"LONGEST is the life that
contains the largest amount of time-effacing enjoyment — of work that is a
steady delight. Such a life may really comprise an eternity upon earth."
These words of John Muir I noted down after one of our last conversations.
To few men was it given to realize so completely the element of eternity --
of time-effacing enjoyment in work — as it was to John Muir. The secret of
it all was in his soul, the soul of a child, of a poet, and of a strong man,
all blended into one. Only such a one would have mounted the top of a pine
tree in a gale-swept forest in order to enjoy the better the passionate
music of the storm, and then tell how "we all travel the milky way together,
trees and men; but it never occurred to me until this storm-day," he wrote,
"that trees are travelers in the ordinary sense. They make many journeys,
not extensive ones it is true; but our own little journeys, away and back
again, are only little more than tree-wavings — many of them not so much."
But the play of his rich
imagination did not pause with the adventure in the tree-top. "When the
storm began to abate," he continues, "I dismounted and sauntered down
through the calming woods. The storm-tones died away, and turning toward the
east, I beheld the countless hosts of the forests hushed and tranquil,
towering above one another on the slopes of the hills like a devout
audience. The setting sun filled them with amber light, and seemed to say,
while they listened, `My peace I give unto you.'"
These quotations illustrate
the irresistible charm of simplicity, the directness of poetical feeling and
perception, that were a part of everything Mr. Muir wrote, said, and did.
When he struck out upon the long trail he was not only foremost among the
nature writers of America, but in many respects the most distinguished
figure among contemporary men of letters. It will take more than this
hasteful, fretful generation to take the measure of his greatness, and to
explore the sources of his power.
Before me lies a letter
written to Mr. Muir by a friend fifty years ago. He was then twenty-nine
years old and had just received a serious injury to one of his eyes. "Dear
John," the writer says, "I have often wondered what God was training you
for. He gave you the eye within the eye, to see in all natural objects the
realized ideas of His mind. He gave you pure tastes, and the steady
preference of whatsoever is most lovely and excellent. He has made you a
more individualized existence than is common, and by your very nature and
organization removed you from common temptations.... Do not be anxious about
your calling. God will surely place you where your work is."
Thus early did his friends
see in him those personal qualities and those powers of insight which gave a
rare distinction to his person and his presence. Evil thoughts fled at the
sound of his voice. An innate nobility of character, an unstudied reverence
for all that is sublime in nature or in life, unconsciously called forth the
best in his friends and acquaintances. In the spiritual as in the physical
realm flowers blossomed in his footsteps where he went. After all, it is to
such men as John Muir that we must look for the sustenance of those finer
feelings that keep men in touch with the spiritual meaning and beauty of the
universe, and make them capable of understanding those rare souls whose
insight has invested life with imperishable hope and charm.
Not many years ago the
directors of the Sierra Club arranged for a quiet little dinner in honor of
James Bryce, when he returned from his visit to Australia. To all intents
and purposes there were only two men at the dinner, Bryce and Muir, for the
rest were intent listeners — too intent, altogether, to take more than
mental notes. Both were enlarging upon the value of the civilizing
influences that arise from a deep and humane understanding of nature. Lord
Bryce ventured the remark that the establishment of national parks, and the
fostering of a love of nature and outdoor life among children, would do more
for the morals of the nation than libraries and law codes. Muir welcomed
this opinion, and added that children ought to be trained to take a
sympathetic interest in our wild birds and animals. "Under proper training,"
he said, "even the most savage boy will rise above the bloody flesh and
sport business, the wild foundational animal dying out day by day as divine,
uplifting, transfiguring charity grows in."
To all who knew John Muir
intimately his gentleness and humaneness toward all creatures that shared
the world with him was one of the finest attributes of his character. He was
ever looking forward to the time when our wild fellow creatures would be
granted their indisputable right to a place in the sun. The shy creatures of
forest and plain have lost in him an incomparable lover, biographer, and
John Muir's writings are sure
to live — by the law that men, when they lift their eyes from the
commonplace tasks of work-a-day life, unerringly, indefeasibly fix them on
the snowy crests of human thought and achievement. Thence it is that they
must derive their power to hope and to toil. As long as daisies shall
continue to star the fields of Scotland men will choose to see them through
the eyes of Burns. Forgotten generations have heard the nightingale sing its
love-song at twilight; but a finer music is in the song since Keats listened
to the notes from the thicket on the hill. Nor will the name of Wordsworth
ever be dissociated from the carol of the rising lark and the call of the
cuckoo across the quiet of rural England.
John Muir is of their number.
He had "the eye within the eye" — was a seer of rare distinction. Among the
great few who have won title to remembrance as prophets and interpreters of
nature he rises to a moral as well as poetical altitude that will command
the admiring attention of men so long as human records shall endure.
Thousands and thousands, hereafter, who go to the mountains, streams, and
canons of California will choose to see them through the eyes of John Muir,
and they will see more deeply because they see with his eyes.
But while in a high sense his
wisdom has become a part of us forever, his going has left an aching void in
the hearts of all lovers of the California mountains. Long accustomed to
meet him where wild rivers go singing down the canons, and skyey trails are
lost amid cloudy pines, they now must perforce apply to him the simple words
which sixteen years ago he wrote on his visit to the grave of his friend
Ralph Waldo Emerson: "He had gone to higher Sierras, and, as I fancied, was
again waving his hand in friendly recognition."
WILLIAM FREDERIC BADE
April 15, 1916