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All The Colors of Nature

by Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune

What John Muir did on Thanksgiving and "Black Friday"

November 12, 2015

John Muir has a reputation, not entirely undeserved, as a bit of an ascetic -- someone who would plunge into the wilderness with little more than a crust of bread and a small packet of tea. But that doesn't mean Muir would turn up his nose at a turkey dinner like the one he enjoyed in 1877.

That year, a trail-weary, 39-year-old John Muir celebrated Thanksgiving at the Martinez, California, home of his good friend Dr. John Strentzel. Muir later wrote to his sister that the Strentzel family stuffed him with "turkey, chicken, beef, fruits, jellies, in the most extravagant manner imaginable." Perhaps a man's stomach really is the trail to his heart, because Muir began courting and eventually married Dr. and Mrs. Strentzel's daughter, Louisa.

But getting back to dinner -- what did Muir do after all the feasting was done? He walked to Oakland so that he could catch a ferry to San Francisco. And, being John Muir, he chose to make the walk more interesting by detouring over the top of 3,849-foot Mt. Diablo. Presumably, he managed to work off all the turkey, chicken, beef, and fruit -- along with most of the jellies.

What Muir didn't do was go to a shopping mall. Admittedly, the first modern enclosed mall wouldn't be built for another 77 years (less than 100 miles from where Muir grew up in Wisconsin). Still, I'm pretty sure that, had he lived long enough to see it, one visit to that shopping mall would have done John Muir in.

All his life, John Muir preached the gospel of getting outdoors. "Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees," he wrote. "The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves."

Flowery stuff. But today we know that Muir was exactly right. Humans did not evolve to thrive in enclosed spaces or to flourish with our faces glued to a glowing screen. And while you could argue that clawing one's way through a mob of Black Friday shoppers is paying homage to our hunter/gatherer past, surely no one believes that it's healthy for body, mind, or spirit to prevail in the elemental struggle for a discounted video game console. Time spent in nature is as important to us as any other essential vitamin or mineral. That's why the lack of it is called "nature deficit syndrome." Have you ever heard of "shopping deficit syndrome"?

Of course, shopping isn't going away (although the sun does seem at last to be setting on the empire of the indoor mall). People are going to shop this holiday season. But that doesn't mean we can't also push back and reclaim some of the energy of the storms, the freshness of the winds, and the flow of nature's peace that John Muir described. It's not hard. You don't need to drop everything and climb the nearest mountain or hike the Appalachian Trail. You can do it one day. And I can't think of a better one than the day after Thanksgiving. Which brings me to REI's brilliant idea to ask people to #OptOutside.

The Sierra Club and REI have often worked together on initiatives over the years. Our collaboration is rooted in a mutual belief in the importance -- and profound benefit -- of getting outdoors. So REI's #OptOutside campaign encouraging people to spend the day after Thanksgiving the way John Muir would is right up our alley. If we can get more than a million people to swap Black Friday for all the colors of nature, it'll be the best present those folks could have given themselves that day. And you know what? Somehow, I think the rest of the holiday season will still roll out on schedule.

So if you haven't already, visit REI's #OptOutside website and stake your claim to a little fresh air and peace of mind. I promise: On the day after, you'll be thankful all over again.

This article is repritned from Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune's "Coming Clean" blog, "All the Colors of Nature" November 12, 2015.

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