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The Conservation Movement

Book is a biography of John Muir, one of nature's greatest champions

by Rudy M. Baum
May 25, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 21

A Passion For Nature: The Life of John Muir

by Donald Worster, Oxford University Press, 2008, 535 pages, $34.95 hardback (ISBN: 978-0-19-516682-8)

by Donald Worster, Oxford University Press, 2008, 535 pages, $34.95 hardback (ISBN: 978-0-19-516682-8)

ANYONE WHO has lived for any length of time in California, particularly Northern California, and who has any interest in nature and the outdoors is familiar with the name John Muir. Muir Woods National Monument is a short day trip from San Francisco, and for many visitors to California, it is the only stand of old-growth redwoods they will ever encounter. Just down from the monument on the Pacific Coast is Muir Beach, a popular little pocket of dark gray sand between two rocky promontories.

For those who are a bit more serious about exploring the outdoors, Muir Wilderness is a vast backcountry wonderland lying between Yosemite and Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Parks in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Trails there lead over snowy passes to pristine alpine lakes surrounded by majestic granite peaks that soar to over 13,000 feet.

My wife, Jan, and I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area from 1981 until 1994. We often took out-of-town visitors for hikes through Muir Woods and up onto the flanks of Mount Tamalpais above the monument, finishing with a couple of pints of English ale at the wonderful Pelican Inn that overlooks Muir Beach. In our younger, pre-children days, we backpacked in the Muir Wilderness.

So I knew a little about the mythical John Muir. A Scotsman by birth, he immigrated to the U.S. and somehow wound up in California, the myth went. He walked across the Central Valley of California, bound for the Sierra Nevada, and herded sheep in Toulome Meadows above Yosemite Valley before forsaking any kind of settled life for years of wandering in the high mountains and chronicling his rambles in newspaper and magazine articles and popular books. Somewhere along the line, he traveled to Alaska. He had a theory about glaciers that went against the prevailing geological wisdom of his day. He was a founder of the Sierra Club, and he had a lot to do with preserving Yosemite as a national park. His great failure and heartbreak was the loss of Hetch Hetchy Valley, Yosemite's northern fraternal twin, to a dam that would flood the valley to provide water to a growing San Francisco.

That's the myth. Like all myths about historical figures, it's not entirely inaccurate, just incomplete—an idealized caricature as opposed to a complete portrait of the man.

We now have that complete narrative portrait in the form of "A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir," a brilliant new biography by Donald Worster, Hall Distinguished Professor of American History at the University of Kansas and the author of a number of books with environmental themes. "A Passion for Nature" gives a comprehensive account of Muir's life as well as a deeply insightful examination of Muir's evolution as a naturalist, philosopher, and scientist.

That is, in fact, one of the surprises that emerges about Muir in "A Passion for Nature": He was recognized during his own time as a serious scientist. He was, very likely, one of the last of those mostly self-trained "natural philosophers" ranging from Joseph Priestley and Benjamin Franklin in the 18th century to Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace in the 19th who played such important roles in the development of modern science. Muir was one of the first to challenge the then prevailing catastrophist geological view of the origin of valleys such as Yosemite and Hetch Hetchy and recognize the central role glaciers had played in their formation.

"A Passion for Nature" is a serious biography by a serious historian. Worster is interested not only in Muir's life, but also in the social, political, economic, and philosophical currents coursing through society as Muir's life unfolded, and in Muir's influence on those currents through his experience of wilderness, his writing, and his activism. While the book is not a light read by any means, it is, in my mind, beautifully written. Worster is an engaging and careful writer who both captures the passion Muir felt for wild places and provides clear and insightful examinations of the important political and philosophical clashes that shaped humanity's evolving relationship with nature during Muir's life.

"Sick of manual labor, he dreamed of joining the ranks of those scientists in this great new era of landscape investigation."

