Nature Knows Best Essay

The Wisdom of John Muir

100+ Selections from the Letters, Journals, and Essays of the Great Naturalist (Wilderness Press, 2012)

The Wisdom of John Muir is a compilation of more than 100 of Muir’s most evocative writings. As you read the stirring words of this iconic naturalist, you’ll feel the wildness of nature calling to you. Through Muir’s writings, you’ll experience the solace and beauty of a sugar pine forest, the adventure of one harrowing night spent on a glacier, and the wonder of the pristine Yosemite Valley and the Sierra Nevada Mountains before they were tainted by human intervention.

For Muir, to be outdoors was to be home, where discovery and adventure awaited around each bend in the trail, and the creatures of the mountains, streams and sky were his friends. It is no wonder that John Muir became nature’s most powerful proponent, prompting President Theodore Roosevelt to create our national parks. Americans have John Muir to thank for one of our great treasures, our national parks. In The Wisdom of John Muir you will get to know the man behind the legend.


Muir was one of those very rare Americans who changed the way we see the world. He helped free our minds, and our bodies—he was a liberationist par excellence, and the great wheeling freedom of his words shines through to this day. Pack a rucksack, grab an apple and a copy of this book, and go find someplace suitable to read it!
—Bill McKibben, from the Foreword

“Here is a book that sings—giving us Muir’s melodies within the larger symphony of his life. The result is brilliant and inspiring.”
—Mary Evelyn Tucker, Forum on Religion and ecology, Yale University

“Anne Rowthorn’s moving, uplifting narrative removes despair and engenders a Muir-like enthusiasm for life and action….”
—Dr. Brent Blackwelder, Friends of the Earth

Excerpts from the book:

Arriving in the Enchanting World of the Sierra Nevada

John Muir was to draw many times on this image of his first sight of the Sierra Nevada. It was a view that shaped his thinking and sustained him all his days to come. Of his three-month-walk from San Francisco to this point, Muir wrote, “I followed the Diablo foothills along the San Jose Valley to Gilroy, thence over the Diablo Mountains to the Valley of the San Joaquin by the Pacheco Pass, thence down the valley opposite the mouth of the Merced River, thence across to San Joaquin, and up into the Sierra Nevada to the mammoth trees of Mariposa and the glorious Yosemite, thence down the Merced to this place.” The curtain was raised!

The air was perfectly delicious, sweet enough for the breath of angels; every draught of it gave a separate and distinct piece of pleasure. I do not believe that Adam and Eve ever tasted better in their balmiest nook.

The last of the Coast Range foothills were in near view all the way to Gilroy. Their union with the Valley is by curves and slopes of inimitable beauty, and they were robed with the greenest grass and richest light I ever beheld, and colored and shaded with millions of flowers of every hue, chiefly of purple and golden yellow; and hundreds of crystal rills joined songs with the larks, filling all the Valley with music like a sea, making it an Eden from end to end.

The scenery, too, and all of Nature in the pass is fairly enchanting, strange and beautiful mountain ferns, low in the dark canyons and high upon the rocky, sunlit peaks, banks of blooming shrubs, and sprinklings and gatherings of flowers, precious and pure as ever enjoyed the sweets of a mountain home. And oh, what streams are there beaming, glancing, each with music of its own, singing as they go in the shadow and light, onward upon their lovely changing pathways to the sea; and hills rise over hills, and mountains over mountains, heaving, waving, swelling, in most glorious, overpowering, unreadable majesty; and when at last, stricken with faint like a crushed insect, you hope to escape from all the terrible grandeur of these mountain powers, other fountains, other oceans break forth before you, for there, in clear view, over heaps and rows of foot hills is laid a grand, smooth outspread plain, watered by a river, and another range of peaky snow-capped mountains a hundred miles in the distance. That plain is the valley of the San Joaquin, and those mountains are the great Sierra Nevadas. The valley of the San Joaquin is the floweriest piece of world I ever walked, one vast level, even flower-bed, a sheet of flowers, a smooth sea ruffled a little by the tree fringing of the river and here and there of smaller cross streams from the mountains….

