The Man Who Danced with the Treetops a Tribute to John Muir (1838-1914)

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.” -John Muir.

To every nature-lover there comes a time when the enchantment palls and you wonder why on earth you’re tramping around in 30 degrees heat through clouds of mosquitoes. Maybe you’re paddling your favourite lake and the water is a dull pewter and the woods empty of birdsong. Or you’ve become a cherry-picker, intent on the rare and the dramatic, and turn a jaded eye on the common denizens of the underbrush. At such times, you can go the Zen route and meditate your way through the unwelcome mood. Or you can take a hike through “The Mountains of California” and let John Muir guide you back to a place of wonder.

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” John Muir, “My First Summer in the SIerra”.

Widely regarded as the father of the conservation movement, Muir was a self-described “poetico-trampo-geologist-botanist and ornithologist-naturalist”, and wilderness advocate who brought about the creation of Yosemite National Park in l892, the first US park to be created specifically for conservation. A native of Scotland, Muir fell in love with the Yosemite Valley and spent several years exploring it, chronicling his

Photo Credit: Eileen Soto
“As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.” (John Muir, Journals) Photo Credit: Eileen Seto

experiences in the New York Tribune and other newspapers. The vivid spontaneity of his storytelling soon won him a wide readership, and his study of glaciers scholarly acclaim. Ten years after the creation of Yosemite National Park, President Roosevelt asked John Muir to guide him into the Sierra Nevada. Evading the presidential entourage and the press, the two of them went off camping under the stars and didn’t come back for two days. The time spent with Muir in the Sierra inspired President Roosevelt’s innovative conservation programs.Seeing Yosemite for the first timeMuir found himself “overwhelmed by the landscape, scrambling down steep cliff faces to get a closer look at the waterfalls, whooping and howling at the vistas, jumping tirelessly from flower.” He hiked in all weathers, forded icy streams, traversed glaciers and, one memorable December, climbed to the top of a 100-ft high Douglas fir so he could experience the storm: “The light, brushy tops were rocking and swirling in wild ecstasy… The slender tops fairly flapped and swished in the passionate torrent, bending and swirling backward and forward, round and round, tracing indescribable combinations of vertical and horizontal curves, while I clung with muscles firm-braced, like a bobolink on a reed.”

Photo Credit: Jens Wieting
Photo Credit: Jens Wieting

In his abandon Muir himself becomes part of the wildness of his beloved mountains. Nor is his enthusiasm reserved for sweeping vistas, towering trees and majestic peaks. As much as he could be moved to ecstasy by the grandeur of the high alpine, he had a keen sensibility for the small and seemingly insignificant. In “My first summer in the Sierra” he tells of meeting a bear, a fly and a grasshopper: “a crisp, electric spark of joy enlivening the massy sublimity of the mountain like the laugh of a child – even the bear did not express

Photo Credit: Mike Ogilvi
Photo Credit: Mike Ogolvie

for me the mountain’s wild health and strength and happiness as tellingly as did this comical little hopper.”One hundred years after his death, hastened by his grief over the US government’s decision to dam the Hetch Hetchy Valley despite all his efforts, Muir’s work speaks to our time. The issues he struggled with – the  destruction of forests, the giant dams, the frenzy of unregulated mining – are still with us. So is the “nature deficit disorder,” the inner disconnection of children and adults from the natural world. John Muir’s view of nature as an interconnected web of life of which we are intimately and rightfully a part has since been confirmed by science. But the inner experience of being a strand in the web of life still eludes us. As the 21st century turns to face the gathering storm of climate change and disruption of Earth systems as we have known them since the birth of our species, Muir’s words can rekindle hope and reconnect us to the joy of belonging in a living universe, “an infinite storm of beauty”.


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