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To Higher Sierras

by William Frederic Badè

From Sierra Club Bulletin, John Muir Memorial Number, Vol. 10, No. 1 (January, 1916).

"Longest is the life that contains the largest amount of time-effacing enjoyment - of work that is a steady delight. Such a life may really comprise an eternity upon earth." These words of John Muir I noted down after one of our last conversations. To few men was it given to realize so completely the element of eternity - of time-effacing enjoyment in work - as it was to John Muir. The secret of it all was in his soul, the soul of a child, of a poet, and of a strong man, all blended into one. Only such a one would have mounted the top of a pine tree in a gale-swept forest in order to enjoy the better the passionate music of the storm, and then tell how "we all travel the milky way together, trees and men; but it never occurred to me until this storm-day that trees are travelers in the ordinary sense. They make many journeys, not extensive ones it is true; but our own little journeys, away and back again,are only little more than tree-wavings - many of them not so much."

When the storm had abated, he wrote, he "dismounted and sauntered down through the calming woods. The storm-tones died away, and turning toward the East, I beheld the countless hosts of the forests hushed and tranquil, towering above one another on the slopes of the hills like a devout audience. The setting sun filled them with amber light, and seemed to say while they listened, 'My peace I give unto you.'"

These quotations illustrate the irresistible charm of simplicity, the directness of poetical feeling and perception, that were a part of everything which Mr. Muir wrote, said, and did. When he struck out upon the long trail he was not only foremost among the nature writers of America, but in many respects the most distinguished figure among contemporary men of letters. It will take more than this hasteful, fretful generation to take the measure of his greatness, and to explore the sources of his power.

Before me lies a letter written to Mr. Muir by a friend forty-nine years ago. He was then twenty-nine years old and had just received a serious injury to one of his eyes. "Dear John," the writer says, "I have often wondered what God was training you for. He gave you the eye within the eye, to see in all natural objects the realized ideas of His mind. He gave you pure tastes, and the steady preference of whatsoever is most lovely and excellent. He has made you a more individualized existence than is common, and by your very nature and organization removed you from common temptations.... Do not, be anxious about your calling. God will surely place you where your work is."

Thus early did his friends see in him those personal qualities and those powers of insight which gave a rare distinction to his person and his presence. Evil thoughts fled at the sound of his voice. An innate nobility of character, an unstudied reverence for all that is sublime in nature or in life, unconsciously called forth the best in his friends and acquaintances. In the spiritual as in the physical realm flowers blossomed in his footsteps where he went. After all it is to such men as John Muir that we must look for the sustenance of those finer feelings that keep men in touch with the spiritual meaning and beauty of the universe, and make them capable of understanding those rare souls whose insight has invested life with imperishable hope and charm.

Not many years ago the Directors of the Sierra Club arranged for a quiet little dinner in honor of Sir James Bryce, when he returned from his visit to Australia. To all intents and purposes there were only two men at the dinner, Bryce and Muir, for the rest were intent listeners - too intent, altogether, to take more than mental notes. Both were enlarging upon the value of the civilizing influences that arise from a deep and humane understanding of nature. Sir James ventured the remark that the establishment of national parks, and the fostering of a love of nature and out-door life among children, would do more for the morals of the nation than libraries and law codes. Muir welcomed this opinion, and added that children ought to be trained to take a sympathetic interest in our wild birds and animals. "Under proper training," he said, "even the most savage boy will rise above the bloody flesh and sport business, the wild foundational animal dying out day by day as divine uplifting, transfiguring charity grows in."

To all who knew John Muir intimately his gentleness and humaneness toward all creatures that shared the world with him, was one of the finest attributes of his character. He was ever looking forward to the time when our wild fellow creatures would be granted their indisputable right to a place in the sun. The shy creatures of forest and plain have lost in him an incomparable lover, biographer, and defender.

John Muir's writings are sure to live - by the law that men who lift their eyes at all from the commonplace ideals of work-a-day life will inevitably fix them on the snowy crests of human thought and achievement. Thence it is that they must derive their power to hope and to toil. Long as daisies shall continue to star the fields of Scotland men will choose to see them through the eyes of Burns. Forgotten generations have heard the nightingale sing her love-song at twilight; but a finer music is in her song since Keats listened to the notes from the thicket on the hill. Nor will the name of Wordsworth ever be dissociated from the warble of the rising lark and the call of the cuckoo across the quiet of rural England. John Muir is of their number. Among those who have won title to remembrance as prophets and interpreters of nature he rises to a moral as well as poetical altitude that will command the admiring attention of men so long as human records shall endure. He had "the eye within the eye." Thousands and thousands, hereafter, who go to the mountains, streams and cañons of California will choose to see them through the eyes of John Muir, and they will see more deeply because they see with his eyes.

But while in a high sense his wisdom has become a part of us forever, his going has left an aching void in the hearts of all Iovers of the California mountains. Long accustomed to meet him where wild rivers go singing down the canons, and skyey trails are lost amid cloudy pines, they now must perforce apply to him the simple words which sixteen years ago he wrote on his visit to the grave of his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson: "He had gone to higher Sierras, and, as I fancied, was again waving his hand in friendly recognition."

Source: Sierra Club Bulletin, Vol. 10, No. 1 (1916 January)

This tribute swas originally read at the funeral at the Muir house before the gravesite internment of John Muir, December 27, 1914, and later also appeared as the introduction to the Manuscript Edition of John Muir's Complete Writings.

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