Sleeping with John Muir

When I first started listening to audiobooks as a way of trying to combat my perpetual insomnia, I assumed that I’d be going through countless authors and books. Instead, my three-month experiment has been reduced to one, consistent nighttime companion: the outdoor writer and naturalist John Muir.

Each evening as I ready myself for bed, I reach for my nighttime headphones (product placement: they are called Cozy Phones) and open up my mp3 player to select a story from Muir’s works. So far I have a collection of five of Muir’s books, totaling 35 hours of listening.

One I often return to is “A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf,” in which Muir recounts the trek he took from Kentucky to Florida in 1867, just two years after the end of the Civil War. Equipped with little but a backpack containing a few books, a hairbrush and a few other items, Muir essentially bushwhacked his way through the Appalachian Mountains to the Georgia coast before taking a ship to Fernandina Beach, Florida, where he walked across the swampy wilderness, ever mindful of alligators and snakes.

One night (listen here) he found himself unable to stop during the night because there was no dry ground. Without food or water, he trudged on through the night.

When I came to an open place where pines grew, it was about ten o’clock, and I thought that now at last I would find dry ground. But even the sandy barren was wet, and I had to grope in the dark a long time, feeling the ground with my hands when my feet ceased to plash, before I at last discovered a little hillock dry enough to lie down on. I ate a piece of bread that I fortunately had in my bag, drank some of the brown water about my precious hillock, and lay down. The noisiest of the unseen witnesses around me were the owls, who pronounced their gloomy speeches with profound emphasis, but did not prevent the coming of sleep to heal weariness.

My first encounter with Muir and his writings was the Christmas of 1981. I was a senior in high school when my mother gave me a collection of his writings that I still have. “To inspire your adventures! Love, Mom,” she wrote on the inside cover. At the time, I did not know who Muir was and, for the most part, had a hard time connecting with his essays.

In college, I went on to learn about the founder of the Sierra Club’s writing and his life-long efforts to protect the nation’s wild places.

A longtime insomniac, I read with interest a piece in The New York Times documenting how the latest trend to combat sleeplessness is to listen to audiobooks at night. The author explains how to distract a restless brain, pulling it out of the continual ruminating that plagues many plagued by sleeplessness.

I’ve tried everything else. Why not, I figured.

I started searching online and discovered a booming industry devoted to nighttime listening devices along with podcasts and other audio designed to occupy restless minds.

The other great gift of The Times article was mention of a website called Librivox, which contains an astounding collection of free audiobooks from texts that are now in the public domain (meaning free of any copyright restrictions). The recordings have all been produced by volunteer readers.

It’s counterintuitive to suggest both that I’m engrossed by Muir’s words and that I use them to help me sleep at night. Those seem like competing claims. But there is something about the richness of his prose that soothes me. He speaks of nature with authentic passion. I listen and try to think about what this continent would have been like during the time he explored it. I consider that he did this in an age when he had no gear that would protect him from the elements.

My mind slowly joins him in the wilderness, forgetting all the trivial concerns that often plague my mind as I try to sleep.

One of his first books, “The Mountains of California,” was published in 1875 when Muir was already 56 years old. This manuscript includes some of Muir’s early writings from what will become a lifetime of work dedicated to the study of and advocacy for California’s Sierra Nevada. In one chapter (listen here), Muir recounts a December day in 1874 when, exploring in the Yuba River Valley, he ventured out into the woods and eventually climbed to the top of a tree on a ridge to experience the storm from the perspective of nature.

In its widest sweeps my tree-top described an arc of from twenty to thirty degrees, but I felt sure of its elastic temper, having seen others of the same species still more severely tried — bent almost to the ground indeed, in heavy snows — without breaking a fiber. I was therefore safe, and free to take the wind into my pulses and enjoy the excited forest from my superb outlook. The view from here must be extremely beautiful in any weather.

Ironically, it has been my trouble with finding peace that has brought me to the tranquility of Muir’s work.