Muir and Plato Go for a Stroll

2,650 total words    

11 minutes of reading

I am leafing through the worn out pages of my old copy of John Muir’s essay (it’s really more of a long travel brochure) on Yellowstone National Park. I lifted it from a gift shop at one of the entrances to the park years ago, when some friends and I were on one of those foundational road trips across the continent which one takes on summer breaks during college. Several of the pages are painted with strange soils, some intentionally, some not. As we hiked our way through the park, I would read the essay all sprawled out on the ground beneath the crystalline sky, and use Muir’s words as a prismatic lens through which to view the “variously tinted sinter and travertine formations” of the hot springs where lives the “blessed ouzel…—most faithful evangel, calming every fear, reducing everything to love”; or the geysers where “destruction was creation, progress in the march of beauty through death.”

I read the essay as a personal guide through the park, as an introduction to the uncanny experience of wandering through a landscape that felt both familiar and terrestrial as well as alien and non-human. David Allen recently wrote that the earth is strange because it “denotes something nonhuman that limits the human, and out of which the human emerges.” For me, this understanding of earth was exhibited most acutely when reading Muir alongside the phenomenal experience of walking through Yellowstone. How could it be possible that as a life-form cultivated by the earth, I felt in some sense utterly estranged from the place where all of its most magnificent properties were on display? The cliffs near the hot springs where one could see the ancientness of the planet rendered in the palimpsest of soils reaching down to the deepest memory of the planet; the canyon (or cañon as Muir and Whitman call it) where one can stand, gazing into a fissure of the earth bearing a wound indifferent to all human existence; the remains of grey wolves, ancestors of our most domestic of pets, which themselves mark the isolation that many humans experience in our self-constructed environments. And so on.

Muir’s book is exemplary in its ability to highlight the foreignness of that which is most present, the earth, while not completely divorcing the human animal from that same Delphic landscape. It is an introduction, in the deepest sense. Introduction, from the Latin introduco means “I lead in” or “I pull in” depending on one’s inflection. The essay on Yellowstone was, for me, attendant to both the literal and literary senses of this word. It at once gave me a way to make sense of the strange landscape into which I was venturing, and at the same time pulled me in or led me in to the physical space of the park. As a “travel brochure” of sorts, Muir’s essay tends to be always ahead of the reader, beckoning her to come with him alongside the waterfalls and geysers that he is describing. The language is at once that of a salesman and of a man deeply in love with the place itself. This feeling is tied up in the fact that the piece was not commissioned by the Park Service of the time, but was independently penned by Muir as a way to bring visitors to the park, motivated solely by his own love of the place. He had to sell it, but not because his economic situation was dependent on it. He sold it for the love of it.

In this sense, and despite the thoroughly descriptive and poetic nature of the piece, it is genuinely philosophical. His desire to present something that he loves, and do it convincingly, to lead us into the park with the sheer force of words, and therefore to pull us in almost physically, is to engage in a philo-sophical project. Muir, like Plato (or any number of thinkers in the philo-sophical tradition), possesses a love of an idea, or a place, and through the work of rhetoric and poetry, makes that thing lovable, open to being loved, in the person to whom the work is addressed. The love of wisdom is both a love of future reconnaissance with any kind of wisdom, and a passion for the ideas and places with which one is enamored.

But this is all, in a sense, beside the point. I’m pulled back to the reason for which I bent these pages of Muir’s essay in the first place. Somewhere in these hundred or so pages is a very particular passage which, at least in my own impression of the essay, seems to form its essence. Inasmuch as it has remained in my memory over the course of the last few years, the passage reads something like this: “When traveling through Yellowstone, what is of utmost importance is to give oneself time to visit its wonders with appropriate duration.”

Of course, this seems like the height of banality. If we want to really experience something fully, we can’t rush through. The idea isn’t new. The critique of speed, the antediluvian stance against technology, this isn’t what makes up the heart of Muir’s call. The importance of this injunction is clarified in what is (or at least what I remember to be) the illuminating sense of the appeal: “Spend time walking through the park. You can’t really experience the park if you are traveling at forty miles per day.” Again, I haven’t yet found the exact quote. I’m just recalling. For some reason or another, however, the idea has stuck with me in a way that not many have since.

