Muir’s Church and Snyder’s Religion

One of the characteristics of the modern era is the presence of individuals who have a keen religious sensibility but who no longer can walk the path of the traditional religions.  They have been often disparaged by the “traditionalists” as “doing their own thing,” engaging in a “do-it-yourself” religion, succumbing to an illusory individualism characteristic of modernism, “New Agers” with weird amalgams from various religions, self-centered, self-absorbed, and so on, and so on.  A lot of this criticism is not far off and probably well-earned!  But not in all cases.  There are those persons which the traditional bodies cannot hold–for whatever reason their religious sensibility takes them into uncharted territory.  In fact, those who easily fit in with the traditional bodies, without any friction, without any pain or disagreement, these may have the more serious problem because ALL the traditional bodies have shown a very real dysfunctionality and to be in harmony with THAT is not exactly a recommendation!  To borrow an image: to a crowd that is running away from the Center, the one person who is heading in the opposite direction will seem like the one who is heading in the wrong direction and running away–often the complaint about someone who is “dropping out” and becoming a monk.  Be that as it may, two people who exemplify what we are describing are John Muir and Gary Snyder.

John Muir

Muir is not generally recognized as a religious figure.  He is almost always seen as one of the fathers of the environmental movement in the U.S., as a founder of the Sierra Club(which today he probably would not support at all!), as a lover of the wilderness.  Born in 1838 in Scotland, he was raised in a very strict Protestant home.  His father did not think that the Church of Scotland was strict enough and when the family had moved to the U.S., to Wisconsin, he joined or formed a very strict Christian sect.  By 11 the young Muir had memorized all of the New Testament and a good part of the Old Testament.  But he rebelled against this Christianity and walked away from it all, literally and figuratively.  As a young man he walked all over the developing U.S. and even into Canada in the 1860s–avoiding the Civil War. He knew he could not live without daily intimacy with wild nature and mulled over ways he could live outdoors, “not as a mere sport or plaything excursion, but to find the Law that governs the relations subsisting between human beings and Nature.”   He came to California in 1868, and when he saw the Sierras, that part that is now called Yosemite, he said: “No temple made with hands can compare with this.”  In fact he never stepped into another church ever again, preferring the wilderness.  He wrote: “I never tried to abandon creeds or code of civilization; they went away of their own accord, melting and evaporating noiselessly without any effort and without leaving any consciousness of loss.”

He travelled always alone.  And it is amusing to note what he carried with him, compared to today’s hikers with all their great equipment:  a tin cup, an army jacket, tea, dry bread, a copy of Emerson, reading Emerson by campfire under the stars.  So, no tent, no sleeping bag, etc.  He delighted in experiencing the wilderness “close to his skin” as it were.  One time, in order to experience an oncoming mountain storm, he somehow climbed a tree and lashed himself to it and stayed there while tremendous mountain winds blew and rain fell and the tree swayed violently(storm gusts in the Sierras can get up to 100mph).

Emerson was the only “idea person” or religious figure of any kind that he liked(in this he was close also to that other giant of the environmental movement, Thoreau).  Emerson came out West one time, met Muir, was deeply impressed by him, and offered him a professorship at Harvard.  Muir declined:  “I never for a moment thought of giving up God’s big show for a mere professorship.”

What many in the environmental movement do not realize is that the foundation of Muir’s relatedness to wilderness and nature was a sense of God’s presence.  Much more so than in any organized religion.  He thought much of Christianity’s doctrines were bogus, but he had this very deep and abiding realization of God’s presence in the sacrament of the wilderness.  And he went to it like someone going to a church, a holy place, etc.

This had many important implications for what Muir proposed pertaining to the role of wilderness in the national outlook.  There were a number of people that were sympathetic to Muir’s appreciation of nature, but their outlook was more what is called today “wise use.”  Meaning, the wilderness should be protected up to a point for recreational use, but also used for economic development.  Muir vigorously disagreed.  For him that would be like using a church as a shopping mall on Monday through Friday and then for worship on Sat and Sunday.  Or something like that.  The wilderness was a sacrament of something much deeper than any mere economic or recreational exploitation could ever access.  “Earth hath no sorrows that earth cannot heal, or heaven cannot heal, for the earth as seen in the clean wilds of the mountains is about as divine as anything the heart of man can conceive.”

Muir felt a closeness and intimacy with the wild that few moderns ever experience:  “The sun shines not on us but in us, as if truly part and parent of us.  The rivers flow not past, but through us, thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing….”  “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.”  Ah, if only that were true and not just a wishful thought on Muir’s part.

As old age crept up on him, he would spend more time in the Bay Area in California, going out to his beloved Yosemite only for a few months at a time.  When he finally died, he was buried in Martinez–with his bodily remains near shipping lanes, oil refineries, congested highways, and the noise of civilization, but the real Muir is somewhere else–Home, of which the wilderness was always a sacrament for him.

