It's a perfect place for a Northwest lesson in spirituality. We're in Seattle's Town Hall, a former church-turned-civic-space. On stage is Lee Stetson, an actor who's made a career out of channeling the spirit of John Muir. For decades, he's brought to life the man who preached the gospel of the sacred wilderness.
Like Muir, Stetson's got the long white beard, the twinkling eyes, an accent mingling Muir's native Scottish burr with the Westernisms of a son of the Sierra. As background, the audience has been treated to a snippet previewing the (Fall, 2009) latest PBS documentary series from Ken Burns, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea."
Stetson takes the stage, a friendly ghost called by our presence. He begins by talking about man's relationship with nature preserves. The first, he says, was the Garden of Eden, where a man and a woman and Satan tangled over a single tree. Muir, the father of the modern environmental movement, fought to create new Edens called National Parks, and to raise public consciousness about our wild lands and their importance to our spiritual lives. He called the Sierra a "holy wilderness" and likened himself to John the Baptist eager to immerse all of us "in the beauty of God's mountains."
Nowhere have those lessons rooted deeper than here in the Pacific Northwest, or Cascadia as some call it, a region that was rapidly populated in the decades when Muir's message was new and resonant. The gospel of Muir comes to many of us with mother's milk, or with school chalkboards and lesson plans. I attended John Muir Elementary School in Seattle's Mount Baker neighborhood. So did my father who remembered that in the 1920s, not so long after Muir's death in 1914, the students each year conducted a pageant commemorating Muir. A young girl would be chosen to embody Nature and she'd be surrounded by classmates under a large white sheet representing one of the flowing glaciers that naturalist Muir made famous.
From early nature worshippers like the Mountaineers to outdoor curmudgeons like the late Harvey Manning to the latter-day salesmen who tout British Columbia as "Super Natural," or Seattle as "Metronatural," the strains of Muir are heard throughout our public expressions of values and place. We believe in the towering transformative power of life lived in the shadow of nature's grandeur, that it connects us with something larger than ourselves, be it truth, beauty, love, Mother Earth, the cosmos, or God.
Muir wasn't the first white man to find the sacred in nature, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he articulated a form of what we now know as environmentalism that was secular, yet powerfully spiritual. Writes University of Southern Oregon history professor Mark Shibley:
The prototypical religious experience of nature in the American West is the mountain epiphany, embodied in the adventures of John Muir....
Muir's romantic experience of the landscape as welcome ecstasy helped transform public perceptions of frontier wilderness in the late 19th century. His public testimony was pivotal in turning America's Christian impulse to subjugate godless nature to the celebration of God in nature, an ethos that pervades Cascadia.
In that context, Muir was indeed a character of biblical proportions, larger than life, the first green superhero. He could hop mighty crevasses, survive for days with no shelter with just a little stale bread to nourish him. He lived through tempests in treetops, rode an avalanche down a mountain, had a tolerance of suffering and a boundless energy that make many of his exploits unrepeatable. He inspires by example, even if most of us cannot literally follow in his footsteps. We look at the glow of sunrise on the Cascades or the sunset on the Olympics and share his ecstatic experience.
In his new Muir biography, A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir, historian Donald Worster traces the evolution of Muir's thoughts about the wilds and his spiritual impulses. Son of a fundamentalist father, a charismatic Cambellite New Testament Bible thumper, Muir escaped the oppressiveness of his father's Scot's Calvinism yet replaced it with a version of his own that still had it origins in America's Protestant values. Elsewhere, Worster has written that the lineage of Muir's thinking runs thusly: "From [Jonathan] Edwards to Emerson to Thoreau and then on to John Muir, Rachel Carson, William Douglas, and David Brower." He took old-time religion, married it with nature, made God optional, and turned environmentalism into what Shibley calls Cascadia's "folk religion." A secular faith that even atheists can embrace.
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