“Into the forest I go to lose my mind and find my soul.”-John Muir
Hi, how are you?
This is one of the simplest questions we hear countless times each day from loved ones and strangers alike. Before this whole coronavirus thing, I wouldn’t have thought twice about the answer. Something alone the lines of, “Good, and you?”
I don’t know about you, but I recently started noticing how difficult it has become to provide an adequate response to this question. Somehow, “Good, and you?” doesn’t seem to cut it right now. However, I’m also not sure, “Currently riding an emotional rollercoaster that fluctuates wildly between feeling relatively okay, focusing on the things I can control, to my sanity hanging on by a thread I’m convinced will only stay intact if I eat the entire sleeve of Girl Scout cookies, and you?” is what the internet tech support person wants to hear, either.
It’s such a weird time that we find ourselves in, isn’t it? One of the most challenging parts about it is the uncertainty. Did our collectively “brave” act of staying at home, laying on the couch, and eating too many carbs help to flatten the curve? Will things return to some semblance of normalcy in the near future? And perhaps most intriguing, will those people who a) hoarded toilet paper and hand sanitizer, b) thought self-isolation meant throwing block parties and continuing to play contact sports, or c) went on camera during spring break to say, “If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day, I’m not letting anything stop me from partying,” experience what most of us have agreed are the only possible silver linings to this whole situation: clarity about what is actually important in our lives, and an immense gratitude for those things?
I’m obviously in no position to answer those questions, but I have dug deeper to find additional coping mechanisms that I hope may help you stay somewhat sane, too.
In writing about my dog, Arthur, last week, I noticed one reason we’re all finding comfort in our pets (aside from the usual, of course: emotional support and unconditional love), is that these little creatures have no idea what COVID-19 is. There’s something soothing about being in the presence of something completely unaffected by this entire crazy experience (aside from getting 16 hours of sleep instead of his usual 20), isn’t there?
Fortuitously, I started reading a phenomenal book a few weeks ago that takes this idea to a whole new level. The Overstory by Richard Powers won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction last year, and if you also have some unexpected free time on your hands, I highly recommend it.
One of the main themes of the book is that humans are often so caught up in their own busy, important lives that we fail to see the natural beauty all around us. Specifically, we often fail to appreciate majesty, abundance, and intelligence of trees.
If being around an animal comforts us because they lack awareness, then perhaps the opposite is also true. Dogs are said to have no understanding of past and future, because they are only capable of thinking in the present. But what about something that has been on Earth for hundreds of years, and will continue to live for hundreds, if not thousands more?
I tend to think something with that kind of longevity can offer us a calming sense of perspective about the impermanence of most things, including a deadly virus and an economic recession. In the life of a tree, a few months isn’t even worthy of a new ring in its trunk, right?
Although this week’s purpose-driven life is not the author of The Overstory, he was undoubtedly inspired by it. This week, after reading this wonderful book and receiving a sense of peace (if only briefly) from the trees around my home, I wanted to explore the life of John Muir, naturalist, author, and preservation advocate.
You might not know the name John Muir, but you certainly have heard of Yosemite National Park, right? How about Sequoia National Park? Or, maybe The Sierra Club? None of these would exist today if John Muir hadn’t fought for his purpose.
Muir was born in Scotland in 1838 and immigrated to the United States with his family when he was nine years old. He grew up wandering the woods, but it wasn’t until Muir’s first botany lesson at University of Wisconsin-Madison that his true purpose began calling to him. As he described it in his autobiography: “This fine lesson charmed me and sent me flying to the woods and meadows in wild enthusiasm.”
Although it seems Muir sensed what his purpose would be, his life took many turns after that initial glimpse. He never graduated from UW-Madison, because the unusual courses he chose didn’t amount to an actual degree. When we was 26 years old, he traveled around the Southern Ontario wilderness, hiking and collecting plant samples, until began working in a factory. Two years later, Muir returned to the U.S. to work in another factory, where an incident occurred that would irrevocably change his life.
While using a file, Muir’s hand slipped, and he cut the cornea of his right eye. He then had to spend six weeks in a dark room, hoping that his blindness was not permanent. Fortunately, Muir’s sight did return, and when it did, he knew he had to change course and dedicate his life to the purpose that had always been calling his name.
“This affliction has driven me to the sweet fields. God has to nearly kill us sometimes, to teach us lessons.”-John Muir
From there, Muir began a 1,000-mile walk from Kentucky to Florida, taking what he described as the “wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way [he] could find.” He then boarded a boat to Cuba, where he visited the botanical garden and studied plants in Havana. After that, Muir finally made his way to San Francisco and to Yosemite, where his life’s purpose would ultimately culminate and impact our country in a way that extended far beyond his 76 years of life.
Muir spent years in Yosemite Valley, first in a cabin he built and then during solo excursions where he would bring only tea, bread, and Ralph Waldo Emerson to read. He became a recognized expert there and would go on to welcome both Emerson himself and President Theodore Roosevelt into Yosemite to share and advocate for his precious wilderness. His reputation having preceded him, Muir was also asked to help form and preside over a club for people with a passion for the mountains. In creating The Sierra Club, Muir gave his purpose of preserving nature both longevity and teeth. During Muir’s life and after his death in 1914, The Sierra Club has not only educated others about the wonders of nature, it has also protected it through advocacy and lobbying efforts.
Interestingly, when Muir convinced Congress to establish Yosemite National Park, arguably the greatest accomplishment of his life, he was only able to do so through a craft he expressly disliked. Although he later published many nature books, Muir apparently despised the writing process and considered nature writing infinitively inferior to an actual experience in the mountains. He wrote in 1872, “No amount of word-making will ever make a single soul to ‘know’ these mountains. One day’s exposure to mountains is better than a cartload of books.” Paradoxically, Congress created Yosemite in 1890 largely based on the recommendations Muir wrote his articles, “The Treasures of the Yosemite” and “Features of the Proposed National Park”, which were both published that same year.
So, aside from appreciating the “wilderness” near you as a way to stay sane during uncertain times, whether that’s an empty field, the trees along a sparsely-populated path, or even a single plant in your apartment, what can we learn from John Muir’s purpose-driven life?
First and foremost, sometimes it takes an act of God to force us to hear our life’s calling. I will probably share my own “act of God” at some point later on, but suffice it to say, I definitely needed a shove from him or her to take action and start on my journey. I hope for everyone’s sake it doesn’t mean physical injury or potential blindness like it did for Muir, but I have to imagine that years from now, we’ll hear about many people who changed their course and began pursuing their true calling as a result of this virus and its aftermath.
[Disclaimer: I am not saying this is a good thing by any stretch of the imagination, and I am in no way saying that the loss of life or economic effects are “happening for a reason,” or anything along those lines.]
Another takeaway from Muir’s life? Even if you’re living your dharma, sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do in order to make the biggest impact with your gift. I’m not quite sure what this will mean for me in the end, but I will try to bear this in mind when I find myself working on something that I believe is in line with my purpose, but perhaps feels like complete drudgery.
Stay safe out there as you try to stay physically and mentally healthy. And in those moments of panic? Look outside and try to breathe. I don’t think I’m going insane when I say that it could help you, too, to think about the trees and remember all of the things they have already seen.
“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”