Printer-friendly version Share:  Share this page on FacebookShare this page on TwitterShare this page by emailShare this page with other services

Learning From the Laws of Nature
Nature as Salvation in the Early Works of John Muir

by Apple Gifford

Note: This article was written for the Yale American Studies Seminar "Wilderness and the American Imagination" , Fall, 1995.

Everything is governed by laws. I used to imagine that our Sabbath days were recognized by Nature, and that, apart from the moods and feelings in which we learn to move, there was a more or less clearly defined correspondence between the laws of Nature and our own. But out here in the free unplanted fields there is no rectilineal sectioning of times and seasons. All things flow here in indivisible, measureless currents. 1

Americans best remember John Muir for his commitment to the preservation of the nation's wilderness. He pioneered the movement to set aside sections of untouched land, and yet he could not know how important these pockets of wilderness would be, only a few generations later, to a society struggling to manage its dwindling natural resources. His success derived from his unique vision of Nature, not as a catalogue of separate commodities each with its own price tag, but as one interconnected system that originated in the same divine source. Muir believed that once properly understood, Nature could offer salvation to a society that had lost touch with its divine origins. The American Transcendentalists and English Romantics had been writing about the redemptive qualities of Nature for decades. But none before Muir had ever assigned Nature the same significance in their own salvation. To the Transcendentalists and the Romantics, Nature was merely a means to illuminate the divinity within each individual, and ultimately fell short of providing the necessary answers, which they felt lay within their own intellects. Muir spent his life trying to reconcile his vision of Nature with his intellectual predecessors, his Calvinist family, and his fellow Americans, all of whom seemed determined to exploit Nature for their own needs.

In the first pages of his autobiography, Story of My Boyhood and Youth , Muir sets up a clear opposition between his respect for nature and the strict, Calvinism of his overbearing father. Calvinism holds that human nature is inherently sinful, and that only God can redeem our sins through God's own divine will. Calvinists believe that, if left to its own devices, human nature will eventually resort to sin, especially in situations where ones spiritual education is neglected. Time and again, his father's close-minded, Christian ways interfere with Muir's attempts to commune with the natural world. Muir tells the tragic story of the family's beloved mare, Nob, who dies as a result of his father's impatience to get to one of his revival meetings. Muir writes extensively of Nob's kindness but is careful not to be over-critical of his fathers behavior. He writes "It was a hot, hard, sultry day's work, and [Nob] had evidently been over-driven in order to get home in time for one of these meetings." 2 Nob eventually dies as a result of this incident, and Muir is struck by the unfairness of the situation. He becomes angry at the church teachings "where too often the mean, blinding loveless doctrine is taught that animals have neither mind nor soul, have no rights that we are bound to respect, and were made only for man, to be petted, spoiled, slaughtered or enslaved." 3 Muir would spend the rest of his life trying to define his own spirituality in reaction to the unyielding Christianity of his youth.

As a youth, Muir's insatiable intellectual appetite eventually surpassed the limited resources of his Wisconsin farm. His father forbade Muir to study anything but the Bible because he believed that to pursue other forms of knowledge was to sin against God. Like his son, he had a profound respect for Nature, but only as it reflected the divine powers of God's creation. He felt that Muir's scientific curiosity was a sign of weak faith and he dissuaded Muir from pursing an education. But Muir was not easily discouraged, and he soon built a workshop in his basement where he conducted experiments and constructed machines while his family slept. His creative inventions soon won his father's approval, and with the help of a determined neighbor, Muir convinced his father to let him travel to Madison and show his inventions in the State Fair. When he arrived in Madison, the lure of the city and of a University education was too tempting for Muir to resist, and he enrolled in the University of Wisconsin as soon as he could earn enough money. But he never escaped the negative impact his father's religion had on his outlook. Throughout his life he criticized his father who "devoutly believed that quenching every spark of pride and self-confidence was a sacred duty, without realizing that in so doing he might be quenching everything else" 4 . His father's Calvinism had proven itself to Muir as being exploitive and ultimately detrimental to Muir's intellectual growth. But Muir was not one to be discouraged, and he used Calvinism as a springboard from which to begin his pursuit of all that had been deprived him on the farm.

