John Muir, Nature’s Prophet and Champion

“More things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” 

In the writings of John Muir, America’s far-seeing prophet of environmental awareness, there is a marvelous tale of the mystical bond which links mentor and disciple across time and distance.  This story is so illustrative of this unmistakable but mysterious connection between two people that it challenges our reasonable assumptions about human relationships.

Muir left us the defining literature of intimacy with nature, writings of unique power and descriptive intensity. His writings draw upon a lifetime of exploration and adventure in the wilderness, and paint a genuine portrait of spiritual awakening amidst the grandeur of nature. He is famous in the United States as a crucial figure in the creation of America’s national parks, and as a founder of the Sierra Club, today one of the oldest and foremost environmental organizations known the world over.  This story is of two friends, a teacher and student, who meet unexpectedly in the wilderness. It portrays the unique and mysterious bond of mentor and disciple.

Muir was a scientist, a trained botanist who revealed new species of flora and fauna to the world, and also proved the theory of glacier movement in the geologic origins of the great granite mountains of California’s Sierra Nevada. His theories were first dismissed as the fantasies of an ignorant wanderer, but were later proven accurate. His thinking and writing about nature was far from sentimental or “mystical”.

John Muir, born in Scotland, spent his childhood working under the strict demands of his Calvinist father. The deprived child was left no time for exploration and writing. He obtained admission with great difficulty into the University of Wisconsin, where he experienced the liberating freedom of learning. There, he became the student of Professor James Butler.

Professor Butler took a keen interest in young Muir, and watched over and guided him during his years at the University. It is well known that Muir felt great appreciation for the care and concern of his teacher, and his writings reflect the gratitude he felt for this mentor. When Muir was leaving the university, Professor Butler said, “Now, John, I want to hold you in sight and watch your career. Promise to write me at least once a year.” Subsequently, Muir spent many years wandering until he finally came to California and began to document his botanical findings and environmental ideas. He corresponded with Professor Butler all during that time of exploration.

The story of Muir’s strange experience of meeting Professor Butler in the wilderness is recorded in a diary he kept during, “My First Summer in the Sierra“. At this time in his life, Muir spent his summers exploring and writing in California’s Sierra Mountains. He wrote this entry from what is now Yosemite National Park; one of the most grand, beautiful, and remote spots on earth. He begins:

“August 2. (1869) Clouds and showers, about the same as yesterday. Sketching all day on the North Dome until four or five o’clock in the afternoon, when, as I was busily employed thinking only of the glorious Yosemite landscape…I was suddenly and without warning, possessed with the notion that my friend, Professor J.D. Butler, of the State University of Wisconsin, was below me in the valley, and I jumped up full of the idea of meeting him, with almost as much startling excitement as if he had suddenly touched me to make me look up. Leaving my work without the slightest deliberation, I ran down the western slope of the Dome and along the brink of the valley wall, looking for a way to the bottom…immediately began to make the descent, late as it was, as if drawn irresistibly. But after a little, common sense stopped me and explained that it would be long after dark ere I could possibly reach the hotel (on the valley floor)…I therefore compelled myself to stop, and finally succeeded in reasoning myself out of the notion of seeking my friend in the dark, whose presence I only felt in a strange, telepathic way. I succeeded in dragging myself back…never for a moment wavering, however, in my determination to go down to him next morning. This I think is the most unexplainable notion that ever struck me. Had someone whispered in my ear while I sat on the Dome, where I had spent so many days, that Professor Butler was in the valley, I could not have been more surprised and startled.”

North Dome looking up from Yosemite Valley

Muir had received a letter from Professor Butler in July, written in May, in which his former mentor had said that he might possibly visit California some time that summer:

“But inasmuch as he named no meeting-place, and gave no directions as to the course he would probably follow, and as I should be in the wilderness all summer, I had not the slightest hope of seeing him, and all thought of the matter had vanished from my mind until this afternoon, when he seemed to be wafted bodily almost against my face. Well to-morrow I shall see; for, reasonable or unreasonable, I feel I must go.”

English: Taken from a trail in Yosemite Nation...

