Few people in history have been able to capture the beauty of nature in words as aptly as John Muir. The Scottish-born naturalist, environmental philosopher, writer, and advocate for the preservation of the wilderness is considered to be the Father of the National Parks. He traveled the country extensively, from his early years in Wisconsin and Indiana to his epic walk from Kentucky to Florida, but few places inspired him quite like California. He spent years in the Yosemite Valley, where he started to gain fame, first for his theories on glaciers and as an expert on the Valley, and later for his work as a preservationist, fighting to protect Yosemite as a National Park.
He was also a prolific writer, and many of his quotes, essays, and other musings still ring true today. He once said, "In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks." Walk with nature at some of his favorite places across California while pondering his writings about the locations, and you just might receive far more than seek as well.
Muir visited Lake Tahoe several times throughout his life. In the fall of 1873, he wrote in detail about a trip in a letter to his good friend, Jeanne Carr. He describes "blue glimpses of the lake, all so heavenly clean, so terrestrial yet so openly spiritual."
That's not all he has to say about Tahoe, either.
"The soul of Indian summer is brooding this blue water, and it enters one's being as nothing else does. Tahoe is surely not one but many. As I curve around its heads and bays and look far out on its level sky fairly tinted and fading in pensive air, I am reminded of all the mountain lakes I ever knew, as if this were a kind of water heaven to which they all had come."
Muir was especially fond of mountains. He helped co-found the Sierra Club, but the Sierra-Nevadas were hardly the only peaks he appreciated. Take, for example, his article "Snow-Storm on Mount Shasta" which described an early morning hike he made to the mountain summit in April of 1875.
"The crisp icy sky was without a cloud, and the stars lighted us on our way. Deep silence brooded the mountain, broken only by the night wind and an occasional rock falling from crumbling buttresses to the snow slopes below. The wild beauty of the morning stirred our pulses in glad exhilaration, and we strode rapidly onward, seldom stopping to take a breath..."
At the top of Mount Shasta, he continues his poetic portrait. "The sky was of the thinnest, purest azure; spiritual life filled every pore of rock and cloud; and we reveled in the marvelous abundance and beauty of the landscapes by which we were encircled."
Even getting caught in a storm on the mountain couldn't dampen his enthusiasm for Shasta's beauty.
"Storm clouds on the mountains -- how truly beautiful they are! -- floating fountains bearing water for every well; the angels of streams and lakes; brooding in the deep pure azure, or sweeping along the ground, over ridge and dome, over meadow, over forest, over garden and grove; lingering with cooling shadows, refreshing every flower, and soothing rugged rock brows with a gentleness of touch and gesture no human hand can equal!"
Of course, Yosemite held a special place in Muir's heart as well. Gorgeous depictions of the valley from Muir aren't hard to find, but this passage, from Chapter 5, The Yosemite, of "My First Summer In The Sierra" is especially striking. He describes being so taken with the beauty that he frightened a local resident of the forest.
"Never before had I seen so glorious a landscape, so boundless an affluence of sublime mountain beauty. The most extravagant description I might give of this view to any one who has not seen similar landscapes with his own eyes would not so much as hint its grandeur and the spiritual glow that covered it. I shouted and gesticulated in a wild burst of ecstasy, much to the astonishment of St. Bernard Carlo, who came running up to me... A brown bear, too, it would seem, had been a spectator of the show I had made of myself, for I had gone but a few yards when I started one from a thicket of brush. He evidently considered me dangerous, for he ran away very fast, tumbling over the tops of the tangled manzanita bushes in his haste."
In 1911, John Muir published "The Mountains of California" in which he describes his 1872 summitting of Mount Ritter, which is thought to be the first ascent of the mountain. Here's what he had to say about the view from the top.
"The eye, rejoicing in its freedom, roves about the vast expanse, yet returns again and again to the fountain-peaks. Perhaps some one of the multitude excites special attention some gigantic castle with turret and battlement, or some Gothic cathedral more abundantly spired than Milan's. But, generally, when looking for the first time from an all-embracing standpoint like this, the inexperienced observer is oppressed by the incomprehensible grandeur, variety, and abundance of the mountains rising shoulder to shoulder beyond the reach of vision; and it is only after they have been studied one by one, long and lovingly, that their far-reaching harmonies become manifest."
John Muir also had an affinity for Sequoia National Park, but if there was one spot in the whole park that he particularly enjoyed, it was Crescent Meadow. He called this misty patch of green the "gem of the Sierras".
He also wrote fondly of sequoia trees, especially the General Grant Tree. The following is from Chapter 9, The Sequoia and General Grant National Parks, in "Our National Parks".
"The Big Tree ( Sequoia gigantea ) is Nature's forest masterpiece, and, so far as I know, the greatest of living things. It belongs to an ancient stock, as its remains in old rocks show, and has a strange air of other days about it, a thoroughbred look inherited from the long ago-the auld lang syne of trees... No description can give any adequate idea of their singular majesty, much less their beauty. Excepting the sugar-pine, most of their neighbors with pointed tops seem to be forever shouting Excelsior, while the Big Tree, though soaring above them all, seems satisfied, its rounded head, poised lightly as a cloud, giving no impression of trying to go higher."
Muir eventually left the Yosemite Valley, later marrying and raising a family on a fruit farm. But, he continued to write, fight to preserve wild lands, and, of course, take frequent trips back into nature with his two daughters.
Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books. -John Lubbock