At play in the fields of the Lord: John Muir’s ecstatic naturalism

I was up in east Scotland on New Year’s Day, and found myself walking along a path called the John Muir Way. A few days later, a book I was reading mentioned a famous naturalist called John Muir, so I looked him up. It turns out John Muir was a father of modern conservationism, and the founder of many of California’s national parks. He is also a perfect specimen for my research into ecstatic experiences in nature.

Muir grew up in Dunbar, on the east coast of Scotland, under the baleful shadow of his father Daniel Muir, a hardline Presbyterian. John was forced to memorize the entire New Testament and much of the Old Testament too, and thrashed when he made a mistake. He was constantly warned of his sinfulness and the risk of damnation. If he rebelled, his father would shout ‘the Devil is in him!’ and thrash him again.

When he was eight, his father moved the family to Wisconsin, to join a Presbyterian sect called the Disciples of Christ. The family lived in a hut in a countryside teeming with life. John became more and more interested in the world around him, in poetry, philosophy, engineering, botany and geology, but Daniel Muir said the Bible was the only book he needed, and insisted the boy go straight to bed after his Bible studies at 8pm.

One of Muir’s inventions – an automatic desk that changes books every half-hour

Eventually, Daniel said that if John wanted to study anything other than the Bible, he’d have to wake up early to do it. So John woke himself up at 1am, went down to the basement of the hut, and spent joyous hours constructing ingenious machines out of wood and whatever metal he could find – miniature water mills, clocks, thermometers, milking machines. He then spent three years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, working in the fields in the summer to pay his way, and becoming famous among the staff and students for his inventions, including a machine to wake him up in which the morning sun burnt through a thread, releasing a spring that hoisted Muir out of bed.

He yearned to go off adventuring, and left university to take a job as a shepherd in the High Sierra near Yosemite Park in California in 1869. He took only a blanket, a compass, the Bible, and the poetry of Milton and Robert Burns. The three months he spent there, following the herd with a St Bernard plodding by his side, sleeping rough and fending off the occasional bear, were among the happiest in his life. They were something like a conversion experience for the 30-year-old – he felt redeemed from the iron cage of his father’s Presbyterianism, and to find himself back in a sinless, God-soaked Eden, where he and every other creature were at ‘endless Godful play’.

He wrote in his journal: ‘I used to envy the father of our race, dwelling as he did in contact with the new-made fields and plants of Eden; but I do so no more, because I have discovered that I also live in “creation’s dawn.” The morning stars still sing together, and the world, not yet half made, becomes more beautiful every day.’

The journal, which he published near the end of his life as My First Summer in the Sierra, is an ecstatic hymn to Nature:

From garden to garden, ridge to ridge, I drifted, enchanted, now on my knees gazing into the face of a daisy, now climbing again and again among the purple and azure flowers of the hemlocks, now down into the treasures of the snow, or gazing afar over domes and peaks, lakes and woods, and the billowy glaciated fields of the upper Tuolumne.

Tuolumne meadows

It’s a Nature-worship reminiscent of passages of Heraclitus or Marcus Aurelius, seeing Nature as a great animated web, resonating with consciousness, joy and love:

Warm, sunny day, thrilling plant and animals and rocks alike, making sap and blood flow fast, and making every particle of the crystal mountains throb and swirl and dance in glad accord like star dust.

The Sierra becomes his church, the stones give sermons, the mountain pines seem ‘definite symbols, divine hieroglyphics written with sunbeams’, and every creature seems to speak..not God’s purpose, but God’s joy.

The cricket is ‘a crisp, electric spark of joy enlivening the massy sublimity of the mountains like the laugh of a child’; the butterflies ‘numbered and known and loved only by the Lord, are waltzing together high over head, seemingly in pure play and hilarious enjoyment of their little sparks of life’; the calypso trees are ‘superior beings who loved me and beckoned me to come. I sat down beside them and wept for joy’; the rocks are ‘dear friends, and have warm blood gushing through their granite flesh; and I love them with a love intensified by a long and close companionship’.

Even the frogs seem to sing God’s song: ‘Some of the smaller species have wonderfully clear, sharp voices, and told us their good Bible names in musical tones…Isaac, Isaac; Yacob, Yacob; Israel, Israel, shouted in sharp, ringing, far-reaching tones.’

He sees a nature brimming with consciousness, and this consciousness manifests as play:  ‘Surely all God’s people, however serious or savage, great or small, like to play. Whales and elephants, dancing, humming gnats, and invisibly small mischievous microbes – all are warm with divine radium and must have lots of fun in them.’

So did this ecstatic conversion leave Muir a Christian? Just about, though perhaps more of a pantheist in the Emersonian tradition – sometimes he sees Nature as the outpouring of God’s love, at other times it is Nature itself he seems to worship, in markedly erotic terms – the mountains woo him, the flowers send an electric tingle through his flesh. At such times he seems more of an erotic devotee of Demeter or Astarte than Christ (who he rarely mentions).

