A Devotion to Nature

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Reviewed by Dennis Drabelle
Sunday, November 9, 2008


The Life of John Muir

By Donald Worster

Oxford Univ. 535 pp. $34.95

John Muir (1838-1914) is revered as the founder of the modern American conservation movement. Anyone who knew him as a young man, however, would have pegged him as a budding inventor. After emigrating from Scotland with his family at 10, he grew up in small-town Wisconsin, where his religious-fanatic father made the boy work long, debilitating hours on their farm. According to historian and biographer Donald Worster, the adult John Muir concluded that, in driving him so mercilessly, his father had indulged a selfish urge "to further his patriarchal ambitions." Muir reacted by rejecting a major tenet of his father's creed -- the instrumental view of Nature so prevalent in 19th-century America -- and his example and writings won much of the nation over to his side.

Yet the young Muir's most noticeable gift was not for philosophizing but for tinkering: When he was 20 and still living at home, he invented a contraption "that woke him in the morning by dropping him with a thud and setting him upright on his feet, ready for the day's work."

Shortly afterward, he struck out on his own, and the physical escape seems to have freed up something in his soul. He moved to Madison, where his skills at repairing and improving machinery ensured that he could always find work. He studied fitfully at the university there, but after getting a taste for travel, he did more and more of it, in ever wilder settings, nurturing a passion for trees and plants. While trekking in Ontario in 1864, "he came upon the orchid Calypso borealis blooming on a barren hillside. Suddenly he was lifted up, thrilled to the point of tears by its unexpected beauty. . . . The Bible taught that the world was cursed with weeds and that they must be cleared away by human sweat, but Muir rejected that view. 'Are not all plants beautiful? or in some way useful? . . . The curse must be within ourselves.' "

That quote within the quote comes from one of Muir's letters. Worster also draws liberally on Muir's articles and books, giving his narrative a solid grounding in his subject's own words. Naturally, Worster retells the great Muir stories, including how he rode a living tree. The incident took place along the Yuba River near Grass Valley, Calif., in 1874, when Muir was in his mid-30s. "All that day the wind roared," Worster writes, "and trees cracked off or were uprooted at the rate of one every two or three minutes. Far from running to shelter, he ventured out gleefully to feel the force of the wind and watch the dance of green conifer branches swaying and waving in the gale. 'Then it occurred to me,' he wrote, 'that it would be a fine thing to climb one of the trees to obtain a wider outlook and get my ear close to the Aeolian music of its topmost branches.' He climbed one of the tallest and swung there 'like a bobolink on a reed.' The top of the tree lashed back and forth in an arc of twenty or thirty degrees, yet he kept his high perch for hours." Muir added that the escapade was safer than it looked because he knew the species (Douglas fir) and chose a particularly sturdy tree.

This hedonist in the rough -- neither marriage (in 1880) nor fatherhood (he had two daughters) put much of a crimp in his wandering ways -- was also a forceful advocate for environmental causes; in this, he was helped by his charm. One of his conquests was Teddy Roosevelt, who as president made a now-famous visit to Yosemite Valley with Muir in 1903. The Sierra Nevada in general and Yosemite in particular are so closely associated with Muir that he seems almost to have discovered them. He did not, but it was he who named the Sierra "the range of light," he who lobbied successfully to have Yosemite transferred from state to federal hands, and he who fought unsuccessfully to save the Yosemite region's other splendid valley, Hetch Hetchy, from being dammed up to provide water for San Francisco. Some commentators have suggested that Muir died of a broken heart after realizing that Hetch Hetchy was doomed. But in Worster's telling, Muir suffered from "persistent lung ailments" that steadily worsened over a matter of months.

Worster has also written a fine biography of the explorer John Wesley Powell, among other books. He captures Muir the man with economy and grace, and gives the reader a clear sense of his public stature: We are reaching a point where Nature is no longer considered just a storehouse of economic resources, Worster argues, but "a value in itself. No one in nineteenth-century America was more important than Muir in persuading people to move toward such a vision." ยท

Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.

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