A Passion for Nature

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1802

One of the great figures in the nineteenth century American conservation movement, John Muir is most often identified with California, where he spent most of his adult life and where he came to be identified so closely with the Sierra Nevada and Yosemite Park that his formative years tend to be neglected. Now environmental historian Donald Worster has written A Passion for Nature, sure to become the definitive Muir biography, in which he chronicles Muir’s childhood and early years that helped to shape his deep passion for the natural world. The first Muir biography to meet modern standards of scholarship, this book makes use of Muir’s hitherto unavailable private correspondence. Worster describes how Muir’s love of the outdoors grew out of a rebellion against his strict, fundamentalist upbringing, his early interest in botany, the natural beauty of the Wisconsin frontier, and his strong desire to explore exotic places, including Florida and California.

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Muir was born in Dunbar, Scotland, on April 21, 1838, the third of eight children of a zealous and restless Scotsman, a successful grain merchant who impulsively decided to immigrate to America in 1849 to enjoy greater freedom to practice his extremely fundamentalist Campbellite beliefs and try his hand at homesteading in the Midwest. As the oldest son, Muir suffered from his father’s heavy-handed patriarchal rule, with its strict work ethic, harsh physical punishments, and many prohibitions, based on his Calvinistic view of human nature. He later remembered the Scottish countryside as his one escape from the oppressiveness of his home life.

Arriving in the frontier of central Wisconsin, the Muir family homesteaded in a sandy tract of land in Marquette County near the confluence of the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers. The eleven-year-old Muir was at first exhilarated by “that glorious Wisconsin wilderness,” as he later called it, but he was soon worn down by the physical rigors of pioneer life and his father’s expectation that his sons would bear the brunt of clearing the land and removing the stumps. The frequent whippings and sermons Muir endured as an adolescent strengthened his rebellion and his determination to leave home as soon as possible. Though the Muir children were obviously bright, they received little formal schooling beyond scriptural readings, so with his meager earnings Muir bought himself a small private library and developed an interest in travel narratives.

Muir showed an early mechanical aptitude that promised an escape from the drudgery of farm work. His exhibition of his homemade inventions at the Wisconsin State Fair led to an invitation to study at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, though he could not afford to stay to finish his degree. Instead, he left for Canada to avoid the Civil War draft and worked in Ontario for two years before returning to the United States.

An unfortunate industrial accident in an Indianapolis carriage factory left Muir temporarily blinded and in 1867 motivated him to embark on a thousand-mile botanizing walk through the South to Florida, where he stopped in Key West to recuperate after contracting malaria and then sailed for Cuba. He had hoped to follow Alexander Von Humboldt’s footsteps and explore the Amazon, but instead he changed his plans and sailed to California in 1868. After arriving in San Francisco, Muir headed for Yosemite Valley and spent his first summer in the Sierras as a shepherd. That experience awakened in him a deep passion for the California mountains, and he recorded in his journals: “I am hopelessly and forever a mountaineer.” Though he hated the destructiveness of the sheep, Muir appreciated the freedom to wander in and explore Yosemite Valley and its surroundings. He had enormous physical strength and vitality, and he could hike all day on nothing but bread and water. He often risked life and limb in scaling perilous cliff faces and glacier fields. Once he climbed a tall sugar pine to swing back and forth, experiencing the exhilaration of a Sierra windstorm. Muir settled in Yosemite and worked as a tour guide as he began to ponder the geology of these mountains and how they had been shaped. He took part in several scientific surveys and gradually became a knowledgeable, self-taught field geologist. An accomplished mountaineer, he climbed most of the high peaks in California, including Mount Ritter, Mount Whitney, and Mount Shasta. During his field excursions, Muir carefully noted the signs of recent glaciation and gradually developed his glacial theory of the formation of Yosemite Valley and the California Sierras, which was at odds with the conventional Uniformitarian theories of the time. He was later vindicated by other scientists. An abstract of his field studies of glaciers was published by the American Academy of Sciences. He collected alpine plant specimens for the distinguished Harvard botanist Asa Grey. After he returned to San Francisco, he began to publish travel and natural history essays about the California Nevadas in The Overland Monthly, Harper’s, and The Century.

