John Muir and Discovery

For my birthday, my wife bought me John Muir’s Wilderness Essays. It has a number of gems in it, and I have found the first essay, “Discovery of Glacier Bay,” to be a fascinating description of the method and joy of discovery. Surely, there are analogies to be drawn between the way Muir explores and describes a newly found landscape and the way in which researchers in biblical studies and humanities push back the frontiers of knowledge.

Near the beginning of his exploration of the great glaciers, Muir needs a higher vantage point to obtain knowledge of the natural phenomena he is investigating:

I therefore set out on an excursion, and spent the day alone on the mountain slopes above the camp, and to the north of it, to see what I might learn….But at length the clouds lifted a little, and beneath their gray fringes I saw the berg-filled expanse of the bay, and the feet of the mountains that stand about it, and the imposing fronts of five of the huge glaciers, the nearest being immediately beneath me. This was my first general view of Glacier Bay, a solitude of ice and snow and new-born rocks, dim, dreary, mysterious (p. 9-10).

At this point, Muir grasps the whole landscape. He observes numerous features from a bird’s-eye view as it were. This, we might refer to as, “familiarity.” The rest of the essay is about his “analysis” of the parts that filled his initial vista. He describes the several glaciers he had seen from above and also found other ones as he explored the bay below.

One of his companions inquired why Muir would risk so much, and another calmly replied that he was only seeking knowledge. The first companion commented, “Muir must be a witch to seek knowledge in such a place as this, and in such miserable weather.” All researchers face various hardships, not all of them at the whims of the natural elements. But persistence under hardship often gives way to joyous discovery. In a section too lengthy to cite here, Muir describes the sunrise on a particular morning:

After had seen the unveiling of the majestic peaks and glaciers that evening, and their baptism in the down-pouring sunbeams, it was inconceivable that nature could have anything finer to show us. Nevertheless, compared with what was coming the next morning, all that was as nothing. As far as we could see, the lovely dawn gave no promise of anything uncommon….but in the midst of our studies we were startled by the sudden appearance of a red light burning with a strange, unearthly splendor on the topmost peak of the Fairweather Mountains. Instead of vanishing as suddenly as it had appeared, it spread and spread until the whole range down to the level of the glaciers was filled with the celestial fire….But here the mountains themselves were made divine, and declared his glory in terms still more impressive….We turned and sailed away, joining the outgoing bergs, while ‘Gloria in excelsis’ still seemed to be sounding over all the landscape, and our burning hearts were ready for any fate, feeling that whatever the future might have in store, the treasures we had gained would enrich our lives forever (pp. 17-19).

The whole account is worth reading. Muir’s persistence against the elements had given him a view of the subject which led to great joy and propelled him to continue the expedition no matter the cost.GlacierBay_NPS

Throughout his account of this discovery, Muir says he “was too happy to sleep” (p. 16) or he would only sleep a few hours and then regret he had slept at all (p. 23).

I love the National Parks and the results of Muir’s conservation efforts. I’m excited to read more of his Wilderness Essays to learn more about his experiences of exploration and discovery to see if there are more analogues to my own field of research, and furthermore to get lost in his beautiful prose.

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