He certainly didn’t accept the fundamentalist theory that the Earth was 6,000 years old – he had a much deeper sense of time, and of God’s will shaping the landscape over the aeons (he was the first, I think, to suggest the movement of glaciers had created the mountains and valleys of Yosemite). He had a much slower and more contemplative sense of God’s plan for creation than your typical busy Protestant, ironically given his early genius for inventing clocks. He wrote one morning: ‘Another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pushing onward we know not where. Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees or the stars.’

Muir seemed to accept a theory of evolution, but it’s an ecstatic, Heraclitean evolution, in which beings are ‘ever changing, never resting, all are speeding on with love’s enthusiasm, singing with the stars the eternal song of creation’. Rather than Dawkins’ sense of a constant brutal struggle for existence, Muir sees creation as a dance, in which ‘whole kingdoms of creatures enjoyed existence and returned to dust ere man appeared to claim them’. And humans too might be merely one more glint of light in this ever-rippling sea: ‘After human beings have also played their part in Creation’s plan, they too may disappear without any general burning or extraordinary commotion whatever’. In that sense, Muir has moved beyond a Christian anthropocentrism (where man is the summit of creation) to a more radical ecstatic naturalism where all God’s creatures are equally loved. It’s not clear what role Christ’s death and resurrection plays in this creation. Nature, not Christ, is the redeemer.

Nature in Herzog’s work is usually indifferent to human suffering

What about sin? The great critics of Emersonian transcendentalism were his friends, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, both of whom saw the complacency and naivite in the belief that Nature was completely good, and one could become God-like simply by going off alone to commune with the forest. They suggested, as Dostoevsky did, that there is a pride and perversity in the human heart…and even that there is evil in nature too – think of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, in which the forest is the mysterious site of both good and evil spirits, or of Conrad and Herzog’s vision of nature as amoral, murderous, perverse and indifferent to human suffering.

Muir is too glad to see any evil in himself or nature. He looks on the fierce belligerence of ants and admits that ‘much remains to be done ere the world is brought under the rule of universal peace and love’, but even the excruciating agony of an ant-bite produces a sort of ecstasy in him: ‘A quick electric flame of pain flashes along the outraged nerves, and you discover for the first time how great is the capacity for sensation you are possessed of.’

If he sees evil anywhere, it is in industry, which rapes his beloved creation, and puts a price on every sacred tree and mountain-side. Muir became, at the end of his life, a reluctant prophet for the burgeoning conservation movement, and was a driving force in creating the national parks of Yosemite and Sequioa. He hoped that Americans would be converted from their materialism by visiting these parks and hearing their sermon.

Yet the great spiritual transformation did not take place, and Muir died disappointed, having failed to halt the construction of a dam in his beloved Hetch Hetchy valley. The New York Review of Books writes: ‘Once while traveling with a party of scientists in 1877, he overlooked an alpine vista and began dancing and shouting, “Look at the glory! Look at the glory!” His companions remained coldly reserved and apart. There is no more quintessential image of Muir than that.’

This year is the centenary of Muir’s death, and a chance for British people to get to know him better. Perhaps his ecstatic naturalism even points a way forward, to a new type of worship, steeped in science yet alive to the glory and shimmering joy of consciousness within nature. Why does a whale breach? They breach because consciousness loves to play.


  • Gerard Mikols says:

    Great post. I like where you are headed. In 1996 I was fortunate to visit 15 National Parks in the Western US including Yosemite and Sequoia. I also wrote philosophy during the trip after writing philosophy a month before I headed off on the trip. I was also in Muir Woods. I had many amazing moments of connection to nature that could be described as ecstatic especially one that included the erotic at Crater Lake. I was alone most of the trip when I was in nature including at Crater Lake. One of the most beautiful moments with nature was a small patch of land probably a foot wide and a foot long. This made me realize there is beauty in the large and the small and led me to be more connected to the nature around me in Chicago, Illinois which would not measure up to most in the spectacular nature department. I also had an incredible nature experience along Lake Michigan just before sunrise where I thought I could see birds flying for 5 miles along the lake front.

    One can have these experiences without God, god, Christ, Buddha, Zoroaster, Mohammed, Vishnu, etc. Most who start with one of these religions as something they grew up with will likely attribute the experience to some god or other. I think a fundamental aspect of all humans is the relationship between each human and herself and the relationship with everything outside themselves other than other humans. I do think there is something uniquely powerful in this experience that excludes other humans. I label it gydessness. Trying to remove the malecentricty of it all.

    I am fine with people connecting ecstatic experiences they have to one god or another, but don’t think it is appropriate to co-opt this for god and gods only. I have accepted that in the metaphysics which I believe this is that faith is as good as reason as data. I believe the danger comes when people use faith when making conclusions in the good and the true where I believe reason and data are superior with the scientific method supported with math as the most reliable although quite narrow in what it currently can answer.