*     *     *     *     *

I am searching for this quote because it has to do with a project with which I am already engaged. Several months ago, a colleague and friend of mine, Doctor Liam Heneghan, made an interesting proposal to several people at DePaul University. The idea began as a way into understanding the work of Irish naturalist Robert Praeger. The idea of the project was to walk 1000 miles in Chicago over the course of a year with an eye toward understanding the particular relation that walking has to engaging with the environment and world. Praeger, insofar as I understand him from Liam’s work, was engaged in a form of proto-urban ecology; like Liam’s project itself. Praeger’s seminal work, The Way That I Went, follows the author through the walks he took in Dublin, Ireland, and the surrounding environs. In the text, Praeger documents the curious relationship between an urban world and the plants which exist both in relation to the city and their own immanent unfolding.

The world catalogued in his writings is not simply an earthly world. Praeger writes about the flora that is constituted and constitutes the environment of the places surrounding Dublin as well as that contained within the city limits. The earth which Praeger documents is at once utterly foreign to the city in which it is growing and at the same time unimaginable without it. Like Joyce in his brilliant collection of short stories, Dubliners (published just twenty years before The Way That I Went), Praeger documents the world of a modern urban city with respect to the minutiae of those phenomena often left behind most accounts. The plants that constitute the environs of the city seem to operate in an analogous manner to the eccentric characters that make Dublin an uncanny concatenation of modernity at a particular place and time.

Like Liam, and Praeger before him, I have been walking around my city, Chicago, for one reason or another. Muir’s writings on Yellowstone have, since the beginning, been my wegmarken, my path-markers. Since I was cued into the project earlier this year, I have been guided in all my walkings by the memory I had of this experience, traveling through Yellowstone alongside Muir’s essay and intro-duction. I never have been able, in all my wanderings, to shake the force of Muir’s suggestion about the impotence of travelling at forty miles a day. This thought seems strangely anachronistic, in a time when to travel less than forty miles an hour seems a snail’s pace.

Perhaps Muir was unaware of the meaning of his words, not foreseeing the possibility of easily traveling at more than forty miles a day. Indeed, such a profligate speed seems absurd when we consider the history of the city in which the human animal, its soul and its thought, evolved. Ages ago, before the advent of advanced transit, cities were configured according to the ability of citizens to speak to each other in close proximity. That required that the city be small enough for the people to walk from one place to another. If one were in need of speaking to someone on the other side of the city, outside of convenient walking distance, one would have to spend the night at their host’s place before walking back the many miles to one’s own home the next day. Walking in a city designed for walking, it seems, tends to contribute to conversation, to meeting up with others, and so on.

It is no surprise, then, that in the beginning of many of the greatest of the Platonic dialogues, there is a “first scene” where Socrates encounters one of his interlocutors in a public space wherein they walk a while. The Phaedrus is set up as a walk just outside the polisThe Republic begins with a forced march from Athens to the Piraeus and back, picking up members of the dialogue on the way, and so on.

Indeed, it seems as though philosophy is dependent on the ability for thinkers to amble slowly through the terrain; taking in impressions, encountering interlocutors, being uninterrupted by the end of a journey, opening oneself to the bombardment of visions moving at the speed of thought, becoming familiar with the landscape by becoming part of it, and so on. Muir belongs to this tradition. His philo-sophy was conditioned by a specific speed of thought, a particular precipitancy of love. Love, again, of an idea or a place. The speed at which this great American naturalist traveled (perhaps paralleling the great Irish one, Praeger) was intricately tied up with the love he had for the wilderness. The felicity with which Muir writes of the park, and really of anywhere described in his writings, comes not so much from his having spent enough time to learn facts about the place; it is not as if his words reflect the scientific knowledge that he has gained from spending so much time there. If he had spent a lifetime driving from one observation tower or scientific facility to another, I don’t think he ever would have been able to lead us into the park with the same zeal that he actually does. No, rather it comes from the great passion for the park which is shown so clearly in his words, and the hope he has that he can instill that passion in his readers as well.

