Wild Life

Life – and Emerson – tried to lure the naturalist John Muir back to the world. But his home was always the American wild.

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The last earthly home of the mystic-naturalist John Muir was a 14-bedroom Victorian mansion on the fringes of Martinez, California. Before that Muir’s home had been the wilds of America, days spent roaming the peaks and valleys of the West. But in 1878, when Muir turned 40, his friends urged him to leave the mountain life and rejoin civilization. “John Muir! The great prophet of the American wilderness!” they would say at dinner parties and in print, and then remind Muir in private that his way of living was impossible.

By all accounts, John Muir became a good husband and a good father after he came down from the mountain. He wrote books about his experiences in the wild, and tended the enormous fruit ranch that belonged to his father-in-law. Every so often, Muir’s wife would find him gazing into the air. She would send him off for a mountain retreat; occasionally he took his daughters.

John Muir came to writing about nature reluctantly — for him, words could never express what he saw. “This business of writing books,” said Muir to his secretary, “is a long, tiresome, endless job.” But Muir felt that even if words were merely failed experiences, they could nonetheless be catalysts for action. A man wearing a city hat might read Muir’s account of Yosemite in a travel magazine while riding the train across America and think, “I will go there too.” For Muir, this was a very good result. Anyone who happens upon the wilderness, thought Muir, will find out soon enough that wildness is a necessity. “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people,” wrote Muir in 1901, “are beginning to find out… that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”

The love of wild nature is in everyone, thought Muir. But this animal called man, wrote Muir, was rapidly multiplying and spreading, “covering the seas and lakes with ships, the land with huts, hotels, cathedrals, and clustered city shops and homes…” Soon, wrote Muir, we would have to go far to find the wild. Since people are half animal, half angel, wrote Muir, we are born to seek eternity. It is only deep in the belly of Nature’s grandeur where man can find what he is really looking for. Eternal dawn and gloaming, he wrote. A shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. It is always sunrise somewhere.

Everywhere, Muir saw people longing to jump from rock to rock, to feel the life of them, learn the songs of them. “Awakening from the stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury,” wrote Muir in 1901, “they are trying as best they can to mix and enrich their own little ongoings with those of Nature, and to get rid of rust and disease.” These people were preserving the wild places and growing squares of “half-wild” green stuff in the cities. Even the scenery in its most artificial forms, “mixed with spectacles, silliness, and kodaks; its devotees arrayed more gorgeously than scarlet tanagers, frightening the wild game with red umbrellas” — even this was encouraging to Muir, a hopeful sign of the times.

“I care to live only to entice people to look at Nature’s loveliness,” wrote Muir. “My own special self is nothing.” He would tell visitors to the fruit ranch, “This is a good place to be housed in during stormy weather, to write in, and to raise children in, but it is not my home.” And then he would point to the Sierra Nevada on the horizon and say, “Up there is my home.”

All my adult life I’ve sported bruises on my hips. The distance from floor to hip is roughly the height of tables and desks and armchairs. That’s where I knock myself as I make my daily way around the tiny labyrinth of indoor space I inhabit. Thinking of this and that, I knock my body into the too-big furniture crammed into three-walled railroad apartments. I knock my elbows into the walls. I have stubbed many toes.

The phrase “eke out” comes to mind whenever I think of home. If I could only eke out a square for my fragile human body on this great expanse of globe and atmosphere. A chair on a rooftop is every city person’s dream. From there, you can see the water towers, the birds, and the clouds sliding between buildings.

In the woods, John Muir built for himself a number of abodes, piles of fallen timber without windows or floors. An abode is, by definition, a waiting place, a temporary dwelling. It is a set of coordinates in space where one sits between journeys, stays dry during stormy weather. On his Yosemite excursions, Muir used his body for lodgings. He decorated these accommodations with a tin cup and a loaf of bread and a copy of Emerson’s Nature. Scientists and artists and people of distinction often traveled to the mountains and asked Muir to tell them secrets. Half-blind and ragged, face covered over with hair, the man looked like a Transcendentalist Tiresias. Read the Book of Nature, Muir would tell them. Baptize yourself in the mountains.


John Muir in the wild, 1902

One day in the year 1871, Emerson jumped out of his book and came to visit Muir, just as the younger man had always hoped. Only, in Muir’s fantasy, the venerable philosopher was not quite so old, and didn’t come with an entourage. “I felt sure that of all men,” wrote Muir in Our National Parks, “he would best interpret the sayings of these noble mountains and trees.”

For five days John Muir tried to seduce Emerson into the wild — the mountains are calling, let us run away! Muir sang to him, let us go to the show! But Emerson’s companions would have none of it. Emerson is too old for nature, they told Muir; he could catch his death of cold. It is only in houses that people catch colds! Muir protested — there is not a single sneeze in the Sierra! The tottering Emerson, tempted, was inclined to agree with his friends.

On the sixth day, the two men rode together through the magnificent forests of the Merced basin. Muir preached to Emerson the gospel of the trees:

I kept calling his attention to the sugar pines, quoting his wood-notes, “Come listen what the pine tree saith,” etc., pointing out the noblest as kings and high priests, the most eloquent and commanding preachers of all the mountain forests, stretching forth their century-old arms in benediction over the worshiping congregations crowded about them. He gazed in devout admiration, saying but little, while his fine smile faded away.

