The Quotable John Muir

This World Wide Web page written by Dan Styer;;
8 January 2013.

"Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life."
-- John Muir

On 5 December 2012 I chanced upon the collection of John Muir quotations at the Sierra Club's "John Muir Exhibit". The exhibit is a collection of web pages about Muir's life and thought maintained by amateur Muir enthusiast Harold Wood. I've read most of Muir's books and a number of his articles, so I was familiar with many of the excerpts on this quotation page. But others were new to me, and intriguing. A note at the end of the list stated that Wood had collected these quotes through his reading, but he hadn't recorded the sources for all of them. If anyone found a source, Wood would appreciate learning it.

A decade ago it would have been a daunting task to source all these quotes -- you would have to read all of Muir's books and articles (and perhaps his unpublished letters and journals as well) until you encountered, say, "The wrongs done to trees, wrongs of every sort, are done in the darkness of ignorance and unbelief, for when the light comes, the heart of the people is always right." Then, when you found that one on page 429 of John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir (1938), you'd have to start all over again with "So extravagant is Nature with her choicest treasures, spending plant beauty as she spends sunshine, pouring it forth into land and sea, garden and desert." (If you had a good memory you would be able to shorten the process. But I have a poor memory.) However the Google Books project has digitized many of the world's great libraries, rendering them searchable. I set out searching Google Books and, within two days, I had uncovered sources for all the quotes and mailed my finds to Harold Wood.

Now, in the process of sourcing these quotes, I encountered the "Wikiquotes" page for John Muir. This page was a real mess. There were misspelled words, miscopied phrases, and quotes attributed to transparently-erroneous sources. I didn't need anyone's permission to revise the Wikiquotes pages, so I just did it myself. I started off by applying the corrections I had already found for the "John Muir Exhibit". Then I corrected a few more. Then I put in some of my own favorite Muir quotes. I rearranged the quotes into chronological order. I inserted links to source material on the Internet and made the referencing style consistent. I worked on this, on and off, for more than two weeks.

Let no one think that this was a bore. Through sourcing and correcting and arranging these quotes I visited a lot of Muir's thinking that I had never before encountered, and I revisited many friendly but forgotten thoughts. I bought a few cheap out-of-print books that included interesting material, new to me. The fact is, I had a blast.

Delving deeper and deeper into obscure sources for Muir's thoughts, I uncovered more and more. But one quote eluded me: Many sites on the Internet claim that Muir said "Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life." Some sites claim that he really said "Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world", or "Between every two pines stood the door to the world's greatest cathedral". I tried the John Muir Papers site at the University of the Pacific, where many of Muir's letters and unpublished journals are kept -- nothing. Google Books reveals that the first wording is attributed to Muir in Frederick W. Turner's unconventional biography Rediscovering America: John Muir in His Time and Ours (1985), page 193. I checked out a copy of that book from the library at Oberlin College (where I work), and found that Turner doesn't give a source for this quote.

I tried a few variations in wording, and I tried a few different search strategies. I was about to give up when one of my Google Books searches found the "two pines" phrase, attributed to Muir, in Reinhabiting a Separate Country: A Bioregional Anthology of Northern California (edited by Peter Berg, San Francisco, California: Planet Drum Foundation, 1978). I readily confess that I am suspicious of any book whose title includes the word "bioregional". Google Books did not allow me to see the page in question (due to copyright concerns), and this obscure book is not in Oberlin College's million-volume collection. But the "OhioLink" consortium allows me to check the catalogs of about a hundred academic libraries throughout the state: I found the book at Cleveland State University's Library and asked that it be loaned to Oberlin. That was just before Christmas and the Oberlin College winter shutdown.

While I waited for the book to arrive, I chased after some other Muir quotes, and I pursued another question: Muir famously slid down the wall of Yosemite Valley in a snow avalanche ride. When did that ride take place? And where? I now have a good idea, although I'll never be certain.

This afternoon, the Reinhabiting . . . book arrived. I wasn't hopeful: I thought it would simply give the quote without a source yet again. But I turned to page 52 and found an essay by Albert Saijo concerning "Me, Muir, and Sierra Nevada". Saijo describes Muir's copy of volume I of Prose Works by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and says (on page 55) that Muir wrote on his copy the sentence:

"Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life."

Saijo locates this volume in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, and sure enough I was able to look up the book using Yale's computerized catalog. It has call number "BEIN Za Em34 C869 Copy 3". According to Ronald Limbaugh's essay "John Muir & his Reading Interests" (John Muir Newsletter, volume 13, number 4, fall 2003), this volume was inherited by John Muir's daughter Helen Muir Funk. In 1926, she gave it to a friend, who in turn gave it to Yale.

For the time being, my excursion into John Muir quotes is over. It's been fun, but I'm moving on.