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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.

Britannia Unchained: the Tories revert back to Thatcherism

There’s a cognitive bias which supposedly causes emotional disorders, whereby you minimize your own achievements while maximizing those of other people. I feel the authors of Britannia Unchained, a new book about how to save the UK from national decline, suffer from this bias. They are far too pessimistic about the UK’s achievements, while seeing other countries through rose-tinted spectacles.

The book is by five Tory MPs who joined the House of Commons in 2010: Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore and Elizabeth Truss.  It’s generated a fair amount of headlines, as its central message is a popular one for the right-wing press: “the British are among the worst idlers in the world”. We need, the authors say, to emulate the rising economies of China, Brazil, South Korea and Canada, by working harder, slashing taxes, embracing free enterprise, and no longer paying out such generous welfare benefits.

It all sounds like Mitt Romney speaking off the record and praising Chinese labour camps where the teenage workers sleep on bunk beds. But these young Tories are willing to say the same as Mitt while on the record – witness Kwasi Kwarteng, the intellectual leader of the group, telling the Guardian how impressed he was by a visit to a Chinese factory, where if a worker met their productivity target for the hour, they were allowed two whole minutes to rest.

I read the book because I wondered what it might mean for the politics of well-being. David Cameron has, to some extent, embraced the well-being agenda, and suggested we should not focus so relentlessly on wealth, status and GDP growth, but instead seek higher goals like well-being, fulfillment and the common good. Well, that all sounds incredibly wet to the authors of Britannia Unchained. To them, the well-being agenda is the sickness, not the cure. It’s an example of how the defeatist British have somehow come to think that “business is a dirty word”, economic growth is an illusion, and we should all work less. The new economics foundation, pioneer of the well-being agenda, is not their favourite think-tank, as you can imagine.


So what is the book like? Not good. It has a feeling of being dashed off by busy young people. Most of its sources are newspaper articles, as if they’ve just googled their ideas and used the first media source they find to support them. There are typos: on the third page, ‘if we are to prosper in the future, we have to much learn’.

The book’s central claim – that we’re the worst idlers in the world – is made on page two, where the authors insist that “5.7 million people receive some kinds of benefits, which is one of the highest proportions in the OECD”. Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, writes:

What’s wrong with this? Where do I start? What does “some kind of benefits” mean? Not pensions, child benefit or tax credits, I can deduce that, although the average reader won’t know. Does it include disability living allowance and housing benefit (both of which can be claimed by workers)? I think the former but not the latter. Grown since when? It certainly grew rapidly in the 1980s and early 1990s but the number of people claiming out-of-work benefits fell steadily from its peak in 1994 until the 2008 crisis and, despite the recession, is still well below the levels of the mid-1990s. So the drama is less than compelling. As for “one of the highest proportions in the OECD”, the last OECD study on this topic found nothing of the sort.

As the Economist points out in its cover story this week, the UK has the highest employment rate in the G7. Still, unemployment is at 8%, and there are thousands of Brits who were left behind by the bourgeoisification of the working class over the last 50 years. They became ‘chavs’ – an object of fear and hatred for the newly-expanded middle class.  But demonising the underclass is not the solution. I would suggest we need to create the same networks of public services and mutual support groups that helped the first working class to raise itself into the middle class in the 19th and 20th centuries. While Kwarteng slags off the poor, his school-mate and fellow young Tory, Danny Kruger, left politics and set up a charity to work with (and even live with) former prison inmates. That’s doing more good than simply shouting abuse from the ramparts.

The authors are right to worry about the size of the national debt, and to emphasise the need for us to balance the books, as families and as a country. If your debt gets too big, you lose control of your national policy, and are dictated to by foreign lenders. Imagine having Angela Merkel tell us how to live. That’s why we need to reduce our public and private debt over time.

