I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.

~  John Muir


In her introduction to The Resurgence of the Real, Charlene Spretnak asserts, “that the actual presence and power of body, nature and place are now asserting themselves and poking large holes through the modern ideologies of denial.” (p.4) In this paper I will contend that body, nature and place asserted themselves through John Muir to protest the destruction of wilderness.

Surrendering to the allurement of the earth, John Muir emerged as an embodied individual to pursue his calling as a voice for the earth.  By rejecting societal restraints and following his desire to enter into a deep engagement with the earth, he became truly embedded in her beauty, at one with glaciers and rock, trees and waterfalls, eventually recreating himself as a true individual whose felt sense of the whole enabled him to become a passionate advocate for the wilderness, combating the prevalent attitudes of destruction that were destroying the Californian forests in the late 19th century.  Michael Colebrook, in his article entitled John Muir, believes “it can be argued that the modern environmental movement has its origins in the combination of European Romanticism and the American obsession with wilderness.  Thoreau set the scene but I believe that the chief honours have to go to a Scotsman, John Muir.”  (p. 2)

Through his surrender to the wildness of the earth and his unique relationship with the land, one of deep love and interbeing, Muir developed his ability to see the web of relationship interconnecting the whole of nature.  From the depths of the wilderness the creativity of Nature poured through him: he found his unique embodied expression as an advocate for the American wilderness.  Today, nearly a century after Muir’s death in 1914, our world is at the brink of an ecological catastrophe, and the insight of embodied embedded individuals is crucial to our survival.  We must continue what John Muir so passionately began.

Telling the Story

In telling the story of his relationship with the land, Muir struggled throughout his lifetime with the discrepancies between the religious fundamentalism of his early Protestant upbringing and its distant God and his repeated personal experience of the divine within nature.   In an article entitled John Muir, Michael Colebrook notes,

“It is clear that John Muir experienced God as immanent, as intimately present within the whole of creation . . . but throughout his writing he speaks of God as a transcendent being, separate from but acting within creation.  In a letter to a friend he wrote, God does not appear, and flow out, only from narrow chinks and rounded bored wells here and there in favoured races and places, but He flows in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless over creeds and forms and all kinds of civilization and peoples and beasts, saturating all and fountanising all.” (p.4)

When he wrote about God, he reverted to the transcendent God, yet when he spoke of nature or wrote of his experiences he seems clearly embedded, aligned with the immanence of creation.  Donald Worster, in The Wealth of Nature, exclaims of Muir “that the most distinctive, astonishing thing about him was that he never could see any valid moral distinction to be made between a human and a worm.” (p.198)   Worster argues that Muir had an evangelical temperament much like his father’s, inventing “a new kind of frontier religion: one based on going to the wilderness to experience the loving presence of God.”  (p. 195)


The path of embodiment begins with following the inner voice, and requires a descent into the unknown territory of matter and earth, as we enter into relationship with the everchanging mystery of Nature, allowing ourselves to be pulled by what we truly love.  Muir wandered through the southern United States, following a thread of desire, eventually finding himself in the great Sierras, abandoning himself to the majesty of those mountains.  And while he experienced profound at-one-ness, at times dissolving into the landscape, Muir experienced true rebirth as well, becoming strengthened through surrendering himself to the primal rhythms of the wilderness, as the power of the land began to course through his veins.  In The Mountains of California he writes of his experience on Mt. Ritter, when he finds himself unable to move in any direction on his ascent,

But this terrible eclipse lasted only a moment, when life blazed forth again with preternatural clearness.  I seemed suddenly to become possessed of a new sense.  The other self, bygone experiences, Instinct, or Guardian Angel – call it what you will – came forward and assumed control.  Then my trembling muscles became firm again, every rift and flaw in the rock was seen as through a microscope, and my limbs moved with a positiveness and precision with which I seemed to have nothing at all to do.  Had I been borne aloft upon wings, my deliverance could not have been more complete. (p.52)

In this episode, Muir is both fully embedded and at the same time embodied, experiencing the power and strength of Nature effortlessly moving him.  This ability to be nourished and supported by the vastness of the mystery of life is what creates the embodied individual, one who is able to draw sustenance directly from the archetypal energies within which he is embedded.  In another passage, again in The Mountains of California, Muir reveals his primal engagement, this time with the archetype of love, “But the darkest scriptures of the mountains are illuminated with bright passages of love that never fail to make themselves felt when one is alone.”  (p.48)   His embeddedness enabled him to feel the web of love interweaving each being in the same way that our own cells, muscles, organs and glands are suspended within a web of connective tissue.

The embodied individual feels his total uniqueness as a creative and empowered being, and yet knows himself as an equal among equals.  Muir was as reverent of a cassiope as a glacier; his embeddedness allowed him to feel the inner nature – the invisible flow of life – in each plant, each rock formation.  In The Mountains of California, he writes, “I met cassiope, growing in fringes among the battered rocks . . . . Where she dwells, the redemption of the coldest solitude is complete.  The very rocks and glaciers seem to feel her presence, and become imbued with her fountain sweetness.” (p.49)  Here he is aware of the interconnection of equals, each feeling the other’s presence.  In the same way, his own entrance into that field of presence imbued him with a depth of feeling that shaped his embodied expression – he was impelled to speak out for the preservation of the grandeur and beauty of the wilderness.  Through his embeddedness he had felt her depths, experienced her radiance, and it fell to him to tell her story, for he was filled by her presence.  In the mountains he had experienced timelessness and what he called ‘a kind of terrestrial immortality’ and it was his unique creative gift to awaken others to this possibility; his writing was a fountain of creativity pouring through him.

