John Muir: American Eco-Prophet

John Muir: American Eco-Prophet

Over the last few decades, some churches and other religious institutions have re-examined how their theology informs their ideas about ecology.

Many Christians and Jews are re-interpreting the idea that man has dominion over nature, and thus the right to exploit it as he wishes. This new eco-friendly theology sees the Earth as belonging to God -- not man. Our place in the order of things is to be good stewards of God’s creation.

In my last blog, “The Greening of the Self,” I wrote about how Buddhist environmentalist Joanna Macy goes beyond this idea of stewardship, urging a psychologically refined eco-mysticism. We must, she said, get over “ the delusion that the self is so separate and fragile that we must delineate and defend its boundaries.”

Macy notes that “every atom and molecule of our bodies goes back through time to the first splitting and spinning of the stars.”

Actually, this kind of spiritual ecology and eco-mysticism has a long history in American culture.

One of its early prophets was John Muir, the wilderness savior and founder of the Sierra Club. Raised by stern Protestant parents, Muir (1838-1914) grew up to rail again Christianity’s belief in a single deity with a special interest in one creature, whom he liked to refer to as “Lord Man.”

After coming across a dead bear during a hike through Yosemite, Muir wrote in his journal, “Bears are made of the same dust as we, and breathe the same winds and drink the same waters. His life turns and ebbs with heart-pulsings like ours, and was poured from the same First Fountain. And whether or not he goes to our stingy heaven or no, he has terrestrial immortality.”

This eco-mysticism goes back even further, of course, to Native American spirituality. It was carried forward by other countercultural writers and philosophers inspired by the vast wonder of the untamed American continent.

Its other early prophets were Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) and Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), the New England maverick-of-the-woods and author of Walden.

Four years before his death, Thoreau wrote an article for The Atlantic which included a remark about the immortality of a pine tree and its chances of getting to heaven. The editors of the magazine—worried about offending Christian readers—dropped his line about the immortal pine.

Muir had a long correspondence with Emerson, and gave him a personal tour of Yosemite in 1871. As they visited the giant sequoias at Mariposa Grove, Muir told his New England visitor, “You are yourself a sequoia. Stop and get acquainted with your big brethren.”

Muir tried, unsuccessfully, to convince Emerson and his Bostonian traveling party to spend more time in his beloved Sierra wilderness. He wrote in a letter to Emerson:

“Do not thus drift away with the mob while the spirits of these rocks and waters hail you after long waiting as their kinsman and persuade you to closer communion,” Muir begged. “I invite you to join me in a month’s worship with Nature in the high temples of the great Sierra Crown beyond our holy Yosemite.”

Don Lattin is the author of five books on religion and spirituality in America. To learn more about his work, visit

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