John Muir Would Have Said It Differently, But I Think He’d Agree Were He Alive Today: I’d Rather Take My Cues from the Amazing Workings of DNA, the Latest Cosmological Discoveries or Insights on How the Brain Functions Than on the Most Brilliantly and Beautifully Inventive Suppositions About How to Get the Most Good from Who I Am

When I bump up against excessive ideological zeal, particular among theorists purporting to tell me how they want to change me to better fit their special vision of how the world ought to work, I once again take solace and insight from naturalist John Muir’s experience with Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In May, 1871, Emerson came west with a sophisticated entourage to visit Muir’s beloved Yosemite. Muir thought the encounter with such sheer beauty and scope would profoundly impact the group, especially the great creative talent who was its cynosure. But Muir soon learned that the visitors hardly even noticed nature. “I felt lonely, so sure had I been that Emerson of all men would be the quickest to see the mountains and sing them,” he later confided.

Pouring salt in Muir’s wounded psyche, Emerson invited him to come east to meet “better people.”

Repeatedly, I’m astonished at how easy it is for so many to look completely past the extraordinary profundity, complexity and creativity of the world we all live in as they hurry to sell some technique leading to blissful oblivion or theology promising an escape to eternal life or iron-clad outer mental/emotional/spiritual/(whatever) garment to wear as protection against almost the whole of their own nature. On this point, at least, I agree with Muir and with, of all people, Ayn Rand. Rand said you needed to study the Emersons and other philosophers of impact on the thinking of humankind if, for no other reason, so you can protect yourself from their machinations.

Muir didn’t want to be protected from what he learned from nature. I don’t either. In my opinion, experience and observation, this is pretty much where it all starts and ends, with any hope of definiteness and definition. Everything else is pretty much one brain’s supposition, based on at best a few thousand years of “prep” work. Nature has been at the task of doing something with the chaos it finds much, much longer. Best we read and puzzle out its book on how to make sense of our extraordinary situation before we put a lot of stock in the formulations we find in our own books.

Can’t you just see Emerson losing interest in such comments and deciding he needs to invite me to “come east and meet some better people”?

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