Will We Still Need Him When He's (1)74?: How and Why to Celebrate John Muir's Birthday on Earth Day

As communities program song and speech for Earth Day, we are reminded that it is also John Muir's birthday on April 21. Coincidence? I think not.

Our civic shout-out for earth this week is not something to take as a given. Our nation has not always conceived earth as something infinitely precious. Of certain value, yes: people came to this land seeing livelihood and wealth in wilderness, its rivers and forests, its winged and webbed and hoofed. In rapid order, our immense natural resources were being ingeniously logged and mined and hunted with new technologies. Species became extinct; wetlands and whole forests disappeared. Earth was a commodity. "Progress" was rapid eradication of wilderness.

In fact, our official understanding of earth was expressed in the dictionaries. Check out your own dictionary, online or that twenty-pounder from the library sale, and read the definition of wilderness, of wild: savage, wasteland. Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary characterizes wilderness in terms of desolation, waste, qualities our human race has prided itself on trying to overcome: uncivilized, dangerous, volatile, out of control. Wild connotes anarchy both natural and civic: barbarous, unrestrained violence, undisciplined, unruly, lawless, disregarding moral restraints, disorderly. Synonyms, riotous, ferocious. Wilds is a desolate region or tract, waste, wilderness, desert. Wilderness is considered spiritually demoralizing, too much, too big, useless, trash, confusing, and devoid of life or value.

How We See Earth Is Life and Death -- Its and Ours

There are dire consequences for those associated with the outlaw attributes of wilderness. Our culture's understanding of wilderness, so pejorative, is deeply imbued with fear. We eradicate and reform what threatens moral and physical order in our lives. In such a zeitgeist, to be wild or wilderness can be a death sentence. And if something is "waste," that means it is no good, no longer good, good riddance, disposable. The idea seems to be that if civilization is to succeed, wilderness needs to be improved: modified, commodified -- and indeed made "useful" as a resource: trees cut down, land mined, rivers dammed, drained, diverted, mountains cracked and fracked, scalped and razed. And this was the operant definition of progress and national policy as John Muir came of age.

Deus Ex Machina for Earth: Enthusiasm, Gratitude, Beholding, Rejoicing

As we think about Earth Day today, we can thank John Muir for his efforts to make us think differently. John Muir, born April 21, 1838, arrived relatively late in earth-time, thousands of years after people first began to scratch out of earth clay symbols to record and reflect human consciousness, and only 50 years after our Constitution was approved, in early days of our republic when ravaging wilderness was an accepted norm. But he made up for lost time -- in his words, "making haste with all my heart" -- with an enthusiasm about earth, a robust sense of gratitude for his ability to see and read nature's creative writing, and a practice and devotion of beholding and rejoicing in what to him was "glorious."

He believed that our human quality of life and life itself was at stake in the preservation of wilderness, and he set out to change our public mind about the value of the earth, doing what we tell our children as a survival strategy in life: use your words. Muir was listed as a geologist on his death certificate, and he is celebrated as an ecologist, botanist, wilderness lobbyist, founder and president of the Sierra Club, and godfather to our national parks, beginning with Yosemite. But his influence on laws and public policy, and indeed, our whole national mindset about wilderness, came from the way he describes himself experiencing nature.

For example, recovering from a broom industry accident to his eye which left him temporarily blinded, he wrote, "To me all plants are more precious than before." He began a journal, self-consciously writing on the fly leaf, "John Muir, Earth-Planet, Universe," and set out on a trek, plant press in his backpack, along with poetry of the New Testament, Milton, and Bobby Burns:

As soon as I got out into heaven's light, I started on another long excursion, making haste with all my heart to store my mind with the Lord's beauty, and thus be ready for any fate, light or dark. And it was from that time that my long, continuous wanderings may be said to have fairly commenced. I bade adieu to mechanical inventions, determined to devote the rest of my life to the study of the inventions of God.

