“Do you have something by Muir to read?” asked a friend as I made last-minute preparations to embark for Yosemite National Park. The thought had previously crossed my mind, but his encouragement spurred me to action. Like Muir in 1869, I was off for My First Summer in the Sierra. I am so glad that I brought the account of his journey along for mine.
The book, first published in 1911 and re-released on its centennial with beautiful color photographs, follows a thirty-one-year-old John Muir as he accompanies a party of shepherds, their woolly flock, and a loyal dog up to the verdant meadows of the High Sierra. Muir brought to the trip the eye of a naturalist and the enthusiasm of a little boy. He was the first to correctly theorize that the great Yosemite Valley was the product of ancient glaciers, but he saw so much more than just a place to be studied with scientific detachment. No, this was a grand “cathedral” with “every crystal, every flower a window opening into heaven, a mirror reflecting the Creator.”
Like St. Francis of Assisi, who spoke in familial terms of the birds, the Sun, and the Moon, and like the prophet Isaiah, who saw a world of singing hills and trees joyfully clapping their hands, John Muir discerned “divine lessons” in the natural world and reveled in listening to God’s “water and stone sermons.”
John Muir closes My First Summer in the Sierra praying that he might “see it again.” See it again he did, and his work founding the Sierra Club and helping to create and then expand the National Park Service ensured that millions more would be able to see it for generations to come.
Religious language and references to biblical stories are commonplace in My First Summer,but the true nature of Muir’s belief system has long been debated. Raised in a strict Christian home with a father who was a Campbellite preacher, Muir became a gifted inventor but left industry after an 1866 accident blinded him. When his sight eventually returned, he “bade adieu to all [his] mechanical inventions, determined to devote the rest of [his] life to the study of the inventions of God.”
Muir then set out on a series of journeys that would take him hundreds of miles on foot. Along the way, Muir wrestled with the faith of his youth, and some have suggested that he left it completely for some form of pantheism. Others have argued, convincingly in my view, that Muir’s spirituality was a form of Christian mysticism. The raindrop, after all, was to Muir “God’s messenger,” not God; and in its fuller context, Muir’s most-quoted sentence echoes this sentiment:
No Sierra landscape that I have seen holds anything truly dead or dull . . . everything is perfectly clean and pure and full of divine lessons. This quick, inevitable interest attaching to everything seems marvelous until the hand of God becomes visible; then it seems reasonable that what interests Him may well interest us. When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.
For Muir, the interconnections of all things, and our human curiosity about them, stems from a Creator distinct from the universe he has made. This is a quite biblical sentiment: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17).
Still, admirers must carefully guard against the temptation to simply remake Muir into what we would like him to be. In his rhapsody for the continuing goodness of creation, Muir can at times discount the effects of sin. For better or worse—and perhaps the truth is a bit of both—John Muir was not his day’s garden-variety Christian, though he likely comprehended the remnants of God’s good Garden better than most who more regularly sat in the pews.
Perhaps my friend put it best in the message that inspired me to take Muir’s words along on my own journey to Yosemite: “He did have eyes that sawnot everything that mattered, but some of it, very deeply and truly.” Whether or not you actually set foot among the sequoias and waterfalls, I think you too will be blessed to see through those eyes as you walk alongside a man of vision during his first summer in the Sierra.
John Murdock works as a natural resources attorney in Washington, D.C. and serves as an editorial advisor for Creation Care magazine.