As Near to the Heart of This World…

" make its acquaintance and hear what it had to tell."

If you haven’t seen the Ken Burns series on the National Parks, they are more than eye candy. In them lies the story of both tragedy and glory, of mankind’s temptation to control and his willingness to be smitten by nature.

The second installment we just completed ends in a wonderful quote from John Muir, whose death has just been described–on the heels of the apparent defeat against those who would dam his cherished Hetch Hetchy valley–and yet, in that defeat was planted the seeds of what would become the National Park Service, so that (ostensibly) such insults of convenience over irreplaceable beauty and grandeur would never happen again.

I was struck by Muir’s words, because I think I have been infected by the same great spirits that bore him along all his life. And for that, I can never express adequate gratitude.

“Muir said, ‘As long as I live I’ll hear the birds and the winds and the waterfalls sing. I’ll interpret the rocks and learn the language of flood and storm and avalanche. I’ll make the acquaintance of the wild gardens and the glaciers and get as near to the heart of this world as I could. And so I did. I sauntered about from rock to rock, from grove to grove, from stream to stream, and whenever I met a new plant I would sit down beside it for a minute or a day, to make its acquaintance, hear what it had to tell. I asked the boulders where they had been and whither they were going, and when night found me, there I camped. I took no more heed to save time or to make haste than did the trees or the stars. This is true freedom, a good, practical sort of immortality.”

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Thanks, Fred, for calling Muir’s last battle and his wonderful quote to our attention. Along those lines, I read the following just today, regarding our calamitous environmental losses:

    “We may well be living with the consequences of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill for the rest of the 21st century. But judging by past environmental disasters, the spill also has the potential to reinvigorate the environmental movement going forward. For more than a century, ecological crises have often strengthened environmental movements.

    Take the fight over preserving the scenic Hetch Hetchy Valley just outside Yosemite National Park. The biggest environmental battle of naturalist John Muir’s life was one that he lost – the fight to keep the city of San Francisco from erecting a dam on the Tuolumne River and flooding Hetch Hetchy.

    The very idea of it appalled Muir: “These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for nature,” Muir wrote at the time. “Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated in the heart of man.”

    But although the dam was approved by Congress in 1913 and the valley ultimately destroyed, the fight helped embolden a fledgling environmental movement, and the memory of Hetch Hetchy became a rallying cry for future struggles.” From the L A Times // Fred Talkingtohimself

  2. What a wonderful quote. I think all who know about him appreciate Muir. There are many others, Teddy Rossevelt amongst them, who deserve credit for preserving our natural heritage. Sure beats Ron Paul’s idea of selling all of the National Parks to private enterprise like Disney World!

    Thanks for the reminder of something very important.

  3. Thank you, Fred. This is perfect. I am happy to read this and thank you for bringing it to my attention. Love and Light to you!

  4. You wrote “I think I have been infected by the same great spirits that bore [Muir]along all his life,” and I am of the same opinion about you. In your retirement I hope this fact will have the opportunity to become more and more apparent. John Muir is a great role model.