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

The Nature Mysticism of John Muir

by Larry Gates

In describing his first explorations of the Sierras, John Muir wrote, "Oh, these vast, calm measureless mountain days, inciting at once to work and rest! Days in whose light every thing seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God."

It is probably safe to say that no American ever experienced wilderness as religious ecstasy more than Muir. He called the Sierras the Range of Light and -- as Light in the sky -- they evoked in him immense religious longings. Before the magnificence of nature, he found himself dumb with admiration, prostrate and humble before the power of the God who created it all.

Muir declared himself willing to endure self-denial if that was the price of learning to read from the divine manuscript which was the rocks and the trees. All wilderness, he wrote, seems full of tricks and hidden plans to drive us up into God's light. Of the Sierras he declared:

These blessed mountains are so compactly filled with God's beauty, no petty personal hope or experience has room to be . . . . the whole body seems to feel beauty when exposed to it as it feels the campfire or sunshine, entering not by the eyes alone, but equally through all one's flesh like radiant heat, making a passionate ecstatic pleasure-glow not explainable. One's body then seems homogeneous throughout, sound as a crystal.

While sauntering through the mountains, he said he knew complete freedom. He had experiences that seemed timeles and spaceless. Occasionally, he felt his body had no weight. "Life seems neither long nor short," he once wrote, "and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars." He experienced what he believed was God's time, an immense perspective which made the quick transformations of the cloud-mountains and the slow transformations of the granite mountain roughly equivalent. He entered the eternal now and experienced days that seemed to have neither end nor beginning. Muir claimed that in the Sierras he found a practical sort of immortality, and he at times experienced himself as dissolved into the landscape. The mountains, he said, are fountains, places where the transcendent spews out of the earth.

In the Range of Light, Muir experienced the interrelated of all things, the union of rocks and clouds, the humanness of the landscape, the wilderness in the human soul. He declared a kinship with the wild Nature he loved, a oneness.

Muir repeatedly compared Yosemite Valley and the mountain peaks around it to a church or a cathedral. After many awe- struck moments gazing at Cathedral Rock through openings in the trees, he decided to climb to the top. Writing of this experience, he said it was the first time since he had come to California that he had been to church. Atop this giant monolith, he had the sensation of doors opening, revealing the transcendent realm. On this mountain alter he found cassiope -- a species of flower for which he had been searching. The bells of the flowers, he wrote, were ringing with the sweetest church music he had ever heard.

It puzzled Muir that many of his fellow humans did not appreciate God's grandeur as it manifested itself in the wilderness. His companion on his first summer in the Sierra, a shepherd named Billy -- who, in Muir's descriptions, seems something of a Sancho Panza figure -- called Yosemite Valley "a lot of rocks -- a hole in the ground." Muir witnessed other tourists who seemed unimpresssed by the majesty of Yosemite: he saw fishermen baiting their hooks "in the holiest of temples ignoring God himself as he preaches sublime water and stone sermons."

All Muir's books seem to say the same thing over and over: "Look! Nature is overflowing with the grandeur of God!" To Muir religious feelings were as natural as breathing. Nature herself seemed constantly engaged in worship. Even trees bowing in the wind were celebrants of a primordial religion.

A few minutes ago every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship. But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease. Every hidden cell is throbbing with music and life, every fiber thrilling like harp strings, while incense is ever flowing from the balsam bells and leaves. No wonder the hills and groves were God's first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn into cathedrals and churches, the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord himself.

Though Muir didn't worship the trees, he did seem to worship with the trees and through the trees. In his idiosyncratic and exuberant way he celebrated the mysteries. Just who the God was he celebrated is unclear. Much of the language sounds Christian and orthodox, but there is a Dionysian or pagan element that spills through it all. His strivings and his imagery are always upward towards what could, I think, be characterized as a Pure Land -- an ideal world that lies in the clouds. "The region above our camp," he writes in My First Summer in the Sierra, "is still wild, and higher lies the snow about as trackless as the sky." As a hummingbird finds itself drawn to the flowers, so did John Muir find himself drawn to this Pure Land in the sky. Of one of his first ascents into the Sierras, he wrote, "Now away we go toward the topmost mountains. Many still, small voices, as well as the noon thunder, are calling, 'Come higher.'"

On coming to a high mountain meadow, he once remarked that not a single leaf or petal seems to be misplaced. This passage brings to mind the Zen aphorism that no snowflake ever falls in the wrong place. As far as Muir was concerned the deer walking through this meadow or the bears rolling around in it in no way spoiled it -- their trampling was to him a gentle cultivation. On more than one occasion, Muir wrote of being struck by how clean nature is. All plants are clean; all animals are clean. Of all the living things on the planet, mankind alone seems dirty. Even the occasional Indians he passed in the wilderness struck him as being dirty. Muir considered the high mountains to be a mirror that reflects the Creator. When he was in the wilderness he sensed the entire world glowing with God's radiance.

Muir said the wild flowers he found at the top of one Sierra peak were "a cloud of witness to Nature's love in what we in our timid ignorance and unbelief call howling desert." Though the surface of the ground seemed, at first glance, to be dull and foreboding, a close inspection showed that it shined and sparkled with crystals: mica, hornblende, feldspars, quartz, tourmaline. This gave the mountaintop a radiance, which in some places was dazzling. To him every crystal and every flower was "a window opening into heaven, a mirror reflecting the Creator."

To Muir all human beings have spiritual strivings, and the wilderness is a natural place to consummate the longings of the soul. In the Sierras, Muir attained a wider existence:

We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us. Our flesh-and-bone tabernacle seems transparent as glass to the beauty about us, as if truly an inseparable part of it, thrilling with the air and trees, streams and rocks, in the waves of the sun, -- a part of all nature, neither old nor young, sick nor well, but immortal. Just now I can hardly conceive of any bodily condition dependent on food or breath any more than the ground or the sky. How glorious a conversion, so complete and wholesome it is.

Muir called the mountains love-monuments. He elected to follow God in the way that came natural -- by drifting across the mountains and down into the canyons like the shadow of a cloud, like a faithful servant to the divine winds.

© Larry Gates, 2000.

This document was acquired from and is reprinted here from The Spiritual Naturalist website by permission of the author Larry Gates.

Return to The Life and Contributions of John Muir

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.