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photo of sunrise in Yosemite

The Psalmic Soundtrack of John Muir

Singing from Two Books

Calvin B. DeWitt

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Photo of the East Side of the Fairweather Mountains by Russell Sipe

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  • Dean Van Farowe

    Thanks, Dr. DeWitt! In college 20 years ago, under a great teacher of the American West, I studied the religion of John Muir. This article, with its copious quotes, was not only a reminder of that sublime semester but also a worshipful experience.

  • Don Ruhl

    I never knew of John Muir's biblical background! Thank you for making the world aware of his spirituality!

Would I ever read it? Another volume from a natural history book club had arrived in the mail. Month after month they came, but I was so engaged in doing natural history that I read none of them. A few decades later, with more time to spare in my Wisconsin home on peaceful Waubesa Wetlands, I finally picked the volume off the shelf and began to read John Muir. As I turned the pages, I soon found myself caught up in a psalmic crescendo. It was not only Muir’s lyrical writing but also the familiar soundtrack playing in the background. Ever present, it occasionally surfaced in visible text but more often rung in resonating allusions – ever present, always playing. This soundtrack, I was to discover, was one by which he lived, moved, and had his being.

Since then I have enjoyed other Muir books, along with his extensive personal correspondence, available at the Wisconsin Historical Society. In fact, my enthusiasm led me to visit his boyhood home at the edge of the wild North Sea on the southeast coast of Scotland. He was born here on April 21, 1838. Sixteen days later, he was baptized in Dunbar’s Ebenezer Erskine Memorial Church, a secessionist congregation that had broken from the state-controlled church. In his earliest years grandfather David Gilrye taught him to read the letters on signs across the street, and at age three Johnnie was enrolled in school. He soon found that he “was fond of everything that was wild.”

“Fortunately around my native town of Dunbar, by the stormy North Sea, there was no lack of wildness,” he would write later. “I loved to wander in the fields to hear the birds sing, and along the seashore to gaze and wonder at the shells and seaweeds, eels and crabs in the pools among the rocks when the tide was low; and best of all to watch the waves in awful storms thundering on the black headlands and craggy ruins of the old Dunbar Castle when the sea and the sky, the waves and the clouds, were mingled together as one.” His introduction to mountaineering came from scaling this castle’s crumbling red bricks with his chums.

Here also Muir’s soundtrack was instilled in him from early childhood: that of the Psalms, whose earliest strains had emerged more than three thousand years before. In Dunbar, the young Muir grew up within a rich Scottish milieu of devout psalm-singing. This practice stemmed from re-introduction of congregational singing in the mid-1500s in the city-state of Geneva, where texts were put into rhymed verse and fitted with syllabic homophony, making them singable and hummable by anyone who could carry a tune. From Geneva, the psalter entered Muir’s native Scotland. Meanwhile, psalm singing in the Low Countries was advanced by the Dutch Psalter, a songbook that later inspired the Psalter Hymnal in America.

The Scottish psalter’s full title was The Psalms of David in Metre with Notes by John Brown of Haddington. Reverend Brown’s prefatory note to each psalm links it with its New Testament fulfillment in Christ, gifting its singers with a wide embrace of the scriptures. For example, the versification of Psalm 19, “The heav’ns God’s glory do declare, the skies his hand-works preach…,” is prefaced by this note:

Now the books of God are opened, not for my trial and condemnation in the last judgment, but for my instruction. Let my soul look and read therein –

1. The book of creation and providence, in which all the works of God instruct mankind in general, concerning the eternal wisdom, power, and goodness of their Maker, verses 1–6.

2. The book of inspiration; the sure, the right, the pure, the true, the perfect and powerful oracles of which instruct, convert, comfort, and warm the members of the church; and in keeping of which there is an exceeding great and everlasting reward of glory obtained, verses 7–11.

photo of John Muir in 1907 by Francis M. Fritz. Courtesy of UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library.

John Muir, 1907 Photograph by Francis M. Fritz. Courtesy of UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library.

3. What conviction of sin! What supplication for pardon of it, and preservation from it, and for the acceptance of our duties through Jesus’ blood, doth or ought to ensue upon a proper perusal of these volumes of heaven, verses 12–14.…

These two books – the book of nature, and the Bible – are mentioned as well in the catechism of the Scottish churches – the Westminster Shorter Catechism – no doubt memorized by young Johnnie. The catechism’s third question: “In what volumes has God discovered the knowledge of himself to all mankind?” The answer: “In the great volumes of creation and providence; which he opens to all the world.” And Question 7: “Though the works of creation and providence declare that God is, can they also tell us what God is?” The catechism answers: “They afford us some dark glimpses of his eternal power, wisdom, greatness, and goodness, but it is only by and through the scriptures of truth, set home on the soul by his Spirit, that we can attain the saving knowledge of God, and of his perfections.”

