Title: Muir Among the Animals: The Wildlife Writings of John Muir
Author: John Muir. Lisa Mighetto, ed.
Publisher: Sierra Club Books
Device: Hardcover book
Any glimpse into the life of an animal quickens our own and makes it so much the larger and better in every way.[i]
John Muir (1838-1914), the naturalist, is well known as an advocate for the preservation and celebration of natural places through his life and exploration of the Sierra Nevada mountain range and other wild regions of the American West. He was a co-founder of the Sierra Club and his writings were influential in the development of the National Park Service.
Born in Scotland, Muir’s preacher father moved the family to a Wisconsin farm when he was 11. Muir and the Animals is a collection of his writings about his relationship to the farm animals and family pets of his childhood and the untamed wild ones he encountered as he traversed the trails of the Sierras. A singular feature of Muir’s writing is its opposition to his father’s stern Christian faith and the manner in which it perceives the natural world, where creation is for man’s use and control regardless of the consequences.
In Muir’s world animals have a certain anthropomorphic quality about them whether predator or prey, wild or domestic. No animal is too small-ants and bees, or too large-bears and wolves to escape his thoughts. Nor does he shy away from attacking man’s insatiable appetite for meanness and destruction of animal or habitat for what man believes God gave to us to use.
This star, our own good earth, made many a successful journey around the heavens ere man was made, and whole kingdoms of creatures enjoyed existence and returned to dust ere man appeared to claim them. [ii]
Muir thinks of animals as ‘fellow citizens,’and calls them’insect people’ and ‘feathered people’ “with rights that we are bound to respect.”[iii] Animals have a worth apart from what man wants to use them for. He hoped for a “recognition of the rights of animals and their kinship to ourselves.”[iv] He noted the interconnectedness of all living things at a time when the slaughter and massacre of so-called pests, like the coyote, caused a plague of hares; pointing out that ranchers killed coyotes for poaching their sheep, but in turn eliminated the natural predator of rabbits, whose unchecked proliferation damaged fields of crops.[v]
The book is divided into chapters delineating types of animals: Herbivores, Birds, Domestic Animals, Insects and Predators. Edited by Lisa Mighetto, she has collected material from his various books, magazine articles and unpublished works spanning the years 1874-1916.
As someone who hikes and spends time in Nature, I should be more familiar with Muir’s writings, especially having spent a summer in the Owen’s Valley, but he has escaped me until now. I have only read snippets of his work and various quotes, but being this is the 100-year anniversary of the National Park Service it’s time I read more.
I have known many dogs, but to none do I owe so much as to Stickeen. At first the least promising and least known of my dog-friends, he suddenly became the best known for them all. Our storm-battle for life brought him to light, and through him as through a window I have ever since been looking with deeper sympathy into all my fellow mortals. [vi]
Here are several descriptions of John Muir’s encounters and observations of his “horizontal brothers.”
When the Gold Rush of the 1840s ended, tourists from the Midwest and the East began exploring the ‘wilds’ of California. Yosemite and the Sierras were on many an itinerary. Muir spent several years working in Yosemite Valley and when he heard people decry the absence of wildlife he counseled: “…if such would go singly, without haste or noise, away from the region of trails and pack-trains, they would speedily learn that these mountain mansions are not without inhabitant, many of whom, confiding and gentle, would be glad to make their acquaintance.”[vii]
In the section on birds, Muir hoped to gain them sympathy, because they were often slaughtered to extinction. His piece on one town’s massacre of the passenger pigeon is particularly poignant and the killing of robins for Sunday dinner “with shameful enthusiasm,”[viii] vividly told. But in this happier account, he writes about his encounter with mountain quail, speaking of them like a crowd of humans from another country:
Once when I was seated at the foot of a tree on the headwaters of the Merced, sketching, I heard a flock up the valley behind me….Soon one came within three or four feet of me…Presently along came another and another….At last one of them caught my eye, gazed in silent wonder for a moment, then uttered a particular cry, which was followed by a lot of hurried muttered notes that sounded like speech. The others, of course, saw me as soon as the alarm was sounded, and joined the wonder talk, gazing and chattering, astonished but not frightened. Then all with one accord ran back with the news to the rest of the flock “What is it? Oh, you never saw the like. Not a deer, or a wolf, or a bear; come see, come see! [ix]
As a child, the Muir family had a dog named Watch and although he couldn’t read books “we soon learned he could read faces, was a good judge of character, always knew what was going on and what we were about to do.”[x] Unfortunately, Watch had an appetite for chickens from the surrounding farms and for these acts of stealing was condemned to death. After the execution, Muir’s father examined his stomach contents and found numerous chickens. This made Muir muse on the fact though humans eat the same dish without penalty, “our fellow mortals “who eat what we eat….” are doomed for it, instead. Muir takes comfort that the “vast multitudes of creatures, great and small and infinite in number, lived and had a good time in God’s love before man was created.”[xi]
On the advantages of growing up on a farm Muir writes:
is the gaining a real knowledge of animals as fellow-mortals, learning to respect them and love them, and even to win some of their love. Thus godlike sympathy grows and thrives and spreads far beyond the teachings of churches and schools, where too often the mean, blinding, loveless doctrine is taught that animals have neither mind nor soul, have no rights that we are bound to respect, and were made only for man, to be petted, spoiled, slaughtered, or enslaved.[xii]
On the grasshopper, who is a “jolly fellow”:
I was much interested with the hearty enjoyment of the one that danced and sang for me on the Dome this afternoon. He seemed brimful of glad, hilarious energy…A fine sermon the little fellow danced for me…a likely place to look for sermons…A large and imposing pulpit for so small a preacher…Even the bear did not express for me the mountain’s wild health, and strength and happiness so tellingly as did this comical little copper…To him every day is a holiday…[xiii]
How many mouths Nature has to fill, how many neighbors we have, how little we know about them, and how seldom we get in each other’s way! Then to think of the infinite numbers of smaller fellow mortals, invisibly small, compared with which the smallest ants are mastodons.[xiv]
And finally, this plea:
The universe would be incomplete without man; but it would also be incomplete without the smallest transmicroscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful eyes and knowledge. From the dust of the earth, from the common elementary fund, the Creator has made Homo sapiens. From the same material He has made every other creature, however noxious and insignificant to us. They are earth-born companions and our fellow mortals….Plants are credited with but dim and uncertain sensation, and minerals with positively none at all. But why may not even a mineral arrangement of matter be endowed with a sensation of a kind that we in our blind exclusive perfection can have no manner of communication with?
But, glad to leave these ecclesiastical fires and blunders, I joyfully return to the immortal truth and immortal beauty of Nature.[xv]
[i] p. xi.
[ii] p. 192.
[iii] p. xxv.
[iv] p. xii.
[v] p. vvx.
[vi] p. 82. for an account this perilous experience see here.
[vii] p. 11-12.
[viii] p. 68.
[ix] p. 54-55.
[x] p. 97.
[xi] p. 99.
[xii] p. 105.
[xiii] p. 111-113.
[xiv] p. 117.
[xv] p. 194.