  1. Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder, a well-known American poet, is also very much a part of the picture of the American environmental movement and one who also has spent a considerable time in the mountains of the American West.  He shares much with Muir in terms of their common love and appreciation for the wild.  With regard to religion, however, he is decidely different from Muir.  Snyder, although born before World War II, grew up and was educated in post-war America, in the Northwest and in California.  In fact, in his old age he is teaching now at UC Davis and living in his own cabin in the foothills of the Sierras.  Snyder is also much more educated than Muir ever was–he has a master’s degree in Asian languages from UC Berkeley and is fluent in Chinese and Japanese.  It is this which enabled him to have a very intimate knowledge of Buddhism.  He spent a considerable time at a Japanese Zen monastery in Kyoto undergoing the traditional life in the Rinzai lineage.  He speaks of it with great affection, but he is also aware of the problems Buddhism has had historically, and he is not afraid to speak of those also.  This goes double for all the other great world religions–Snyder considers them all just a watered-down version, an obfuscated version of something more primitive, deeper and more archaic–this he hesitates to even call “religion.”  It is a religious consciousness but it doesn’t refer to any “ecclesial God” but to the interconnectedness of all reality–thus his preference for Buddhism–and it expresses itself in mythopoetic terms that can be found in all the great religions in one way or another.

Snyder definitely has a preference for the archaic and the primitive as opposed to the modern civilized–especially in regard to religion:  “We all know what primitive cultures don’t have.  What they do have is this knowledge of connection and responsibility that amounts to a spiritual ascesis for the whole community.  Monks of Christianity or Buddhism, ‘leaving the world'(which means the games of society), are trying, in a decadent way, to achieve what whole primitive communities–men, women, and children–live by daily; and with more wholeness…. Class-structured civilized society is a kind of mass ego.  To transcend the ego is to go beyond society as well.  ‘Beyond’ there lies, inwardly, the unconscious.  Outwardly, the equivalent of the unconscious is the wilderness: both of these terms meet, as one steps even farther on, as one.”

As one can intuit from this, Snyder’s religious consciousness is more complex and nuanced than Muir’s. His thought wrestles with the interface of society, language and ecology.  He accepts the “inevitability” of society, but he is seeking to reduce the destructive aspects of society, especially Western Civilization–which is most alienated from the primitive and archaic.    Snyder’s hero and role-model is the poet-shaman rather than the monk–and certainly not the priest or the urban religious figure of power and office.  In fact one of Snyder’s most successful works is a translation of the Cold Mountain Poems by Han-Shan, a Tang Dynasty(about 600 AD) Zen/Taoist hermit and “fool” who was also a poet and is highly regarded in China.  Cold Mountain is the name of the place where he lived for decades, and it also stands for a certain state of mind.  A sample:

The path to Han-shan’s place is laughable,
A path, but no sign of cart or horse.
Converging gorges–hard to trace their twists
Jumbled cliffs–unbelievably rugged.
A thousand grasses bend with dew,
A hill of pines hums in the wind.
And now I’ve lost the shortcut home,
Body asking shadow, how do you keep up?


In a tangle of cliffs I chose a place–
Bird-paths, but no trails for men.
What’s beyond the yard?
White clouds clinging to vague rocks.
Now I’ve lived here–how many years–
Again and again, spring and winter pass.
Go tell families with silverware and cars
“What’s the use of all that noise and money?

Snyder again:  “Of all the streams of civilized tradition with roots in the paleolithic, poetry is one of the few that can realistically claim an unchanged function and a relevance which will outlast most of the activities that surround us today.  Poets, as few others, must live close to the world that primitive men are in: the world in its nakedness, that is fundamental for all of us–birth, love, death, the sheer fact of being alive.   Music, dance, religion, and philosophy of course have archaic roots–a shared origin with poetry.  Religion has tended to become the social justifier, a lackey to power, instead of the vehicle of hair-raising liberating and healing realizations.  Dance has mostly lost its connection with ritual drama, the miming of animals, or tracing the maze of the spiritual journey.  Most music takes too many tools.  The poet can make it on his own voice and mother tongue while steering a course between crystal clouds of utterly incommunicable nonverbal states….”

