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A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muirby Donald Worster
Given John Muir's status as the iconic representative of the preservationist wing of the modern environmental movement — not to mention his influential work as a writer, amateur scientist and founder of the Sierra Club — it is remarkable that a comprehensive account of his life has been so long in coming. But Muir's life story is complex, and an accurate telling of it has required nearly a century of the kind of scholarly sifting and sorting that Donald Worster does so expertly in A Passion for Nature. Michael P. Branch, American Scientist (read the entire American Scientist review)
Synopses & Reviews
"I am hopelessly and forever a mountaineer," John Muir wrote. Civilization and fever and all the morbidness that has been hooted at me has not dimmed my glacial eye, and I care to live only to entice people to look at Nature's loveliness. My own special self is nothing.
In Donald Worster's magisterial biography, John Muir's special self is fully explored as is his extraordinary ability, then and now, to get others to see the sacred beauty of the natural world. A Passion for Nature is the most complete account of the great conservationist and founder of the Sierra Club ever written. It is the first to be based on Muir's full private correspondence and to meet modern scholarly standards. Yet it is also full of rich detail and personal anecdote, uncovering the complex inner life behind the legend of the solitary mountain man. It traces Muir from his boyhood in Scotland and frontier Wisconsin to his adult life in California right after the Civil War up to his death on the eve of World War I. It explores his marriage and family life, his relationship with his abusive father, his many friendships with the humble and famous (including Theodore Roosevelt and Ralph Waldo Emerson), and his role in founding the modern American conservation movement. Inspired by Muir's passion for the wilderness, Americans created a long and stunning list of national parks and wilderness areas, Yosemite most prominent among them. Yet the book also describes a Muir who was a successful fruit-grower, a talented scientist and world-traveler, a doting father and husband, a self-made man of wealth and political influence. A man for whom mountaineering was a pathway to revelation and worship.
For anyone wishing to more fully understand America's first great environmentalist, and the enormous influence he still exerts today, Donald Worster's biography offers a wealth of insight into the passionate nature of a man whose passion for nature remains unsurpassed.
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... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) 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." Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of The Washington Post Book World. Reviewed by Dennis Drabelle, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"John Muir's battles to preserve the Sierra Nevada and Yosemite Park, his founding of the Sierra Club, his final, bitter, unsuccessful effort to save Hetch Hetchy Valley, his pioneering insights into the geology of the glacial age, and his late Victorian combination of religion and pantheism have been extensively chronicled. What is unique about A Passion for Nature is the skill with which Worster places Muir in a political context. Worster helps us understand how the love of nature is related to other social movements for equality, that human indifference to the natural world is morally an example of the oppressive hierarchies that mar our history." Carl Pope, Executive Director, Sierra Club
"A towering biography of a towering figure! John Muir is one of those very few Americans who reshaped the way we saw the world. This volume, from one of our most eminent historians, makes clear both the sources and the meaning of Muir's great and wild epiphany." Bill McKibben, author of The Bill McKibben Reader
About the Author
David Worster is Hall Distinguished Professor of American History, University of Kansas and the author of many books, including A River Running West; The Wealth of Nature: Environmental History and the Ecological Imagination; and Under Western Skies: Nature and History in the American West.
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