Among environmentalists, John Muir is like a rock star!

Columnist Stephen McClanahan is retired from P&G and now active in environmental advocacy, search/rescue and emergency medical/disaster response.

Perhaps you’ve heard of John Muir.  If you haven’t, you should. He almost single-handedly convinced Teddy Roosevelt to establish the national parks system in the US. His explorations of and writings about helped establish some of our iconic wilderness areas we know and cherish today, including Yosemite, Sequoia, Mount Rainer, Petrified Forest, and the Grand Canyon to name a few. Among environmentalists, he’s like a rock star; he started the Sierra Club. But perhaps his greatest gift was teaching us how connected things in the natural world are to one another.  He’s quoted as saying: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” – John Muir

I think that fundamental truth is a critical one to understand and internalize and celebrate and live by. You and I are completely and irrevocably rooted to the earth.  Always have been and we will die that way. Innumerable connections that are complex, intertwined, interdependent and beautiful. In “The Hidden Life of Trees”, author and forester Peter Wohlleben opens his wonderful little book with a story. He passed by the hollowed-out stump of an ancient tree that had fallen hundreds of years ago and when he took his knife and scraped away a bit of it, he found it was green. Green as in chlorophyll; green as in alive. And as you discover in the pages that follow, the roots of this ‘dead’ stump were being fed by the roots of neighboring trees. They were caring for each other because they were connected!

They were caring for each other because they were connected!

Here are a few of the more obvious connects we kind of rely on. Right now, at this very moment, you and I are breathing in air which contains just the right amount of oxygen, thanks solely to photosynthetic plants. As you recall from botany, these chlorophyll-containing creatures possess the amazing ability to capture energy from the sun and use it to power complex chemical reactions to make the sugars they need to live. Conveniently for us, in the process of doing this, they take up the carbon dioxide that you and I have exhaled and provide for us the oxygen we need to live. Not a bad deal.  Take away the oxygen and we won’t last long. We have unbreakable bond with the green side of things; plants need soil with nutrients, microorganisms, worms, leaf litter, water (from regular rains), sunshine to drive photosynthesis, a relatively narrow and controlled temperature range, and so on and so on. Because they need those things, we need those as well.  (Internalize this and you will never view an earthworm the same again!) As the expression goes, we live together, we die together. Connected.

We have unbreakable bond with the green side of things.

Everything we have ever consumed for dinner came solely and completely from the earth. 100% of it. Ergo, what’s in the best interests of fruits and grains and vegetables is in my best as well. No bees, no pollination, no food. No food, no life. Connected.  

These connections extend all the way down to the very atoms that make our bodies. They too have been borrowed from the earth; before us, they existed in some other organism or inanimate object. After us, they will recycle into something else. Connected.

Every spring, the herons come and fish in Stephen McClanahan’s backyard pond.

We have a small pond in the backyard that some fish call home. Every spring, the herons come and feed. As I watch this act of nature unfold, I think. One minute, the creature exists as a fish; a few hours later, it is part of a magnificent bird. What will it become next? What was it before it was a fish? Connected.


One of my idiosyncrasies is an interest in words, where they come from, what they really mean. Look up synonyms of ‘connected’ and you find ‘linked, combined, akin, allied, joined, coherent, coupled, banded together’. The word ‘nexus’ (i.e., a joining, tie, link, binding) has a similar Latin root as connect. I think if we could put all these words together and hold them simultaneously in our brains, we might get a glimpse of the real oneness of nature upon which all life depends. And this isn’t just some metaphysical quip – this is the reality of all that is. If there’s one photo or image that drives this home for me more than any other, it is that of Earthrise, taken on Christmas eve, 1968 by astronaut William Anders when Apollo 8 was in lunar orbit. I cannot look at this without deep stirrings; our earth is home and we are firmly rooted in it. Connected.

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