Muir didn't somehow wind up in the U.S. by accident, as the Muir myth implies through its lack of specific detail. He was born in 1838 and spent his first 11 years in Dunbar, Scotland, the eldest son of a reasonably prosperous merchant, Daniel, and his wife, Ann. A growing religious fervor, one that would consume him for the remainder of his life, led Daniel Muir to abruptly uproot his family in 1849 and move to the U.S.

THE MUIR CLAN settled in Wisconsin as farmers on land that was anything but fertile. John Muir's experience on the farm was not a happy one, as his father drove him relentlessly, "not through inducements or praise," Worster writes, "but through thrashings and sermons." In his autobiography "My Boyhood and Youth," published in 1913 only a year before his death, John Muir painted a fairly harsh picture of his father, Worster writes. However, Muir also wrote of his dawning love of the wild places and wild creatures he encountered in Wisconsin.

An unexpected aspect of Muir's personality is that as a young man he was an avid inventor of labor-saving devices. In fact, before he began his wanders, he would work in a number of industrial settings and become something of an efficiency expert on organizing shop floors. It was an industrial accident that changed the course of Muir's life. In 1867, Muir was working at Osgood, Smith & Co., a steam-powered factory in Indianapolis that manufactured wooden hubs and spokes for wagon wheels. In setting up a circular saw, Muir needed to trim a leather belt, and while doing so, a file he was using slipped and flew into his right eye, piercing the cornea and blinding him temporarily in both eyes.

It would take Muir several months to regain his eyesight completely, and the period of recuperation led him in a totally new direction. "[T]hose weeks of darkness had wrought a permanent change in his thinking, and that change would gather force during the spring and ensuing summer," Worster writes. "He would never go back to Osgood, Smith. He would throw down his tools, abandon forever any career in industry or invention, and seek his own independent way on earth."

His first long trek would take him from Indianapolis to the Cedar Keys on the west coast of Florida where he embarked on a steamer for Cuba, bound for South America. He got only as far as Havana where he waited for weeks in vain looking for passage to Brazil. Enervated by the oppressive summer heat and the lingering effects of malaria he had contracted while walking across Florida, he eventually saw an advertisement for passage to California from New York. It was a roundabout way of getting there, but he was in no hurry, so he booked passage to New York and traveled from there by way of the Isthmus of Panama to San Francisco.

The remainder of "A Passion for Nature," about two-thirds of the narrative, is taken up with Muir's life in California, his development as a naturalist, scientist, and author, his extensive travels around the world, particularly several trips to Alaska, and his increasing activism for the preservation of wild places against the greed of developers, miners, logging interests, ranchers, and others. For these years of his life, the myth is more accurate, albeit still very incomplete.

Credit: Rudy Baum
Garnet Lake, Banner Peak, and Mount Ritter in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.
Credit: Rudy Baum
Garnet Lake, Banner Peak, and Mount Ritter in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.

MUIR ARRIVED in California in March 1868, just a month shy of his 30th birthday. He did set off almost immediately from San Francisco for Yosemite Valley, a place that had lived vividly in his imagination since his days toiling in a factory in Indianapolis. He would spend more than five years in the Sierra Nevada. During the first three, he alternated various forms of employment—saw mill hand, sheepherder—with exploration of the new world of granite and ice that opened up to him.

Of Muir's attitude toward California, Worster writes: "This time he found a genuine, health-filled paradise on earth, but one that offered far more than health or mythology, far more than he expected. In California he discovered a place that laid such a hold on his affections that he could never leave. It became his true and only home, however much he would travel the rest of his life. Yosemite Valley was the spiritual center of that home, a place he knew and would love even before he left Indiana, for its unique qualities of shelter, light, and soaring grandeur of rock."

In his explorations of the high Sierra, Muir was a close observer of plants and animals and of rocks and ice. He was an indefatigable wanderer who paid little attention to his own comfort or safety. He was a young man who had, as Worster observed, cast off his past and was in search of his future. "Muir had come to live in Yosemite at a pivotal moment, when far-reaching decisions were being made about its future, and indeed about the future of the American West and how to preserve its wonderful natural assets from unregulated self-interest. A nobody in the eyes of the world, he paid little attention to the politics or philosophy of conservation. Instead, he concentrated on his own life, trying to find a personal balance between the sacred and the profane."

By 1871, Muir had adopted mountaineering and the study of the geology of the Sierra Nevada as his full-time occupation. "Muir arrived in the West at precisely the moment when new careers in scientific exploration were being made," Worster writes. "Sick of manual labor, he dreamed of joining the ranks of those scientists in this great new era of landscape investigation." Muir began supporting himself by writing articles on his explorations and findings for popular magazines, first in San Francisco, and then nationally. His writing began to establish him as a serious scientist, and he began leading small expeditions into the mountains.

Muir would live full-time in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for only five and a half years, but the experience remained with him throughout the rest of his life. As Worster writes, "Those Sierra years of near-total immersion in the wild, far from towns, farming communities, roads, and modern technology, had transformed him into a new man. He had been born again into a higher relation with the natural world—liberated from religious orthodoxy, family pressures, and industrial labor. So strong was the memory of that experience that thereafter, no matter where he dwelt, he could easily slip away in his mind to that former life and imagine that he had never left it. He stretched those Sierra years into a myth of eternal youth, so that in all of his subsequent writings it would seem that he had never left the mountains. For the next four decades, although embedded in civilization most of the time, in his imaginary eye he was always on a trail somewhere in the high country. So too his readers would tend to believe that he had just come down from the summits for a brief spell and would return tomorrow."

Worster ably traces the events of those next four decades of Muir's life. Muir married, became the prosperous manager and then owner of his in-laws' ranch near Martinez, Calif., a town in the rolling hills east of San Francisco, and raised two daughters. He continued to travel extensively around the world and wrote of his travels in magazine articles and successful books. He befriended powerful individuals, including President Theodore Roosevelt and Ralph Waldo Emerson, as he became increasingly active in efforts to preserve wilderness in California and elsewhere.

Worster relates all of this and also captures in small vignettes the offbeat character that Muir was. He writes of one foolhardy day trip in Alaska on which Muir set out by himself with no provisions and virtually no equipment to walk across a vast, 7-mile-wide glacier. On his return trip, with daylight fading, Muir and the small dog that accompanied him encountered a 40-foot-wide crevasse. "Retracing their path in the waning light to find another route was no option," Worster writes. "Eight feet down the sides of the crevasse, however, stretched a bridge of ice from wall to wall—a fragile sliver above the chasm. With his axe Muir cut steps down to the bridge and then inched his way across. More cutting of footholds brought him precariously up the other side." The little dog dashed across behind him.


Most of Muir's admirers did not doubt his survival skills, Worster writes. "But a few saw him in a different light. 'In spite of his having spent a large part of his life in the wilderness,' wrote one of his good friends, the naturalist C. Hart Merriman, Muir 'knew less about camping than almost any man I have ever camped with.' At times he seemed foolishly indifferent to cold, discomfort, lack of sleep, or threats to life or limb. Often he set out into the backcountry without sufficient gear or left too late in the day for common sense. ... While many assumed that he was a master of survival techniques, someone always to be depended on, Merriam found him to be a negligent hiker who too often let his passion overcome his judgment."

The last years of Muir's life were not entirely happy or rewarding. His beloved wife, Louie, died in 1905. His two daughters, although not estranged from Muir, led independent lives that for long periods of time excluded him. He struggled with his writing. The battle over the future of Hetch Hetchy took a toll on his spirits. After that battle was finally lost, Muir withdrew to the ranch near Martinez and spent the last two years of his life alone and melancholy, sorting through his wildly disorganized papers and journals, vainly attempting to complete his autobiography. He died on Christmas Eve, 1914.

Muir was, before reading "A Passion for Nature," one of my personal heroes based largely on the myth I knew of him. After reading this towering biography, I know that my admiration was not misplaced.

Rudy Baum is the editor-in-chief of C&EN.


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