Muir, His Appalachian Experience and the Modern Connection
I have always been somewhat of an old soul. I became a teenager at the time when technology was beginning to explode. The Internet was taking off, and cell phones were coming into play. At that age, I didn't give it much thought that from that point forward we would never again be unplugged. Technology is increasing daily where we are now toying with virtual reality, losing our libraries to the digital age, and most of our lives are consumed with computers and phones. Even most of our social life is played out over the Internet. You go into restaurants and see a group of friends who are no longer conversing but have their phones pulled out to make sure they don't miss anything. It has become a habit, almost robotic, where every free second we have is taken up by pulling out a screen to look at rather than thinking, reading or speaking to someone beside you. This is the way our lives will always be now; there is no going back.
With that being said, I realize that progress is not all bad. We have accomplished so much, and our lives have become more convenient and, often-times, that progress has afforded us longer lives, as well. We're able to stay in close contact with friends around the globe, and learning, provided it is from a reliable source, is just a click away. I am using technology to write and share this, so I partake in it and enjoy it at times. But, I can't help but to think we need to reconnect to something more simplistic. There are pros and cons to everything in life, so maintaining balance is essential.
"Keep close to nature's heart..."
I don't want to live a completely wired life, there's something that feels very suffocating about it to me. There's a constant need to check your phone for emails, answer text messages, stay on top of the news and to keep up with social media. It seems the demand to be digitally connected is just added stress. John Muir said it best when he said, "Keep close to nature's heart...and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean." I can't agree with this more. I know we'll always have technology and the pros and cons it brings, but we need balance from our modern world — a disconnect from all the noise and chaos sometimes. Muir was wise in seeing this need for an escape from our often crazy world into the calmness of nature. We could seem to take his advice now more than ever. This is why I have always enjoyed his writings; it's like food for the soul. I started reading his work when I was in high school, but it dawned on me after I found out that Muir had visited our Appalachian Mountains, that I really didn't know much about him.
I am a book junkie. I don't have a tremendous amount of time to read these days, but I do try to fit it in as much as possible. But my love goes further than just reading. I love the feel and smell of books (I understand that is probably slightly odd). I have tried the digital book thing, but I just can't get past not holding an actual book in my hands. I am drawn to book covers like a moth to a flame. So, naturally, I am giddy whenever Jason gets new books for Sunrise Grocery. It's hard for me not to slow my pace as I walk through our book selection, especially since the books we get appeal to my taste. One day a bit ago, I was walking past, and a book I hadn't seen caught my eye. I saw John Muir's name and stopped. How could I have never heard of this book?! And how could I have not known that Muir had come to our mountains here in Appalachia? Not only had he come here, but this was the journey that started his life-long adventure of discovery and writings. Maybe I really didn't know much at all about the guy who I had always found inspiring. So, I began reading his journals that were made into "A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf."
Most people have at least heard of John Muir. He acquired his love for nature at an early age as he spent a lot of time wandering the countryside in Scotland, where he was born in 1838. He became interested in natural history and followed the works of Scottish naturalist Alexander Wilson and poet Robert Burns early in his life, which fueled his adoration even more. He and his family moved to America when Muir was 9 years old and settled in Portage, Wisconsin. When he was 22, he enrolled into the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which furthered his enthusiasm for nature and science. Although he never graduated, he received a great deal of knowledge, which aided him in his travels later on.
When Muir was in his late 20s, he traveled up to Ontario only to return to live in Indianapolis a couple of years later. There, he worked at a wagon wheel factory and had an accident that he said changed the course of his life. While at the factory, a tool he was using slipped out of his hands and went into his eye. For six agonizing weeks, Muir was confined to a dark room in fear he may never again regain sight out of that eye. I imagine this must have been brutal for someone who felt so closely tied to nature. He later wrote about the incident saying, "This affliction has driven me to the sweet fields. God has to nearly kill us sometimes, to teach us lessons." This was when he decided to begin his life of exploration and study of nature.
It all started in Appalachia
That was the start of his naturalistic journeys, and it all started right here in Appalachia. In September 1867, he set out to walk from Kentucky all the way to Florida, which was a more than modest walk of 1,000 miles, give or take. He had no exact route mapped out, only committing to "push on in a general southward direction by the wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way" he could find. One that promised "the greatest extent of virgin forest." As for what was in his pack? Not much of anything. He didn't have such luxuries as a down sleeping bag and a tent. He didn't need the 30-pound rule with such a small bundle. Muir was a man of simple pleasures and set out with little more than a compass, map, soap, a change of underclothes and a plant press, of course. He carried very little money and relied on asking those he came across for a bite to eat or a place to lay his head for the night. He goes into detail about all the different flora and fauna he comes across in the region as well as touching on different ways of life in the post-war South.
One of the first places Muir set out to see was Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. He goes into detail about how the hotel neighboring the cave, with their artificial gardens, are of no match to the "grandeur" of Mammoth, being simplistic and natural in nature. This is in true Muir fashion. Nothing man-made could replace the beauty of nature and what one receives from it in his eyes. Soon enough, he was beginning the ascent of the Cumberland Mountains, in which he said were "the first real mountains that my foot ever touched or eyes beheld." Who knew that Muir experienced his first mountain in the Eastern U.S.? He was mesmerized by all the oak trees and green forest that Kentucky possessed. It took him between six and seven hours to reach the summit of the Cumberlands, which he claims was a long time due to him only being accustomed to the rather flat lands of Wisconsin.