—John Muir, Letter to Jeanne C. Carr, Written from Merced County, CA, July 26, [1868]
John Muir Letters to a Friend Written to Mrs. Ezra S. Carr 1866-1879 (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1915). Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

A Peaceful Joyful Stream of Beauty

There is the saying of an unknown Zen master, “Knock on the sky and listen to the sound.” John Muir knocked, listened, observed and took into the core of his being everything that was natural and beautiful. All his senses were awake; he was enfolded in nature’s grasp.

Half cloudy, half sunny, clouds lustrous white. The tall pines crowded along the top of the Pilot Peak Ridge look like six-inch miniatures exquisitely outlined on the satiny sky….And so this memorable month ends, a stream of beauty unmeasured, no more to be sectioned off by almanac arithmetic than sun-radiance or the currents of seas and rivers—a peaceful, joyful stream of beauty. Every morning, arising from the death of sleep, the happy plants and all our fellow animal creatures great and small, and even the rocks, seemed to be shouting, “Awake, awake, rejoice, rejoice, come love us and join in our song. Come! Come!” Looking back through the stillness and romantic enchanting beauty and peace of the camp grove, this June seems the greatest of all the months of my life, the most truly, divinely free, boundless like eternity, immortal. Everything in it seems equally divine—one smooth, pure, wild glow of Heaven’s love, never to be blotted or blurred by anything past or to come.
—Journal entry for June 30, 1869

Nature is a Good Mother

“Nature is a Good Mother,” comes from a well-known essay entitled, “Wild Wool,” first published as an article in the Overland Monthly in 1875. It is a statement of Muir’s conviction that the regular, untrammeled forces of nature are sufficient to provide for all her creatures—feathers for birds, hard shells for beetles, fur for bears, and that each creature is perfectly clothed for its niche in the environment. Even the squirrel, he says, wears socks and mittens and carries a broad furry tail to use as a blanket. Using the example of sheep Muir says that wild sheep, unlike their domestic cousins, have a thick undercoat that  repels snow and rain. The purpose of the essay is to counter what Muir contended was, “…the barbarous notion [that]is almost universally entertained by civilized man, that there is in all the manufactures of Nature something essentially coarse which can and must be eradicated by human culture.” In a phrase, Nature knows best!

Nature is a good mother, and sees well to the clothing of her many bairns [children]— birds with smoothly imprecated feathers, beetles with shining jackets, and bears with shaggy furs. In the tropical south, where the sun warms like a fire, they are allowed to go thinly clad; but in the snowy northland she takes care to clothe warmly. The squirrel has socks and mittens, and a tail broad enough for a blanket; the grouse is densely feathered down to the ends of his toes; and the wild sheep, besides his undergarment of fine wool, has a thick overcoat of hair that sheds off both the snow and the rain. Other provisions and adaptations in the dresses of animals, relating less to climate than to the more mechanical circumstances of life, are made with the same consummate skill that characterizes all the love work of Nature. Land, water, and air, jagged rocks, muddy ground, sand beds, forests, underbrush, grassy plains, etc., are considered in all their possible combinations while the clothing of her beautiful wildlings is preparing. No matter what the circumstances of their lives may be, she never allows them to go dirty or ragged. The mole, living always in the dark and in the dirt, is yet as clean as the otter or the wave-washed seal; and our wild sheep, wading in snow, roaming through bushes, and leaping among jagged storm-beaten cliffs, wears a dress so exquisitely adapted to its mountain life that it is always found as unruffled and stainless as a bird.

Steep Trails, 1918.

Any Fool Can Destroy Trees

Such is the power of words that when the essay, "Any Fool Can Destroy Tree," was first published, it was enough to lead President Grover Cleveland to establish thirteen forest reserves, comprising twenty-one million acres, and lay the foundation of the United States Forest Service. They are the final words in Muir’s second book, Our National Parks, published in 1901. By the time the book came out, John Muir had been acknowledged as the country's the most ardent defender of the American wilderness.

The axe and saw are insanely busy, chips are flying thick as snowflakes, and every summer thousands of acres of priceless forests, with their underbrush, soil, springs, climate, scenery, and religion, are vanishing away in clouds of smoke….

Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed —chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones. Few that fell trees plant them; nor would planting avail much towards getting back anything like the noble primeval forests. During a lifetime only saplings can be grown, in the place of the old trees —tens of centuries old —that have been destroyed.

It took more than three thousand years to make some of the trees of these Western woods —trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty —waving and singing in the mighty forests of the Sierra. Through all the wonderful, eventful centuries since Christ's time —and long before that —God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from sawmills and fools….

Our National Parks, 1901

Nature’s Peace

When John Muir wrote Our National Parks, made up of sketches first published in the Atlantic Monthly, he wrote in the preface, “I have done the best I could to show forth the beauty, grandeur, and all-embracing usefulness of our wild mountain forest reservations and parks, with a view to inciting the people to come and enjoy them, and get them into their hearts, that so at length their preservation and right use might be made sure.” Muir’s words are reminiscent of those of Henry David Thoreau, who reminded us, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.”

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. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but Nature's sources never fail. Like a generous host, she offers here brimming cups in endless variety, served in a grand hall, the sky its ceiling, the mountains its walls, decorated with glorious paintings and enlivened with bands of music ever playing. The petty discomforts that beset the awkward guest, the unskilled camper, are quickly forgotten, while all that is precious remains. Fears vanish as soon as one is fairly free in the wilderness.

Our National Parks, 1901

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Returning water to our waterways after we’ve used it in our homes, on farms and in industry is a complex and challenging process.

Large centres have traditionally employed mechanical treatment systems to clean up wastewater. These systems are able to process large volumes, but the flipside is that they are expensive to build and have high operational costs.

For smaller centres, that’s a problem. Oxidation ponds have been the go-to solution for small and medium-sized communities for the past 30 years. Relatively cheap to build and easier to maintain, these work well at removing suspended solids and lessening biochemical oxygen demand. But the problem is they’re highly inconsistent when it comes to removing pathogens and nutrients.

NIWA has been working to take the pond concept to the next level, with work on developing and improving smaller scale, eco-tech wastewater treatments.

“Oxidation ponds have been a great workhorse for New Zealand,” says Dr Rupert Craggs, Principal Scientist - Aquatic Pollution. “But now our aspirations for water quality are so much higher.”

NIWA and the Waipa District Council are working together to demonstrate the use of enhanced pond systems to achieve cost-effective, efficient wastewater treatment. At the Cambridge wastewater treatment plant, the use of two one hectare shallow ponds has been shown to maximise algal productivity and nutrient removal.

Given the system requires a comparatively large land area to work, smaller communities with land available stand to gain most. And, as well as the land requirement, there’s another variable—the sunlight that fuels the processes involved in cleaning up wastewater.

“Because it’s a natural system reliant on sun-driven power, the caveat is that there can be variation with seasonal conditions,” says Craggs. “Our focus is now on designs to take this into account, and considering additional treatment elements.”

But what of water quality? Can a natural wastewater treatment system trump a mechanised plant?

“A natural system can be designed to perform as well as a mechanised system, and better in some cases. There’s also the co-benefit of recovering resources from the wastewater (such as bio-gas) as well as providing treatment.”

Toxic mix

In the early 20th century, coal miners used canaries in mines as an early-warning signal for the dangerous build-up of toxic gases.

The birds, being more sensitive to toxic gases than humans, would develop symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning well before the miners, who would then have a chance to take action to protect themselves. Technology has advanced a long way since then, but bioassays—measures of how potent a substance is by its effect on living cells or tissues—continue to be a critical measure of the impact of contaminants on various environments.

In NIWA’s freshwater ecotoxicity testing work, a range of organisms including invertebrates, fish and algae, are exposed to different concentrations and combinations of contaminants in laboratory conditions to gauge response.

“This allows us to establish thresholds for short-term lethal exposure, for example, to longer term sub-lethal impacts on lifecycles,” says Dr Chris Hickey, NIWA Principal Scientist - Ecotoxicology and Environmental Chemistry.

“The key thing is that it provides solid numeric data on how much (contamination) is too much and the diagnostic tools needed for toxicity identification.”

