John Muir + Tongass National Forest

Contributed by Will Rice

On a morning in 1879, John Muir, famed American naturalist, theologian, and immigrant, launched a canoe from the steamer Cassiar and paddled into an unnamed fjord in the Alexander Archipelago of Southeast Alaska. In his words, he and his party wanted to “avail themselves of this rare opportunity of meeting a glacier [that flowed into the far end of the fjord] in the flesh”. His experience appears to have been deeply spiritual— the feeble canoe on a collision course with an icy force of nature that must be seen to be fully comprehended. His account of the experience is perhaps one of the most often quoted of his countless wisdom-ladened passages. He writes:

Every feature glowed with intention, reflecting the plans of God. Back a few miles from the front, the glacier is now probably but little more than a thousand feet deep; but when we examine the records on the walls, the rounded, grooved, striated, and polished features so surely glacial, we learn that in the earlier days of the ice age they were all over-swept, and that this glacier has flowed at a height of from three to four thousand feet above its present level, when it was at least a mile deep.

Standing here, with facts so fresh and telling and held up so vividly before us, every seeing observer, not to say geologist, must readily apprehend the earth-sculpturing, landscape-making action of flowing ice. And here, too, one learns that the world, though made, is yet being made; that this is still the morning of creation; that mountains long conceived are now being born, channels traced for coming rivers, basins hollowed for lakes; that moraine soil is being ground and outspread for coming plants,–coarse boulders and gravel for forests, finer soil for grasses and flowers,–while the finest part of the grist, seen hastening out to sea in the draining streams, is being stored away in darkness and builded particle on particle, cementing and crystallizing, to make the mountains and valleys and plains of other predestined landscapes, to be followed by still others in endless rhythm and beauty.

A friend recently inspired me to revisit Muir’s writing, and given the pain of the last week and the anxiety of pain to come I thought this passage and Muir’s “Travels in Alaska” would be a good place to start. Hope has become a treasured commodity in our country. Muir serves as a wealth of hope. He stands as an example of how anyone, even a lowly mountaineer, can profoundly change the world. With his words he saved millions of acres of the American wilds. He swung Presidents. He fought, he failed, and he tried again.

Let us follow his example. Let’s get out our pens, write our elected officials, write our friends, write our foes. Let’s get back in touch with what we want to protect. Let’s reach out to the afflicted and the oppressed. Let’s go listen to glaciers, talk to ferns, and “climb the mountains and get their good tidings”. Let us find the hope and wisdom of the American Wildernesses, the “vast schoolrooms of Americanism”, and apply their lessons in our struggle for freedom and justice.

John’s glaciers are melting. His adoptive country is divided. His land is under siege. But his legacy of love for the earth and its people is alive and well. In an age when Muir’s works have been co-oped by the outdoor apparel, bumper sticker, and mountain condo industries, perhaps its most valuable application is merely a recycling of its original use— inspiration for the weary masses. In his “Travels in Alaska”, his hope comes to us as a vision of the “morning of creation”. Perhaps, this too is the morning of creation. Perhaps, the world and our America is yet being made, stuck in the violence of continent building. Perhaps, these current barriers in the path to justice, like coastal ridges in the inevitable path of a glacier, will soon succumb to the power of the people. Whatever the obstacle, as Muir affirms, “the power of imagination makes us infinite.”

This blog hopes to serve as a conduit and advocate for bringing the wisdom of the wilderness into America’s national conversations and current events. Check back for more lessons from America’s public lands and their Sages.

Photo courtesy of the Sierra Club

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