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The Light at the End - and Beginning - of John Muir's Journey

by Barbara Mossberg


"Good poetry makes the universe reveal a secret." -- Hafiz

As new planets are being discovered, where it's possible there's life, here on good old Earth it's oranges time in Pasadena, California, improbable orange against snow-covered peaks framed by bright green trees. Midwest tourists blown in from blizzards for the Rose Bowl, sighting oranges and roses and narcissus blooming, exclaim they are in paradise. Speaking of paradise on earth, this is the time of year I think most of John Muir, the man striding forth to the mountains on California's quarter -- not Earth Day, his birthday, naturally, which you would suppose -- but when he died of pneumonia at a Los Angeles hospital, 101 years ago on Christmas Eve, 1914.

John Muir's death certificate lists his occupation as geologist, but he died true to form as a writer, surrounded in his bed by manuscript pages of his book, Travels in Alaska. The pages on which he was working this very day, I like to think, were his last words in that book, in which he described his sense of being in paradise, aurora borealis, the Northern Lights. He ended his book, with his last labored breath, his last moments of sight and consciousness, with the word beheld -- "these two silver bows in supreme, serene, supernal beauty surpassed everything auroral I ever beheld. The End."

It was HIS end. It was the book's end. Except it wasn't.

With a writer a word is never the end. It's only the beginning. This is especially true for John Muir, who is on our minds this week, his tragic last days on our civic conscience. His words on beholding our universe, particularly what grows, created a stirring and furor and fervent civic passion for a love of trees. His way of "beholding" our universe entranced, enthralled, enchanted readers at a time when the wilderness with the trees he was extolling was being destroyed 24/7. Muir was writing at a time when how people looked at the environment was a matter of its life and death.

I would like to think that Muir died happy, with his image of beholding light, even though many people then and now believe he really died of a broken heart over the drowning of Yosemite valley's identical twin, the lovely Hetch Hetchy valley he had devoted his last years and months and hours trying to save. There are citizen movements afoot to undo this damage, but Hetch Hetchy as I write this is now entombed underwater, as a reservoir subsidizing San Francisco's water and power -- yep, right in a national park, a damming deed of Congress and Presidents signing into law December 19, 1913, an act that so shocked Muir that his health went into decline. It was probably not a coincidence that Muir became critically ill on the anniversary of this date, landing him in the hospital.

Still, pneumonia schemonia, Hetch Hetchy Smetch Etchy, Muir's eyes were fixed on what there was to see: light. That is what he beheld in his mind. The word behold is very much on my mind right now, and we're hearing it for the Christmas holidays, in Christmas carols and Biblical readings of wondrous and fearsome sights such as angels being beheld. Beholding is a way of seeing, as in Job, If I beheld the Sunne when it shined, or the Moone walking in brightnesse.

Behold is a poet's word, used in the Bible to characterize how we gaze with reverence, awe, wonder, and respect at some being or force that brings us to a place of humility, suspended knowing, and rapture. John Muir always had the Bible in mind -- he had it memorized as a pre-teen, thanks to his eccentrically evangelistic father who would whip him if he faltered in recitation. But once in the habit, Muir was a joyous reader of poetry. He memorized poetical writers, especially Romantic poets like Wordsworth, famous for beholding rainbows, and the epic John Milton, whose Paradise Lost was the precursor to the Romantic movement, and Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau (himself channeling classic poets).

John Muir took the word "behold" and ran with it, or more accurately, ambled and rambled with it, holding it aloft with outsized glory, majestic forces of creation, using it the way a pizza chef uses oregano, or, in these days, arugula. He feared paradise was indeed being "lost" -- in fact, between 85 percent and 95 percent of the ancient trees of California were being logged and rotting as he wrote.

Thus he does what we tell kindergartners: He uses his words. It is as a poet the naturalist geologist does good on behalf of earthly paradise. He's on the California quarter, trails, stars, flowers, glaciers, ships, schools, hotels, hospitals, museum walls, Disneyland, because of the way he beheld our earth -- and wrote about it in just this kind of poetic language as his last days and hours: "Once long ago in Wisconsin I saw the heavens draped in rich purple auroral clouds fringed and folded in most magnificent forms; but in this glory of light, so pure, so bright, so enthusiastic in motion, there was nothing in the least cloud-like ... How long these glad, eager soldiers of light held on their way I cannot tell; for sense of time was charmed out of mind and the blessed night circled away in measureless rejoicing enthusiasm."

All right, poetic is an understatement: he wrote about our earth in the rapturous tones of exaltation, exuberant buoyant love, in fact, as I like to remind us each year at this time, Christmas carols, hymns, angels on high, sweet singing o'er the plains, jubilation, glory, rejoicing, harking, silent holy nights, all is calm, O Christmas tree, joy to the world: Earth was the theater, and he was the enthusiastic audience clapping and shouting "encore!" His love for what was happening on stage earth was only enhanced by his knowledge of what was happening in production, off-stage, backstage -- our dramaturg, telling us what we are seeing, what it means. Every aspect of creation from mountains to glaciers to earthquakes to lightning to creatures to plants to stars was admired by him, the geology and botany of how the players got to be on this stage, and it was not only the theatrical production he loved and shouted himself hoarse for, the glory! The glory! It was the theater itself. John Muir was a season-ticket holder to what he called "earth-planet-Universe."

So, on this day of remembrance of someone who died in "paradise" in Los Angeles, almost in sight of a redwood tree he planted on ORANGE GROVE, now the Norton Simon Museum, 101 years ago, I think of what he lived and died for. It was a conviction of paradise on earth, given to us, and the call to fight for its preservation. The desire to save the earth comes from the act of beholding. If we behold what is there before us to see, we have a chance to hold it, hold on, as the song goes, to what we've got. Joni Mitchell sings of paving paradise and putting up a parking lot. Muir's life ended this week, and his book was finished, but I'm reminded that our work is just beginning, upholding, continuing to behold, this earthly paradise of ours.

Barbara Mossberg is Professor of Practice, Clark Honors College, University of Oregon, and former Director, Integrated Studies, CSUMB; President Emerita Goddard College. This article is reprinted from Huffington Post.

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