But it’s a bit rich to blame that national indebtedness on the working class, while also claiming that the City is ‘a small pocket where the work ethic still exists’. That’s an obviously inaccurate and unfair description of what’s happened in the last five years. It wasn’t worker welfare that increased the national debt by £1 trillion in two years. It was corporate welfare – bailing out the banks, their shareholders, their private bond holders, their high net-worth investors. That corporate welfare is still going on, through the Bank of England’s cheap lending support for the banks.

The authors say blithely that financial crises are “a fact of life”. If you criticise the bank system for being under-regulated and for rewarding reckless incompetence, you’re giving in to “national defeatism”. Well, that’s just nonsense. The reason trade union militancy has increased in the last two years is not that British workers are idle. It’s that the trade unions, along with the rest of us, think it’s deeply unfair that our public services are being slashed while the private financial sector has received such incredible beneficence from the tax-payer. We want our money back, and we want protection against further crises (in fact, George Osbourne’s bank levy is a good step in this direction).

The BRICs want quality of life too, not just economic growth

Perhaps the most glaring mistake of the book is the way it holds up the rising economic powers as paragons of “individual initiative and free enterprise”. This betrays a serious ignorance about what is driving economic growth in China, Brazil, Turkey, South Korea, Russia, India and elsewhere. These economies are far more state-dominated than ours, and growth has been driven by enormous state companies like Gazprom, Petrobras and Bank of China, or chaebols like Samsung. These are not economies full of plucky individual entrepreneurs. And much of their economic growth comes not because they’re innovating incredible new technology. They’re simply catching up with the West, rolling out pre-existing technology like modern banking, cars, mobile phones, TVs and so on to their large populations.

Once their material quality of life has caught up with ours, much of the new middle class in BRIC economies are asking the same post-materialist questions as we are: what’s the point of working incredibly hard if you make yourself ill, harm your family and damage your environment in the process? Is it worth ruining your mental health for bling and credit card debt? See, for example, this article on South Korea’s existential crisis:

Chief among their concerns is the stress and expense of putting their children through “exam hell”, even in the knowledge that there are too many graduates chasing too few well-paid jobs. No wonder Korea’s birth rate has plummeted — to 1.23, well below the 2.2 replacement rate and lower even than Japan at 1.4.

South Korea is questioning its own obsession with bling

South Korea has the highest suicide rate in the OECD because of pressures at work and in education. It also has very high levels of personal credit card debt (35% of GDP). And Koreans are now asking the same questions about quality of life as we are. The global hit ‘Gangnam Style’ is a satire on South Korea’s obsession with bling, and you see the same sort of anti-bling satires appearing in other BRIC countries. Koreans are looking to ancient sources of wisdom for stress cures, like philosophy: a local publisher paid around $200,000 for the School of Life’s self-help series, my book’s doing well there too, and Seoul recently hosted the 11th International Conference on Philosophical Practice. In the words of Dr Oh Kyung-Ja, professor of clinical psychology at Yonsei University, Koreans are “desperately searching for things to do to divert themselves from stress. They just don’t have a good model.”

Likewise, China may have an unquenchable appetite for bling, but many of the new middle class are also asking questions about what it means to live well: witness the national fondness for the ideas of Confucius and Marcus Aurelius and the government’s interest in the politics of well-being. We also read, in the FT, that the Chinese rich are “starting to spend more on wellness as opposed to luxury goods”.

So I suspect that the new rising powers are moving very rapidly from bling to post-bling. They are rising rapidly up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and arriving at the same quality of life questions we’re asking in the West.

Truss is right that we need to improve science education

Elizabeth Truss: pro-science

The best chapter in the book is Elizabeth Truss’ chapter on the importance of improving science education to help us compete in the global knowledge economy. I agree that too many young people choose arts or social science subjects as cushy options. We may have too many students taking psychology A-Level and psychology degrees, and are in danger of turning into a nation of life coaches (I count myself among the growing ranks of well-being obsessives so mean no offence to life coaches, just…there’s a lot of you!) Some of these psychology grads have a remarkable lack of respect for scientific evidence.

