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John Muir

by Henry Fairfield Osborn

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


I believe that John Muir's name is destined to be immortal through his writings on mountains, forests, rivers, meadows, and the sentiment of the animal and plant life they contain. I do not believe anyone else has ever lived with just the same sentiment toward trees and flowers and the works of nature in general as that which John Muir manifested in his life, his conversations and his writings.

In the splendid journey which I had the privilege of taking with him to Alaska in 1896 I first became aware of his passionate love of nature in all its forms and his reverence for it as the direct handiwork of the Creator. He retained from his early religious training under his father this belief, which is so strongly expressed in the Old Testament, that all the works of nature are directly the work of God. In this sense I have never known anyone whose nature philosophy was more thoroughly theistic; at the same time he was a thorough-going evolutionist, and always delighted in my own evolutionary studies which I described to him from time to time in the course of our journeyings and conversations.

It was in Alaska that he quoted the lines from Goethe's Wilhelm Meister which inspired all his travels:

Keep not standing fixed and rooted,
Briskly venture, briskly roam;
Head and hand, where 'er thou foot it,
And stout heart are still at home.
In each land the sun doth visit,
We are gay what 'er betide,
To give room for wandering is it
That the world was made so wide.

Another sentiment of his regarding trees and flowers always impressed me: that was his attributing to them a personality, an individuality such as we associate with certain human beings and animals, but rarely with plants. To him a tree was something not only to be loved, but to be respected and revered. I well remember his intense indignation over the proposal by his friend Charles S. Sargent to substitute the name Magnolia foetida for Magnolia grandifora on the grounds of priority. He quoted Sargent as saying, "After all, 'what's in a name?'" and himself as replying, "There is everything in the name; why inflict upon a beautiful and defenceless plant for all time the stigma of such a name as Magnolia foetida ? You yourself would not like to have your own name changed from Charles S. Sargent to 'the malodorous Sargent."' |

John Muir's incomparable literary style did not come to him easily, but as the result of the most intense effort. I observed his methods of writing in connection with two of his books upon which he was engaged during the years 1911 and 1912. He came to our home on the Hudson in June, 1911, after the Yale Commencement, where he had received the degree of LL.D. on June 21. He brought with him his new silken hood, in which he said he had looked very grand in the Commencement parade. On Friday, June 2I, he was established in Woodsome Lodge,* [* the name is now changed to John Muir Lodge.] a log cabin on a secluded mountain height, to complete his volume on the Yosemite. Daily he rose at 4:30 o'clock, and after a simple cup of coffee labored incessantly on his two books, The Yosemite and Boyhood and Youth. It was very interesting to watch how difficult it was for him. In my diary of the time I find the following notes: "Knowing his beautiful and easy style it is very interesting to learn how difficult it is for him; he groans over his labors, he writes and rewrites and interpolates. He loves the simplest English language and admires most of all Carlyle, Emerson and Thoreau. He is a very firm believer in Thoreau and starts my reading deeply of this author. He also loves his Bible and is constantly quoting it, as well as Milton and Burns. In his attitude toward nature, as well as in his special gifts and abilities, Muir shares many qualities with Thoreau. First among these is his mechanical ability, his fondness for the handling of tools; second, his close identification with nature; third, his interpretation of the religious spirit of nature; fourth, his happiness in solitude with nature; fifth, his lack of sympathy with crowds of people; sixth, his intense love of animals." Thoreau's quiet residence at Walden is to be contrasted with Muir's world-wide journeyings from Scotland to Wisconsin; his penniless journey down the Mississippi to Louisiana, Florida, across Panama and northward into California in its early grandeur; his establishment of the sawmill, showing again his mechanical ability, as a means of livilihood in the Yosemite; his climbs in the High Sierra and discovery of still living glaciers; his eagerness to see the largest glaciers of Alaska and his several journeys and sojourns there; his wandering all over the great western and eastern forests of the United States; his visits to special forests in Europe; his world tour, without preconceived plan, including the wondrous forests of Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Asia. Finally, his very last great journey.

When starting out on this South American journey, from which I among other friends tried to dissuade him, he often quoted the phrase, "I never turn back." Although he greatly desired to have a comrade on this journey, and often urged me to accompany him, he finally was compelled to start out alone, quoting Milton: "I have chosen the lonely way."

On July 26 I said good-bye to this very dear friend, leaving him to work on his books and prepare for the long journey to South America, especially to see the forests of Araucaria. I know that at this time he had little intention of going on to Africa. It was impulse which led him from the east coast of South America to take a long northward journey in order to catch a steamer for the Cape of Good Hope.

He remained at Garrison for more than two months, writing his Boyhood and Youth and his Yosemite, and I have just decided to erect a tablet at the log cabin where this work was done and to name the cabin John Muir Lodge.

Among the personal characteristics which stand out like crystal in the minds and hearts of his friends were his hatred of shams and his scorn of the conventions of life, his boldness and fearlessness of attack, well illustrated in his assault on the despoilers of the Hetch Hetchy Valley of the Yosemite, whom he loved to characterize as "thieves and robbers." It was a great privilege to be associated with him in this campaign. But certainly his chief characteristic was his intimate converse with nature and passionate love of its beauties; also I believe his marvelous insight into the creative powers of nature, closely interwoven with his deep religious sentiments and beliefs.

There were published in the New York Evening Mail some verses by Charles L. Edson with which I would close this all too brief tribute:

John o' the mountains, wonderful John,
Is past the summit and traveling on;
The turn of the trail on the mountain side,
A smile and "Hail!" where the glaciers slide,
A streak of red where the condors ride,
And John is over the Great Divide.

John o' the mountains camps today
On a level spot by the Milky Way;
And God is telling him how He rolled
The smoking earth from the iron mold,
And hammered the mountains till they were cold,
And planted the Redwood trees of old.

And John o' the mountains says: "I knew,
And I wanted to grapple the hand o' you;
And now we're sure to be friends and chums
And camp together till chaos comes."


Source: Sierra Club Bulletin, Vol. 10, No. 1 (1916 January)
[This essay was later included in Osborn's book, Impressions of Great Naturalists (New York: Charles Scribner's sons, 1925).


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