By Thomas Crowe
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful, not only as fountains of timbers and irrigating river, but as fountains of life.”
— John Muir
Depending upon where you live, naturalists and environmental saints appear with different names. When I was living in Northern California during the 1970s, the name John Muir was on the lips of all my environmental movement friends. On the East Coast and in New England, the naturalist canon consists mainly of John Burroughs and Henry David Thoreau. In the Southeast William Bartram is “the man.”
Yet, even with this kind of regional segregation of icons, there is some overlap. The most obvious and interesting of these to those of us here in the mountains of Western North Carolina is that of John Muir. Considered mostly a “westerner,” John Muir is primarily known for his adventures in the Sierra Nevada Range of northern California, his conservation activism that protected Yosemite Valley and Sequoia National Park, and as the founder of the Sierra Club. While the Sierras were his preferred stomping grounds, he did travel throughout his lifetime to many areas of the country, including the Western North Carolina mountains.
As if by some kind of time warp or reincarnation intervention, John Muir will be returning to the mountains of Western North Carolina for the first time since his now-famous 1,000-Mile Walk of 1867. As a walk-in to the body of California-based actor Lee Stetson, Muir will be giving talks in Asheville and Highlands that relate some of his most remarkable adventures in the wild, including a remarkable “tree ride” in a windstorm, a “sleigh ride” on a snow avalanche, his “interview” with a bear, and a face-to-fang encounter with a rattlesnake.
Muir’s true wilderness tales are liberally salted with his wilderness philosophy — all around the theme of the health and invigoration one acquires when one fully and joyfully engages wildness. But even more important to us here in the Smoky Mountains, he will be talking about his time spent here in the Western Carolina mountains.
“Looking out over the mountains of Western North Carolina, the scenery is far grander than any I ever before beheld,” Muir writes in his book 1,000 Mile Walk. “Such an ocean of wooded, waving, swelling mountain grandeur is not to be described — all curves and slopes of inimitable softness and beauty. Oh, these forest gardens! What perfection, what divinity, in their architecture! What simplicity and mysterious complexity of detail!”
Describing our Western North Carolina mountains with such superlatives, Muir sounds a lot like Thoreau in his similar diary entry style of writing in The Maine Woods and like Robert Louis Stevenson’s travel writings. But in 1,000-Mile Walk, Muir is not describing the Maine woods or the Highlands of Scotland, he is reminiscing on his trek through our hills at the age of 29 as part of his long hike from Indiana to Florida right after the end of the Civil War while living mostly on stale pieces of bread, almost dying of starvation, camping in a graveyards and encountering “long-haired horse-riding ex-guerrillas who would kill a man for $5.”
Writes Muir of the more pleasant part of that journey through the North Carolina mountains: “My path all today led me along the leafy banks of the Hiawassee River. Mysterious, charming and beautiful, it’s channels are sculptured far more so than the grandest architectural works of man,” Muir muses in his entry in the book for Sept.19. “I have found a multitude of falls and rapids where the wilderness finds a voice. Such a river is the Hiawassee, with its surface broken to a thousand sparkling gems, and its forest walls vine-draped and flowery as Eden. And how fine a the songs it sings!”
Born in 1838, John Muir was a Scottish-born American naturalist, wilderness explorer, author, and early advocate of preservation of U.S. wilderness. His writings and philosophy strongly influenced the formation of the modern environmental movement. In 1849, Muir’s family emigrated to the United States, starting a farm near Portage, Wisconsin which they called the Fountain Lake Farm. Muir described his boyhood pursuits as including fighting and hunting for bird’s nests. As a natural storyteller, Muir taught people the importance of experiencing and protecting wilderness. In 1892, he founded the Sierra Club “to make the mountains glad,” he said. His work and writings contributed greatly to the creation of our National Parks System, or “national forest reservations” as he called them.
In his recently released PBS series “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns said of John Muir, “Mark Twain said the difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. John Muir was lightning. My eyes at times would fill with tears in the editing room as we worked on telling Muir’s story.”
The man who plays Muir in Ken Burn’s PBS series is Lee Stetson, the same man who will share Muir’s amazing adventure stories to the audience at the Crest Pavilion at the Villages at Crest Mountain in Asheville and at the Highlands Playhouse in Highlands in October. Stetson’s Muir shows have toured throughout the country since 1983. He also lectures frequently on the arts and the environment, and spends a considerable portion of his time promoting the performing arts in the national parks. One reviewer recently said of Lee Stetson’s performance: “This veteran actor makes us believe so deeply in Muir that we, too, begin thinking of the plants and trees and wildlife as people. Stetson has done as much or more to acquaint Americans with one of its most remarkable sons than Muir himself in all his writings.”
In his dairy entry for Sept. 20 in his 1,000-Mile Walk, Muir writes, “All day among the groves and gorges of Murphy. Found a numbc er of rare and strange plants on the rocky banks of the river Hiwassee. In the afternoon, from the summit of a commanding ridge, I obtained a magnificent view of blue, softly curved mountain scenery. Among tress I saw Holly for the first time. My companion this day informed me that the paleness of most of the women in his neighborhood, and the mountains in general hereabouts, was caused chiefly by smoking and by what is called ‘dipping.’ I had never even heard of dipping. Their term simply describes the application of snuff to the gum by means of a small swab.”