Following what can only be called a telepathic premonition; Muir woke before sunrise and raced down to the Yosemite Valley floor:

“August 3. Had a wonderful day. Found Professor Butler as the compass-needle finds the pole. So last evening’s telepathy, transcendental revelation, or whatever else it may be called was true; for strange to say, he had just entered the valley…and was coming up the valley …when his presence struck me. Had he then looked toward the North Dome with a good glass…he might have seen me jump up from my work and run toward him. This seems the one well-defined marvel of my life of the kind called supernatural for, absorbed in glad Nature, spirit-rappings, second sight, ghost stories, etc., have never interested me since boyhood, seeming comparatively useless and infinitely less wonderful than Nature’s open, harmonious, songful, sunny, everyday beauty.”

Muir had “discovered the Professor’s familiar handwriting” on the Yosemite hotel register. He began an excited search, and upon inquiring with a member of Professor Butler’s party, Muir learned that his friend had begun a climb beyond the Vernal Falls to a point called “Liberty Cap”. He continues:

Vernal Falls, where Muir and Butler met

“So heart-hungry … to see a friend in the flesh …I had gone but a short distance above the brow of the Vernal Fall when I caught sight of him in the brush and rocks… and taking me for one of the valley guides, he inquired the way to the fall ladders…I pointed out the path…but he did not yet recognize me. Then I stood directly in front of him, looked him in the face, and held out my hand. He thought I was offering to assist him in rising. “Never mind,” he said. Then I said, “Professor Butler, don’t you know me?” I think not,” he replied; but catching my eye, sudden recognition followed, and astonishment that I should have found him just when he was lost in the brush and did not know that I was within hundreds of miles of him. “John Muir, John Muir, where have you come from?” Then I told him the story of my feeling his presence when he entered the valley last evening, when he was four or five miles distant, as I sat sketching on the North Dome. This, of course, only made him wonder the more.”

So there we have it, an unexplainable meeting of two friends, a mentor and his student, separated by more than twenty years and thousands of miles beside a thundering waterfall in a wild and remote mountain valley, “as the compass-needle finds the pole”. Such events are rare, to be sure, but this one carries an air of inevitability, of cosmic grace.

English: Yosemite Valley Tunnel View 2010
Yosemite Valley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Late into that evening, the two friends reminisced and shared stories of their time together at the University of Wisconsin. Butler gave his former student a book, and Muir gave him a pencil sketch. When his friend had left the next day, Muir returned to the “spacious magnificence and luxury of the starry sky”:

“Now I’m back at the camp-fire, and cannot help thinking about my recognition of my friend’s presence in the valley while he was four or five miles away, and while I had no means of knowing that he was not thousands of miles away. It seems supernatural, but only because it is not understood. Anyhow, it seems silly to make so much of it, while the natural and common is more truly marvelous and mysterious than the so-called supernatural. Indeed most of the miracles we hear of are infinitely less wonderful than the commonest of natural phenomena, when fairly seen. Perhaps the invisible rays that struck me while I sat at work on the Dome are something like those which attract and repel people at first sight, concerning which so much nonsense has been written. The worst apparent effect of these mysterious odd things is blindness to all that is divinely common.”

Their strange and dramatic meeting of that day must have perplexed the two scholars. Ironically, considering John Muir’s contributions to science and environmentalism, one might expect that the two friends talked about scientific findings and geologic theories. But Professor James Butler was a Professor of Classics at the University of Wisconsin. So Muir had studied Greek and Latin from him (good for a botanist and philosopher), but not science.

The unity of nature, and of man’s place in an unfolding environment, is John Muir’s theme.  For this he was revolutionary, though not by any means original for many writers preceded him in this concept.   Muir’s writings powerfully contradicted the then-prevailing assumption of nature as “other”, threatening and exploitable.  He envisioned a sacred natural symbiosis, with humans as integral participants and protectors.

He could not extend his understanding, however, to embrace the idea of a unity of consciousness among mankind.  The fact of his experience with his mentor should have demonstrated this to him, at least in principal.  But his notion of cosmic unity was incomplete, because his science training and high-mindedness rejected the notion of non-distinction, non-duality among men.

It was Professor Butler, however, who illuminated the encounter with his former student, and inspired John Muir by quoting from William Shakespeare’s play, “Hamlet”:

“More things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,”

“As the sun, ere he has risen, sometimes paints his image in the firmament, e’en so the shadows of events precede the events, and in to-day already walks tomorrow.”

Copyright © 1997 James Dinwiddie.  All rights reserved.

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