But Truss doesn’t offer radical ideas about how to improve the level of scientific education in this country. I’d suggest, for example, that we reform the undergraduate degree system, so that students don’t study just one subject for three years – that degree of specialisation is harmful to their intellectual growth and to the country’s culture. If you study a humanities subject, you should be expected to take science subjects as well, and vice versa. We have too many arts graduates who leave university like me: desperate to write a novel and with an ingrained prejudice against scientific evidence. I’d also like to see the Baccaulaureate replace A-Levels, which demand too much specialisation too early. And the debate on education shouldn’t be framed as well-being or academic results: critical thinking, reasoning skills and creative thinking are good for both.

The British are good at arts and culture

We should also acknowledge what’s good about our arts culture – how it fosters excellent journalism, writing, theatre, film, art and fashion. Our culture sector is one of the best in the world, so it’s bizarre that it should be so uncelebrated in a book on reclaiming national pride. It’s also a good example of combining creative and technical expertise, as in our flourishing computer games industry, or music production, or film special effects. It may be that the authors ignore our creative economy because it doesn’t fit their Thatcherite model of self-reliant entrepreneurs – instead, it flourishes through a mixture of public and private funding, and through state-sponsored schools like RADA. Or it may be that they are simply deaf to culture, like many old Thatcherites. Hopefully Boris Johnson is less so.

Another point which the book could have made more strongly is the importance of attracting skilled immigrants into our country, including into our universities. The Home Office is doing its best to repel such immigrants from our borders through its heavy-handed treatment of London Met University. And there’s no discussion about the importance of adult education and community learning to a knowledge economy. Nor do the authors consider the one policy that would really improve our education sector: take away public schools’ charity status. That would encourage more middle class people to send their children to academies, and open up social networks of privilege and excellence. If that’s too un-Conservative, then at least insist public schools do more to support academies.

The book does express something in the British national mood. The latest British Social Attitudes survey found that only 28% think governments should spend more on benefits, down from 58% in 1991. More than half think people would “stand on their own two feet” if benefits were less generous, compared to 20% believing that in 1993. But I don’t recognise the book’s claim that Britain is weighed down by defeatism and pessimism. The authors clearly wrote that before the Olympics, which were a resounding affirmation of our country’s strengths – our belief in individual excellence and our belief in fairness, volunteerism,technology, creativity and fun. You can believe in Britain’s greatness without wanting it to turn into a Chinese labour camp.

In other news:

Here is a great piece from Intelligent Life on the ‘mass intelligent’ – we’re not dumbing down, it argues, we’re wising up. Here is an online debate The Economist did on the subject. And the CEO of the Economist Group referenced it in a recent presentation on the ‘mega-trend of the mass intelligent’ (here’s a slide from it, below).

The young Spanish boy who was chosen as the reincarnation of a Tibetan lama talks of why he left the monastery and abandoned his monastic vows.

Here’s a review of a new book on the Quantified Self movement and the digitization of medicine.

Here’s a good Re-Think pamphlet on recovering from mental illness:

Jimmy Soni, managing editor of the Huffington Post and the author of a new book on Cato, gives five reasons why Stoicism matters today.

More Stoicism: here’s a piece by Ian Hislop on the history of the British stiff upper lip (based on a program which will be on BBC 2 on Tuesday October 2)

Here is a piece on how technology is about to disrupt and transform academia, and here, by way of counterblast, is a good piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education challenging the hype around MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).

Finally, here on the left is an ad from the 1970s offering nude psychotherapy. ‘Be the first on your block to get nude psychotherapy!’ Ah, those were the days.

See you next week,


PS I have a brief segment about self-help on the Culture Show on Wednesday, BBC 2, 10pm. It’s somewhat ridiculous and may be the last thing I get asked to do on TV, so check it out. And also some American publishers have finally made offers for the book. Hooray! Thanks for your positive thoughts and kind reviews on Amazon (I didn’t write any of them, in case you’re wondering…)