Taking the Sacrament with Naturalist John Muir

Editor’s Note: Happy Early Earth Day, everyone.  April 22 is the actual day, but we’re celebrating all week here at Rational Doubt.

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IMG_3091By Chris Highland                         

“[You ask] When are you coming down [from the mountains]? Ask the Lord—Lord Sequoia.” -John Muir

In the college literature course I teach, “a wild spirituality of nature,” we have lively discussions on redefining the sacred, the spiritual and the gods in a more down-to-earth context (where we all have to live together). With freethinkers like John Muir, John Burroughs and their circles, we explore the outer edges of ideas and faith.

One tradition we have in class is to read from a selection I hand out to students. I get to lean back against the wall and listen as a chorus of voices—theist and nontheist— read line after line of inspiring nature writing from a century past. It brings great ideas alive. It is truly delightful. Students laugh and sigh, get teary or troubled, which all leads to more good dialogue.

Recently I handed out a playful piece by John Muir—a letter he wrote to his friend and mentor Jeanne Carr in 1870. Muir had just taken up residence in his “temple,” his “church”—Yosemite Valley. The exuberant Scotsman thought he would tease, writing from “Squirrelville” with the date of “Nut Time.”

“I’m in the woods, woods, woods and they are in me-ee-ee. The King tree and me have sworn eternal love . . .and I’ve taken the sacrament with Douglass Squirrel, drank Sequoia wine, Sequoia blood and with its rosy purple drops I am writing this woody gospel letter.”

Muir knows he is acting the heretic, pushing the limits with the proper sensibilities of his friend’s faith, but he can’t resist. He sensed Jeanne could handle it and manage a smile.

“I wish I was so drunk and Sequoical that I could preach the green brown woods to all the juiceless world, descending from this divine wilderness like a John Baptist eating Douglass Squirrels and wild honey or wild anything, crying, Repent for the Kingdom of Sequoia is at hand.”

Later, a last poke at his brilliant but more socially respectable, friend:

“Would that some of you wise—terribly wise social scientists might discover some method of living as true to nature as…the ‘master spirit of the tree tops’ [the squirrel]….”

By the way, Jeanne Carr went on to introduce John of the Mountains to her more famous friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and to play matchmaker for Muir and his wife Louie. The 30-year correspondence between Jeanne and John helped Muir transform his delightful storytelling skills into defining writings for a new scripture of nature—a modern bible, or at least a woodsy gospel, not only to engender national parks but also to plant the seeds of a wider and wilder environmental ethic.

Muir died 100 years ago last Christmas Eve and this Earth Day weekend marks the 177th year of his birth (April 21, 1838). We are still startled, if not shocked, by some of his radical redefinitions of archaic religious language. Maybe he was being playful. Perhaps he simply liked to jab and joust, tickle and tantalize us with his humor. But his primary purpose seemed always directed to that cry in the wilderness: to clear the dust from our eyes and the fog from our minds; to be converted from blindly using the natural world out of human-centered hubris and ignorance; to repent of our religion (juiceless as it is) that insists we look up and away to better worlds while condemning this beautiful garden planet to hell.

Muir was indeed a voice in the wilderness and his natural gospel (Torah, Veda, Qur’an) echoes forward. Maybe if we sipped a little of that sequoia blood and listened more to the wise teachings of the “master spirit of the tree tops” and her fellow preachers, we might learn to respect the only world we have, sauntering on into the wild forests and mountains before us, with curiosity, wonder and delight, as 21st Century Muir’s in an ever-new, wildly interesting world.

Postscript: I have lived and worked for many years in Marin County, north of San Francisco. Marin is like one big park, bordered by ocean, bay, hill and valley, but it’s also an epicenter of the new-agey “Me-Religion” that I can’t tolerate. While this beautiful patch of green, rolling land graced by towering redwoods deserves reverence, I do not worship nature. Yet, this patch of coast is spongy and porous. Everything that religion, faith and god meant to me for many years has been completely absorbed by the slippery, salty environment. I’ve squeezed out a deep appreciation and respect for the natural cosmos. As the title of my last e-book puts it, Nature is Enough. It surely is.

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biophoto-150x150Chris Highland, is author of Meditations of John Muir, My Address is a River, Life After Faith and other books. www.chighland.com

April 2015

About Linda LaScola

Linda LaScola is co-author, with Daniel C. Dennett, of Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind (2013) and “Preachers who are not Believers” (2010). She is an independent qualitative research consultant who works out of Washington, D.C. She holds a Master’s Degree in Social Work from the Catholic University of America and is a co-founder of the Clergy Project.