And perhaps this is one of the greatest tasks of philosophy: leading one into love. At the end of the Phaedrus, the same dialogue mentioned above that begins with a walk, Plato briefly addresses the importance of this very point. As the epilogue to a lengthy dialogue on Love, Plato takes the opportunity to show Phaedrus that the way to “best please God … in the manner of words” is not simply to read the dead words on a page, but to engage in conversation with a teacher, or at the very least an interlocutor, who brings the words to life by articulating them well and responding appropriately to questions and critique. Plato himself was distrustful of the written word because he felt as though it was inadequate for performing this introductory aspect of philosophy. He wrote in dialogues in order to give the reader the experience of being-there, at the conversation as it happened. To hear the living words and (purportedly) relevant critiques as they happened. In other words, to bring us along with him in the promenade towards wisdom.

Muir’s prose, undoubtedly, works in the same way. He speaks, in the text, to the reader herself. He tells us to “fear nothing,” that “no town park you have been accustomed to saunter in is so free from danger as the Yellowstone.” Or, near the end of the essay: “Stay on this good fire-mountain and spend the night among the stars.” He urges us to “watch their glorious bloom until the dawn, and get one more baptism of light. Then, with fresh heart, go down to your work, and whatever your fate, under whatever ignorance or knowledge you may afterward chance to suffer, you will remember these fine, wild views, and look back with joy to your wanderings in the blessed old Yellowstone Wonderland.”

Of course, this isn’t the same sort of philosophical dialogue that one might expect from a thinker like Plato. Whereas Plato allows his characters some time to respond to his words, Muir speaks in a frenzied half-dialogue. It is, always, as if he were waiting for the reader to respond, and just before she does, he is excited once again by a thought, a reverie of the park, and interrupts the interlocutor, asking her to wait a moment longer so that he can tell her about this one more thing that is so exciting. And he is convincing. If Plato is a thinker of love, of philo-sophy, then Muir is as well. Muir’s work, moreover, explicitly demonstrates the connection that sauntering—spending long periods of time walking—has to this love. What Muir shows, ultimately, is that love is slow and sauntering. What’s more, he shows through his meticulous and poetic prose that walking, itself, teaches us the same. What Stéphane Mallarme said of poetry, that it “defeats chance word by word,” could equally be said of love; it “defeats chance step by step.”

*     *     *     *     *

I’ve found it, the passage I was looking for. No surprise, the essay is only 64 pages long. The quote is on page 35, right at the heart of the text. Muir writes:

“Few tourists…will see the Excelsior [geyser] in action, or a thousand other interesting features of the park that lie beyond the wagon-roads and the hotels. The regular trips – from three to five days—are too short. Nothing can be done well at a speed of forty miles a day. The multitude of mixed, novel impressions rapidly piled on one another make only a dreamy, bewildering, swirling blur, most of which is unrememberable. Far more time should be taken. Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grass and gentians of glacier meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of Nature’s darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees… As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but Nature’s sources never fail.”

This quote echoes passages from Plato’s Republic, such as one in which an older character, Cephalos, tells Socrates that “I would have you know that … as the satisfactions of the body decay, in the same measure my desire for the pleasures of good talk and my delight in them increase.” Although Plato later criticizes Cephalos for many of his beliefs, it seems he at least agrees with Cephalos that there is something in discourse and ideas that persists in giving pleasure from a young age until death. Plato’s idea is the thing that draws him into philosophy, and allows him to take our hand in walking as well. Perhaps it wouldn’t be too farfetched to suggest that for Muir, an analogue of this perpetual source of pleasure can be found in Nature. And although Muir is explicitly referring to “the wild,” perhaps traversing the city on foot can deliver the same timeless pleasure. I hope to have the opportunity to follow up on these thoughts in a later piece; one wherein I might share my admiration of the alleyways of Chicago.


*Images, from top to bottom:

The author hiking; personal photo

John Muir, walking in Yellowstone;

A map of ancient Athens;

Pathway alongside the Adriatic Sea;

Bridge and footpath in Yellowstone National Park;

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  • Evan Edwards

    Evan is a higher education professional and graduate research assistant, specializing in 20th- and 19th-century philosophy. He aspires to continue educating and thinking with students about philosophical issues at institutions of higher learning.

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