The camping trip that changed America

Photo by Martin Jernberg on Unsplash

Photo by Martin Jernberg on Unsplash

Words carry.

When words ring true they can travel far. 

There was once a man who loved the mountains, and the words he chose to articulate this won him the friendship of a President and the gratitude of a nation. 

In 1849, 11-year-old John Muir moved from Scotland to the US with his mother, six siblings and a fierce, firebrand father. As a young boy he had explored the coast and countryside of East Lothian, and he loved the wildness of his new American home. He walked its wildernesses with a book of Robert Burns’s poems in his pocket.  

He enrolled at university, where he studied aspects of chemistry, geology and botany but never graduated. His career was fitful, taking him from sawmill to factory to shepherd’s hut.

Leaving a promising position as a supervisor, he took a thousand mile walk from Kentucky to Florida. He later sailed to California, where he walked from San Francisco to the Sierra Nevada. On his first visit to Yosemite, he wrote of being ‘overwhelmed by the landscape, scrambling down steep cliff faces to get a closer look at the waterfalls, whooping and howling at the vistas’.

Drawing on his eclectic studies, he developed the then outlandish-sounding theory that the valley had been carved by glaciers. His approach was scientific and his connection profoundly spiritual: he believed that the nature he loved was lit by the glory of God. 

Although he wrestled with the process, taking time to draft and re-draft, revise and whittle away at his words, he wrote prodigiously: poetry, letters, accounts of his discoveries, and articles for national magazines. Writing was a heavy task for him, one he felt could scarcely begin to capture the wonder of the world that intoxicated his senses. 

But it was a world under increasing threat from those who saw only profit in it, and so he wrote on. As the volume of his words grew, visitors came to see him – including his hero Ralph Waldo Emerson, who offered him a teaching position at Harvard. Muir decided to decline, declaring that he would never for a moment think of ‘giving up God’s big show for a mere profship.’

His words eventually reached the White House, and the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt. The President came to meet the poet in the mountains, and the two men went to camp in the back-country, sleeping under the stars and waking to a dusting of snow. Roosevelt never forgot it, recalling the experience as ‘like lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man.’

During the trip, Muir spoke of the state’s mismanagement of the valley and its consequent degradation, and urged Roosevelt to protect it with national park status. 

The President listened, and then oversaw the most significant expansion of national park land across the United States, protecting swathes of wilderness for posterity. What might have been ripped apart by saws and shredders and excavators was instead set aside for exploration and adventure and peace. 

Muir never became a professor or politician or professional administrator. But he wrote about what he loved – and it changed the world around him. 

Our voices matter. Our words can carry. 

Dig your words deep out of the fibre of your being. Write them, whisper them, speak them, shout them. You never know who might be listening.

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