An Injury, a Camping Trip and a Better United States
“The eye is lost,” John Muir wrote to his mother as he lay in bed in Indianapolis, Indiana. “I have written at random and in the dark but hope you will be able to read my meaning.”
Three days earlier, the 28-year-old had been working in a carriage wheel factory. As he was using a metal file to tighten stitches on a spinning machine belt, the belt caught the tool, tore it out of Muir’s hand and flung it into his right eye.
His cornea was punctured and aqueous fluid began seeping out. “My right eye is gone, closed forever on all God’s beauty!” a co-worker heard him shout.
Muir managed to walk home and put himself to bed. But within a few hours, his left eye also began failing. Soon he was entirely blind.
This man’s response to his injury not only changed the course of his life, but also began a process that would change the course of the United States—in a way that has enriched life for millions of people.
(Listen to the episode of The Sun Also Rises about this inspiring story)
‘The Inventions of God’
Muir believed he was permanently blind. It rattled him to his core. But an expert eventually examined him and said his left eye had only gone into a temporary sympathetic blindness and would fully recover. Muir was told that if he stayed confined to a darkened room for several weeks, that his right eye could also partially recover.
To John Muir, this was a new lease on life.
His employer offered him a promotion. Muir was a gifted inventor and a highly skilled mechanic, so his manager wanted to keep him on. But Muir refused the advancement and resigned. Due to his injury, he “saw the world—and his purpose—in a new light,” he said.
Before his injury, the Scottish-born Muir had loved studying God’s creation, especially trees and plants. But after those dark days when he thought he would never see it again, Muir realized that seeing the creation, gaining insight into the Creator’s mind, was even more precious than he had thought.
He later wrote, “I bade adieu to all my mechanical inventions, determined to devote the rest of my life to the study of the inventions of God.”
“This affliction has driven me to the sweet fields,” Muir said. “God has to nearly kill us sometimes to teach us lessons.”
Within a few months, Muir’s left eye was fully restored, and his right eye had recovered considerably. On Sept. 1, 1867, he made good on his pledge to devote himself to “the inventions of God” and began walking—from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico.
“My plan was simply to push on in a general southward direction by the wildest, leafiest and least trodden way I could find, promising the greatest extent of virgin forest,” Muir wrote.
He kept a journal during this trip, later published under the title A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf. In his entry for September 10, he recounts his stay in the mountains of Tennessee with a blacksmith and his wife. During dinner, the blacksmith told Muir that he found it inappropriate for a man to spend his days studying plants. “[S]urely you are able to do something better than wander over the country and look at weeds and blossoms,” he said.
Muir asked the blacksmith if he believed in the Bible. The man said he did, and Muir responded with a reference to 1 Kings 4:32-34:
Well, you know Solomon was a strong-minded man and is generally believed to have been the very wisest man the world ever saw, and yet he considered it was worthwhile 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,” Muir said. “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.’
Rather than taking offense at Muir’s biblical reasoning, the blacksmith admitted that he was right: The Bible tells believers in God to learn about Him by observing His creation.
A Deep Reverence
Two days later, Muir came to the first mountain stream he had ever seen. It left a deep impression on him.
“There is nothing more eloquent in nature than a mountain stream,” he wrote. “Every tree, every flower, every ripple and eddy of this lovely stream seemed solemnly to feel the presence of the great Creator. Lingered in this sanctuary a long time thanking the Lord with all my heart for His goodness in allowing me to enter and enjoy it.”
Later, Muir summited a mountain in Tennessee from which he saw a great distance into North Carolina and Georgia. “Oh, these forest gardens of our Father!” he wrote. “What perfection, what divinity, in their architecture! What simplicity and mysterious complexity of detail! Who shall read the teaching of these sylvan pages, the glad brotherhood of rills that sing in the valleys, and all the happy creatures that dwell in them under the tender keeping of a Father’s care?”
