in: Advice, Character, Featured

• Last updated: June 3, 2021

John Muir on Holding Your Breath in Civilization and Exhaling in Nature

John Muir standing besides river at Yosemite valley.

Editor’s note: The following excerpt comes from a September 1874 entry in the personal journals of John Muir.

Tell me what you will of the benefactions of city civilization, of the sweet security of the streets — all as part of the natural upgrowth of man towards the high destiny we hear so much of. I know that our bodies were made to thrive only in pure air, and the scenes in which pure air is found. If the death exhalations that brood the broad towns in which we so fondly compact ourselves were made visible, we should flee as from a plague. All are more or less sick; there is not a perfectly sane man in San Francisco. 

Go now and then for fresh life — if most of humanity must go through this town stage of development — just as divers hold their breath and come ever and anon to the surface to breathe . . . Go whether or not you have faith . . . Form parties, if you must be social, to go to the snow-flowers in winter, to sun-flowers in summer . . . Anyway, go up and away for life; be fleet!

I know some will heed the warning. Most will not, so full of pagan slavery is the boasted freedom of the town, and those who need rest and clean snow and sky the most will be the last to move.

Once I was let down into a deep well into which choke-damp [suffocating gas] had settled, and nearly lost my life. The deeper I was immersed in the invisible poison, the less capable I became of willing measures of escape from it. And in just this condition are those who toil or dawdle or dissipate in crowded towns, in the sinks of commerce or pleasure.

When I first came down to the city from my mountain home, I began to wither, and wish instinctively for the vital woods and high sky. Yet I lingered month after month, plodding at “duty.” At length I chanced to see a lovely goldenrod in bloom in a weedy spot alongside one of the less frequented sidewalks there. Suddenly I was aware of the ending of summer and fled. Then, once away, I saw how shrunken and lean I was, and how glad I was I had gone.

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