Even Sparrows... Bird watchers


Posted: 03.04.20 in Articles category

April is the month of John Muir's anniversary - born 181 years ago on 21 April 1818. My particular interest is in his devotional meditations as someone who saw God's handiwork all around us in nature. John Muir argued passionately that every natural thing has intrinsic value and significance as God-created. His biographer Donald Worster brings that out in a marvellous book 'A Passion for Nature' which celebrates both Muir's life and legacy. It was first published in 2008 by Oxford University Press and I recommend it strongly. It's packed with detail and insight, and I find it hard to single out any particular quotes from a book which deserves reading in its entirety. Nevertheless, I have chosen 2 short paragraphs for inclusion here, the first about Muir's faith while the second is more about our response today to his vision.

Ultimately, beauty... was the basis of Muir's faith. The natural world was so utterly, inexpressibly beautiful that it must be the result of an underlying principle of divine goodness - call it God or call it something else. His thesaurus offered many synonyms. Beauty, however, was the most common word he substituted for God. On an excursion down the Tuolumne Canyon he scribbled, "Beauty is God, what shall we say of God that we may not say of Beauty." Despite a thorough absorption of Darwinian science, he continued to feel a surge of piety whenever he rambled in the wild outdoors, whether far above the timberline, or in low forests, or in the desert. All was beauty. All was God.

Whether Muir's deep faith in nature is still possible in our own time is a question that his admirers must continue to ask themselves and to find answers of their own. Can contact with nature inspire people to a higher ethic, a greater decency? Or is the human species by and large incapable of reverence, restraint, generosity, or vision? Have we truly learned to respect a nature that we did not create, a world independent of us, or do we see only the hand of humankind wherever we look? Muir was a man who tried to find the essential goodness of the world, an optimist about people and nature, an eloquent prophet of a new world that looked to nature for its standard and inspiration. Looking back at the trail he blazed, we must wonder how far we have yet to go.

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