A Tropical Quest

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.

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