, many of whom made a point of meeting with Muir.
John Muir’s fame and influence grew and he became known as the penultimate naturalist of his time, routinely entertaining poets, executives and presidents. Altogether, Muir published six volumes of writings, all describing explorations of natural settings. Four additional books were published posthumously. Several books were subsequently published that collected essays and articles from various sources.
Muir often used domestic language to describe his scientific observations, as when he saw nature as providing a home for even the smallest plant life: “the little purple plant, tended by its Maker, closed its petals, crouched low in its crevice of a home, and enjoyed the storm in safety.” Muir also saw nature as his own home, as when he wrote friends and described the Sierra as “God’s mountain mansion.” He considered not only the mountains as home, however, as he also felt a closeness even to the smallest objects: “The very stones seem talkative, sympathetic, brotherly. No wonder when we consider that we all have the same Father and Mother.”
Muir married late but fathered two daughters who begat ten grandchildren. As a married man he spent ten years managing his father-in-law’s fruit ranch in Martinez, California, but it was not enough. He was a loyal, dedicated husband, but he was most at home in the wilderness. His wife understood his needs, and after seeing his restlessness at the ranch would sometimes “shoo him back up” to the mountains. He often took his daughters with him.
John Muir died at a California hospital in 1914 of pneumonia at age 76. During his lifetime John Muir published over 300 articles and 12 books. His co-founding of the Sierra Club helped establish a number of national parks after he died and today has over 2.4 million members. This is a MASTER naturalist!
Muir was “the patron saint of American wilderness,” a great role model for us all. As a dreamer and activist, Muir changed the way we see our forests, mountain ranges and natural areas. He got us to see that what we lose through indifference or an attitude of entitlement is lost forever. This is a simple truth we still grapple with today.