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Articulating Wild Spaces: John Muir’s Lexical Wonderland

From: CEA Critic
Volume 75, Number 2, July 2013
pp. 175-182 | 10.1353/cea.2013.0018

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In his Critique of Judgement, philosopher Immanuel Kant writes,

to take an immediate interest in the Beauty of Nature . . . is always a mark of a good soul; . . . when that interest is habitual it at least indicates a frame of mind favourable to the moral feeling, if it is voluntarily bound up with the contemplation of nature [italics in original].


Contemplating nature unscientifically—a firm rejection of the overly scientific evaluation of nature during the Enlightenment—began in eighteenth-century Germany. Beginning especially with Kant and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Romantic ideas and ideals traveled across Europe, into Britain, and eventually found a home in America. Romanticism profoundly affected philosophy, literature, art, music, and natural history. The natural historian Alexander von Humboldt, a contemporary of both Kant and Goethe, influenced other notable natural historians like Louis Agassiz, Charles Lyell, and Charles Darwin (and later, writers like Thoreau, Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, and John Muir). Thus, Henry David Thoreau was inspired to explore and write about the woods and rivers of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine; additionally, Ralph Waldo Emerson reflected upon nature’s profundities—mostly within the confines of his study—and composed contemplative and sometimes arcane prose about the blissful scenes of the natural world. Nature was unique because it lent itself to such intense and abstract reflection from such a variety of disciplines.

Discipline diversity aside, one writer/contemplator who is often overlooked—perhaps because he is not easily categorized—is John Muir, the itinerant Scotsman who wandered across thousands of miles of American wilderness, faithfully recording the varying scenes and vistas he viewed while traveling. The first leg of Muir’s journey came after he recuperated from a factory-incurred eye injury; Muir left the industrializing city of Indianapolis, determined never to work in a manufacturing plant again. After returning home briefly to visit family in Wisconsin, he bade them farewell. When Muir left, he was determined to see South America, inspired by Humboldt’s written account of his own cross-continental travels. Similarly, Muir kept a journal of his travels. In A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, he recounts how, traveling south-easterly, he was determined not only to see the “Orinoco basin and in particular the basin of the Amazon,” but also to “float down on a raft or skiff the whole length of the great river [the Amazon] to its mouth” (169). It is difficult to know how successful he would have been had he not contracted malaria in Florida. Frederic Badé recounts how, after convalescing on a steamer ship for a month in Cuba, Muir searched in vain “for a vessel bound for South America. . . . It was then that his mind turned to California” (Life and Letters 9:174). Disembarking in San Francisco from the steamer Nebraska on March 27, 1868, Muir asked a passerby where he could find “anywhere that’s wild” (9:177). Deciding to travel by foot and not steamer, Muir, and a young Englishman named Chilwell, traveled south towards Yosemite (9:178). Muir recounts the vision:

[At] the top of the Pass I obtained my first view of the San Joaquin plain and the glorious Sierra Nevada. Looking down from a height of fifteen hundred feet, there, extending north and south as far as I could see lay a vast level flower garden, smooth and level like a lake of gold—the floweriest part of the world I had yet seen.


Muir’s vision of wild spaces, mountain heights, and coniferous glories was forever altered by his visit to the Yosemite Valley. But his views were not the only ones to change. Through Muir’s meticulous observations and descriptions steeped in rich metaphorical language—the above reference merely representing a beginning—Americans would never again view the western part of their new country through the same eyes, especially the wild spaces in California. Through his lexical dynamism, Muir would redefine how American wilderness could be described and articulated.

Originally, Muir planned on spending only a year in the “interesting country” of California before “carrying out [his] Amazon plans” (Thousand-Mile 170). However, his traveling experiences—before and after he reached the Valley—seem to have...

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