Travelling with John Muir, an astute observer of nature

Recently I flew across half of Australia – from the green, coastal fringe where most of us live to the vast, arid, sparsely populated centre. John Muir, the famous Scottish-American naturalist and astute observer of nature, was with me on the journey – his experiences captured in the book ‘A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf’.

John Muir's Thousand Mile Walk

The remarkable story of John Muir’s thousand-mile (1609 km) walk, undertaken in 1867.

Between looking out of the plane window and reading John’s story I found myself transported between a land of red sands, parallel dunes and scattered vegetation to a green land of forests, grasslands and the very wet Everglades. Both intriguing and elemental landscapes.

Parallel sand dunes and sporadic outcrops in arid central Australia. Taken from a jet plane.

Parallel sand dunes and sporadic outcrops in arid central Australia. Taken from a jet plane.

In 1867 John Muir decided to walk and ‘botanise’ from Indiana to Florida, then travel onwards to Cuba by boat. The Civil War had just ended in America and John planned to walk the “wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way I could find.”

John completed the journey after narrowly escaping robberies, avoiding alligators and crocodiles, going very hungry and being struck down with fever for several weeks. None of these set-backs appeared to dampen his quest to experience different environments and discover new plant and animal species. His ultimate goal was to reach the Amazon, which he was unable to achieve on this journey. That destination had to wait.

The very green and wet Everglades where John Muir walked in 1867 (Source: Columbia Water Centre).

The very green and wet Everglades, where John Muir ventured in 1867 (Source: Columbia Water Centre).

John’s thousand-mile walk demonstrates a remarkable spirit of adventure, stamina, powers of observation and love of nature. All the while he avoided people and cities unless required to satisfy his basic human needs of food, shelter and companionship. Mostly he kept his own company with birds and animals to enliven his day.

It is apt to let John share his experiences and insights on his thousand-mile walk, many of which are related to the elements. His personal story also contains several references to the unfounded presumption of man that the world was made especially for him. This would have been an unusual sentiment at the time, especially for a religious man.

Some quotes from ‘A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf’ follow:

My attention was mostly directed to the glorious fields of foam-topped waves. The wind had a mysterious voice and carried nothing now of the songs of birds or of the rustling of palms and fragrant vines. It’s burden was gathered from a stormy expanse of crested waves and briny tangles”.

“I could see no striving in those magnificent wave motions; no raging; all the storm was apparently inspired with nature’s beauty and harmony. Every wave was obedient and harmonious as the smoothest ripple of a forest lake, and after dark all the water was phosphorescent like a silver fire, a glorious sight.”

From the dust of the earth, from the common elementary fund, the creator has made Homo Sapiens. From the same material he has made very other creature, however noxious and insignificant to us. They are earth-born companions and our fellow mortals.”

The substance of the winds is too thin for human eyes, their written language is too difficult for human minds, and their spoken language too faint for the ears.”

After completing his thousand-mile journey Muir turned his attention to California. His activism there helped conserve the Yosemite Valley, Sequoia National Park and other wilderness areas. The final quote comes from his time spent at Twenty Hill Hollow.

You cannot feel yourself out of doors; plain, sky, and mountains ray beauty which you feel. You bathe in the spirit-beams, turning round and round, as if warming at a campfire. Presently you lose consciousness of your own separate existence: you blend with the landscape, and become part and parcel of nature.”

Spirit-beams in a different setting, the east coast of Tasmania.

Spirit-beams in a different setting, the east coast of Tasmania, Australia.

Amongst other achievements John Muir also co-founded the Sierra Club, an institution still going strong today. The sense of wonder captured in his writing continues to provide inspiration. His contributions to the conservation and appreciation of nature, including the elements, have been profound.

2 thoughts on “Travelling with John Muir, an astute observer of nature

  1. You have provided us with a remarkable insight into a remarkable man. I have heard of the Sierra Club but didn’t know anything about the founders. It’s interesting how some people are so drawn to experiencing their connection with ‘all that is’ and John Muir certainly did this in a profound way. I had a mini experience of feeling that connection whilst out watering the garden this morning! Thanks for sharing your insights into Muir’s book and how it affected your experience of traveling across Australia.

    • John Muir is one of those people I’d heard about quite a lot. Yet I had not read any of his personal stories until coming across the thousand-mile walk. Now I can more fully appreciate his reputation and activism to preserve the natural world. I can understand how your experience in the garden connects with his in the wilds. They are both interactions with the wonders of nature in its different guises.

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