Perspective: What John Muir's walk through wild Florida can teach us today

Muir, circa 1902, founded the Sierra Club. But Florida led him to a revelation.
Muir, circa 1902, founded the Sierra Club. But Florida led him to a revelation.
Published Sept. 30, 2016

A comb, brush, towel, soap, change of underclothing, Robert Burns' poetry, Milton's Paradise Lost and the New Testament. This is what John Muir packed in his bag when he embarked on a 1,000-mile hike from Indianapolis that would ultimately take him to Cedar Key in 1867.

He also carried a book protruding with pressed plants. At the time, Muir, who would later be named the Father of American Conservation, introduced himself as a botanist to those he met along the way. He was 29 years old and described himself as "joyful and free" when he set forth on the first day of September, aiming to walk 20 miles a day. He collected specimens as he moved south, through rural towns and untouched wilderness.

"My plan was simply to push on in a general southward direction by the wildest, leafiest and least trodden way I could find, promising the greatest extent of virgin forest," Muir wrote in his journal of the trip, titled The Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the book, which was published posthumously. While Muir's writings on the American West are better known, historians say it was Muir's journey to the gulf that sparked his philosophy of egalitarian respect for nature — in turn kindling the nation's 20th century environmental conservation movement.

At the start of his ambitious trek, Muir moved wide-eyed through Kentucky oaks with bright green canopies, past groves of giant sunflowers and rolling hills of naked limestone. He slept beneath bushes at night and awoke to the earliest bird calls in the morning.

Muir was raised on a Wisconsin farm in a Scottish Presbyterian family with conventional religious views. He was influenced by Darwinism, transcendentalism and romanticism, as well as the environmental sciences of the time. As he moved deeper into the American South, the religious ideology that Muir was raised with began to transform into humility and awe for the spirituality of the natural world.

"He is throwing off a lot of conventional religious views that he was brought up with," said Emily Brady, professor of environment and philosophy at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. "He becomes interested in worshipping nature."

Muir faced harsh conditions when he set foot in Florida, beginning in Fernandina Beach and cutting through Gainesville en route to Cedar Key. The distances he traveled became shorter and more indirect as he navigated through the "vine-tangled" landscape. He paused often to admire vibrant species, some of which he was seeing for the first time: the "grand" palmetto, a "silvery-leafed" magnolia, the "dazzling sun-children" of a palm grove.

As he reveled in the grand new landscape, he also encountered the unfamiliar and somewhat uncomfortable. Muir was fearful of alligators as he pushed through the swamps of Florida. He came across only one during his travels, but he heard stories along the way of their ruthlessness, and he seemed to be constantly watching his back for one to creep out of the undergrowth. However, despite this fear, Muir still praised these ancient animals, calling them "beautiful in the eyes of God."

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"These creatures that are sort of seen as ugly and vile and the work of the devil," Brady said. "He has this very egalitarian view where we are not above the alligator. The alligator is just another one of God's creatures and put on the Earth just like other creatures."

Even with Muir's respect for the natural world, he is still what Brady calls "a man of his time." His descriptions of the black Americans he meets along the way can be harsh and insulting. Some Muir scholars have denied his commentary was racial prejudice, suggesting that he was a man of values rather than a man who saw himself as superior to others. Others say it's likely that he saw black people as culturally unsophisticated, if not biologically inferior.

Muir's walk takes place shortly after the Civil War, and racial tensions are a repeated topic of discussion as he heads into the Deep South. In the year of Muir's walk, Florida was nearly split in half in terms of its racial composition. By 1860, 77,746 white people lived in the state alongside 61,745 black slaves and 932 free blacks. Many of the black Americans Muir met on his way south were living in rural areas, reliant on the natural resources surrounding them.

Muir lived a privileged life in comparison. Muir scholars have questioned the accessibility and relevance of his definition of pristine wilderness as areas undisturbed by man, especially considering how few people at the time had the economic wealth and leisure time enough to visit such areas.

The Sierra Club, which Muir co-founded in 1892, still grapples with the challenges of diversity — and how different cultures define and enjoy wilderness. Mark Walters, the chairman of the Florida chapter of the Sierra Club, joined after seeing primarily white volunteers guide a group of black American and Hispanic kids during a field trip outdoors.

Walters said the club's white-dominated membership base is likely the result of its history as an exclusive club, but diversity outreach is now one of the group's core values.

"The lack of people involved with what we were doing probably stems from the makeup of the group itself," he said. "The Sierra Club skews to white, older, upper-middle-class members, and not that the club is actively excluding people, but I think just the way that it is situated that folks may feel not as welcomed."

