Recently, my spouse and I spent a few days wandering around California’s Yosemite Valley, one of the most beautiful places on planet Earth.
How beautiful is the Yosemite Valley? On such matters, I am struck by Carl Jung’s famous statement about the “futility of words.” However, I’ll try by borrowing and extending a line or two from songwriter John Denver.
Like some of you, I talk to God occasionally. In my case (or perhaps in my imagination), God replied with the beauty of the Yosemite Valley. “Look,” he said, “at the towering granite rock faces of my valley. Look at the weird and majestic splendor of Half Dome, a dome-mountain split in half as if by lightning. Look at the proud face of El Capitan. Many have tried to climb its sheer granite face and some have died.”
Then he said, “And that’s next to nothing, really. Look now at the fathomless darkness of the night. Look upward at the billowing mist of the Milky Way. Look upward at the infinity of stars.”
I am, of course, not the first one to feel that way about Yosemite Valley. In that regard, I must confess that I took this trip primarily in search of the spirit of Yosemite’s most compelling advocate — John Muir, who wandered the valley in awestruck wonder more than a century ago.
He wandered down the valley and into the surrounding forests with little more than a tin cup, a loaf or two of bread, a packet of dried tea, and a collection of Transcendentalist writer Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays, which he would read by the light of the stars.
Decades before the place became a national park, he was impassioned by the beauty of his valley in a way that I both envy and covet. He devoted his life to that passion and wrote about it in a way that proves his deep love of the place in a palpable way.
I must confess that I use the word “passion” with great hesitation. These days, people write about their “passion” for this, that, or the other thing as if they really knew how deep and abiding a lifelong passion can be. As a result, their use of it sounds insincere — and so perhaps by extension will mine.
The spirit of John Muir is connected to a kind of passion for the universe and everything in it. He was intensely sensitive to every detail of his surroundings and its beauty. In that regard, he experienced the interconnectedness of everything he saw.
He saw the beauty of every aspect of nature. “God never made an ugly landscape,” he wrote. “All that the sun shines on is beautiful, so long as it is wild.”
This is not the “I don’t know about art but I know what I like” kind of beauty. In his youth, Muir studied geology and botany at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. From there, he wandered through the forests and mountains of America, a quest that included a thousand-mile walk from Kentucky to Florida and an extended hike through the wilds of Alaska. He took on odd jobs along the trail to support his wandering ways. Eventually, the Yosemite Valley was where his heart settled.
Civilization has developed to the point where it can afford to subsidize people like John Muir and, to a pathetic lesser extent, me.
We build no buildings and we grow no crops. Instead, those who labor allow us the opportunity to contemplate the origin, functioning, and even the meaning of our universe and its parts. If we are smart, we should be ever grateful to those who toil at work that sometimes brings them little joy but make our lives of contemplation possible.
However, we must pay a steep price for our civilized ways. The necessary fundaments of our version of civilization are competition and exploitation. We think of our natural world in terms of the “resources” they provide to fuel our ever-increasing expectations.
We think not of trees but of “lumber” to build our dwellings. In Ohio, our state forests are increasingly not a place to go to walk among the trees. They are sources of state revenue.
We compete for the trees so we can cut them down. We strive to own the blood and bones of long-dead dinosaurs and the plants they ate so that we can burn their essence as fuel.
Words like “lumber” and “resources” reflect the loss of our connectedness with nature. John Muir felt that connectedness with every breath he took. As he wrote, “Man must be made conscious of his origin as a child of Nature. Brought into right relationship with the wilderness he would see that he was not a separate entity endowed with a divine right to subdue his fellow creatures and destroy the common heritage, but rather an integral part of a harmonious whole. He would see that his appropriation of earth’s resources beyond his personal needs would only bring imbalance and beget ultimate loss and poverty for all.”
The simple fact is that we are not separate from nature but only a tiny and relatively powerless part of it. Look around you. The chair that you sit in, the paper or screen that you contemplate, and the cereal you had for breakfast are all part of your planet.
And you are a part of that planet as well. You do not live on the Earth so much as you move through its atmosphere, as Carl Sagan wrote. You breathe its air. Its oceans flow through your veins.
We think of our planet as important somehow to the universe because it provides us with the “resources” to survive, but our planet is less than nothing compared to Jupiter, the largest of the planets, which has over 1,400 times the volume of Earth.
And even Jupiter is reduced to a speck compared to our parent star, the sun. If you combined the mass of everything besides the sun in our solar system — all the planets, all the comets, all the asteroids, and every speck of dust — the sun would still account for 99.8 percent of the mass of the solar system.
Your planet is hurtling through space at 67,000 miles per hour. It is in orbit around a below-average star we call the sun, but our sun is only one of 300 billion suns that make up our Milky Way galaxy. And the Milky Way is but one average spiral galaxy in a universe of perhaps six trillion galaxies, most of which we will never be able to see.
It is thus a privilege for anything as small and insignificant as we are to be alive and awake to nature’s beauty. We squander that privilege by destroying that beauty, even to the point of disrupting the delicate natural balance that keeps us alive as individuals and as a species.
John Muir understood these things, not just as an intellectual exercise but also in a deeply experiential way that comes only from solitude, deep reflection, and shoes worn out by hundreds of thousands of rambling miles.
I searched for John Muir’s spirit, his passion, in the most spectacular of places in his Yosemite Valley. All I found there were crowds of people jostling each other for better views.
Instead of John Muir’s solitude and the quiet wonder he felt for the beauty of the natural world, all I could hear was the din of people talking about their personal grievances and the daily grind of work, both supposedly left behind.
How could I find the spirit of John Muir, his passion, amidst the cacophony of voices and discarded candy wrappers?
I looked to the writings of John Muir for a solution, and of course, I found it: “Of all the paths you take in life, make sure that a few of them are dirt.”
And thus it was that, my wife having suffered a minor foot injury, I dove alone into the forest surrounding Yosemite Valley, far from the crowds, the candy wrappers, and the spectacular views that attracted them.
I walked 16 miles one day and 23 miles the next searching for the spirit of John Muir. I walked through deep pine forests and forest glades. I walked in bright sunlight and in the shadow of the pines.
I walked past deserted, 150-year-old wrecks of log houses. I waded across fitful streams and brooks that really did babble. Their babblings spoke to me in a way that I knew I would understand if I lingered a while. But I did not linger.
I walked up and down the deserted hills and valleys that people seldom visit. I walked high, and I walked low. In one two-mile stretch, I walked up 2,600 miles of elevation and felt the same exhilaration that John Muir must have felt when he reached the summit.
Occasionally I could see the footprints of old John Muir in the dry dust, but I still did not find his spirit.
Now don’t get me wrong. The vistas from the viewpoints above Yosemite Valley were among the most breathtaking that I have seen. Why else would they attract such an array of RV’s, candy bars, souvenir stuffed bears and the humans who rode in them, hurriedly wolfed them down, and coveted them? Sadly, those crowded, dissonant vistas did not seem to me to capture the spirit of John Muir.
However, as I wandered far from them into the dark forest, I emerged early one morning from a tunnel of trees into a radiantly yellow-brown meadow half-covered in shimmering morning frost.
The sharp intake of breath, the vertiginous whirlwind in my head, and the salt tears rolling down my cheek signaled that finally I knew what words like “beauty” and “passion” really meant.
Here then, at last, was the spirit of John Muir.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.