  • mason

    Really enjoyed the piece Chris. I read “Alaska Days With John Muir” -Samuel Young last year and I was amazed by Muir the explorer, traveler, hiker, mountain climber. It was quite an experience just having a vicarious experience with John.

    “Nature Is Enough”, I certainly will toast to that. Having spent time in the oceans as a surfer and windsurfer and the forests and mountains as a bow hunter and hiker, I found it ironic it seems like the greater the beauty, the greater the danger. Whenever I’m out in nature I’m always conscious of the oneness with nature, while simultaneously I’m in Mother Nature’s primordially indifferent killing field.

    Do you sense things like that out among the beauty, or other things you’d like to share? I also sense my atheism with a special dynamic, pureness and clarity when I’m out in nature; it’s an intense feeling of just how clear it is that there is no anthropomorphic God, but THIS is it, THIS is what is real, honest, and true.

    • http://www.chighland.com/ Chris Highland

      Ah, Mason, and we’re here on Muir’s birthday. He was, as we used to say, squirrelly! His experiences in the wilds of Alaska sharpened his commitment to preserving Nature as is, as much as possible. And why not preserve OUR nature as much as possible too, letting go of the extra, the super, or, as I said in my class, Nature-Plus?

      I agree, when out in the wild areas I sense this is all there is and it’s wonderfully, frightfully raw and real. I sense my own wildness–so much Life so near to Death. It’s all dangerous, as life tends to be, fragile as we are and gods in our own minds.

      I find Muir a competent guide away from supernaturalism, then he hands the baton to John Burroughs whose “scientific religion without the supernatural” takes a more confident step into the modern world.

      Thanks for engaging this. Naturally!

      • mason

        Naturally Chris :) All my most profound Zen type “oneness” experiences have been out in Nature, or making love with my wife. Maybe it’s because the experiences have wild, raw, and naked in common. :)

        • http://www.chighland.com/ Chris Highland

          Nature is indeed orgasmic, Mason! One reason I like to teach Muir right alongside Walt Whitman.

          • Elizabeth.

            sounds like a fabulous class, Muir and Whitman!

        • Linda_LaScola

          I”m realizing that my “oneness” moments have mostly been in urban settings, sometimes indoors and always with other people around.

          Nature has played a part, however, as I have keen recollections of how the air smelled and felt and how beautiful and vibrant all the colors were.

          • mason

            The “oneness” 1.0 moments I’ve had in urban settings or with other people, I’d have to give a 0.3 rating. So to be accurate I’d have to call them “thirdness” moments. :)

          • Linda_LaScola

            thirdness is the new oneness.

  • Steven Newton

    Thanks for sharing this, Chris. Can you recommend a few favorite/best readings from Muir?

    • http://www.chighland.com/ Chris Highland

      Sure, Steven. My First Summer in the Sierra is a classic. My Boyhood and Youth should be required reading for anyone climbing out of faith. Muir was very inventive and no box or belief would hold him. John of the Mountains presents his wandering journals.
      Let me hasten to warn that Muir uses a lot of traditional words, but with an open mind a person begins to sense he is “naturalizing” the old to bridge toward a worldview that leaves theologies in the dust. . .quite literally! My opinion is that he used popular terms to inspire stuffy folks out into the wilds where fresh ideas might appear in the Beauty he considered God.
      Sorry for the plug, but some find my little collection of “muirisms” helpful, though once again be aware I wrote it just as I was emerging from the dead-end canyon (church).
      Most of all, just enjoy the delightfully wild Muir!

      • Steven Newton

        Thanks, Chris.

  • Snowflake

    Thank you for reminding me of the wonderful and (wacky) Mr. Muir. I learned about him when learning about the history on our National Parks, although I vaguely recall reading him in high school when I was too unwise to appreciate him.

    IIRC, his father was a dreadful and abusive man, all in the name of God. I am so glad Mr. Muir found his way out of his darkness and also helped develop our National Parks.

    I also am atheist. There is something special when I visit with nature. The return of spring, the growing season, harvest and autumn. Mountains, fossils, rivers, oh, just about everything. As awful as it will sound, even nature at its worst it amazing. I have lived through several floods and hurricanes and a few little tornados. The devastation was awful and heartbreaking, but the power was something to behold.

    Thank you Mr Highland for reminding me and a very happy Earth Day to you, and all who read here.

    Now I’m off to the library!

    • http://www.chighland.com/ Chris Highland

      Glad to remind folks of the one who reminded us to “go out in order to go in.” Enjoy the library, and, as Muir noted, enjoy the Book of Nature!