Trees According to John Muir

by Jennifer Van Gundy '05

I wish I could see the way John Muir sees. I wish I could climb into his eyes that see the world with such clarity and such joy. For our “Leadership Skills Through Wilderness Experience” class at the High Sierra Semester, we are reading Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra. Every time I open that book I am astounded anew by this man’s perception of nature. Muir appreciates a simple tree more than I could hope to if I stared at it all day.

The group’s verdict on John Muir is about split. Half of the group finds his exceedingly detailed descriptions bordering somewhere between deadly-dull and ridiculous, while the rest of us cannot help but be enraptured by his passion (it seems, however, that he won a lot of converts on the five-day leadership trek into the wilderness). I admit, it is sort of fun to laugh at his exuberant penchant for describing every leaf, daisy, and acorn he passes. And yes, it can be exasperating when he goes on and on about the diameters of various tree species that I have never heard of.

In the end, I think this serves more to prove my own ignorance than his obsessive tendencies. And one cannot help but admire his contagious passion and downright spunkiness. There is something irresistibly alive about a man who gets his jollies from walking through chest high fields of wildflowers and climbing out on impossibly steep ledges to literally stand in waterfalls.

At the High Sierra Semester, we are supposed to let the books and the authors do the teaching. Let me tell you, I have been reprimanded all week by John Muir for my careless lack of appreciation of the beauty that surrounds me. It is almost as though he were younger than I. This statement is both ludicrous and impossible because he died 58 years before I was even born, but I sincerely believe it to be true. He is younger at heart than I.

Have you ever met a person who is so fully alive, so passionate that they make you feel dead in comparison? This is John Muir to me. In his entire wilderness wanderings, Muir developed a sense of childlike wonder reflective of a God that delights in beauty. My capacity for this seems dull by comparison. Being at the High Sierra Semester I have realized that I struggle to appreciate the beauty of creation in all its fullness. I am like Muir’s “Yosemite Tourists,” painfully described as “so little influenced by… grandeur, as if their eyes were bandaged and their ears stopped.” I just don’t see the way Muir sees. I cannot seem to wrap my mind around the power of a granite slab or the velvety loveliness of a butterfly long enough to really comprehend what it will whisper to me about its Creator if only I will listen. I walk about deaf to the song of creation that swirls around my every waking moment.

Perhaps being away from all the chaos of urban life is what allowed Muir to see the way he does. As for me, I know one of the chief reasons I am even at Bass Lake for the semester is for the chance to escape the chaos, to experience silence.

After reading My First Summer in the Sierra one of my roommates and I invented the John Muir Game. We point to some random tree and ask each other how Muir would describe that tree. Usually, there is a resounding silence for about five seconds and then we start laughing hysterically. There is just no response from the creativity department on the second floor because we are incapable of seeing things the way he does.

I am definitely not the most apt pupil, but slowly I am beginning to really see things. But the more I do, the more I realize that there is no way to even begin to tell of the awesomeness of something as common as a tree. Maybe this is what Muir discovered in Yosemite that drove him with such a fierce passion: nature is so glorious that we cannot even begin to absorb it, or ever hope to wrap our puny little minds around it, so we just stand in awe of a God full of beauty and grace. I am determined to see beauty like John Muir, to see God like John Muir, joyfully present in absolutely everything. I am beginning to think it is a soaking process. My hope is that after three and a half months of soaking I will be so saturated with silence and beauty that I will be able whip John Muir at describing trees, hands down.