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Wise Words: A Collection of Quotes from John Muir

I recently read a luminous travelogue/memoir/work of philosophical genius called My First Summer in the Sierra that really struck an almost uncanny chord with me.

Penned by Scottish-American naturalist, John Muir in 1869, the book is basically a personal diary of his experience joining a crew of shepherds on their humble search for good grazing in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains.

He was a young man of 31 at the time and intent on finding meaning beyond the mundanities of daily life. And, well, (spoiler alert): he found loads of it in the wilds of North America.

It’s been quite a while since a book resonated as deeply with me. Its pages are properly dog-eared now, stuck full of place-holder post-its and almost entirely covered in pencil marginalia and underlined paragraphs.

So, I decided to jot down some of my favourite quotes right here:


“Anyhow, we never know where we must go nor what guides we are to get, – men, storms, guardian angels, or sheep. Perhaps almost everybody in the least natural is guided more than he is ever aware of. All the wilderness seems to be full of tricks and plans to drive and draw us up into God’s light.”


“God himself seems to be always doing his best here, working like a man in a glow of enthusiasms.”


“Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days inciting at once to work and rest! Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God.”

“No wonder the hills and groves were God’s first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn into cathedrals and churches, the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord himself.”


“Wherever we go in the mountains or indeed any of God’s wild fields, we find more than we seek.”


“Indeed most of the miracles we hear of are infinitely less wonderful than the commonest of natural phenomena, when fairly seen.”


“We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us, our flesh and bone tabernacle seems transparent as glass to the beauty about us as if truly an inseparable part of it, thrilling with the air and trees, streams and rocks, in the waves of the sun – a part of all nature, neither old nor young, sick nor well, but immortal.”


“Another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where. Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality.”


“Have greatly enjoyed all this huge day sauntering and seeing, steeping in the mountain influences, sketching, noting, pressing flowers, drinking ozone and tamarack water.”


“… but glorious hope lifts above all the dust and din and bids me look forward to a good time coming when money enough will be earned to enable me to go walking where I like in pure wilderness, with what I can carry on my back.”



“Only spread a fern frond over a man’s head and worldly cares are cast out and freedom and beauty and peace come in.”


“Man seems to be the only animal whose food soils him, making necessary much washing and shield-like bibs and napkins. Moles living in the earth and eating slimy worms are yet as clean as seals or fishes, whose lives are one perpetual wash.”


“So extravagant is Nature with her choicest treasures, spending plant beauty as she spends sunshine pouring forth into the land and sea, garden and desert.”

“I oftentimes found the curious twining lily climbing its branches, showing no fear but rather congenial companionship… Like most other things not apparently useful to man, it has few friends and the blind question ‘why was it made?’ goes on and on with never a guess that first of all it might have been made for itself.”


“Mother Nature is too often spoken of as in reality no mother at all. Yet, how wisely, sternly, tenderly she loves and looks after her children in all sorts of weather and wildernesses.”


“Nothing truly wild is unclean.”


“I never enjoyed grander company. The whole wilderness seems to be alive and familiar, full of humanity. The very stones seem talkative, sympathetic, brotherly. No wonder when we consider that we all have the same Father and Mother.”


“Now the storm is over, the sky is clear, the last rolling thunder-wave is spent on the peaks and where are the raindrops now?… From form to form, beauty to beauty, ever-changing, never resting, all are speeding on with love’s enthusiasm, singing with the stars, the eternal song of creation.”


“How deeply with beauty is beauty overlaid! The ground covered with crystals, the crystals with mosses and lichens, and low-spreading grasses and flowers, these with larger plants, leaf over leaf, with ever-changing colour and form, the broad palms of the firs outspread over these, the azure dome over all like a bell-flower and star above star.”


“How lavish is Nature building, pulling down, creating, destroying, casing every material particle from form to form, ever changing, ever beautiful.”

All images by me, captured on 35mm film.

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