Traveling about 25 miles a day on foot, Muir traversed Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida. He most often slept under the trees and stars. He often went hungry for several days. He survived several encounters with what he called “guerrilla bands who, long accustomed to plunder [during the Civil War that had ended just two years prior], deplored the coming of peace.” Yet throughout the hardships, his wonderment, his gratitude and his reverence at God’s creation continued and increased with every summit and every bend.
Muir completed his walk from the prairies of Indiana to a white sandy beach on the Gulf of Mexico. But this was only the first of his epic journeys experiencing, studying and venerating “the inventions of God.”
He later walked from San Francisco to what is now Yosemite National Park. He solo climbed Mt. Whitney and Mt. Shasta. His numerous travels in Alaska led him to discover Glacier Bay and Muir Glacier. He took dozens of trips exploring the wild lands of the United States.
But Muir was not content to just experience America’s wildernesses for himself.
Preserved for the Public
In the mid-1800s, American life was changing rapidly as the country industrialized. To many Americans, the country’s vast wildernesses were difficult, dangerous regions. Timber, ore and other resources could be harvested from them, but Americans would eventually conquer these alien places out of existence, replacing them with farmland, towns and cities.
Factories and metropolises rapidly rose, forests rapidly fell, and wetlands were devastated.
As the new century approached, the country had only a handful of partially protected wildernesses. No centralized method was in place for establishing, protecting and managing wilderness areas in perpetuity.
The situation might have remained that way—were it not for John Muir.
In the 1870s, he began writing newspaper and magazine articles promoting wilderness conservation. In 1892, he established the Sierra Club. By the mid-1890s, he had helped convince President Grover Cleveland to reserve 21 million acres as public wilderness.
It was a great victory for Muir. But the administration of William McKinley, who succeeded Cleveland, withheld the plan from the public. Under pressure by timber and mining barons, Congress and McKinley introduced a bill lifting protective restraints from reserves and encouraging them to be commercially developed.
Muir wrote two articles, one for the Atlantic Monthly and the other for Harper’s Weekly, alerting readers to the dangers of turning America into an industrial park. Public opposition to McKinley’s bill grew. And after being passed in the Senate, the bill, largely because of Muir’s articles, died in the House.
Camping Trip That Changed History
When Theodore Roosevelt became president, he brought into the White House a keen interest in Muir’s message. Roosevelt wrote Muir a personal letter asking him to take him through Yosemite. On May 15, 1903, the two met near the Mariposa Grove.
After Roosevelt’s men laid down 40 thick woolen blankets for him to sleep on, he sent them back to town. He wanted to enjoy his time in the wilderness with just Muir.
The two spent the next three days camping and riding mules to the stunning sites of Yosemite: Grizzly Giant, Sentinel Dome and Bridalveil Meadow. In their conversations, Muir made a convincing plea for some of America’s wilderness areas to be set aside and preserved for the American public to enjoy.
This trip had a profound impact on Roosevelt’s outlook and his political trajectory. Soon after it, he established Yosemite as a national park to preserve its “majestic beauty all unmarred.” Americans should ensure that it be “preserved for their children and their children’s children forever,” he said.
Roosevelt went on to sign five more national parks into existence, as well as 150 national forests, 55 national bird sanctuaries and 18 national monuments. He also signed the Antiquities Act into law, a forerunner to the park service. It authorized the preservation of “scientifically, culturally and historically valuable sites.”
In so doing, Roosevelt told the people: “We are not building this country for a day. It is to last through the ages.”
Altogether, Roosevelt set aside some 230 million acres of public land—including the Grand Canyon, Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon and Mount Rainier—for all Americans and visitors to the U.S. to enjoy whenever they choose.
Subsequent presidents have added to these designations, bringing the total protected area to almost 320 million acres (or 500,000 square miles), 14 percent of America’s total land area. This is thanks in large part to the influence and lifework of John Muir.
“To instill the value of wilderness in a public only barely separated from the idea of wilderness as a foe and an impediment to progress required something or someone truly extraordinary,” wrote historian Shane Mahoney. “[A]nd Muir was that someone.”
The influence of America’s conservation movement also spilled across its borders, inspiring scores of countries around the world to protect, or better protect, parts of their territory. Today, there are some 6,000 national parks in more than 100 nations.
Appreciating the Creator
In his magnum opus Mystery of the Ages, Herbert W. Armstrong lamented the way mankind often fails to build a balanced relationship with God’s physical creation.
[W]hat has man done on the Earth where God placed him? Man has made ugly, polluted, defiled, profaned everything his hands have touched. He has polluted the air, befouled the water in the rivers, lakes and seas. He has deteriorated the land, denuded the forests, thus altering rainfall and causing the expansion of deserts.
Mankind’s normal behaviors defile, profane and pollute the creation—with little regard for future generations. But thanks in large part to the work of John Muir, swaths of it have been safeguarded from those behaviors.
This safeguarding is valuable mainly because the physical creation is the product of a perfect spirit mind, and the Bible shows that one major way we can better understand that perfect mind is by studying His physical creation: “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead …” (Romans 1:20).
The physical creation proclaims God’s eternal power! It lets us see His brilliance, excellence, love and glory.
When we enter into it in the right attitude, we gain insight into the mind of the Creator. We learn that—from the microscopic to macrocosmic—He weaves excellence and splendor through every layer of His handiwork. We learn that He is the author of indescribable beauty. He is supremely intelligent, organized and perfectionistic. We learn that His power has no bounds.
We can also learn, by comparing our own abilities to those of God, a valuable sense of proportion.
This latter lesson is addressed in Job 38, in which God gives an admonition to Job that is pertinent to all people: As you experience this physical world, you should perceive God’s power that brought it into being; understanding the vastness of that power, you should become more humble and more reverential toward the Creator.
Muir often mentioned the reverence and gratitude that King Solomon had for God’s creation, who likely learned it from his father, King David. “Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving, and make a joyful noise unto him with psalms,” David wrote in Psalm 95. “For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods. In his hand are the deep places of the earth: the strength of the hills is his also. The sea is his, and he made it: and his hands formed the dry land” (verses 2-5).
David was deeply humbled to experience the physical world made by God’s hand. And when we experience the creation—as we do with intensity when visiting national parks—we can likewise be humbled and filled with gratitude and reverence. Muir said, “God has to nearly kill us sometimes, to teach us lessons.” But if a Psalm 95 kind of humility permeates us, we can often learn important lessons by more gentle methods.
Of course, we don’t have to be perched atop a glacier in a pristine national park to appreciate God’s mind and power. A single blade of grass whispers the same story that Utah’s Arches shout. But if nature’s most awe-inspiring sites were indiscriminately plundered to maximize short-term profits, it would obscure an invaluable window that the Creator has given us into His spectacular mind.
To understand the perfect Being who created the manifold splendors of the natural world, the entire vast universe, and who created you with the potential to be born into His Family, please order a free copy of Mystery of the Ages.
Sidebar: 10 Science-backed Reasons to Spend More Time Outside
In the modern world, many of us spend our days at work bathed in fluorescent lighting and staring at computer monitors. Then we go home to gawk at television screens and laptops. But Florence Williams shows in her 2017 book, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative, that our connection to nature is far more important to our cognition and other aspects of health than we generally think. “[T]ime in nature is not a luxury,” she writes, “but is in fact essential to our humanity.”
“Walk into a forest, and within five minutes, your body and brain start to change,” a video promo for her book declares. “Your heart rate slows. Your facial muscles start to relax. Your hardworking frontal lobes begin to quiet down.”
“Awe, which many people experience in nature, is, according to one study, associated with increased generosity toward other people,” a New York Times book review stated. Here are 10 other science-backed reasons her book examines for spending more time outside:
- Boosts short-term memory
- Lowers stress levels
- Decreases blood pressure
- Enhances focus
- Improves performance on creative problem-solving
- Reduces inflammation
- Diminishes fatigue
- Reduces anxiety and depression
- Improves immune function
- Decreases risk of children developing nearsightedness