Editor's note:

The nine­teenth cen­tu­ry nat­u­ral­ist John Muir remains one of my favorite loose­ly devo­tion­al writ­ers. Muir offers beau­ti­ful por­traits and exquis­ite tales from the Book of Nature” — God’s sec­ond great book. 

I don’t offer this piece for its the­o­log­i­cal cri­tique — in fact, I could take issue with some of the pos­si­ble impli­ca­tions that could be drawn from this, and would hold to the belief that death is over­come through res­ur­rec­tion life in Christ. Where I do find this piece help­ful, how­ev­er, is in the brac­ing chal­lenge it offers to a cul­ture obsessed with youth and large­ly removed from death and dying. Through the years I’ve found myself return­ing to this arti­cle as it offers courage and beau­ty to face what so many of us fear — death. 

This piece was writ­ten in 1867 while Muir spent a sea­son sleep­ing in Bonaven­ture ceme­tery on his walk from Illi­nois to Flori­da. Bonaven­ture is locat­ed just out­side of Charleston, South Car­oli­na and would lat­er be fea­tured in the book and film Mid­night in the Gar­den of Good and Evil.

—Nathan Foster
Renovaré Director of Community Life

But of all the plants of these curi­ous tree-gar­dens the most strik­ing and char­ac­ter­is­tic is the so-called Long Moss (Tilland­sia usneoides). It drapes all the branch­es from top to bot­tom, hang­ing in long sil­very-gray skeins, reach­ing a length of not less than eight or ten feet, and when slow­ly wav­ing in the wind they pro­duce a solemn fune­re­al effect sin­gu­lar­ly impressive.

There are also thou­sands of small­er trees and clus­tered bush­es, cov­ered almost from sight in the glo­ri­ous bright­ness of their own light. The place is half sur­round­ed by the salt marsh­es and islands of the riv­er, their reeds and sedges mak­ing a delight­ful fringe. Many bald eagles roost among the trees along the side of the marsh. Their screams are heard every morn­ing, joined with the noise of crows, and the songs of count­less war­blers, hid­den deep in their dwellings of leafy bow­ers. Large flocks of but­ter­flies, all kinds of hap­py insects, seem to be in a per­fect fever of joy and sportive glad­ness. The whole place seems like a cen­ter of life. The dead do not reign there alone. 

Bonaven­ture to me is one of the most impres­sive assem­blages of ani­mal and plant crea­tures I ever met. I was fresh from the West­ern prairies, the gar­den-like open­ings of Wis­con­sin, the Beech and Maple and Oak woods of Indi­ana and Ken­tucky, the dark mys­te­ri­ous Savan­nah Cypress forests; but nev­er since I was allowed to walk the woods have I found so impres­sive a com­pa­ny of trees as the tilland­sia-draped Oaks of Bonaventure. 

I gazed awe-strick­en as one new-arrived from anoth­er world. Bonaven­ture is called a grave­yard, a town of the dead, but the few graves are pow­er­less in such a depth of life. The rip­pling of liv­ing waters, the song of birds, the joy­ous con­fi­dence of flow­ers, the calm, undis­turbable grandeur of the Oaks, mark this place of graves as one of the Lord’s most favored abodes of life and light. 

On no sub­ject are our ideas more warped and pitiable than on death. Instead of the sym­pa­thy, the friend­ly union, of life and death so appar­ent in Nature, we are taught that death is an acci­dent, a deplorable pun­ish­ment for the old­est sin, the arch-ene­my of life, etc. Town chil­dren, espe­cial­ly, are steeped in this death-ortho­doxy, for the nat­ur­al beau­ties of death are sel­dom seen or taught in towns. 

Of death among our own species, to say noth­ing of the thou­sand styles and modes of mur­der, our best mem­o­ries, even among hap­py deaths, yield groans and tears, min­gled with mor­bid exul­ta­tion; bur­ial com­pa­nies, black in cloth and coun­te­nance; and, last of all, a black box bur­ial in an ill-omened place, haunt­ed by imag­i­nary glooms and ghosts of every degree. Thus death becomes fear­ful, and the most notable and incred­i­ble thing heard around a death-bed is, I fear not to die.” 

But let chil­dren walk with Nature, let them see the beau­ti­ful blend­ings and com­mu­nions of death and life, their joy­ous insep­a­ra­ble uni­ty, as taught in woods and mead­ows, plains and moun­tains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stin­g­less indeed, and as beau­ti­ful as life, and that the grave has no vic­to­ry, for it nev­er fights. All is divine harmony.

Excerpt­ed from John Muir’s A Thou­sand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, Chap­ter 4, Camp­ing Among the Tombs” (pp. 88 – 90). 

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