Thursday, April 21, 2016

Re-reading John Muir

 John Muir in his mid-30s, ca 1875. Source.

In 1969, the exciting ideas transforming the public consciousness finally reached my small conservative working-class town: Question authority! Reject the status quo! Down with the Establishment! I rejoiced, and gratefully began marching to the beats of different drummers. The most influential was John Muir. I still hear his drum, and today being Muir’s birthday, I’m honoring him with a post.

John Muir, the great naturalist and one of the earliest and most effective proponents of wild area protection, was born in 1838 in Scotland. His family immigrated to the US in 1849, finally settling near Portage, Wisconsin. Muir led a life of hard labor on the family farm, but managed to find time to ramble through the still-wild woods and prairies nearby, where he found himself “utterly happy.”

He enrolled in the University of Wisconsin, made good grades, but left after three years to take to the road. Odd jobs supported his adventures—until an accident in a carriage shop left him blind. Fortunately it was temporary. And with that glimpse of what fate could deliver, Muir declared he would devote his life to his passion—“the inventions of God” in the wild natural world.

After walking a thousand miles to the Gulf of Mexico, Muir sailed to Cuba, crossed Panama, and then sailed north to San Francisco, arriving in March of 1868. He took the ferry to Oakland, and asked for directions “to any place that is wild.” He walked across the flower-filled San Joaquín Valley to the Sierra Nevada, and took up residence in Yosemite Valley, occasionally working as sheepherder.
Sublime glacial landscape of the Sierra Nevada.  Photo by RC Koeppel.
Muir rambled through the high country of the great mountain range admiring, studying, sketching, and writing of landscapes, streams, glaciers, plants, animals and rocks. In 1874, a series of articles about the Sierra launched his writing career. In his long life he would produce 300 articles and ten major books, and I’m quite sure that if Muir were alive today, he would blog.

I've forgotten which of Muir’s books I read first. But I clearly remember how his contagious excitement for wild nature pulled me back into a world I lived in as a kid, when I wandered up and down the creek examining plants, rocks, frogs, newts and water-skippers. Surely if I could stay in that world, my life would be free-spirited and satisfying.
Lopez Creek, in the central California Coast Ranges.

Last year I ran into Muir in a used bookstore, finding his essay on the water-ouzel, his favorite bird, in an anthology of the best natural history writing—The Book of Naturalists,1944, William Beebe editor. I bought the book, went home, turned to Muir’s essay, and was stopped by Beebe’s puzzling introduction. Muir had a “keen, sober, but uncreative interest, almost passion, for wild things and wild scenes” he claimed.
“He became a hesperian Thoreau, with less philosophy but infinitely more physical guts than the Cambridge dreamer [Henry David Thoreau], and he could guide his thoughts more consistently into an essay on a given subject.  Yet with the years Muir’s writings have seemed to me to have grown thinner, while Thoreau’s often inconsequential thoughts have held to their initial force.” [italics mine]
What did Beebe mean?! Did Muir’s writings grow thinner as time passed, or as Beebe grew older? Would I find my hero and mentor thinner with my accumulated years? Others certainly had diminished—for example, Thoreau!

But just a few paragraphs in, Muir was as engaging as he had been years ago; in fact, his writing seems to have grown stronger. To each his own I guess. Perhaps editor Beebe didn't understand a man who could thrive in wild places—living simply, happily observing God’s work. Maybe Muir’s enthusiastic colorful imagery-filled writing was unappealing. Maybe Beebe was more drawn to Thoreau’s focused contemplative darker style and profound conclusions. Not me. Muir's whimsical but aptly-descriptive language is heartening, reminding me there is much to be excited about.

• • • 
“The waterfalls of the Sierra are frequented by only one bird,—the Ouzel or Water Thrush (Cinclus Mexicanus, Sw.). He is a singularly joyous and lovable little fellow, about the size of a robin, clad in a plain waterproof suit of bluish gray, with a tinge of chocolate on the head and shoulders. In form he is about as smoothly plump and compact as a pebble that has been whirled in a pot-hole, the flowing contour of his body being interrupted only by his strong feet and bill, the crisp wing-tips, and the up-slanted wren-like tail.” [all quotes that follow are Muir’s]
Officially this is now the American Dipper, but he remains a water-ouzel to me. Photo by Ron Knight.
“The Ouzel seldom swims more than a few yards on the surface, for, not being web-footed, he makes rather slow progress, but by means of his strong, crisp wings he swims, or rather flies, with celerity under the surface, often to considerable distances. But it is in withstanding the force of heavy rapids that his strength of wing in this respect is most strikingly manifested.”
“WATER OUZEL DIVING AND FEEDING”  Ouzels tolerate temperatures well below freezing—enabled by low metabolic rate, oxygen-rich blood, and thick feathers (source for all sketches).
“He seems to be especially fond of the larvæ of mosquitos, found in abundance attached to the bottom of smooth rock channels where the current is shallow. When feeding in such places he wades up-stream, and often while his head is under water the swift current is deflected upward along the glossy curves of his neck and shoulders, in the form of a clear, crystalline shell, which fairly incloses him like a bell-glass, the shell being broken and re-formed as he lifts and dips his head …”
“The Ouzel's nest is one of the most extraordinary pieces of bird architecture I ever saw, odd and novel in design, perfectly fresh and beautiful, and in every way worthy of the genius of the little builder. It is about a foot in diameter, round and bossy in outline, with a neatly arched opening near the bottom … It is built almost exclusively of green and yellow mosses, chiefly the beautiful fronded hypnum that covers the rocks and old drift-logs in the vicinity of waterfalls. … The site chosen for this curious mansion is usually some little rock-shelf within reach of the lighter particles of the spray of a waterfall, so that its walls are kept green and growing, at least during the time of high water.” 
Ouzel family. Photo by Larry Jordan (labeled for non-commercial reuse).
“… the Ouzel sings on through all the seasons and every kind of storm. Indeed no storm can be more violent than those of the waterfalls in the midst of which he delights to dwell. … The more striking strains are perfect arabesques of melody, composed of a few full, round, mellow notes, embroidered with delicate trills which fade and melt in long slender cadences. In a general way his music is that of the streams refined and spiritualized.”
“THE OUZEL AT HOME”  Listen to an ouzel sing, accompanied by a stream.

