Full Conversion to the Glorious Light
John Muir (1838-1914)
by Nancy Corson Carter
John Muir helped found the Sierra Club in 1892 to “do something for wildness and make the mountains glad.” He was president of the club from its founding until his death. A Sierra Club bookmark celebrating his 150thbirthday in April 1988 describes some of his amazingly diverse credentials:
John Muir—farmer, inventor, sheepherder, explorer, and writer –was perhaps this country’s most famous and influential naturalist and conservationist. In his lifetime, he published more than 300 articles and 10 major books which eloquently express his deep love and understanding of nature and wilderness. He has taught people of his time and ours the important of experiencing and protecting our natural heritage.
In one of his journals he wrote: “Light. I know not a single word fine enough for Light…holy, beamless, bodiless, inaudible floods of Light.”
And yet, when in his mid-twenties, he almost lost his ability to see. He had just returned from an extended botanizing journey in Canada to work in an Indianapolis carriage shop. Although the job meant leaving nature for the “rush and roar and whirl of the factory,” he was highly successful as a mechanical inventor. But one day, when Muir was preparing to adjust the drive belt of a machine, the nail-like end of a file slipped and jabbed deep into his eye.
Tom Melham dramatizes the story in his book, John Muir’s Wild America:
“My right eye is gone!” he gasped, “closed forever on all God’s beauty.” Muir’s anguish later deepened when his good eye also failed. His mind reeled. He would have to give up inventing, botanizing, everything!
He was blind, tormented by despair and by thoughts of a wasted life. He pondered his dual loves—inventing and “the inventions of God”—and reached a pivotal decision: He would devote himself totally to nature. In the wilderness he had always sensed “a plain, simple relationship to the Cosmos.” Now he longed more than ever to see it.
His doctor had predicted permanent blindness, but during four weeks of convalescence in a darkened room, vision slowly returned to both eyes. He felt he had risen from the grave. “God has nearly to kill us sometimes, to teach us lessons.” From then on, he shunned the world of factories, although his former employers promised him a raise and an eventual partnership.
Almost as soon as his sight was recovered, in 1867 at age 29, he left for the adventures to be published much later as A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf. “I might have become a millionaire,” he recalled, “but I chose to become a tramp!”
As Edwin Way Teale writes in his introduction toThe Wilderness World of John Muir:
He was the spearhead of the western movement to preserve wild beauty, a prime mover in the national park system so valued today. Beside a campfire at Soda Springs on the Tuolumne Meadows in 1889, he and Robert Underwood Johnson mapped the seventeen-year battle that preserved Yosemite as a national park. Beside other campfires under sequoias, while on a three-day outing with Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, he presented the case for the preservation of numerous wilderness areas with moving effect. Major credit for saving the Grand Canyon and the Petrified Forest in Arizona is ascribed to John Muir.
The light always shown bright for John Muir. In notes collected by Teale about “The Philosophy of John Muir” we read:
This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is every rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.
Dr. Nancy Corson Carter is a teacher-writer-pilgrim. Her most recent book is the memoir, The Never-Quite-Ending War: A WWII GI Daughter's Stories