John Muir On The ‘Negroes’ Of The American South

John Muir often wrote soaring prose about the beauties and majesties of nature, about how the outdoors were our ‘natural cathedrals’; he urged his fellow human beings to leave behind their sordid, grubby, weekday cares and let themselves be elevated by the sublime qualities of hill and vale and river and babbling brook. Here, on earth, he sought the transcendent, and his writings reflected that elevated aspiration and his delighted and delightful responses to the grand offerings of awe-inspiring locales like the American West. Elsewhere, in his opinions of human beings, he often showed himself to be anchored firmly in his times and place; a man ultimately, of a particular locale, at a particular point in history.

During his famed 1867 walk from Kentucky to the Gulf Coast, Muir passed through an American South still recovering from the Civil War. Its population included both ‘whites’ and ‘negroes.’ Muir’s encounters with the latter are described in a language typical for its time–‘negroes’ are creatures with distinctive characteristics, a sub-species of a very particular kind.

In Kentucky,  Muir met “a great many negroes going to meeting, dressed in their Sunday best. Fat, happy looking, and contented.” There too, when trying to cross a “deep and rapid” river, he had been aided by a “negro woman” who asked him to wait while she arranged for a horse. This was arranged; “the little sable negro boy that rode him looked like a bug on his back.” Muir was soon “mounted behind little Nig. He was a queer specimen, puffy and jet as an India rubber doll and his hair was matted in sections like the wool of a merino sheep….little Afric looked as if he might float like a bladder.” Muir did think that “many of these Kentucky Negroes are shrewd and intelligent, and when warmed upon a subject that interests them, are eloquent in no mean degree.” In Georgia, Muir found that the “negroes here have been well trained and are extremely polite. When they come in sight of a white man on the road, off go their hats, even at a distance of forty or fifty yards, and they walk bare-headed until he is out of sight.” Still, Muir was worried about “idle negroes..prowling about everywhere” and took considerable concern to avoid them–and their “wild eyes”– in his search for a resting place at night. He was generally less than impressed by their work ethic for “the negroes are easy-going and merry, making a great deal of noise and doing little work. One energetic white man, working with a will, would easily pick as much cotton as half a dozen Sambos and Sallies.”

His impression of the negro’s essential wilderness was confirmed by an encounter with a ‘negro family’ in Florida, who he encountered in a forest:

When within three or four miles of the town I noticed a light off in the pine woods. As I was very thirsty, I thought I would venture toward it with the hope of obtaining water. In creeping cautiously and noiselessly through the grass to discover whether or not it was a camp of robber negroes, I came suddenly in full view of the best-lighted and most primitive of all the domestic establishments I have yet seen in town or grove. There was, first of all, a big, glowing log fire, illuminating the overleaning bushes and trees, bringing out leaf and spray with more than noonday distinctness, and making still darker the surrounding wood. In the center of this globe of light sat two negroes. I could see their ivory gleaming from the great lips, and their smooth cheeks flashing off light as if made of glass. Seen anywhere but in the South, the glossy pair would have been taken for twin devils, but here it was only a negro and his wife at their supper.

I ventured forward to the radiant presence of the black pair, and, after being stared at with that desperate fixedness which is said to subdue the lion, I was handed water in a gourd from somewhere out of the darkness. I was standing for a moment beside the big fire, looking at the unsurpassable simplicity of the establishment, and asking questions about the road to Gainesville, when my attention was called to a black lump of something lying in the ashes of the fire. It seemed to be made of rubber; but ere I had time for much speculation, the woman bent wooingly over the black object and said with motherly kindness, “Come, honey, eat yo’ hominy.”

At the sound of “hominy” the rubber gave strong manifestations of vitality and proved to be a burly little negro boy, rising from the earth naked as to the earth he came. Had he emerged from the black muck of a marsh, we might easily have believed that the Lord had manufactured him like Adam direct from the earth.

Surely, thought I, as I started for Gainesville, surely I am now coming to the tropics, where the inhabitants wear nothing but their own skins. This fashion is sufficiently simple, “no troublesome disguises,” as Milton calls clothing, — but it certainly is not quite in harmony with Nature. Birds make nests and nearly all beasts make some kind of bed for their young; but these negroes allow their younglings to lie nestless and naked in the dirt.

These lines of Muir’s are only odd because Muir wrote so eloquently and voluminously about how he descended into a kind of feral existence himself when he ventured into the wild, how he slept wherever he could make a bed for himself, and so on. Clearly, in his case, his ‘wilderness’ represented a kind of movement outward, while for the ‘negro’ it was just an essential state of being.

Yosemite and Sequoia: Visiting John Muir’s Playgrounds

Last week, my family and I traveled to California; more precisely, to Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon National Parks. (We visited family in Los Angeles as well.) Superlatives for national parks are a dime-a-dozen, so most writing on them is doomed to cliche. But let me press on regardless.

The landscapes of these parks, like those of Monument Valley on which I wrote last year, have become iconic–captured innumerable times in photographs and movies.  Your first encounter with them is tinged with that familiar sense of bewilderment: you have seen this all before, many, many times. And yet, of course, it’s novel.

Consider Half-Dome, that splendid granite centerpiece of the Yosemite Valley, here viewed from Glacier Point (now, mercifully free of the hotels that once defiled it):

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This is an exceedingly familiar image for most Americans (and many non-Americans too, if the amount of German, French, and Russian I heard spoken at Yosemite is any indication). Still, its ubiquity does nothing to diminish one’s sense of awe when confronted by its 4000-foot face.

Yosemite and Sequoia are justifiably famous too, as the venues of John Muir‘s epic rambles, walks which brought him into close proximity with a wilderness of staggering beauty and which he dedicated his life to studying, eulogizing, and protecting. Reading his richly poetic descriptions of these landscapes, you realize you have made contact–through time and space–with a deeply sensitive soul, someone who found in quiet and loud spaces by stream and brook and waterfall and glacier and rockface, the perfect zones for meditation and repose and a deeper understanding of himself and his place in nature. And ours, of course.

It might sound strange to say this, but the deepest impressions on me on these travels were made not just by the awe-inspiring High Sierra, the gigantic sequoias, the verdant valleys of the Merced but also by Muir’s words and recountings of his travels and experiences. This was a man who could travel alone, for weeks and months on end, among bear and mountain lion, swim down an avalanche, stand behind a waterfall and spend a night on a tree to experience its relationship to a storm. This was a man who found his most comfortable beds on the branches of fir trees, who preferred to count stars instead of sheep as he sought sleep, who found divinity not in the Bible he had been forced to memorize by a tyrannical father, but in the living, breathing, sparkling works of nature around him. Somewhere, buried in his many, many written words, must be emotions and thoughts similar to those expressed by another visionary and mystic:

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

Muir clearly felt himself to be one with the beauty that surrounded him; in its endless cycles and rhythms he might have detected a kind of immortality that was also his, an acknowledgment of his genesis in age-old cosmic dust, come to rest in him and the granite and bark and cold streams that were his constant companions.

We should all be grateful he was so eloquent and so passionate, that his words helped protect and preserve the visions that are ours for the viewing.