Every summer the club brings young people together from across the country through a program called Inspiring Connections Outdoors to volunteer at some of the wildest places in the country. The kids are put to work manicuring trails and helping to keep parks like Yosemite maintained.

"What that has done is it has helped connect the kids to those places and also made them aware that their involvement is necessary if we are going to maintain those places," Walters said.

For many of those young people, it is their first time seeing mountains or experiencing the natural world outside of their city, and Walters said it helps them to understand how wild places are linked to their own neighborhoods.

"I think whether or not the kids can directly access those places, I don't think that should preclude us from trying to make sure that they recognize how relevant those places are to all of humanity's existence on this planet," he said. "Because it's all tied together."

Though some of Muir's cultural observations from his journal represent an antiquated and counterproductive view, his environmental philosophies continue to be relevant, representing a way of thinking that is still considered innovative.

"When you read the Thousand-Mile Walk and when you read his other more well-known texts, this kind of respect for nature and this kind of leveling of the playing field does seem to me to be very modern," said Brady, the professor of environment. "Really modern, when you think about environmental ethics."

Muir's most profound realization during the walk came after the harshness of embedding himself within nature brought debilitating consequences.

After Muir arrived in Cedar Key, he quickly contracted what historians believe to have been malaria. He became seriously ill and was cared for by a local family for several weeks.

"It was time for contemplation for him," said Jack Davis, professor of environmental history at the University of Florida. "It allowed him the freedom to think about things."

During this time, Muir had a personal revelation. He wrote: "The universe would be incomplete without man; but it would also be incomplete without the smallest transmicroscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful eyes and knowledge. From the dust of the earth, from the common elementary fund, the Creator has made Homo sapiens. From the same material he has made every other creature, however noxious and insignificant to us."

It was this moment that reframed his way of thinking that perhaps nature is not meant for man, and that some areas of the natural world should be left undisturbed by human influence — a point of view that would later become instrumental in the dawning of conservation movements in the states.

"He goes through this reassessment about the human relationship with the natural world," Davis said, "and it is that reassessment that really plants or establishes the framework of his thinking and sensibilities that really form him as the founding father of American environmentalism."

Muir became the first voice to represent preservationist thinking. His articles on the topic were published in Century Magazine, a mass-circulated publication at the time. His views continued to develop as he traveled west and wrote the more well-known accounts of his hikes in California's Sierra Nevada and Yosemite. He went on to become one of the founders of the Sierra Club, and served as the group's first president until his death in 1914.

Florida-based ecologist Bruce Means, president and executive director of the Coastal Plains Institute and Land Conservancy, retraced Muir's path in 1984 with nothing but a backpack, a walking stick (to fend off wild dogs) and a poncho. Means walked 20 miles a day, following in Muir's footsteps accompanied by a copy of his actual journal. He spent his nights behind bales of hay or tucked beneath his poncho.

Much of the "pristine forests" that Muir sought had been demolished by then, speaking to the enormous amount of development that has occurred in the Southeast, and particularly Florida, in last century. Florida's population has increased 100-fold since 1867, when fewer than 200,000 people lived in the state.

"I was disappointed," Means said. "I had hoped that I would see more patches of natural native environment, but the truth of the matter is that we have so thoroughly affected the ecology of the eastern United States."

Means saw huge changes in the ecology of the region. The Eastern Hardwood Forest that previously stretched from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River was wiped out through logging and agriculture, leaving second- and third-growth timber in its place. The virgin forests from 117 years earlier fell decades before. The Hiawassee River, which Muir described as "a thousand sparkling gems," had been dammed.

Means hopes that by sharing what he saw, he can convey the importance of maintaining the ecological integrity of the Southeast. He is working on a book, Walking Out Loud, that recounts his travels, set to publish next year.

We are in the age of the Anthropocene ("anthropo," for "man;" "cene," for "new" — an age in which humankind is the dominant influence). And with global climate change looming, thoughts of the natural world today tend toward fear and control rather than peacefulness and preservation. In revisiting the Thousand-Mile Walk, can we learn anything from Muir's intimate connection to the harsh yet richly verdant South?

UF professor Davis says yes. We still have much to learn from Muir's sense of respect for nature in all of its forms. His willingness to place the human species on the same level as all of the rest. The inseparable interconnectedness of every living thing.

"This is one thing that he came to realize," Davis said. "Humans are not removed from the natural world; they are indeed part of it. And so in being part of it, we have to consider the health of that world. Because of our own health, human health, is connected to the environmental health of this state."

Hannah O. Brown is a doctoral student and journalist in the Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation in the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Florida.