The Gospel According to Trees: Thoughts from Muir (there will probably be a lot of these)

When I read That Hideous Strength for the first time, I was impressed by Lewis’ deep appreciation of the ancient forests and trees. In the novel, the forests serve as a counterpoint to the ugly, progressive for the sake of progressive, and hyper-rationalized world of the science lab, and an indication of the spiritual nature of the living world. It also reminded me that there are two sides to environmental preservation. Though we often focus on the practical benefits (you know, like not starving or causing wide-spread devastation), Lewis knew that there was something inherently (and mysteriously) good about being amongst the older members of our earth. This passage by John Muir (written during part of his public campaign for national parks) reminded me of that same sentiment.

Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be detroyed – chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones.

Few that fell trees plant them; nor would planting avail much towards getting back anything like the noble primevil forests. During a man’s life only sapplings can be grown, in the place of the old trees – tens of centuries old – that have been destroyed.

It took more than three thousand years to make some of the trees in these western woods – trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty forest of the Sierra. Through all of the wonderful, eventful centuries since Christ’s time – and long before that – God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalances, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools. I guess Uncle Sam will need to do that.

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  • Christopher Benson

    Cate: I’ve enjoyed following your posts on nature and look forward to more. In your reading, I’m curious to know if you’ve come across Dennis C. William’s book, GOD’S WILDS: JOHN MUIR’S VISION OF NATURE. The book description sounds fascinating:

    In “God’s Wilds” John Muir found beauty, inspiration, and the courage to battle governmental powers for the preservation of natural landscapes. Through his writing and his activism (he was the founding president of the Sierra Club), countless others have also found a call to enjoy and preserve the natural world. In a profoundly intriguing, original view of Muir, Dennis Williams shows him as a fundamentalist about nature, who learned his passion, his way of organizing the world, and his moral principles in the demanding world of nineteenth-century Calvinism.

    Muir, still one of the most popular American nature writers, was instrumental in the creation of Yosemite National Park and other western parks. For years, environmentalists have used him as a bellwether for their objectives, making him into a wilderness man, a pantheist, and an ascetic. Williams, unlike other interpreters, suggests that Muir’s ambition to save nature from development emerged out of his commitment to the assumptions of pre–twentieth-century evangelical Christian theology.

    Yet, Williams shows, Muir and his followers were forced to render their metaphysical beliefs in terms that made sense to post-Darwinian America. As his public writings increasingly adopted the language of the new sciences, his private journals continued to express an evangelical view of nature as a revelation of the character of God. Nonetheless, Muir’s secular terminology offered a relatively transparent disguise for his spiritual beliefs, as his prose continued to exude his enthusiastic natural theology.

    Embodying the uneasy relationship of metaphysics and natural science in his culture, Muir offers insight into the complex evolution of preservationist thought and politics. It is the melding of these two visions, Williams suggests, that continues to make his work appealing and gives it power to fuel nature appreciation, environmental activism, and an alternative vision of the spiritual value of the environment in the modern world.

  • solerso

    Was Muir much read in Britain?

  • http://battermyheartblog.blogspot.com phil

    Cate,
    This isn’t a comment for this specific post, but just a general thought for the theme that you’re discussing across several posts, since I’m coming into this a bit late. First, you once posed the question, “Does how we treat creation reflect how we understand God as Creator?” I’ve come to believe that this is indeed the case, and it also reflects (to some degree or other) how we understand not only the Person of God, but also His will for humankind (and, thus, our ability to live accordingly).
    Also, I’m not Orthodox, but have recently read an interesting book on ecology by an Orthodox author, namely, “Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology” by Elizabeth Theokritoff. Regardless as to whether or not one agrees her entirely, she does bring up some important and interesting concepts to consider.