At the moment of their parting, Emerson took off his hat and waved Muir a last goodbye. He continued to send Muir letters and books, and urged Muir not to stay too long in solitude. I can offer you a professorship at Harvard, said Emerson; the world is waiting to hear your message. But Muir had read too much Emerson to be tempted by this, and turned the philosopher down. Never for a moment would I accept a professorship, Muir later would say, in exchange for God’s big show. When you are ready to leave the woods and settle in Boston, Emerson told him, you can come and live in my house.

Muir gazed a while at the spot from where his hero had vanished, then went back into the heart of the grove. “I felt lonely,” wrote Muir, “so sure had I been that Emerson of all men would be the quickest to see the mountains and sing them.” Muir fashioned a bed from ferns and plumes then walked around till sundown. “I built a great fire, and as usual had it all to myself,” wrote Muir. “And though lonesome for the first time in these forests, I quickly took heart again — the trees had not gone to Boston, nor the birds.”

A year ago, I moved into a two-room abode on a large patch of land in America. The scraggly land is owned by a scraggly man who has been here fifty years. In America, fifty years is a long time — more than a quarter of the official age of America. In fifty years, I’ve learned, a patch of farmland will grow all the way back into a forest. All you have to do is leave it be. Short ashes and walnuts among the sycamores.

I thought, moving here, if my abode were small enough, it would force me into the trees. Inside, I’ve filled shelves and drawers with the evidence of my personality. All that I am, all that I’ve made myself, exists inside these drawers. They are my home, they comfort me. The Mountains of California sits on a bookshelf made of trees and the book is made of trees. But outside, the air is wild and the dirt is wild and the wildness doesn’t care at all about my things.

The mystic John Muir liked to climb up to mountaintops and dangle in space, just to know the feeling of falling. He would cling onto the rock face and feel the limits of himself — all was rock and abyss and John Muir. In these moments, Muir was possessed with a new sense of self, his Other self, his “wild self.” “We little know until tried,” wrote Muir, “how much of the uncontrollable there is in us.” I also feel, when I read these words, that Nature likes my pockets empty.

In this two-room concrete box I live in, half-buried in a hill, I sit and sleep and write words about the life outside the door. I breathe in, as Walt Whitman did, the fragrance of myself that fills my indoor space. Sometimes I know it and like it. But other times the smell of myself becomes so uncomfortable that I have no choice other than to jump out of the stupor of my desk chair and march over to the door. Sometimes I stand at the door for a long time, and look out the window, and watch the squirrels leap around the trees.

I don’t know where my home is, really. Sometimes, I think that if I stop somewhere, anywhere outside, and lay my head down on a rock, and close my eyes and snooze, I will dream of a ladder, like Jacob. A ladder rooted in the earth and going all the way up to heaven, with angels running up and down it. A voice will come to me and say, “This is the place you will stay. You’ll stay here not for yourself but for Me.” I will be afraid but I won’t show it. Like Jacob, I will say, “How full of awe is this place!” And in the morning I’ll get up and take the stone from under my head, and it will be a pillar of home.

John Muir worked his fruit farm like a man possessed, determined to do a good job. He started to cuss more often, became thin and weak, developed a cough that would not go away. “I am losing precious days,” he once told a friend. “I am degenerating into a machine for making money… I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news.” Five years later, the same friend visited Muir again. Muir held out a bunch of cherries and looked at them with despair. Boxing up cherries, putting them in prison! He cried, and for nothing other than money! I am a horrible example he said — I, who have been free — I am likely to die from shame.

It is sad that people are afraid to leave their houses for Nature, wrote Muir, afraid that Nature is full of demons seeking to devour them. It’s like a child being afraid of its own mother, wrote Muir, “like the man who, going out on a misty morning, saw a monster who proved to be his own brother.”


John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt in Yosemite, 1906

“How many are doomed to toil in town shadows while the white mountains beckon all along the horizon?”

The seer John Muir died a hundred years ago on Christmas Eve in the year 1914. His body was placed along the Alhambra Creek at the back of a pear orchard his father-in-law planted. This land was parceled off long ago to make way for suburban America. Tucked between the backyards of suburban America lies the gravesite of the seer John Muir.

“The rugged old Norsemen spoke of death as Heimgang — ‘home-going,’” wrote John Muir in his journals. “So the snow-flowers go home when they melt and flow to the sea, and the rock-ferns, after unrolling their fronds to the light and beautifying the rocks, roll them up close again in the autumn and blend with the soil.”

Every day, every hour, every moment, wrote John Muir, myriads of living creatures rejoice, having enjoyed their share of life’s feast. They sink, gladly, noticed only by their Maker, into the arms of death. “All the merry dwellers of the trees and streams… called into life by the sunbeam of a summer morning, go home through death,” he wrote. We are such stuff, wrote John Muir, our little life is rounded with a sleep. And if death should come, without hope of another life, we can say thanks for one day spent in wilderness. • 10 December 2014

 

For Morgan Meis.

 

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.

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