Peer to Pier: Conversations with fellow travelers
Bonnie J Gisel is a John Muir scholar and author of three books on his life, the most recent of which is “Nature’s Beloved Son: Rediscovering John Muir’s Botanical Legacy,” published by Heyday Books in 2008. Bonnie is also curator of the LeConte Memorial Lodge in Yosemite National Park, a position she has held since 2002. She is a Ph.D. who holds advanced degrees in fine art, nineteenth century cultural studies and divinity.
Bonnie touched on many themes in our conversation that are near and dear to my heart–the sense of awe and inter-connectedness that Nature inspires; the value of both remaining teachable and sharing our experiences for others’ benefit; the importance of friends and soul mates; the joy in creating what she calls ‘moments of enthusiasm.’ Particularly meaningful for me at this juncture in my life is her certainty that there is a Divine Order to things, and there comes a time and place when our gifts intertwine and we find our place in the world. I hope you will enjoy this conversation with Bonnie.
When we try to pick out anything by itself,
we find it hitched to everything else.
Meg: You’ve said that you have a desire to instill in others a wonder of the world and an appreciation of nature so it becomes part of ‘daily breathing’ for each of us. Can you tell me a little about how you yourself came to that appreciation, the circumstances of your own such awakening and how you have ‘kept it fresh’ and maintained that desire?
Bonnie: I was brought up outdoors. There was never a moment when I was not connected or connecting to the natural world. My father was an outdoors person—hunting, fishing, camping. When I was quite young he took me hunting; and, after my brothers were born, our family traveled out to accompany my father on his weekend fishing and hunting excursions. I recall one episode where my father took us with him to hunt. It was winter and snowing. To keep warm my mother, brothers and I got inside a pine tree, under the boughs and made a little fire, pushing back the snow. The snowflakes glistened down like crystals. We camped in the Adirondack Mountains and the Catskills every summer.
I grew at a very early age to respect the natural world, its gifts to us, its changing seasons and what they produce, and a joy in being out in nature. There were few weekends throughout the year that weren’t spent along a creek or stream, in a peat forest, watching beavers build a dam—swimming and enjoying their lives, walking in larch forests, climbing mountains in the Adirondack Mountains, fishing for bass and pike, bathing in mountain lakes. My grandmother was a horticulturist. I grew learning trees and grasses; and loved walking with her in her garden. I loved her very much and could see that her kindness and love for me was something she shared with the plants in her garden. My feelings for the natural world are fresh each day because the awe I feel never diminishes. I am not quite able to explain the feeling but it is very strong. I see the natural world as God’s Creation, being created each day; and, believe that this requires of me a respect and deep regard and caring. As a child of God, my faith requires of me that I share the message of God’s Works. For me the homilies are about the natural world. This is what I am able to share.
My first two degrees are in Fine Art. It was through the study of art that I developed greater skills of observation—color, shape, design. A strong desire developed to leave behind the creation of art to study the inventions of God—the natural world. This process coalesced with the birth of my son, Nikolaus, and my entrance into divinity school when he was five years old. I felt an abundance of celebration of life. Not knowing exactly how this would transpire, it was not long into my seminary training that the created order of things, environmental awareness, and a true appreciation of my gifts began to intertwine. I had thought I would give up who I was to become a new person in my faith journey. Instead, who I was closely fitted to who I was becoming. My deep abiding love for the natural world and my academic training became one.
Meg: It seems a thread throughout all of your endeavors—from advanced degrees in divinity and history, to your affinity with Nature and John Muir—is a deep sense of spirituality. Can you share what ‘spirituality’ means to you and describe your practice of it?
Bonnie: ‘Spirituality’ is perhaps the most precious part of being alive. Through this energy I am able to connect and reflect and accept and experience my connectedness to the natural world as well as to other human beings. But my connectedness is not disproportionate—that is I feel the same abiding respect and concern for all life. Having been trained in divinity school (I have an M.Div. degree from Harvard University), I have experienced a great variety of life experiences—as a student minister, a chaplain in a hospital, a candidate for ministry in the Presbyterian Church, USA. With my Ph.D. in nineteenth century interdisciplinary (cultural) studies—American Religious History, Environmental History, the History of Women in America, I had the opportunity to expand my understanding and appreciation of the importance of the message I strive to deliver.
My spirituality is at the root of all the work I do and derives from my close relationship with the Divine Spirit to whom I feel directly accountable. Spirituality for me wells-up from the grace given and received that empowers me to appreciate fully and experience my life completely in the wonder and amazement I see before me in the natural world. Prayer may be as simple as a walk, a moment of breathing, in the washing of my hands in cool water, the look I see in my Scottie dog’s eyes—when I know he trusts me to care for him. The divine spirit is ever present and real in all things I see and the gifts I am able to use to do the good I feel called to do expand each day.
Meg: John Muir has been a major influence on you. For those who may not be familiar with his life and legacy, can you provide a little background on him, a sense of his contributions to the world?
Bonnie: John Muir was born in Dunbar, Scotland, arrived in America at the age of eleven in 1849, and spent his life sauntering in search of Nature’s beauty, to understand the divine gift of life God had given in the created order of things. He was a man on a mission and the pilgrimage he sought brought to light and life a deeper and greater respect for the natural world. Traveling from Wisconsin to Canada, Canada to Indianapolis, Kentucky to the Gulf of Mexico, New York City to California, the High Sierra to Alaska, and around the world, Muir’s abiding respect for life in all its forms led to the creation of Yosemite National Park and the Sierra Club.
Muir was a field botanist and a geologist, because, I am convinced—from rock you receive soil, from soil you receive seed, from seed you receive bread. Appreciating the interconnectedness of all things, Muir wrote: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else.”
Following in the footsteps of Alexander von Humboldt and Mungo Park; he was befriended by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Roosevelt; and counted as his intimates William Keith and Jeanne Carr. He wrote books but not before he had published hundreds of articles and penned hundreds of letters to family, friends, and colleagues. I have written two books about Muir: Nature’s Beloved Son: Rediscovering John Muir’s Botanical Legacy (2008) and Kindred & Related Spirits: The Letters of John Muir and Jeanne C. Carr (2001). There are also many other splendid volumes that explore his life. I highly recommend Muir’s writings, especially My First Summer in the Sierra; The Mountains of California; Cruise of the Corwin; and my personal favorite A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf.