John Muir’s Prescription for Healing Mind and Body
Are you tired, depressed, lacking in energy, feeling disconnected? Have you added more pounds than you’re comfortable with? How are your blood pressure numbers? Do you have diabetes? Are your children lethargic? Do you have to coax them to turn off their Mutant Ninja Turtles or Game Boys? If you answered “yes” to any one of these questions, you or your children may be suffering from “nature-deficit disorder.” This term was introduced by, Richard Louv, in his book, Last Child in the Woods (2008), and later in The Nature Principle (2011) and is supported by multiple scientific studies. According to Louv, “Nature-deficit disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional issues.”
Recalling the thousands of interview he had with children and their patents across the country, one in particular stands out in Louv’s mind. He cited a fourth-grander in San Diego who said, “I like to play indoors better, because where all the electrical outlets are.” And that, in his mind, is the problem; too many of us are staying inside and not nurturing the natural bond between nature and human nature, and thus we are becoming susceptible to a host of ailments, both mental and physical. However serious, the remedy is free and freely available to all. Perhaps it was John Muir who first popularized the idea of nature-deficit disorder over a century ago.
John Muir, the great naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club, recalled Ralph Waldo Emerson’s visit to Yosemite in l871. Muir was convinced that if he could only persuade him to leave his park hotel to spend a few nights sleeping under the stars, breathing in the fresh, pure mountain air, his health would improve and his spirits be revived. Emerson’s protective companions said that it would never do for Emerson to lie out in the open air, for they believed “Mr. Emerson might take cold.” Muir countered that it is hotels, dust and stale inside air that causes the spread of viruses, “not the pure night air under the clear starry night.”
From his own experience, John Muir understood the natural world as the great healer of mind, body and soul. Tired, stressed, and feeling claustrophobic after months in San Francisco and Oakland writing the first articles of his literary career, John Muir longed to be outside again. He had eaten an irregular diet of restaurant food, and his health was beginning to suffer; by his own description, he was “shrunken and lean.” It was late summer in 1874; the hard city pavement and the urban air were tiring him. He glimpsed a tender branch of goldenrod struggling for life as it pushed its way through a crack in the pavement. It was struggling to be free and to breath fresh sweet air, and so was he! Muir left the city and headed for Coulterville where he got his mule, Brownie, and made his way up to the mountains “where I made my reunion with the winds and pines. How cool and vital and recreative was the hale young mountain air. On higher, higher up into the holy of holies of the woods! Pure white lustrous clouds. We entered, and a thousand living arms were waved in solemn blessing. An infinity of mountain life. How complete is the absorption of one’s life into the spirit of mountain woods.”
As America was moving rapidly from an agrarian to a modern, industrial economy; as more and more people made their livlihood in factories and flocked to cities, escaping, even for short periods, to the mountains and forests was, in Muir’s view, essential. The journal articles he wrote between 1871 and l874 attempted to coax the over-worked, over-stressed urban worker to get outside to experience nature’s therapy. It’s free, it’s open to all. Getting into the wilderness, they would find their true inner homeland and quiet their souls. When these articles were collected into Muir’s book, Our National Parks in l901, the first paragraph of the book opened with, “The tendency nowadays to wander in wildernesses is delightful to see. Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity. Briskly venturing and roaming, sauntering in resiny pinewoods or in gentian meadows, brushing through chaparral, bending down and parting sweet, flowery sprays; tracing rivers to their sources, getting in touch with the nerves of Mother Earth.”
Muir offered a prescription, that is just as timely to us today: “If you are traveling for health, play truant to doctors and friends, fill your pocket with biscuits, and hide in the hills, lave in waters, tan in gold, bask in flower-shine, and your baptisms will make you a new creature. Breathe deep and free.
–Anne Rowthorn. The environmentalist and Muir scholar, Anne Rowthorn, Ph. D. is the compiler of The Wisdom of John Muir; 100+ Selections from the Letters, Journals, and Essays of the Great Naturalist (Wilderness Press). All quotations, unless otherwise noted, are taken from that book.