In addition to continued interest in machines, once at the university, Muir developed an interest in Botany. Botany opened his eyes to the natural order that existed beneath the scientific laws imposed on the world by humans. His teacher, Mr. Griswold, illustrated this point by giving him two leaves to taste, one from a pea vine, and the other from a locust tree. Although the leaves were from different genuses, Muir found that they tasted remarkably similar. From this he deduced that "the Creator in making the pea vine and locust tree had the same idea in mind, and that plants are not classified arbitrarily. man has nothing to do with their classification. Nature has attended to all that, giving essential unity with boundless variety.." 5 While in the laboratory, he had his first vision of how the world might look beyond the reach of humans. His excitement sent him "flying to the woods and meadows in wild enthusiasm.. Now [his] eyes were opened to their inner beauty, all alike revealing glorious traces of the thoughts of God." 6 It did not take him long to realize the limits of the classroom, and within a year, he set out for the wilderness to learn about Nature first hand.

To many Americans, especially those descended from the Puritans, the American wilderness represented a vast spiritual wasteland of uncultivated land that was inhabited by pagan savages. By the time Muir's family moved to America, much of the American west had been settled, but to Muir's father, and to many other strict Calvinists, the American wilderness still symbolized chaotic godlessness. It is no wonder then, that Muir was so naturally drawn to Transcendentalism. Like Muir, the American Transcendentalists felt that nature represented all that was good about God and about God's creations. Wilderness came to symbolize the unexplored regions of our own personalities and was used by Transcendentalists as a model for learning more about their spirituality and intellects. In his own writings, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the preeminent Transcendentalist of his day, emphasized the Transcendentalist notion that all of God's goodness and perfection originates from the same source and is present in each individual. In his famous essay, titled simply, "Nature," Emerson writes, "In the woods we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life,- no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair...the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God." 7 At first, Transcendentalism seemed to Muir to embody all that he had begun to suspect in his science classes at the University; that Nature and humans both originate from the same divine source, and that through Nature we can learn something about the divine plan behind God's creation.

Transcendentalism evolved during a time when English Romanticism had reached the height of its popularity among New England intellectuals. Like the Transcendentalists, the Romantic poets were fascinated with the natural world, yet they saw it not as an end in itself, but rather as a means to return to a time of lost innocence. In Nature they saw the remnants of Eden, and they glorified Nature in their poetry because "it is the destiny of consciousness, or as the English Romantics would have said, of Imagination, to separate from nature, so that it can finally transcend not only nature but also its own lesser forms." 8 Interested more in picturesque rural landscapes than in the uncharted expanses of the American west, the Romantics glorified the regions that lay between the cities and the mountains. The Romantics could not see Nature as having any inherent value in itself, it merely provided a vehicle through which they could attain a better understanding of their own minds.

Although Emerson focused more on the spiritual than the literary function of Nature, like the Romantics he wrestled to find personal meaning in a world that seemed oblivious to his existence. Despite his constant effusive descriptions, Emerson could never separate his own image from his vision of Nature. Nature existed to provide a mirror in which humans could study their own reflection. "Emerson almost invariably views nature all too blandly through the eyes of the `mind'.... Almost never does it occur to him that the mind may have something to learn from nature, from the world which it finds given to it from without." 9 As a scholar fascinated by Nature, Muir stood to inherit a good deal from the Romantic and Transcendental traditions. But he could never reconcile their willingness to disregard what Nature had to offer beyond a mirror for their own inward contemplations.

Despite his initial enthusiasm, Muir spent several years shedding the conceptions of Nature that he had acquired during his years in civilization. He discovered, on his first excursion through the southern states to Florida, that his fears of Nature were mostly unfounded, and had been forced on him by people who had not taken the time to understand Nature's systems. He spent most of his walk through Florida trying to reconcile his fear of alligators because he knew that if he truly wanted to integrate the wilderness into his being, he would need to reject his natural anxieties and learn to love all creatures. 10 He determined that fear of wild animals was an anthropocentric point of view that reflected humanity's tendency to ignore the truth about natural laws, in favor of their own unfounded notions. For the first time, Muir realized that the opposition between Nature and civilization existed even in his own mind. He would have to subject himself to all of Nature's laws, even to the appetites of alligators, if he wanted to live in complete harmony with the wilderness.