detail from photo of Dunbar Castle by Richard Paxman

Dunbar Castle, whose walls the young Muir scaled in his introduction to mountaineering. Photograph by Richard Paxman

That Glorious Wilderness

In Dunbar scripture was embedded in young minds very early, so that by the time Muir left Scotland for Wisconsin at age eleven he had memorized the whole New Testament and two-thirds of the Old Testament. The journey to North America came when his father, Daniel, a prosperous Dunbar merchant, sold his house and fine garden in 1849 to seek a place where he could hold strongly to Scottish traditions, stay true to the church universal, and pursue the “Scottish ambition” that fueled a centuries-long “Scottish diaspora.” Intending to sail to Canada, he was diverted by fellow Scots who described Wisconsin and Michigan land as good and more easily cultivated. Sailing up the St. Lawrence River, he met a Buffalo grain dealer who got most of his wheat from Wisconsin. So Daniel sailed across the Great Lakes to Milwaukee. Upon arrival he left the children in Kingston (other family members were still in Scotland), scouted the land, and found a place where he built a little shanty with “rough bur-oak logs for the walls and white-oak boards for the floor and roof.” Next, he picked up the children and went by “ox-team across trackless carex swamps and low rolling hills sparely dotted with round-headed oaks.” Later John would write, “Here without knowing it we were still at school; every wild lesson a love lesson, not whipped but charmed into us. Oh, that glorious Wisconsin wilderness!”

From his youth John believed that both books should be seriously read. Taking to heart Matthew 6:26, he told of Sundays at his Wisconsin home:

After or before chores and sermons and Bible lessons, we drifted about on the lake for hours, especially in lily time, getting finest lessons and sermons from the water and flowers, ducks, fishes, and muskrats. In particular we took Christ’s advice and devoutly “considered the lilies” – how they grow up in beauty out of gray lime mud, and ride gloriously among the breezy sun-spangles. On our way home we gathered grand bouquets of them to be kept fresh all the week. No flower was hailed with greater wonder and admiration by the European settlers… than this white water lily (Nymphaea odorata). It is a magnificent plant, queen of the inland waters, pure white, three or four inches in diameter, the most beautiful, sumptuous, and deliciously fragrant of all our Wisconsin flowers.

Leaving home, Muir spent two and a half years as a student at the University of Wisconsin, then worked briefly in an Indiana machine shop as an inventor until a serious accident temporarily blinded him. Deeply thankful to recover his eyesight, he decided to behold “the inventions of God,” inaugurating what would become a lifelong journey with a thousand-mile walk to the Gulf of Mexico. In his backpack he carried a copy of the New Testament – even though he had committed it to heart – alongside Milton’s Paradise Lost and a book of Robert Burns’ poetry. Coming to where “the view extends from the Cumberland Mountains on the north far into Georgia and North Carolina to the south,” he beheld “countless forest-clad hills, side by side in rows and groups” that seemed “to be enjoying the rich sunshine and remaining motionless only because they were so eagerly absorbing it. All were united by curves and slopes of inimitable softness and beauty. What perfection, what divinity, in their architecture! What simplicity and mysterious complexity of detail!” Ever holding in his heart the metaphor of nature as a book, he continues, “Who shall read the teaching of these sylvan pages, the glad brotherhood of rills that sing in the valleys, and all the happy creatures that dwell in them under the tender keeping of a Father’s care?”

John Muir’s coherent reading of the pages of nature and scripture – within each and between – is richly present in a letter written from Yosemite in 1870, at age 32, to his brother David Gilrye Muir, in which he exalts, “This glorious valley might well be called a church, for every lover of the great Creator who comes within the broad overwhelming influences of the place fails not to worship as he never did before.” Alluding to Isaiah 6:3, he exclaims, “The glory of the Lord is upon all his works; it is written plainly upon all the fields of every clime, and upon every sky, but here in this place of surpassing glory the Lord has written in capitals.” And he hopes for David “… that one day you will see and read with your own eyes.”

Reflecting on California’s Mono Lake – a place “generally described as a dreary forbidding waste” – Muir wrote in a letter to Emily O. Pelton, also in 1870: “I never beheld a place where beauty was written in plainer characters or where the tender fostering hand of the Great Gardener was more directly visible.”

But the book of creation and providence is not only a book for reading or beholding. It also is a book for listening, for it is speaking, even proclaiming, Muir insists. “We seem to imagine that since Herod beheaded John the Baptist, there is no longer any voice crying in the wilderness,” he writes. “But no one in the wilderness can possibly make such a mistake, for every one of these flowers is such a voice. No wilderness in the world is so desolate as to be without divine ministers. God’s love covers all the earth as the sky covers it, and also fills it in every pore. And this love has voices heard by all who have ears to hear.” Like John the Baptist announcing the coming of the Lord, the mountains echo angelic strains in joyful praise: Gloria in excelsis Deo! So also does John Muir of the mountains hear heaven and nature sing – above, around, and o’er the plains – and he exuberantly echoes its sounding joy.

