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John Muir Misquoted:

Misquote Alert: CAUTION - JOHN MUIR NEVER SAID THIS:
"When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world."

The correct quote is:
"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."


We are frequently asked for the source of the above "When one tugs..." misquote, which has been included in many popular "favorite quotes" websites around the Internet, and is indiscriminately posted on Twitter and other social networks. Actually, this statement is NOT what Muir wrote. It is only a shortened paraphrase of what Muir wrote, and is not nearly as interesting, eloquent, and charming as Muir's original.1

The correct quote as John Muir wrote and published it is this:

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."

In fact, there are many variants of the mysteriously popular "tugs" misquote, and none of them are correct.

For example, we have no idea where this one came from:

"Tug on anything at all and you'll find it connected to everything else in the universe." A less popular variant of this misquote, but which appears to be another early source we can find on the Internet through a Google search is from 1997, where the authors of a paper titled Report on Integrated Practice: 4: Roadmap for Integration - American Institute of Architects claimed (without citation) that Muir said: "When we try to tug on anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."

The earliest source for this "tugs" misquote we can find on the Internet through a Google Books search is from 1994, in Timber Wars By Judi Bari (Common Courage Press, Nov. 1, 1994), page 130, which used yet another version of the second variant above: ""Tug on anything in nature and you will find it is connected to everything else."

Earlier, yet another variation moved the "universe" from the end to the middle: ""Tug on anything in the universe, and you will find it connected to everything else." Designing Functional Streets That Contribute to Our Quality of Life by Margaret A. Kubilins (2000)
Source: http://ntl.bts.gov/lib/10000/10800/10868/Ec019_b3.pdf (retrieved April 9, 2015)

It appears that since then, that idea has morphed in the popular imagination into several (mistakenly) more popular variants listed above.

Some other sources of the most popular variant of the misquote listed at the top of this page appears to be in the Third Edition of the textbook Environmental Science: Systems and Solutions by Michael L. McKinney and Robert M. Schoch (Sudbury, Massachusetts: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2003) and in the academic journal Environmental History (2004) 9 (4): 741-742. This appears to be the source for the wrong publication of the Muir quote in John Moir's (not a typo there) book Return of the Condor which uses this misquote and attributes it to John Muir on page 179.

It is a shame the publishers of all these textbooks, books and purportedly scholarly articles did not not correctly verify the quote!

We even found it being mistakenly used by Smith & Hawken on a 2007 gift card and in several products in the Northern Sun catalog. Worse, we even found it engraved on granite, and posted on signs at places like zoos and botanical gardens.

Astonishingly, we have even found this misquote used in a published book, Like a Hammer Shattering Rock By Megan McKenna which, with the citation for the source (in footnote 8) referencing this page - yes, the very web page you are now reading! How can we make this more clear? That title of the page reads "Misquotes" and the very file name is"misquotes.aspx"!

Once again - Muir never used the word "tugs" when writing about the interconnections of things! None of these variations on the "tugs" theme attributed to John Muir are correct. They are simply paraphrases of the fundamental ecological principle of connectedness that Muir is considered to be one of the first to articulate.

Similarly, it appears that some writers just make something up out of whole cloth, like this misquote attributed to John Muir in the San Francisco Chronicle on January 8, 2005 by a journalist who should have known better: "If you pick up anything in the universe, you find it hooked up to everything else." Like the other misquotes, it tries to get across the basic idea, but it garbles Muir's writing and has none of the wit and endearingly quaint expression of Muir's actual language.

We have also heard yet another version of this quote, but attributed to John Burroughs: "Tug on one part of nature and you find the whole world connected." We don't put a lot of stock on this version of the quote either, since we've never found it on the Internet or in John Burroughs writings.

If you do know of a documented primary source of any of these well-intentioned paraphrases - please let us know!

Here is the correct John Muir quote as Muir wrote and published it:

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."

You can verify the accuracy of this quote as it is found in Muir's book: My First Summer in the Sierra (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911), on page 110 of the Sierra Club Books 1988 edition. It is found in Chapter 6.