Muir's thousand mile walk convinced him that he had more to learn from Nature, and he traveled to California where he found a job as a shepherd. The job appealed to him because it allowed him to spend his days outdoors, and to make a living while he observed Nature first-hand. He soon learned, however, that herding domestic sheep was a far cry from life in the untamed wilderness. Compared to the alligators and bears he faced in Florida, the sheep in his flock could not survive without his help. When he compared them to their wild counterparts, the lithe and tough mountain sheep that lived in the cliffs, Muir could not help but be ashamed of how humans had corrupted the sheep's natural instincts. If the domestic sheep represented human progress, than the wild sheep represented the time before the Fall, when humans were still connected to their natural environment. 11 Muir had no difficulty deciding which species he found more admirable, and his lack of respect for his domestic sheep only propelled him further in his commitment to a life unfettered by the laws of man.

Despite all that he had seen in learned in Florida and California, no amount of experience could have prepared him for his first days in the Sierra Mountains of California. For the first time in his life, he encountered a landscape that showed no signs of civilization. His earliest journal entries are infused with a sense of awe and the overwhelming presence of a divine unity. Upon his arrival in Yosemite Valley, and his first glimpse of El Capitan, Muir exclaims, "from end to end of the temple, from the shrubs and half-buried ferns of the floor to the topmost ranks of jeweled pine spires, it is all one finished unit of divine beauty, weighed in the celestial balances and found perfect." 12 Not only do the Sierras embody a purity found only in the absence of humans, but for the first time, Muir can truly appreciate what that means to him. He has left behind his fears and prejudices about the wilderness, and can let his mind become part of the perfection around him. The harmony that he describes in this passage implies a strong adherence to Transcendentalism, and yet nowhere does he make mention of himself. Unlike the Transcendentalists back in civilization, Muir sees beyond his own existence, and can describe the glory of Nature, without putting himself at its center.

Throughout his journals, Muir employs Christian imagery to give depth to his descriptions of his transformation into a person of the wilderness. In his first months in the Sierras he undergoes a series of baptismal-like experiences which illustrate his gradual initiation into the religion of the wilderness, and its accompanying ethic. The use of baptism imagery allows Muir to convey the importance of these moments and to put them in a familiar context. Despite his clear distaste for organized Christianity, Calvinism remains a part of his heritage. He uses the concepts most familiar to him to illustrate his gradual conversion to a new religion. The most obviously transforming of these baptisms occurs one night, as Muir explores the underside of a large waterfall. "[I] was gazing up and out through the thin half-translucent edge of the fall, when suddenly all was dark, and down came a dash of outside gauze tissue made of spent comets, thin and harmless to look at a mile off, but desperately solid and stony when they strike ones shoulders." 13 After the torrent ceased, Muir escaped from underneath the falls, and returned home feeling dazed and overwhelmed. "I awoke sane and comfortable, some of the earthiness washed out of me and Yosemite virtue washed in...Wonderful that Nature can do such wild passionate work without seeming extravagant, or that she will allow poor mortals so near her while doing it." 14 Muir likens Nature to a goddess who initiates him into her secret religion. He has been fully converted to his new religion, and like Christians who are redeemed through Christ, Muir has found comfort and salvation in what Nature has to offer.