So who do people say Muir is? “Was he a transcendentalist, a pantheist, a deist, a theist?” asks biologist Raymond Barnett. In the journal Religions he writes, “Most of those attempting to categorize Muir have been scholars of history, literature, or religious studies. As a scientist and modest mountaineer, it strikes me that the Muir biographies by Wolfe, Wilkins, Worster, Cohen, and Turner somehow do not sufficiently credit Muir as the accomplished scientist that he was, nor how incredible his mountaineering feats were, in his time or ours.” More importantly, Barnett also says that “a simple reading of his writings convinces me that in fact Muir must be recognized as the Christian that he was. His writings are full of references to God and quotations from both the Old and the New Testaments . . . and Muir finds this Christian framework adequate to express his convictions.”

Seeing God’s Smile

The year 2014 marked the hundredth anniversary of John Muir’s passing. The distance between his time and ours raises questions in some minds about his relevance to the world as we know it. In answer to such questions we may well ask whether it remains worthwhile to read and listen to the book of nature. Is it worth our time and attention – as it was for John Muir one hundred years ago and King David three thousand years ago – to engage in looking, beholding, and listening, with eyes and heart? We would also do well to consider everything we have placed in the way to block out nature’s psalmic testimony.

In a letter to Mr. and Mrs. David M. Galloway in 1863, Muir describes beholding the Wisconsin Dells – a stretch of narrows on the Wisconsin River some twenty miles west of his boyhood home:

The banks are rocky and romantic for many miles both above and below the Dells. On going up the river we were delightfully opposed and threatened by a great many semi-gorge ravines running at right angles to the river. . . . Those ravines are the most perfect, the most heavenly plant conservatories I ever saw.… The last ravine we encountered was the most beautiful and deepest and longest and narrowest. The rocks overhang and bear a perfect selection of trees which hold themselves towards one another from side to side with inimitable grace, forming a flower-veil of indescribable beauty. The light is measured and mellowed. For every flower springs, too, and pools, are there in their places to moisten them. The walls are fringed and painted most divinely with the bright green polypodium and asplenium and mosses and liverworts with gray lichens, and here and there a clump of flowers and little bushes. The floor was barred and banded and sheltered by bossy, shining, moss-clad logs cast in as needed from above. Over all and above all and in all the glorious ferns, tall, perfect, godlike, and here and there amid their fronds a long cylindrical spike of the grand fringed purple orchis.

Today, we can access wisdells.com to find the Wisconsin Dells billed as “The Waterpark Capital of the World!®” and that “our world-famous indoor waterparks aren’t the only reason to visit. As one of the most popular Wisconsin vacation spots, there are many other reasons to love the Dells this time of year [winter]. Like live entertainment, thrilling attractions, lux to cozy accommodations, and dining options to please any palate.” The Dells area is now advertised as a major amusement park, and it lives up to the following definitions of “amuse” given by the Oxford English Dictionary: “To divert the attention of any one from the facts at issue; to beguile, delude, cheat, deceive.… To divert the attention of (one) from serious business by anything trifling, ludicrous, or entertaining.”

Wrapping up either of the two books in the glitter of “amusements” intercepts and mutes the testimony and redeeming message of both. And so too the testimony and redeeming message of John Muir – and other serious readers of both books – can be intercepted and muted in ways that prevent others from seeing through to his heart. It is as John Muir’s close friend and publisher, Robert Underwood Johnson, wrote in a remembrance in the Sierra Club Bulletin of 1916: “To some, beauty seems but an accident of creation: to Muir it was the very smile of God. He sung the glory of nature like another Psalmist, and, as a true artist, was unashamed of his emotions. An instance of this is told of him as he stood with an acquaintance at one of the great view-points of the Yosemite Valley and, filled with wonder and devotion, wept. His companion, more stolid than most, could not understand his feeling, and was so thoughtless as to say so. ‘Mon,’ said Muir, with the Scotch dialect into which he often lapsed, ‘Can ye see unmoved the glory of the Almighty?’

“‘Oh, it’s very fine,’ was the reply, ‘but I do not wear my heart upon my sleeve.’

“‘Ah, my dear mon,’ said Muir, ‘In the face of such a scene as this, it’s no time to be thinkin’ o’ where to wear your heart.’”

detail from photo of Yosemite National Park, California, by Darvin Atkeson View Larger
Contributed By Calvin B. DeWitt

Calvin B. DeWitt is a professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and co-founder of the Evangelical Environmental Network. This essay was adapted by him from his book Song of a Scientist: The Harmony of a God-Soaked Creation(Square Inch Books, 2012).

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