John Muir on What Nature Can Teach Us About Life

John Muir on What Nature Can Teach Us About Life

Few names are as synonymous with nature as that of writer and naturalist John Muir. Muir was born in 1838 in Dunbar, Scotland, and his family immigrated to the United States in 1849, initially settling in Wisconsin. As a young man, Muir traveled the northern United States and Canada, then went to Cuba and Panama. His travels continued, but he made California his home in 1868. And it was in California that Muir found his greatest inspiration: the Sierra Nevada and Yosemite.

Muir spent much of his time in the Sierra Nevada, calling it “the most divinely beautiful of all the mountain chains I have ever seen.” In the 1870s, he began studying the range extensively, and his writings attracted the public’s attention. His readers were inspired by the way he wrote about mountains, glaciers, and forests, and the way he captured nature in all its glory. He became a celebrated naturalist and environmental philosopher, and his words carried weight. In 1890, Muir was instrumental in convincing the U.S. Congress to create Yosemite National Park, which paved the way for the National Park System. When Muir published Our National Parks, he came to the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1903, the two men met in Yosemite, where their conversations helped shape Roosevelt’s groundbreaking conservation programs.

Today, John Muir is often called the father of the National Park System. He was a man of great passion and great learning, and his greatest teacher was nature. The wilderness, for Muir, was a place of both exceptional beauty and knowledge. As Muir famously said, “One day’s exposure to mountains is better than a cartload of books.” It’s a sentiment he would repeat in numerous works and speeches. Here are 14 quotes from Muir about the lessons nature has to teach us.

Few places in this world are more dangerous than home. Fear not, therefore, to try the mountain-passes. They will kill care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action. Even the sick should try these so-called dangerous passes, because for every unfortunate they kill, they cure a thousand.
– “The Mountains of California,” 1894

Few are altogether deaf to the preaching of pine-trees. Their sermons on the mountains go to our hearts; and if people in general could be got into the woods, even for once, to hear the trees speak for themselves, all difficulties in the way of forest preservation would vanish.
– “Speech at a meeting of the Sierra Club,” 1895

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; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.
– “Our National Parks,” 1901

I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news.
– “John Muir quoted by Samuel Hall Young in “Alaska Days with John Muir,” 1915

Let children walk with nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life, and that the grave has no victory, for it never fights. All is divine harmony.
– “A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf,” 1916

In every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks.
– “Steep Trails,” 1918

It has been said that trees are imperfect men, and seem to bemoan their imprisonment rooted in the ground. But they never seem so to me. I never saw a discontented tree.
– “John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir,” 1938

The mountains are fountains of men as well as of rivers, of glaciers, of fertile soil. The great poets, philosophers, prophets, able men whose thoughts and deeds have moved the world, have come down from the mountains — mountain dwellers who have grown strong there with the forest trees in Nature’s workshops.
– “John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir,” 1938

How little note is taken of the deeds of Nature! What paper publishes her reports? Who publishes the sheet-music of the winds, or the written music of water written in river-lines? Who reports and works and ways of the clouds, those wondrous creations coming into being every day like freshly upheaved mountains? And what record is kept of Nature’s colors — the clothes she wears — of her birds, her beasts — her live-stock?
– “John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir,” 1938

One day’s exposure to mountains is better than cartloads of books. See how willingly Nature poses herself upon photographers’ plates. No earthly chemicals are so sensitive as those of the human soul. All that is required is exposure, and purity of material.
– “John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir,” 1938

Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.
– A note written by John Muir in the margin of volume I of “Prose Works” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

We all travel the milky way together, trees and men.
– “A Wind Storm in the Forests of the Yuba,” “Scribner’s Monthly,” 1894

Surely all God’s people, however serious and savage, great or small, like to play. Whales and elephants, dancing, humming gnats, and invisibly small mischievous microbes, — all are warm with divine radium and must have lots of fun in them.
– “The Story of My Boyhood and Youth,” 1913

Most people are on the world, not in it — have no conscious sympathy or relationship to anything about them — undiffused, separate, and rigidly alone like marbles of polished stone, touching but separate.
– “John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir,” 1938