“I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” –John Muir
In the spirit of honesty, my experience as a naturalist is limited. I have never been on a backpack trip. I don’t climb mountains. I’ve only been on a white water trip once. And yet I also now that the outdoors is for me sacred. As I wrote previously, the outdoors is part of what I call “church”. Mystical moments for me have included a chance encounter with a herd of deer in Lincoln National Forest, running alone on a beach on the Skellig Coast, watching the sun rise during a morning desert run, and other potent encounters with God through nature
Naturalist John Muir is known to many as the man (along with Theodore Roosevelt) responsible for the National Parks. He is also the founder of the Sierra Club. In many ways, any environmentalist movement has its roots in the work of John Muir. He encouraged people to visit the outdoors and thereby “get close to God.”
What is less known is the deeply spiritual flavor of Muir’s work and writings. He was raised within a strict Calvinist setting but in time rejected the notion that all of nature is there in service to humans and that nature was “fallen”. He wrote that “all of the individual ‘things’ or ‘beings’…are sparks of the Divine Soul variously clothed upon with flesh, leaves, or that harder tissue called rock” and that all of nature had the potential to “draw us up into God’s light”.
Muir also came to view death as an extension of the natural God-ordained cycle: “All the merry dwellers of the trees and streams…go home through death…all alike passed on and away under the law of death and love. Yet all (parts of nature) are our brothers and they enjoy life as we do, share heaven’s blessings with us, die and are buried in hallowed ground, come with us out of eternity and return into eternity.”
For Muir, animals were a vibrant part of creation and also manifested the Divine Spark. He even affirmed this Divine Spark to be present in an alligator he encountered! For those of us city folk, we may have been blessed with encounters with God through our pets, thereby suggesting that neglect and abandonment of our pets may indeed be sinful!
John Muir was a mystic. Even though he decried the adequacy of words, his poetic insights can be as spiritually enriching as an Scared Scripture. He was right. Going out into nature is indeed going in, thereby encountering the Kingdom Within. I need only pay attention for, as Muir wrote, “This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere.”
Recommended Reading: Muir was a prolific writer. I highly recommend the collection of his writings edited and introduced by Tim Flinders as part of the Modern Spiritual Masters Series.
Reflections: Where does nature fit into your spiritual world?