A FEW YEARS before American naturalist John Muir heeded the call of the California mountains, the boggy swamps and towering palm trees of a much flatter territory beckoned him south to the Gulf Coast states. As for many young travelers before and since, a journey into exotic lands was a path toward vocational and spiritual enlightenment for Muir.
In Restless Fires: Young John Muir's Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf in 1867-68, Whitworth University emeritus professor James B. Hunt explores how that trip forever changed Muir's perspectives on humans' relationship to the natural environment. Digging deep into Muir's childhood, Hunt details how Muir's theological transformation shaped his environmental stewardship.
It's a wonder Muir maintained any divine belief system. Muir's Scottish father, a strict practitioner of Campbellite Christianity, nearly beat faith out of him, combining forced Bible memorization with harsh physical punishment. Hunt contends an unfortunate twist of fate may have opened the door to Muir's escape from suffocating under zealous religion and monotonous factory life. He lost an eye while working as a machinist, which caused temporary sympathetic blindness in his other eye. As soon as Muir was able to see again, he left the Midwest in a southward walk toward what he imagined was North America's Eden.
Hunt's appreciation for Muir is reflected in his writing style which, much like his subject's own journal entries, is academic but poetic, philosophical but purposeful: "The walk gave him the time and experience to define life in his own terms rather than to subscribe to the ones prescribed by society. In so doing, he helped the American public and his readership to see nature as he did, with new eyes," writes Hunt.
Muir's journey south came at a critical time in American history—the post-Civil War era. Hunt is careful to place Muir in the appropriate historical context, warning that Muir's writing about issues of race and class is quite naïve. The young traveler had avoided participation in the Civil War by going to work in Canada, and he largely steered clear of political discussions with Southerners for fear it would create problems for his botanical investigations. Muir did, however, acknowledge that he experienced hospitality and compassion from Southerners of all backgrounds.
His journey was also enriched by correspondence with friends and mentors, some of whom offered important moral support for a young man on an unconventional career path, not to mention a solitary walk. Muir's letters and journal entries attest to the thrill of discovering foreign plant and animal life as well as to loneliness, hunger, and sickness.
These delights and challenges held the makings of new worldviews. Brushes with large reptiles and tropical diseases forced Muir to contemplate notions of human dominion over the earth.
Muir also expresses great jubilation over finding flora and fauna he'd only known of in biblical passages. It turns out Northerners were made giddy by subtropical aesthetics long before the air conditioning that made Florida a manageable tourist destination. Among sketches Hunt includes from Muir's journals is a self-portrait of the young botanist posing below a palm tree. To him, those Palm Sunday branches waved in the breeze in an eternal state of worship.
It's also quite possible that another twist of fate—a near-death experience with a tropical disease—was a blessing for millions of Americans who visit this nation's national parks. Muir had originally planned to travel all through Central and South America, but he picked up malaria while in Florida. During a long recovery in Cuba, he decided the cooler, more arid mountains of California would be a little safer. The rest, including Muir's key role in the creation of our natural parks, is better known American history.
Hunt tells Muir's coming of age experience as only an avid traveler, hiker, and college professor could. Historical characters such as Muir inspired Hunt to lead many students on study trips to exotic lands in hopes of broadening their worldviews. His exploration of Muir's early years is a reminder that such journeys are more than just frivolous vacations. They can profoundly carve paths toward greater spiritual enlightenment and, hence, deep care for creation.
Julienne Gage is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C., and a former student of author James Hunt, who led the first of many investigative trips she's taken abroad.