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

John Muir on Caves

By Jennifer Ong

“Here we lingered and reveled, rejoicing, to find … so much splendor in darkness, so many mansions in the depths of the mountains, buildings ever in process of construction, yet ever finished, developing from perfection to perfection, profusion without overabundance; every particle visible or invisible in glorious motion, marching to the music of the spheres in a region regarded as the abode of eternal stillness and death.”
- John Muir, in the Mountains of California, Chapter 15.

John Muir played many roles in his lifetime. He was a naturalist, a writer, an inventor, a botanist, “wilderness prophet”, “Father of the National Parks”, and the list is endless. What many don't know is that he wrote several times quite favorably about caves.

Inspired by Muir's role as the pioneer of the modern conservation movement, the theme for the 2003 National Speleological Society Annual Convention, and for that matter, throughout future speleological expeditions, is conservation.

The Splendor of Caves As Told By John Muir

“When I was a boy in Scotland I was fond of everything wild” began John Muir’s Story of My Boyhood and Youth. He was born on April 21, 1838. Muir’s family emigrated to America during the gold rush to escape the famine in Europe. In 1860, Muir left his home on Hickory Hill farm in Madison, Wisconsin and taught at the University of Wisconsin. He was always in awe of nature’s splendors and recounted beautiful descriptions of his first venture from Indianapolis on a thousand mile walk to the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way he shared vivid memories of his introduction to caves.

John Muir’s first stop was at Horse Cave on the way to the great Mammoth Cave of Kentucky. Horse Cave, he described, was “a noble gateway to the birthplace of springs and fountains and the dark treasures of the mineral kingdom.” It was on this occasion that he cited a curiously sad yet common observation that he and many of us who revel at the amazing beauty of all of nature have encountered before. His informant at Mammoth Cave shared his reaction to the famed cave as “nothing but a big hole in the ground.” The man claimed himself “too wise and practical to waste precious time with weeds and caves or anything else he could not eat.” Muir met this attitude in journeys again and again. His astonishing revelation was that even in daily contact with their magnificent landscape, Americans were “untouched and only mildly interested in its most spectacular features.” He reflected: “what had gone wrong … where was the reason for this slothful insensitivity?” He was mystified by this phenomenon.

Other glimpses into John Muir’s caving experiences included his pleasant surprise at observing the “complete naturalness” of Mammoth Cave. Also, in My First Summer in the Sierra, he described Bower Cave as he crossed the North Fork of Merced as a “delightful marble palace … a curious specimen of subterranean scenery.” He portrayed sunlight pouring in “through the leaves of the four maple trees growing in its mouth, illuminating its clear, calm pool and marble chambers,--a charming place, ravishingly beautiful”; however, he also observed that the accessible walls were already “sadly disfigured by vandals.” Surprisingly, in 1869, Bower Cave had already been commercialized as a tourist site requiring a dollar admission fee into the fenced and locked “underground mansion”. On to the gold field of California, Muir explored Cave City Cave describing it as the “most beautiful and extensive of the mountain caves of California” occurring in a “belt of metamorphic limestone” and noticed “the shallow wind-worn caves in stratified sandstones along the margins of the plains.” He added:

“It is a good thing, therefore, to make short excursions now and then … even to creep like worms into dark holes and caverns underground, not only to learn something of what was going on in those out-of-the-way places, but to see better what the sun sees on our return to common everyday beauty.”

John Muir possessed a gift of seeing the world in all its natural beauty minus an anthropocentric influence. Each form of life had a special mission to perform and whenever man found no good use for a creature or any entity occurring in nature it just meant that in the wider plan of things there was a reason for its existence that man still had yet to discover.

Muir’s words revealed the impression of oppositions reflected in all of nature but still justified with equal pristine appreciation. He remembered the Sierra clouds as “sublime and beautiful” landscapes but “only if we have a mind to think so and eyes to see.” Only then do they remind us that “as there is a lower world of caves, so, also, there is an upper world of clouds.” His regard for all that was living big and small was humbling for even though it is true that the universe would be incomplete without man so equally true is that the universe would also be incomplete without the “smallest transmicroscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful eyes and knowledge.”

Inspire Others with the Message of Conservation as Muir Did For Us

As we enjoy the splendor of the caves and its beautiful creatures we are reminded of how one man defied human “practicality” by having the foresight of recognizing the importance of conserving all natural resources. While we immerse ourselves in this year’s speleological convention expeditions and explore future speleological pursuits we hope to continue to promote Muir’s message of conservation and protection of nature. After all, it is while in the immersion in nature that nature has a way of revealing certain truths and observations we may normally be oblivious to in the hubbub of daily life - a special gift that we can pass on to our youths just as John Muir had unselfishly done for us.

For more information: National Speleological Society

Home | Alphabetical Index | What's New  

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.