Muir's appreciation for the divine origins of Nature intensifies as becomes more accustomed to life in the wilderness. In 1873, four years after his first winter in the Sierras, Muir returns to the subject of man's place in the natural order of the universe, and he dedicates an uncharacteristically large amount of attention to his own, internal musings of spiritual matters. The focus of his reflections is the unity of nature and the insistence that humans do not hold a higher place in creation than God's other creatures. "All of these varied forms, high and low, are simply portions of God radiated from Him as sun, and made terrestrial by the clothes they wear." Muir is willing to admit, however, that although humans cannot rightfully control nature, the complexity of their design must reflect some intention on the part of the divine will. He explains that

the more extensively terrestrial a being becomes, the higher it ranks among its fellows, and the most terrestrial being is the one that contains all the others, that has, indeed, flowed through all the others and borne away parts of them, building them into itself. Such a being is man, who has flowed down through other forms of being and absorbed and assimilated portions of them into himself, thus becoming a microcosm most richly divine. 15

In this passage, Muir seems to amend some of his earlier opinions about the position of humans in the natural order. After years of exposure to the workings of Nature, Muir cannot deny that humans are more highly developed than God's other creatures. This state of advanced development does not give license to humans to dominate over the rest of creation. Rather, it implies that humans represent a more cultivated form of divinity with more responsibility to follow and preserve Nature's laws.

At the surface, little differentiates Muir's interpretation of the natural order from the science of ecology that emerged during this century. Like ecologists, Muir "studies, models, and manipulates the pattern of relations between organisms and their environment," 16 and he believes that the natural world is interdependent on itself and therefore on the actions of humans. But Muir was raised a Christian, and despite his radical manipulation of the Christian faith in his adult years, he believed that there is a spiritual element to humanity which manifests itself in the soul. The soul in Muir's theology is not nourished by Bible study and good works, but by a healthy and vigorous life spent out of doors. To Muir, the "soul was the divine spark known in a rapt state of wildness; body was the bondage of society and mortality, symbolized by life in the lowlands." 17 A healthy soul is not needed to ensure ones happiness in the next life, but rather to facilitate a healthy relationship with Nature in this life. He writes, that as soon as "our bodies disappear, our mortal coils come off without any shuffling, and we blend into the rest of Nature, utterly blind to the boundaries that measure human quantities into separate individuals." 18 Unlike the Christian understanding, the soul in Muir's theology does not elevate humans above the rest of creation, but rather joins them to their divine source embodied in the natural world.

Muir's separation of body and soul reflects a larger distinction he made between the importance of science, and the absolute existence of God. He spent most of his time in the wilderness observing natural systems, and gathering data for his different theories on glacial flow. When asked how he could reconcile his belief in God with his knowledge of evolution, Muir responded, "..somewhere before evolution was an Intelligence. You may call that intelligence what you please; I cannot see why so many people object to call it God." 19 Scientific research played a large role in Muir's life and was the impetus behind most of his excursions into the mountains. His scientific knowledge did not detract from his spiritual understanding of Nature, rather, it revealed to him the divine plan that lay beneath the surface of the data he gathered.

Muir believed that anyone could experience the redemptive qualities of Nature, as long as they were willing to live in accordance with its laws, and recognize its divine origins. During his first months in the sheep camp, he wrote, "I think that if a revivalist, intoxicated with religion of too high a temperature for his weak nerves, were to awake from his exhaustion and find himself upon the rim of Twenty-Hill Hollow, he would, above such sheets of plant gold and beneath such a sky, fancy himself in heaven." 20 Written in Muir's first years free from the confines of his father's oppressive faith, this passage criticizes those who let organized religion distract them from the divine beauty beyond the pages of their Bibles. Nature provides a solution for everyone, and can feed even the most ravenous of religious appetites with pure divinity. But for Nature to provide salvation, it must be experienced first hand, and not from the safety of a church pew. It must be witnessed away from civilization, on the tops of mountains, where God is most glorious.

