Song for the Wild

Muir on rock by lake-1 Yosemiti by irvine butterfield

Muir has become so much of part of the establishment that is easy to forget that even by today’s standards he was a real rebel, as courageous in his convictions as he was fearless out in the wild.

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.” John Muir’s invitation echoes down the years and tugs at me every time I dip into one of his books. His enthusiasm for wild places is so irresistible, his faith in its restorative power so complete. He remained convinced to the end of his days that the blessing of just one ‘vast, measureless mountain day’ could leave you ‘rich forever.’

From my home amongst the Glen Lyon hills in Perth shire it isn’t hard to answer Muir’s call to visit high places. I took a break from researching this article to walk up a hill with the first light. I chose an old route, The Kirk Road at Innerwick that runs north into a steep sided pass before dropping down into the Black Wood of Rannoch. As I climbed higher the dusting of frosted snow hardened into more uniform patches of white. They revealed the criss-cross trails of earlier risers: red deer, tiny rodent feet, a crow’s meandering gait. 

Ahead of me the low sun dissected the hill into black and white. Behind ragged edged clouds gathered around the Ben Lawers range. I reached the end of the pass and gazed across the eastern stretches of Rannoch Moor. A fickle light touched Loch Rannoch from steely grey into a glimmering sea of fireflies.

I remembered Muir’s comment about staying out all day ‘because going out was really going in’ and wished I had the time to carry on. As I reluctantly turned for home the first flurry of snow started swirling silently around me. I suddenly felt both humbled by the scale of this landscape and somehow richer for feeling part of it. Muir embodies for me this common desire to be connected to the natural world, describing it as an “inherited wildness in the blood.” 

I first came across John Muir when I started a new job as the Communication Officer for the John Muir Trust in 2007. The Scottish based charity dedicated to protecting wild places for people and wildlife across the UK found the perfect champion in Muir. Born in Dunbar in 1838, he is credited with being ‘the father of the national park system’ in the United States. He was instrumental in protecting large areas of the Sierra Nevada in California, including the Yosemite National Park.

I love the story of Muir’s meeting of minds with a young President Roosevelt on a visit to Yosemite in 1903. Sleeping on heaps of evergreen branches in the Mariposa Sequoia Grove, Roosevelt later described the trunks towering over them in the firelight as “columns of a vaster and more beautiful cathedral than was ever conceived by any human architect.” The mighty sequoias and Muir’s oratory persuaded Roosevelt to place the Yosemite Valley under federal protection and he ended up signing bills that safeguarded a total of 148 million acres of forested wilderness.

The more I read about John Muir the more I realised how complex and mercurial his life was. His part in protecting American wilderness has landed him celebrity status in the United States where he has become a grandee of the conservation movement. In his adopted home of California there are schools, trails together with minerals (Muirite), plants and birds named after him. He even features on a Californian quarter, contemplating Yosemite’s Half Dome National Park. 

Muir has become so much of part of the establishment that is easy to forget that even by today’s standards he was a real rebel, as courageous in his convictions as he was fearless out in the wild. Influenced by the social reforming ideals of the French Revolution Muir joined writers such as Wordsworth, Emerson and Thoreau to reject modern ‘civilization’ and its relentless drive for economic progress regardless of the social and environmental costs.

In doing so Muir set himself against powerful forces in the post Civil War industrial period. He fought a long and bitter battle to prevent the valley of Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite from being turned into a water reservoir and ultimately a hydro electric dam. Lambasted as an extremist who put nature before people, many of Muir’s old allies in the Sierra Club turned against him. He died in December 1914, just one year after President Woodrow Wilson approved the Hetch Hetchy project.

Working for The John Muir Trust I couldn’t help but feel some empathy with Muir the old warrior of these final years. We campaigned hard to raise concerns over the threat to remote and fragile areas of core wild land in Scotland, often in the face of impossible odds.

There is also the caring side of John Muir. A keen naturalist, botanist and geologist he reveled in all of earth’s creations, however small. He meets a single ant in My First Summer in the Sierra and describes it as “the master of existence in this vast mountain world.”  It is this spirit of adventure and inquiry that inspired the John Muir Trust’s Award, encouraging everyone to ‘Discover, Explore and Conserve’ wild places. To date over 100,000 awards have been granted, mainly to the young people who will end up inheriting and hopefully caring for the planet better than we have.

When I left the John Muir Trust there was one place I had to visit in Muir’s honour. Like so many Scots he was an itinerate traveller. He journeyed to the Nile, the Amazon, China, Siberia and Alaska and would playfully sign off his letters ‘John Muir, Earth Planet, Universe.’ But all his ideas, all the roads he walked, ultimately led back to Yosemite in his beloved Sierra Nevada. 

On his first trip into Yosemite in 1869 Muir worked as a shepherd, herding over 2,000 sheep high up the Merced river and into the upper Toulumne basin. From here he explored the shattered peaks of Mount Dana and Cathedral Park which he describes as Creation’s dawn: “where the morning stars sing together, and the world, not half made, becomes more beautiful every day.” It is here that Muir found his true and undying passion for, and devotion to, the natural world. 

I finally made it in 2010 with my family for two weeks of camping, exploring the high ground around Yosemite Creek. Our adventures were limited to the capabilities of our then four year old son but we loved wandering along the trails, swimming in the creeks and hiking up to the glacial lakes. At night we marveled at the infinite sky and toasted marshmallows on the camp fire, keeping a wary eye out for the bears that have developed a similar addiction to junk food.

We got closest to Muir on a walk up to May Lake at the base of Mount Hoffmann. From the lake’s rim there are spectacular views right across northern Yosemite and I couldn’t help being captivated by the sheer grandeur of this monumental landscape. I thought I sensed Muir’s spirit whispering though the pines and finally understood how this ‘Range of Light,’ could stretch Muir’s imagination to encompass the world.

This grand show is eternal” Muir writes in My First Summer in the Sierra. “It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.” No one else has a heart that big.

It has been one hundred years since John Muir died of double pneumonia, the pages of his final manuscript Travels in Alaska scattered across his bed, and his writings seem more urgent than ever before. We are literally running out of landscape and with climate change the threats to wild places are even more complex than in Muir’s day. It is up to us all to take up the spirit of Muir this year and to try and save something wild, even if it is only our imaginations.

TGO Magazine, May 2014

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