All my life I have been a voracious reader. Unfortunately there has been little fiction or non-fiction written since 1957 worth reading. So I spend most of my reading time catching up with the classics I have not read, or re-reading the best of the best.
For some reason I can’t explain, my reading seems to be theme-based. That is, I read about specific subjects or read specific authors without interruption. Currently I am re-reading most of John Muir’s works. A couple years ago my theme was the writings of our founding fathers and those great minds that influenced them. Last year it was mostly Jack London and then Victor Hugo.
Yesterday I finished Muir’s, My First Summer in the Sierra. To understand Muir and this book, one should probably read his book titled The Story of My Boyhood and Youth first. My Summer in the Sierra is about the first summer Muir spent in the Sierra in the company of a sheepherder. There is one passage from this journal that really caught my eye. Muir tells the story of how he went searching for 300 missing sheep and found them in an open area:
“…huddled in a timid, silent bunch. They had evidently been here all night and all the forenoon, afraid to go out and feed. Having escaped restraint, they were, like some people we know of, afraid of their freedom, did not know what to do with it, and seemed glad to get back into the old familiar bondage.”
Restraint of freedom is an important concept for scholars of the American Revolution. It is the cornerstone of the nation. But many people, just like the sheep, are afraid to be alone and free in the wilderness. Their only sense of security and safety is to band together with a group of like-minded people.
And what is the source of this fear? It is the lack of knowledge of the wilderness. Freedom requires knowledge and understanding. To truly understand and feel free in the wilderness one has to experience it; learn from it. And this is what Muir spent most of his life doing. He wasn’t some sort of fast backpacker, rushing through deserts and mountains to complete the journey as fast as possible – he took his time learning of the green world. He studied all aspects of nature, from the smallest of insects to the largest of trees. He studied plants, animals, birds, reptiles, and everything around him. And while doing so, Muir completed many long hikes without the aid of maps and modern conveniences as we know them today.
Unlike many people today who live in a concrete and asphalt world, Muir lived in green places as a child and experienced nature first hand. In addition, he had the wanderlust DNA. So Muir had advantages that many of us do not. Unlike Muir, I grew up in a suburban arena surrounded by stands of wood and cement buildings. My playground was not meadows or forests, but asphalt streets and cement sidewalks. My experience with nature was an empty lot that was overgrown each spring and summer with weeds.
Luckily, I have the wanderlust gene. I first experienced this when I was 8 or 9 years old. Early one summer morning, I rode my bike 26 miles to the Palos Verdes peninsula in Southern California. Looking down from a promontory point I could see tide pools, waves, and all manner of interesting things. Working my way down a footpath, soon I was surrounded by nature and nothing of the man-made world. It was wonderful, exciting, and refreshing. I gathered sea urchins, starfish, and other living things to take home and study. Fear never entered my mind – only the desire to learn more. Thus began my infatuation with the green world. In a few years I would start exploring the green world with a backpack, and I haven’t looked back.
Like Muir, one cannot learn of the green world by reading books. Oh, books help gather information, but real knowledge comes from walking and observing. One cannot rush through the wilderness to gain real knowledge. Time must be spent exploring, sitting, watching, smelling, and listening. The more time spent in the wilderness engaged in learning, the more knowledge is gained. And with knowledge, there is no fear – one does not have to be afraid of their freedom.