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Year of Plenty

John Muir - Paying Attention to Nature as a Spiritual Discipline


image from Muir's writing and approach to life have had a big influence on the way I see the world. Muir is the iconic naturalist who helped pioneer the concept of national parks, founded the Sierra Club, and shaped the early contours of America's appreciation for pristine wilderness areas.

I recently read his classic journal/book titled, A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf. The backstory is that the young Muir was injured while working in a wagon wheel factory, almost losing his vision. His eyesight returned and left him with a new resolve to live a life true to his passion for nature and plants. His thousand-mile walk from Indianapolis to the Gulf Coast of Florida in 1867 was his maiden voyage on this new alternative path. He didn't plot out his course other than to take "wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way I could find." The book is a fascinating window into the wilds of post-Civil War America.

Muir encounters all kinds of interesting characters on his journey including roving Appalachian gangs, displaced slaves, and desperate robbers, but my favorite interactions are his encounters with the respectable and reasonable folk. His commitment to wander the woods taking plant samples and rejoicing in the glory of wild places is most confusing to the people who are oriented in the economy and industry of the day.

Here is Muir's description of one such encounter with a blacksmith in the woods of North Carolina who was willing to take him in for dinner and a provide a place to sleep for the night. When Muir explained his adventure the man was baffled:

Looking across the table at me, he said, “Young man, what are you doing down here?” I replied that I was looking at plants.“Plants? What kind of plants?” I said, “Oh, all kinds; grass, weeds, flowers, trees, mosses, ferns, — almost everything that grows is interesting to me.”    

“Well, young man,” he queried, “you mean to say that you are not employed by the Government on some private business?” “No,” I said, “I am not employed by any one except just myself. I love all kinds of plants, and I came down here to these Southern States to get acquainted with as many of them as possible.” “You look like a strong-minded man,” he replied, “and surely you are able to do something better than wander over the country and look at weeds and blossoms. These are hard times, and real work is required of every man that is able. Picking up blossoms doesn’t seem to be a man’s work at all in any kind of times.”

To this I replied, “You are a believer in the Bible, are you not?” “Oh, yes.” “Well, you know Solomon was a strong-minded man, and he is generally believed to have been the very wisest man the world ever saw, and yet he considered it was worth while to study plants; not only to go and pick them up as I am doing, but to study them; and you know we are told that he wrote a book about plants, not only of the great cedars of Lebanon, but of little bits of things growing in the cracks of the walls. “Therefore, you see that Solomon differed very much more from you than from me in this matter. I’ll warrant you he had many a long ramble in the mountains of Judea, and had he been a Yankee he would likely have visited every weed in the land. And again, do you not remember that Christ told his disciples to ‘consider the lilies how they grow,’ and compared their beauty with Solomon in all his glory? Now, whose advice am I to take, yours or Christ’s? Christ says, ‘Consider the lilies.’ You say, ‘Don’t consider them. It isn’t worth while for any strong-minded man."’

This evidently satisfied him, and he acknowledged that he had never thought of blossoms in that way before. He repeated again and again that I must be a very strong-minded man, and admitted that no doubt I was fully justified in picking up blossoms. He then told me that although the war was over, walking across the Cumberland Mountains still was far from safe on account of small bands of guerrillas who were in hiding along the roads, and earnestly entreated me to turn back and not to think of walking so far as the Gulf of Mexico until the country became quiet and orderly once more.

I replied that I had no fear, that I had but very little to lose, and that nobody was likely to think it worth while to rob me; that, anyhow, I always had good luck. In the morning he repeated the warning and entreated me to turn back, which never for a moment interfered with my resolution to pursue my glorious walk.

John Muir (2010-03-28). A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf (American Classics) (pp. 10-11)

This conversation happened almost 150 years ago in a world without cars, airplanes, and limited electricity, but the assumptions and social pressures that underly it are just as relevant today. The blacksmith describes a world where "picking up blossoms" and dedicating yourself to what you find "interesting" doesn't have a place "in any kind of times." He can't imagine anyone paying attention to nature and plants unless they are working for the government or some private money-making venture. Besides all that, he considers it foolhardy to take the road less traveled where unknown dangers awaited. He even hints at an economy that needs all hands on deck to make it grow and thrive.

In response, Muir refers to Jesus' command to consider the lilies, a scripture passage that we drew on for inspiritation as we planned our Year of Plenty experiment. He makes the case for a life of paying attention to nature as a discipline, something worthwhile for its own sake. His brush with blindness had filled him with a passion to open his eyes, literally and figuratively, to the wonder of Creation at every possible turn.

The longer I am a pastor (and a person), the more I am aware of this need to nurture simple and subversive disciplines of paying attention in a world that says there is no room for considering such unproductive endeavors. I am reminded of Muir's words of advice to his friend Samuel Hall Young, a Presbyterian pastor who was preparing to serve at a mission outpost in the Kondike region of northern Canada during the Klondike gold rush days. Hall tells the story in his book, Alaska Days With John Muir:

"You are going on a strange journey this time, my friend," he admonished me. "I don't envy you. You'll have a hard time keeping your heart light and simple in the midst of this crowd of madmen. Instead of the music of the wind among the spruce-tops and the tinkling of the waterfalls, your ears will be filled with the oaths and groans of these poor, deluded, self-burdened men. Keep close to Nature's heart, yourself; and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean from the earth-stains of this sordid, gold-seeking crowd in God's pure air. It will help you in your efforts to bring to these men something better than gold. Don't lose your freedom and your love of the Earth as God made it." Young, Samuel Hall, 1847-1927. Alaska days with John Muir (Kindle Locations 1667-1674). New York [etc.] Fleming H. Revell Company. 

For a previous post on the topic of paying attention go here. 

FYI - almost all of Muir's writings are available for free download as pdf or Kindle versions here.

Year of Plenty

The Year of Plenty blog was created by Craig Goodwin in the winter of 2008 to chronicle the experiences of his family as they sought to consume everything local, used, homegrown or homemade. That journey was a wonderful introduction to people and movements in the Spokane area who are seeking the welfare of the community through local foods, farmers markets, community gardens, sustainable transportation, and more fulfilling and just patterns of consumption. In 2009 and beyond the blog will continue to report on these relationships and practices, all through the eyes of a family with young children. Craig manages the Millwood Farmers' Market, is a Master Food Preserver and Pastor at Millwood Presbyterian Church. Craig can be reached at