Snyder has an interesting take on the archaic roots of spiritual practices:  “I understand even more clearly now…that our earlier ways of self-support, our earlier traditions of life prior to agriculture, required literally thousands of years of great attention and awareness, and long hours of stillness.  An anthropologist, William Laughlin, has written a useful article on hunting as education for children.  His first point is to ask why primitive hunters didn’t have better tools than they did.  The bow of the American Indian didn’t draw more than forty pounds; it looked like a toy.  The technology was very simple.  They did lots of other things extremely well, like building houses forty feet in diameter, raising big totem poles, making very fine boats, etc.  Why, then, does there seem to be a weakness in their hunting technology?  The answer is simple: they didn’t hunt with their tools, they hunted with their minds.  They did things–learning an animal’s behavior–that rendered elaborate tools unnecessary.  You learn animal behavior by becoming an acute observer….  Even more interesting: in a hunting and gathering society you learn the landscape as a field, multidimensionally, rather than as a straight line.  We Americans go everywhere on a road; we have points A and B to get from here to there.  Whenever we want something, we define it being at the end of this  or that line….  Certain kinds of hunting are an entering into the movement -consciousness-mind-presence of animals.  As the Indians say: ‘Hunt for the animal that comes to you.’  When I was a boy I saw old Wishram Indians spearing salmon on the Columbia, standing on a little plank out over a rushing waterfall.  They could stand motionless for thirty minutes with a spear in their hands and suddenly–they ‘d have a salmon.….  I am speculating simply on what are the biophysical, evolutionary roots of meditation and spiritual practice….  We know that the practices of fasting and going off into solitude–stillness–as part of the shaman’s training are universal.  All of these possibilities undoubtedly have been exploited for tens of thousands of years–have been a part of the way people learned what they are doing.”

Snyder again:  “…upper Paleolithic people worked about 15 hours a week and devoted the rest of their time to cultural activities.  That period and shortly thereafter coincides with the emergence of the great cave art–for example in the Pyrenees in southern France.  We can only speculate about who those people were; however, we do know that they were fully intelligent, that their physical appearance was no different from people you see today….  Not only are there thousands of caves and thousands of paintings in the caves, but paintings occur in caves two miles deep where you  have to crawl through pools of cold water and traverse narrow passages in the dark, which open up on chambers that have great paintings in them.  This is one of our primary koans:  What have human beings been up to?  The cave tradition of painting, which runs from 35000 to 10000 years ago is the world’s longest single art tradition.  It completely overwhelms anything else.  In that perspective, civilization is like a tiny thing that occurs very late….  The point that many contemporary anthropologists…are making is that our human experience and all our cultures have not been formed within a context of civilization in cities or large numbers of people.  Our self–biophysically, biopsychically, as an animal of great complexity–was already well-formed and shaped by the experience of bands of people living in relatively small populations in a world in which there was lots of company : other life forms such as whales, birds, animals.  We can judge from the paintings, from the beauty and accuracy of the drawings, the existence of a tremendous interest, exchange and sympathy between people and animals….  To come a step farther: in certain areas of the world, the Neolithic period was long a stable part of human experience.  It represented 8000 to 10000 years of relative affluence, stability, and a high degree of democracy, equality between men and women–a period during which all of our vegetables and animals were domesticated and weaving and ceramics came into being.  Most of the arts that civilization is founded on, the crafts and skills, are the legacy of the Neolithic.  You might say that the groundwork for all contemporary spiritual disciplines was well done by then….  So, in that perspective, civilization is new….libraries and academies are very recent developments….and world religions–Buddhism among them–are quite new.  Behind them are millenia of human beings sharpening, developing, and getting to know themselves.”

Looking on the modern scene, Snyder is not very optimistic:  “I’ll say this real clearly, because it seems that it has to be said over and over again:  There is no place to flee to in the U.S..  There is no “country” that you can go and lay back in.  There is no quiet place in the woods where you can take it easy and be a stoned-out hippie.  The surveyors are there with their orange plastic tape, the bulldozers are down the road warming up their engines, the real estate developers have got it all on the wall with pins on it, the county supervisors are in the back room drinking coffee with the real estate developers, the sheriff’s department is figuring to get a new deputy for your area soon, and the forest service is just about to let out a big logging contract to some company.  That’s the way it is everywhere, right up to the north slope of Alaska, all through Canada, too.  It’s the final gold rush mentality.  The rush right now is on for the last of the resources that are left standing.  And that means that the impact is hitting the so-called country and wilderness.  In that sense we are on the front lines.”

Let us conclude by returning to Snyder’s (and my) favorite, Han-shan:

In my first thirty years of life
I roamed hundreds and thousands of miles.
Walked by rivers through deep green grass
Entered cities of boiling red dust.
Tried drugs, but couldn’t make Immortal;
Read books and wrote poems on history.
Today I am back at Cold Mountain:
I’ll sleep by the creek and purify my ears.


When men see Han-shan
They all say he’s crazy
And not much to look at
Dressed in rags and hides.
They don’t get what I say
I don’t talk their language.
All I can say to those I meet:
“Try and make it to Cold Mountain.”

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