My first encounter with the ouzel was in John Muir's beloved Sierra Nevada, on one of my early hikes. Trip after trip I channelled Muir, finding the same joy he found in his Range of Light. I kept food simple, pack light, gear cheap. I took notes, and learned the names of trees. With like-minded friends I covered miles of trail, climbed peaks, and slept among “grass and gentians of glacier meadows” or anywhere “one might hope to see God.” Whenever I sauntered*** along a cold swift cascading stream, I kept an eye out for the ouzel, “flitting about in the spray, diving in foaming eddies, whirling like a leaf among beaten foam-bells; ever vigorous and enthusiastic, yet self-contained, and neither seeking nor shunning your company.”

Eventually I left California, but not the ouzel. I’ve met him in the mountains of Wyoming, Montana and Colorado, and most memorably below a waterfall in the South Dakota Black Hills—bobbing, diving, flitting, and singing “perfect arabesques of melody.” Wherever I see the “singularly joyous” ouzel, I see John Muir. I think he would be pleased.
“Among all the mountain birds, none has cheered me so much in my lonely wanderings,—none so unfailingly. For both in winter and summer he sings, sweetly, cheerily, independent alike of sunshine and of love, requiring no other inspiration than the stream on which he dwells.” 
John Muir in his early sixties, ca 1902. Library of Congress; Public Domain.

*** When asked about hiking, Muir emphatically denounced it. “People ought to saunter in the mountains—not hike! … Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre, To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.” (Albert W. Palmer, 1911, The Mountain Trail and Its Message; excerpt here)

Sources (in addition to links in post)

The Sierra Club provides extensive biographical information about its founder.

John Muir wrote about the water-ouzel in Chapter 13 of Mountains of California, provided here by the Sierra Club.

For more on the water-ouzel/American dipper: Audubon Guide to North American Birds (online); All about BirdsCornell Lab of Ornithology.


  1. The saunterer quote is one of my favorites. John Muir is a personal hero. I agree wholeheartedly about his writing, and with your belief that he would be a blogger were he alive today. His childhood home in Wisconsin is a few miles from our cottage, and we've walked the trail there many times. This might sound silly, but I feel his presence when I walk there. I did a series of posts about him a couple of years ago. What a great human and a great role model. Happy birthday, John Muir!

  2. That's really neat to hear, Beth. I would love to read your Muir series. I found "Wild adventures and misadventures: a book review" via google, are the others tagged in some way?

    1. Hi Hollis: This was the post about the Ennis Lake trail: And this link covers the other posts: Thanks for asking. I will search for your John Muir posts, too. :)

    2. great, thanks Beth. You can find mine (only 3 counting this one) using the John Muir tag. It occurred to me last night that one reason I admire the guy is that he stayed on his path his whole life, even while farming (taking trips, writing)

  3. Last summer I read a book called "In the Kingdom of Ice" about a failed expedition of a ship called the Jeanette to try to sail to the North Pole. I was surprised to learn that after the Jeanette was lost, John Muir was among those who searched for it in the arctic. He wrote about it in "The Cruise of the Corwin" that maybe you've read. That guy was everywhere!

    1. Hey Ken -- no, I did not know of that book. But it's online at the Sierra Club website, so I will read it. Yeah, he really got around! and quite the adventurer. A blog friend reviewed a book about 22 of his "Wild adventures and misadventures" that sounds interesting --

  4. Such a great man and you made a good story about it!
    I never read a book about Muir, just bits and pieces here there, and so I didn't know about the 'saunterers' - it makes sense :)
    He also explored, with his brother, parts of Canada along the Huron's shoreline and what will became known as Niagara Escarpment Trail.

  5. I read the excerpt on sauntering - I don't know how come is not known more. So true!
    I remember that even on the Inca Trail there were people rushing past us all the tine and couldn't believe my eyes. Sometimes I wonder what certain people are doing in the woods too, probably they get there by mistake.

    1. Thanks, bi, glad you enjoyed it. I know what you mean about the non-saunterers. I think sometimes it's an achievement kind of thing--cover the miles, do it fast, feel good about oneself, etc. Or maybe to get it over with?!

  6. What a wonderful man, and a wonderful bird the water-ouzel.
    I love your pieces of (natural) history that I have never heard of before.
    All the best :)

    1. Thanks, Pat, I appreciate the comment. Muir and the ouzel are favorites for sure--symbols of the high country for me.