Many of Muir's critics have questioned why he wrote so profusely of his own experiences when he alleged to hold such a small role in Nature's undertakings. Some of his critics have suggested that Muir was no different than the Romantic poets, in that the object of his attention was not Nature, but his own writing. Muir's intellectual and spiritual curiosity drove him to pursue a life in the wilderness, but once there, he realized that Nature had something to offer, and he could help spread the message. One critic, Michael Cohen, author of The Pathless Way , goes so far as to suggest that Muir's theology of nature is comparable to St. Paul and his quest to spread Christianity through the ancient world. Cohen argues that "like Paul's, Muir's wisdom was unrecognized by the princes of the world, for if they had recognized it they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory, which is to say they would not destroy Glorious Nature instead of living in her." 21 Although this is a strong comparison, it gets at the urgency of Muir's message. There is more at stake in Muir's writings than general appreciation for the landscape and for his own adventures. He became Nature's missionary, spreading the gospel of Nature's glory. As Cohen states, Muir understood that "sublime Nature forces a man to reevaluate not just what he sees, but what he is and what he is capable of understanding." 22 Muir's upbringing made him as unlikely as anyone to learn a new way of life from the wilderness. He knew, because he had undergone such an enormous transformation, that everyone could be part of the natural "flow" if only they could relinquish their attachments to the superficial constructs of civilization.

Today, people remember Muir more for his preservation efforts than for his wilderness theology. He spent a large portion of his life fighting to preserve sections of wilderness so that people in future generations could enjoy the same life he did. Until the very end of his life Muir argued that humans had no right to assert their own laws over the laws of nature. He fought for wilderness preserves, not so people could manipulate the land to serve their purpose, but so that the land could serve as a paradigm for a simpler way of life. Unfortunately, nearly a century after his death, Muir's legacy continues to be misconstrued. Muir complimented his intense scientific appetite with a solid faith in the goodness and glory of God. He never doubted that his scientific and religious curiosities could be satisfied by the same nourishment: a life in the wilderness. If we take nothing else from his spiritual musings, we can at least learn from his life long dedication to the land that there is much to be learned from relinquishing our dominion over the earth, and letting the laws of nature guide our way.


  • Cohen, Michael P., The Pathless Way , (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1984).

  • Emerson, Ralph Waldo, "An American Scholar," Nature Addresses and Lectures , (New York, 1903).

  • Hartman, Geoffery H., "Romanticism and 'Anti-Self-Consciousness'", Romanticism and Consciousness , ed. Harold Bloom, (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1970).

  • Mathiesson, F. O., American Renaissance , (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1941).

  • Muir, John, Story of My Boyhood and Youth , (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1912).

  • Muir, John, John of the Mountains , ed. Linnie Marsh Wolfe, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1938).


  1. John Muir, John of the Mountains , ed. Linnie Marsh Wolfe, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1938), p. 39.

  2. John Muir, Story of My Boyhood and Youth , (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1912), p. 108.

  3. Ibid., p. 109.

  4. Ibid., p. 263.

  5. Ibid., p. 282.

  6. Ibid., p. 282.

  7. Ralph Waldo Emerson, "An American Scholar," Nature Addresses and Lectures , (New York, 1903), 10., (New York, 1903), 10.

  8. Geoffrey H. Hartman, "Romanticism and "Anti-Self-Consciousness," Romanticism and Consciousness , ed. Harold Bloom, (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1970) p. 49.

  9. J. W. Beach, The Concept of Nature in Nineteenth-Century English Poetry, (1936). In, F. O. Mathiessen, American Renaissance , (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1941), p. 41.

  10. Michael P. Cohen, The Pathless Way , (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1984) p. 158.

  11. Ibid., p. 173.

  12. John Muir, John of the Mountains , ed. Linnie Marsh Wolfe, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1938), p. 39.

  13. Ibid., p. 62

  14. Ibid., p. 62.

  15. Ibid., p. 138.

  16. Michael Cohen, p. 151.

  17. Harold P. Simonson, p. 239.

  18. Michael Cohen, p. 45.

  19. Ibid., p. 163.

  20. John Muir, John of the Mountains . p. 24.

  21. Michael Cohen, p. 127.

  22. Ibid., p. 37.

This document was acquired from the wildernet Web site with the kind permission of the author and Thomas Thurston.

Sierra Club® and "Explore, enjoy and protect the planet"® are registered trademarks of the Sierra Club. © 2023 Sierra Club.
The Sierra Club Seal is a registered copyright, service mark, and trademark of the Sierra Club.