Wednesday, May 02, 2007

A walk of a thousand miles begins with...

I mentioned yesterday John Muir's "thousand mile walk" across the Southeastern United States, as a young man in his twenties. It was not just a trek of physical discovery; it was also a journey away from the strict and humorless Presbyterianism of his father's household into a joyously agnostic pantheism.

What had begun to impress itself on Muir's consciousness was the extent to which humans make God in their own image. In his journal he wrote: "[God] is regarded as a civilized, law-abiding gentleman in favor of either a republican form of government or of a limited monarchy; believes in the literature and language of England; is a warm supporter of the English constitution and Sunday schools and missionary societies." Such a God is as purely a manufactured product "as any puppet of a half-penny theater," he wrote.

A corollary of the penny-puppet God was the idea that everything in creation was made for "Lord Man." Sheep were made for woolen clothing; whales for lamp oil; pine forests for timber for houses; iron for hammers and plows. As John Muir tramped his thousand miles he discovered a world whose glory did not require man for its definition: "Nature's object in making animals and plants might possibly be first of all the happiness of each one of them, not the creation of all for the happiness of one."

On encountering a palmetto for the first time he wrote: "They tell us that plants are perishable, soulless creatures, that only man is immortal, etc.; but this, I think, is something that we know very nearly nothing about. Anyhow, this palm was indescribably impressive and told me grander things than I ever got from human priest."

All of this may sound self-evident to many of us, but for Muir it was an awakening to a immanent Deity that was commensurate with a creation of which we "know very nearly nothing." It was also the beginning of an education that would make John Muir one of the founders of environmentalism in America.