While testing informs the development of water quality guidelines, one of ecotoxicology’s greatest values is in its application to monitor the impact of specific stressors in site-specific situations. It is increasingly being used to provide reliable information to industries trying to meet their resource consent requirements under the Resource Management Act. That is no surprise given how New Zealand’s vast network of waterways are subject to a wide range of usages and resulting stressors. Freshwater is used in commercial, industrial, residential and recreational situations, and waterways can be affected by multiple contaminants from many different sources.

“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all (test) for all environments,” says Hickey. “Bioassays using both standard and native species tests complement other biological monitoring techniques used to establish the health of New Zealand’s aquatic ecosystems”.

Free passage

Tide gates stop fish from accessing 1100km of waterways in the Waikato River catchment. Thousands more kilometres are made inaccessible by other structures such as culverts, weirs and dams.

Nationwide, there are likely tens of thousands of structures in our rivers, with between 30% and 50% of these structures impeding migration of fish in some way. The result is fewer fish in our rivers.

NIWA Freshwater Ecologist Dr Paul Franklin sees the problem first-hand in his work.

“We see fish massing by human barriers, trying to continue their upstream movements. A few make it past, but many do not. Some will find alternative habitats, but many are eaten. You often see shags collecting fish below the barriers.”

Some native fish are more affected by migration barriers than others. Inanga (Galaxias maculatus), the main whitebait species, are weak swimmers and cannot climb. They are highly susceptible to being blocked by in-stream structures. However, koaro (G. brevipinnis) and juvenile eels (Anguilla australis and A. dieffenbachii) are very good climbers and can even make their way past waterfalls. Franklin says the good news is that there is almost always a way of building new structures in a more fish-friendly way, and to retrofit existing structures to allow more fish past.

“We helped design and install a rock fish ramp and baffles where the Bankwood (Kukutaruhe) Stream was piped into the Waikato River in Hamilton. Within a year, the number of fish species upstream of the culvert had doubled and there are now many more fish in the stream.”

Providing fish passage is required by law and many regional regulations. The Tasman District Council has recently made it mandatory to fix fish passage at all existing culverts.

“We’ve known the importance of providing fish passage for decades, but designing effective fish passes for our native fish has been challenging,” Franklin says.

“A big problem has been the gap between ecologists and engineers, but we’re now doing a better job of speaking the same language.”

NIWA and DOC are currently drafting fish passage guidelines that will help policymakers and engineers with the best methods of constructing fish-friendly structures. NIWA is part of a national advisory group leading the development of new resources to improve management of fish passage.

A new research project just underway will improve understanding of how and why fish behave at structures. This will help us do an even better job of building fish-friendly structures in the future.

Flipping lakes

As freshwater storage and supply sources, New Zealand’s lakes serve as critical gauges of the overall health of many water catchments and ecologies.

There’s good news and bad news in what these gauges are revealing, says NIWA Chief Science Advisor Dr Clive Howard-Williams.

“While about one-third of our monitored lakes are ranked good or very good, and one-third are ranked moderate in terms of ecosystem health, we have a long way to go to restore the one-third that are ranked poor or very poor. Most of these are in lowland areas. There are some grounds for optimism in that over the past 10 years of monitoring, more lakes have shown improvements than have worsened.”

The introduction of pest fish species, aquatic weeds and nuisance algae had seriously undermined the ecological health of lakes.

“Aquatic weeds have impacted on the native vegetation of lakes in the high country as well as lowland New Zealand, and the lake edges, or littoral zones, have been most impacted,” says Howard-Williams.

“Pest fish such as koi carp and catfish prey on native species and in some cases have markedly contributed to declines in ecosystem health.”

Coastal lakes and the shallow lakes of the Waikato were in particularly bad shape.

“Lakes reflect land use in a catchment and can also modify downstream aquatic systems. The shallow lakes of the Waikato, for example, have suffered from excessive nutrient inflows from farming in their catchments and, in particular, from pest plants and fish that have significantly altered lake habitats.”

NIWA is working with a range of partners on a series of research programmes aimed at improving the health of New Zealand lakes, says Howard-Williams.

“NIWA is looking at improved catchment management where lakes are receiving waters in the catchment. Some of this is directly funded through the National Science Challenge ‘Our Land and Water’, which seeks to minimise environmental effects in an improving agricultural economy.”

[This feature appeared in Water & Atmosphere 18]

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