The embodied individual as a teller of story reveals the intricate web of relatedness in the heart of the world.  Like a shaman, he sees what is necessary for our wellbeing and acts from that necessity, directing our attention to the needs of the whole.  Muir’s unique gift was to illuminate the plight of the wilderness and ignite the imagination of his readers, calling them to action.

It seems important to mention that in The Pathless Way, Cohen writes that in revisions of an essay on the Tuolomne Canyon, Muir “attempted to deemphasize the ‘capacity that our flesh has for knowledge,” (p. 45) although he had clearly come to trust his intuitive body while in nature as it scrambled over rocks in complete attunement with the land, a wild and embedded creature.  The disappearance of boundaries which Muir experienced in nature was hard to reconcile with his beliefs in scientific observation, yet his immersion in nature allowed him to experience the very subtle, such as the sound of the stars or the music of the insects.


At this point in the writing of this article, I felt my body pulling me to hike, and I also knew it would be a way to commune with Muir’s soul.   I entered the nearby woods, choosing the single-track path I often hike, one least likely to be crowded with hikers as it heads deep into the woods instead of around the popular lake.  I prayed to the earth for insight into John Muir, seeking to merge with her deep wisdom.  Not five minutes later I looked up to see two men on mountain bikes, an illegal act on a single-track trail in this Marin Water District.  Immediately I felt the turmoil and anger in my heart that Muir must have felt when he saw his beloved Sierras violated, and I told the men it did not feel good to see them there.

As I walked on, my heart kept churning, my mind rehearsing my well-worn outrage at the bikers’ refusal to stick to the fire roads where they are allowed – the speed with which they tear through the woods ruins the peaceful refuge of the forest and their bike wheels create erosion.  As I continued to walk, I began to notice how the water was trickling again in the creek bed as a result of our early autumn rains, reviving the dry rock bed.  As I continued to walk to the rhythm of the trickling stream, my mind began to leap with joy as I thought of how the rains would soon return for months, and this trail would be impassable and the land   renewed by the waters through the winter.  And the bikers will not be able to penetrate her deep woods.

I thought of the rhythms of creation and destruction – the archetype of Kali inhabiting my soul.   Suddenly I was in the eternal flow of being, seeing how the cycles of nature are always reminding us of this flow.  Muir experienced nature as process, and creation as occurring in the present.  Describing Muir’s vision of the peaks around Mt. Ritter, Cohen writes,

From this central mountain, axis mundi, the real was unveiled. As Muir’s eye roved around the vast expanse, he recognized that he saw not four static views, but a harmonious sequence.  The territory was not a map, but a manifestation of flow: ‘Standing here in the deep, brooding silence all the wilderness seems motion less, as if the work of creation were done.  But in the midst of this outer steadfastness we know there is incessant motion and change . . . . Here are the roots of all the life of the valleys, and here more simply than elsewhere is the eternal flux of nature manifested, ‘   (p.74)

Muir’s willingness to fully inhabit the mountains, to journey into the glacial womb, enabled him to see the living creative force in motion – he had learned that embedding oneself in a stream or waterfall would bring one to the origins of the landscape.  Cohen writes  “Muir knew that his own way required tracing the flow to its origins, but it was perhaps enough if most people simply immersed themselves in the flow at all. “ (p.63)  This is my own experience as well: wisdom flows through me as I traverse the trails or immerse myself in water.  I become the everchanging  flow, my body changes and opens, my feet shape themselves to the trail, and joy floods through me.   Information and insight come to me as well, as they did to John Muir; I begin to see as he did, and tune into the joy that he experienced


Through his very personal search in the depths of the wilderness, Muir found his uniquely imaginative voice as a spokesman for the Western wilderness.   I believe that the actual presence and power of body, nature and place are increasingly asserting themselves in each one of us who is willing to be a voice of the real.  Only by embedding ourselves in the place that we live and move, immersing ourselves in that place, can we experience our embodiment and know ourselves fully, know what it means to be embedded in this holy moving Universe.  We have within us the power to invoke the highest archetypal valences and experience true power, strength and love, and to allow ourselves to be uniquely shaped as a true individual.  This is the place we must stand to tell the stories that will matter.  This is the gift of John Muir to us.


Cohen, Michael P. The Pathless Way. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press,  1984

Colebrook, Michael  “John Muir” on website: Prophetic Voices, edited by Erna Colebrook

John Muir, 1913, in L.M. Wolfe, ed., John Muir, John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, 1938

John Muir  The Mountains of California.  New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1961

Spretnak, Charlene  The Resurgence of the Real.  New York: Routledge, 1999

Worster, Donald  The Wealth of Nature.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1993