This action hero citizen scientist is "pumped" to store his mind with reverent wonder for a world he does not take for granted, to which he brings awe, respect, gratitude, and a sense of hail-fellow-well-met fellow-being-ness, and most of all, enjoyment. This experience of wilderness is not the terrain of dictionary understanding, nor of fairy tales, or the disdain for what is trashed, or feared. Encountering earth up close and personal, he is an investigative reporter who uses his own response to nature as evidence for holding earth precious:

"Folding my map, I shouldered my little bag and plant press and strode away among the old Kentucky oaks, rejoicing in splendid visions of pines and palms and tropic flowers in glorious array... the great oaks seemed to spread their arms in welcome." They "excel in grandeur all I had ever before beheld... magnificent avenues of shade, and every tree seems to be blessed with a double portion of strong exulting life."

He is on an excellent adventure. We see tree-mendous energy of mind and spirit: he's rejoicing, beholding (we don't trash what we "behold"). And it's not just him -- the trees excel, exult, are blessed, welcoming. Flowers appear glorious. Visions are splendid. The scale of his appreciation is grand: it's magnificence.

I had to sleep without blankets, and also without supper or breakfast. But usually I had no great difficulty in finding a loaf of bread in the widely scattered clearings of the farmers. With one of these big backwoods loaves I was able to wander many a long, wild mile, free as the winds in the glorious forests and bogs, gathering plants and feeding on God's abounding, inexhaustible spiritual beauty bread.

John Muir's trek became 1,000 miles, and then resumed when he took boats from Cedar Keys, Florida, to Cuba, New York, and on to San Francsisco, from which he walked to Yosemite. He recorded his joyous grateful responses to what he beheld, transforming our mental wilderness for a new context in which to frame public policy about earth -- scribbled notes that became journal entries, that became letters, that became articles and books, that came to the attention of the public, Congress, and U.S. presidents, that became laws for creation and preservation of lands and national parks, that are celebrated today.

Muir loved music. His favorite metaphor for what is happening on earth is music (the goldenrods are in tune "singing and writing wind-music all their lives... this noble tree-waving and tree-music.") His famous essay on the Yuba windstorm describes the scene's Aeolian music. Sierra streams are "all chanting together in one grand anthem."

So how should we celebrate John Muir's birthday? On that "note," I recommend a set of gestures: a book of verse, partaking of a loaf of bread, and, replicating John Muir's original step outside, as we each go forth today, to listen and inhale and behold with all our senses the messages of earth, with gratitude and joy and wonder. He felt that this earth and everything in it are literally connected; that we are the stars, the trees, rocks, everything we see "pulsing in God's creation." He said we are all brothers, living together on this planet. When a man plants a tree, he said, he plants himself. If you cut down a tree, he said, you murder your own children. To love the earth is to love whatever forces have created you; you are the glorious creation. And thus, let us sing, "You Are My Sunshine," to Muir, to earth, on their birth-day and to each other, and quote e.e. cummings, fellow scientist like Muir, "birth / day of life and love and wings / and of the gay / great happening illimitably earth."

And as we partake in birthday cake-bread, if you take it home and keep it for a while, it will be just right for beginning your Muir wanderings for your own spirit food, and keeping his spirit alive in you as you behold the trees. Or, in Emily Dickinson's words,

A little madness in the Spring
Is wholesome even for the king
But God be with the clown
Who ponders this tremendous scene
This whole experiment in green
As if it were his own.

To know that it is our own, to claim it -- well, our struggle to find the words to express enthusiastic love for our earth may make us clowns, writing in purple prose, but it is life-celebratory work, pondering this tree-mendous scene, together.

So on to celebrating John Muir for a Happy Birthday:

1. Behold the tree

2. Recite e.e. cummings poem "i thank You God"

3. Express enthusiasm, lots

4. Jump up and down and shout, "The glory! The glory!"

5. Rejoice in nature

6. Eat dry bread

7. Read and sing Bobby Burns' poetry

8. "Go to the woods . . ."

9. Sing

Will we still need him when he's 164? We need him, we heed him . . . Professor Mossberg--I'm with you on these celebration strategies, but eating dry bread? Really? Well, all I can say is, it worked for him. Dry bread and joy, his trail mix of nurture and nature. Long life, John Muir. Long life, our earth! Many happy returns.