The spiritual influence of the mountains also gradually led him to abandon his orthodox fundamentalist Christianity and embrace a mystical pantheism. He felt a deep connection to the rest of nature. “Come to the mountains and get their glad tidings,” he proclaimed. He believed that climbing mountains elicits intellectual and spiritual elevation. He came to “worship all of God’s works” because, for him, “the laws of Nature were only another way of saying the laws of God.” He began to write travel and natural history essays for California newspapers and magazines extolling his wilderness ethic. A fervent egalitarian, Muir linked democracy and nature in his mind. At Yosemite he discovered that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” He became a firm Darwinist and rejected all biblical notions of Creation, though toward the end of his life he became more conventionally religious, more of a Deist than a pantheist. When Ralph Waldo Emerson traveled to California in 1871, he asked to meet Muir, who guided him through Yosemite Valley. Muir began to be viewed as the Transcendentalist successor to Emerson and Henry Thoreau.

Muir gradually became more active in California conservation efforts. He protested the destruction of California’s forests and the hydraulic mining that ravaged forests and rivers. He spoke out to save the last groves of sequoias from cutting, including the largest, the General Sherman Tree. In addition, he protested against the burning of forests by sheep men and the destruction of mountain meadows and wildflowers by the ravening hordes of sheep.

In 1879, Muir made the first of his seven trips to Alaska, where he risked his life exploring the glaciers in Glacier Bay to find evidence of glacial activity. He returned with the famous story of Stickeen, the heroic dog who accompanied him on his explorations of the glaciers. About this time, Muir was introduced to his future wife, Louie Strentzel, the only child of parents who owned a large fruit and vineyard ranch in the central California valley. After their marriage in 1880, Muir took over the daily operation and management of Alhambra, the Strentzel estate, but that did not prevent him from making annual excursions, though his wife preferred to remain at home with their two daughters, Wanda and Helen. In 1881, he was invited to accompany an official American survey along the Alaska coast. Muir would spend the next twenty years alternating between his farming responsibilities and his desire to return to the wilderness. He became active in the Grange Movement and gradually assumed increasingly important leadership roles in the state and national conservation and parks movements. He was one of the founding members of the Sierra Club in 1886, and he used his influence to promote a public appreciation of the outdoors. Muir believed that “there is a love of wild nature in everybody.”

In 1893, he was urged by his admirers to collect his magazine articles and essays into his first book, The Mountains of California, which was published in 1894. Despite his reputation as an eccentric loner, Muir was actually a warm, gregarious person and a great conversationalist who had many friends and admirers. His vitality and exuberant love of nature taught Americans of the Gilded Age to enjoy outdoor exercise and natural history. Wealthy businessmen and prominent leaders sought his company on their wilderness excursions, including the railroad baron Edward Harrison, as well as Emerson and Theodore Roosevelt, both of whom became close friends of Muir.

Muir’s prominence as an author and naturalist gradually drew him into the controversies over the formation of Yosemite National Park and the fate of Hetch Hetchy Valley, which Muir believed should be preserved because it was as spectacular as Yosemite Valley. Despite his efforts, it was ultimately dammed in 1913 to create a reservoir for the city of San Francisco. Muir advocated public ownership of wilderness and spent the last decade of his life fighting to preserve the legacy of the parks and conservation movement after it split into the “wise use” and preservationist factions. He was one of the United States’ first and best park naturalists and guides. Along with his friend John Burroughs, Muir became a prominent voice during the Progressive Era, developing a love of nature and the outdoors into a post-Calvinistic wilderness ethic. Muir split with his old friend Gifford Pinchot over the damming of Hetch Hetchy Valley and the extent of mining and logging that should be permitted on federal lands. Though Muir understood that some resource extraction was inevitable, he fought to protect national parks and forests from uncontrolled greed and avarice.

Muir saw the publication of four of his major books during his lifetimeThe Mountains of California, Our National Parks (1901), The Yosemite (1912), and The Story of My Boyhood and Youth (1913)and he left several other book manuscripts to be published posthumously, including A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf (1916) and My First Summer in the Sierras (1916). Otherwise, his last years were marked by illness and loss. His wife Louie died of pneumonia in 1905, and Muir and his daughter Helen wintered in Arizona for health reasons. Muir’s lung problems were persistent, and he eventually died of pneumonia in Los Angeles in 1913.

Despite this book’s overall excellence, Worster does not present a literary biography. Instead, his A Passion for Nature presents Muir more as a public figure than as an author or natural history writer. Worster does not sufficiently evaluate Muir’s literary reputation or importance as an American nature writer. After all, Muir was considered an important enough writer to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1912, and he received honorary degrees from Harvard and University of California at Berkeley. The issues of how Muir developed the post-Transcendentalist tradition of American nature writing and the extent of his legacy as a nature writer still need to be addressed.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 16

American Scientist 96, no. 6 (November/December, 2008): 508-510.

Booklist 105, no. 14 (October 15, 2008): 7.

Library Journal 133, no. 16 (October 1, 2008): 91.

Science 322 (November 7, 2008): 859-860.

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