Saturday, 21 May 2011

Walking on the Wild Side: John Muir- The Call of the Wild

This is the third of a series of articles that I am writing for the Voice for Arran about Walking and Wildlife on Arran. This article appeared in April 2011 to celebrate the birthday on the 21st April of wilderness visionary John Muir. 

My first encounter with John Muir was just two years ago, though he had already been dead for 94 years. While working on the Arran Wildlife Festival, an email dropped in to my jam-packed inbox from Dan Sealy, of the US National Park Service’s Centre for Urban Ecology.  “Ranger Dan” was coming to Scotland, on a pilgrimage to the birth place of his champion.  We welcomed Dan to the festival, and arranged for this unassuming man to hijack a bat detecting evening to deliver a talk to the unsuspecting audience on the life and legacy of an American hero from Dunbar, Scotland. 

Muir was born on the 21st April 1838, and at the age of eleven immigrated with his father to Wisconsin.  His early years were filled with bone breaking labour on the family farm, but he showed signs of genius and eventually found a place aged 23 at Wisconsin University.  Here Muir was set upon the scientific path that would allow him to record and write about the wild places that he visited, but it was his years living rough in the mountains in the 1870s that set his soul on fire. He is lauded in America as the father of the National Parks and it is surprising that he is a relatively unknown figure in his native home of Scotland. The John Muir Trust has done much to re-dress this balance and now owns several remote Scottish estates, working as an advocate for the enjoyment and protection of wild land and promoting outdoor education for the young.  However, most people in this country are unaware of the man or his role in the birth of the worldwide conservation movement.  Inspired by Ranger Dan, I began to read Muir’s writing. What I have found inscribed within those pages is arresting and enlightening.
Muir the visionary
Muir was driven by a compulsion to understand, experience and endure the wild in all its forms. He kept detailed records of the habitats he explored, and sought out extreme and dangerous encounters that brought him closer to the wild nature that he admired. A committed Christian, Muir’s passion was fuelled by an evangelical natural mysticism. He did not see man as the God-given custodian of the landscape, instead he regarded the wild places and their inhabitants as teachers, and he strove to learn by their example.  He wrote often of nature’s “loving lessons[1], and compared them to the harsh religious schooling he had received at home. In the complex and miraculous web of nature, he saw the hand of God in action. 

Marvelling at the Sierra forests after a violent storm, he wrote: “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 fibre 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 in to cathedrals and churches the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord himself.[2]

Muir the conservationist
Muir’s unique spiritual perspective combined with scientific method and exceptional recording skills allowed him to see complex relationships in the natural world.  Way ahead of his time, his writing is a rallying call for ecologists: When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.[3]  Although he married and settled with a family, Muir felt most at home in the wilderness.  He understood the healing power of nature for the body and the soul. He wrote of the importance of wild places for society; Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.[4]  This formed the basis of his argument for protecting wild landscapes that ultimately gave rise to the American National Parks movement.

Muir for the modern world
Muir writes about nature in a way that articulates what many who love the outdoors feel, but struggle to express.  We know instinctively that our brushes with the wild are rejuvenating experiences. Most of us who live on Arran have chosen to do so and those that came from outside were drawn here in part by the magnificent natural environment. Nowhere on Arran is untouched by human influence, and yet in the high places, and on the ragged coastlines, nature’s power and intricate splendour thrives in a way that is moving to all who pause to enjoy it.  For me, the joy of living here has been getting to know the details, and like Muir, observing the lives and characters of the island’s wild residents. As each season passes, the delicate piping of the winter redshanks, or the tireless exuberance of meadow pipits in spring, lifts my spirits and roots me in the present.

Muir’s language is luminous, passionate, and fiery. It is a paean to a wildness already long gone from much of America, and it is heartbreaking to imagine what he would make of his native Scotland in modern times. But his work has an even greater relevance to our urbanised world than ever before. There is so little left of wild Britain that we must treasure it. We can begin here on Arran by recognising the value of our natural environment not only to us, but the thousands of tourists who come here each year to experience the healing power of a different pace of life.  If we can go further, as Muir did, and recognise the sanctity and substance of life no matter how small, woody or fierce, we stand to benefit immeasurably from the simple pleasure of finding our own place woven in to this astonishing world. 

Reading Muir: Journeys in the Wilderness:  A John Muir Reader is a paperback containing the selected works of John Muir, with an introduction by Graham White.

John Muir Trust: For more information about the work of the JMT visit the website:

[1] The Story of My Boyhood and My Youth.
[2] My First Summer in the Sierra
[3] My First Summer in the Sierra
[4] Our National Parks

1 comment:

vicky said...

My introduction to John Muir in 1970's Derbyshire was a dustily-dressed figure with a long grey beard and wooden staff arriving unexpectedly on a stage where an evening countryside talk was about to start.For 15 minutes in a single spotlight he hijacked our attention for life.His eyes burnt like they do from the black and white photos with stories of wide mountains,desperate struggles and a single flower by a waterfall. There was no escape from world conservation for a young Ranger welded to her litter-picker!