  • Norm Madsen says:

    Great summary of John Muir. Perhaps it is better to understand him as a “panentheist” rather than a pantheist, i.e. God being “in” nature as opposed to God being nature. In this sense, John Muir was one who understood God in all of nature and experienced God–sometimes ecstatically, right here and now in the natural world. Panentheism explains God being in nature and also beyond nature, transcendent as well as immanent. In this manner, Muir’s mystical experiences with nature would give him an insight into God through nature.

  • Stephen says:

    Thanks for the great post and what a wonderful surprise to find Muir as centerpiece!
    My gratitude to Muir for sharing his love of nature knows no bounds. I first came across Muir when I read a chapter (10) from his book ”The Mountains of California” issued by the Library of America. The chapter is ”A wind Storm in the Forests” and it left me giddy and consciously alive on reading it.
    By the way, you can get that book from two different books from the Library of America: The environmental compendium ”American Earth” or the John Muir volume ”Nature Writings”. I have both and they are worth their weight in gold, though available quite modestly from the Library of America
    Be careful though or you will end up a subscriber like me!

    I would also like to plug Ken Burns’ National Parks documentary
    which is one of the most beautiful documentaries I have watched. The first part is largely about Muir and his discoveries with nature and struggle with tyrannical greed and stupidity with humanity.

  • gert mcqueen says:

    While I am fully aware and admire John Muir the title of this post ‘at play in the fields of the lord’ drew me because of the film of the same name…one of my favorites and it tells how various ‘religious’ factions and business ie money making ventures, conspire against the native of the Amazon and how one person ‘went native’…it is a wonderful tale of the destructive powers of religious and business in killing our resources, human and natural.

  • Gerard Mikols says:

    I have finally finished Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations including the appendices. Very comprehensive and thought provoking for those who have not been immersed is this stuff, but a good reminder of the various views even for those who have been.

    The challenge in my view which is playing out in America is that despite the ability to get so much access to all these thinkers there are more people joining around similar paradigms rather than taking the risk of truly engaging those who disagree. I worry we are not doing a good job of system building or taking advantage of the power of the critique.

    I look at Socrates as someone who was trying to acknowledge the value of the critique while trying to open the way for systems building even if it was moving toward merely the plausible and not toward truth. The notions of the good and true are valuable to push us to be better humans which I don’t think means imposing a single system on all, but does require some agreement on a few things that should be imposed on all.

    The creation of the United States Constitution is one good example and it took place during a time when systems building, science, and the critique were all flourishing even though people did not live very long and the benefits of science to longevity had not really taken off. Also, women and non-white males were left out, but the US Constitution has led to the constant but too slow protection of the rights of more and more people even though it can not remove all biases and prejudices.

    I understand this is not my blog, so will do my best to just respond to posts.

    I think it is wonderful that a book and website like Philosophy for Life exists. I like that it seems open to many perspectives and resists lock step thinking. Cheers.

  • Mark Vernon says:

    Many thanks again – and reminds me of the nature ecstasy of the Anglican divine Thomas Traherne, who I think must have had a kind of clairvoyance, seeing dazzling life when most just see a tree: ‘You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars…’ If you’re ever in Hereford cathedral, there are fab windows that capture the sensibility:

  • Gerard Mikols says:

    Sorry Jules for my excessive presumably off point writing. I have had philosophy in my life since I was 13 or 14 and I am almost 54 and I had lost some energy around it. A physician I work with introduced me to Hadot and your book and it reignited my excitement for philosophy. I am not sure how these blogs are supposed to be used, so probably over stepped some bounds. What you are doing is wonderful and I wish you the best.

  • Gerard Mikols says:

    Sorry for the last post. Thought my previous two comments were erased by Jules. Am really trying to participate in this in a respectful and friendly manner. I am an INTJ who sometimes is viewed as harsh and also I do get overly excitable and can go on an on a bit. I really enjoyed Jules book and I really enjoy his posts here and the comments that follow. Also, I live in America where dialogues like this are harder and harder to find.

  • Alberto Alcalde says:

    Dear Jules. I told you a couple of weeks ago that I try to donate at the PayPal button but it does not work on my computer. Is there an alternative way to donate?
    Thank you for your blog

  • ForestMountainMan says:

    Inspired by this post, I’ve got hold of a copy of the book and am loving it. Thanks!

  • Thanks for this post. I was trying to trace where Matthiessen got the title of his novel (and the ensuing film) from, and realize now he must have adapted/adopted it from Muir’s writing. Confirmed agnostic though I be, the phrase “at play in the fields of the Lord” gives a perfect sense of what it’s like to wander Tuolumne Meadows.

  • Dianna Eickhorn says:

    Wow! Didn’t realize this is the centerian of the passing of John Muir! He seems to keep popping up in my life when I appear to be at some crossroads. How odd! I think now, after many years that I can look back over, I can understand better his message.

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