To be sure, tracking down Muir quotes accurately can be difficult. He frequently wrote multiple versions of some of his most eloquent writings.

Given variant sources and multiple versions of Muir's writings, it is not surprising to find that Muir actually did originally express the same idea in the famous "hitched" quote in a different way. As originally written, he was nonetheless as eloquent as always, although rather more wordy:

"When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe. "

According to Stephen Fox's book, John Muir and His Legacy (p. 291), this is the original version of the famous quote, which Muir wrote in his journal for July 27, 1869. Muir's journals can be found in the John Muir Papers 2 . Fox notes that Muir later revised the wordy sentence to read with the more pithy word "hitched" in his book My First Summer in the Sierra.

So, we encourage you to quote John Muir correctly: please use either the "hitched" or the "thousand invisible cords" version of this quote. Any other version which use "tugs" is just a weak paraphrase.

In fact, there are an increasing number of misquotes attributed to John Muir widely circulated on the Internet and even in published books.Wiki Quotes reports a number of additional mis-attributed John Muir quotes. Please don't just repeat these mis-attributed quotes! In some cases, the misquotes are not merely misleading, but completely reverse Muir's meaning.

Here are a few more recent examples of quotes incorrectly attributed to John Muir:

Misquote: "And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul." A variant of this is "And into the forest I go, to lose myself and find my soul."
According to a November 4, 2018 communication from Mariah Danu, she wrote this last version in October of 2014 on Tumblr with her Mariah Danu account, but is aware that companies are taking her quote and attributing it wrongly to John Muir.

Misquote: "Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt."

Neither statement is remotely like anything that John Muir would have said or written, and a thorough electronic of his published and unpublished works reveals no such statement as either of these. One possibility for such misquotes are tourist shops or webstites where T-Shirts, mugs, water bottles, or wooden signs are for sale with actual Muir quotes, accompanied by similar items with statements like these without an author identified. Visitors apparently mistake the fact that such a written sentiment in close physical proximity to items with actual Muir quotes - which may or may not be attributed to Muir on the items themselves - is a reason to believe the sentiment is from John Muir. Don't make that mistake!

And then there are quotes from John Muir which are taken out of context, which result in a meaning that is really very different from the point that John Muir was actually trying to make. Here's an example:

"The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly."
(Letter to sister Sarah Galloway, September 3,1873, in Life and Letters of John Muir, Chapter 10 (1923).) This quote is often truncated, removing the last half, as if going on vacation to visit a mere playground. But reading the full quote, Muir actually insisted that going to the mountains was only a first step. As Michael Wurtz points out, "the shortened quote doesn't fully capture John Muir or his desire to understand and protect California's Yosemite." The reason to go was to study nature, and just as important, work to protect our wilderness areas. Elsewhere in the letter, Muir revealed that he was spending "the season in prosecuting my researches," and hoped to make a scientific contribution from his mountain studies, in winter to "work with my pen." Wurtz points out, "These words reveal a man who saw responsibility and purpose as well as pleasure in the mountains." As writer Michael Seeger writes, "Perhaps we all would do well to work on studying nature while we can - and if we don't work to protect our lands, we may not have long to do so."]

 

- Harold Wood, Chair, Sierra Club John Muir Education Team


1. The only reference to "tug" based on a full-text search of Muir's published writings is a reference to a steam tug that helped move a sailing ship into a harbor in Cuba, which he describes in his book A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf.

2. Limbaugh, Ronald H. and Kirsten E. Lewis, editors, The John Muir Papers, 1858-1957 MICROFORM, (Stockton, CA: University of the Pacific , 1980). With accompanying Guide (Alexandria, Virginia: Chadwyk Healey, 1986).
With 40 copies in libraries throughout the United States, and available to scholars through interlibrary loan, this is the complete collection of all extant Muir correspondence, manuscripts, notes, and illustrations.
See John Muir Collections, University of the Pacific


Favorite Quotations of John Muir


Writings of John Muir


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