While moving through some of the lesser settled areas of Tennessee and North Carolina, Muir was fascinated with the grist mills. He spoke of their simplicity and the amount of work those who ran the mills had to put in them. He was comparing the advancements of the North to those of the South, stating that the South lacked, especially the mountain areas of the two states. He was not speaking in a negative tone, but rather noting the cultural differences. Spinning and weaving were done in almost every mountain cabin, and Muir called it "ancient art."
Further on down into Tennessee, Muir runs into a river he speaks fondly about. "The finest of the forests are usually found along their banks, and in the multitude of falls and rapids the wilderness finds a voice. Such a river is the Hiawassee, with its surface broken to a thousand sparkling gems, and its forest walls vine-draped and flowery as Eden. And how fine the song it sings!" I adore the way he described it! The Hiawassee River is deserving of such praise. My favorite river anywhere in the world always has been and always will be the Ocoee. The Ocoee is a tributary to the Hiawassee River, and to know that Muir passed through that area and spoke of it so greatly made me have an even greater appreciation for his writings.
"An impressive view at any time..."
Muir followed the river down into Murphy, North Carolina, right across the line where we live in Blairsville, Georgia. He describes coming down "among the groves and gorges of Murphy" and into Blairsville, which he stated was "grandly encircled with banded hills." Muir came to Blairsville! He stayed with a farmer and his wife here before heading south to reach the last mountain summit on his way down to the Gulf. It is here he speaks of the Blue Ridge. His description of our mountains giving way to the valley gave me chills when I read it at first. Muir says that before the Blue Ridge "lies a prospect very different from any I had passed, namely, a vast uniform expanse of dark pine woods, extending to the sea; an impressive view at any time and under any circumstances, but particularly so to one emerging from the mountains."
He continues to Mount Yonah and then toward Gainesville and the Chattahoochee River, where he went "sailing" and feasted on grapes that had fallen off of vines hanging above the river. It was on the Chattahoochee River that Muir was introduced to muscadines. He describes them as nothing he had ever seen before and tells of men coming along in boats to collect the ones that had fallen so they could make wine. He then made his way towards Athens, which he said was the most beautiful town he had seen on his journey and one he wanted to go back to visit.
As he drifted farther south, he writes about all the different plant life he encounters that fascinates him, like the Southern pines and Spanish moss. When he finally arrives in Savannah, he sets up camp in Bonaventure, a cemetery. He did so because he wanted to be surrounded by all the plants and animals and under the oaks. He even woke up to find he had laid his head on a grave. Now that's dedication.
Muir became very hungry, weak and sick during his travels from Savannah down to Florida. His plan was to go to South America and make his way down there, too. But after getting malaria in Cedar Key, Florida, his journey was cut short. Muir eventually made his way to California to expand his work in conservation. But in his journals, he wrote, "Of the people of the States that I have now passed, I best like the Georgians."
Patron saint of the American wilderness
Muir went on to be one of the most influential naturalists and conservationists in American history. He accomplished a lot for all of us while he was here. He was co-founder of The Sierra Club, devoted much of his time to the conservation of wilderness in the United States, and is often called The Father of National Parks due to his support and push to make Yosemite a national park. He is also called "patron saint of the American wilderness," publishing more than 300 articles and 12 books, which were a great force in conserving land. There's a reason many still look up to Muir today. It's almost as if the more we build and the busier we get with all our distractions, Muir's writings become more and more important to remember.
I think we humans are made to stay close to nature and a more simplistic way of life, and that we perhaps suffer, even in ways we cannot see, when we are too connected to the online world. We need an occasional escape, a disconnect from all the mental noise. In John of the Mountains, Muir was stated as saying, “I know that our bodies were made to thrive only in pure air, and the scenes in which pure air is found." I don't think the online world is necessarily bad for us, but I do think being too far from nature is. Muir's right, we need to escape to the mountains every occasionally. Go on a short hike, go camping, or just go have a picnic somewhere outside away from the all the concrete, tall buildings and all those screens. Balance. Balance is what we need. That's why I think Muir was a wise man. He knew long ago that escaping stresses washes the spirit clean. It flushes away some of the stress that is hard on our bodies and souls. Peter Jenkins introduces Muir's book referring to this importance saying, "this is why I give his books to my children, to my friends, and why I suggest to strangers like the young woman in Wyoming that she read John Muir." His writings will remain forever relevant, and we should heed his advice now more than ever. And to think it all started with a long journey to the Gulf through our beloved Appalachian Mountains.
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity” ~John Muir, Our National Parks
Note: John Muir's book "A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf" is an excellent read. If you are interested in Muir's writings or in the Appalachian region in general, I highly recommend these journals he wrote. There are several books available with forewords from different people. I read the version that Peter Jenkins wrote by Mariner Books. Much of the information written here is from that book as well as the Sierra Club website. Other info was from information I knew from reading about Muir prior to reading this book. If you have any questions on sources, you can contact me via the blog's email. Thanks for reading!