A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir
by Donald Worster
Reviewed by Michael P. Branch
No dogma taught by the present civilization seems to form so insuperable an obstacle in a way of a right understanding of the relations which culture sustains to wilderness as that which regards the world as made especially for the uses of man. Every animal, plant and crystal controverts it in the plainest terms. Yet it is taught from century to century as something ever new and precious, and in the resulting darkness the enormous conceit is allowed to go unchallenged. -- John Muir, "Wild Wool"
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. When he died in 1914, Muir left voluminous, disorganized manuscript journals and correspondence that would have to be gathered, ordered and studied before the private side of this very public man's life could be understood.
Born in 1838 in Dunbar, Scotland, John Muir emigrated with his family to the Wisconsin prairies in 1849. After a decade of backbreaking labor on the family farm, the 22-year-old Muir made it to the State Fair in Madison, where his "inventions"—including handcrafted wooden clocks of his own design -- earned him an invitation to become a student at the University of Wisconsin. Muir studied in Madison for several years but never finished his degree, instead tramping off to Canada in order to botanize and to avoid being drafted into service in the Civil War.
When the war ended, Muir returned to America and put his mechanical genius to work in a carriage factory in Indianapolis, but in 1867 he was temporarily blinded in an industrial accident, which left him deeply uncertain about his future. As he recovered his sight, however, he became confident that he was called not to be an inventor or a captain of industry, but rather to be a student of nature in all its forms. With his life's direction clarified, Muir left Indianapolis and walked a thousand miles, through the Appalachians to the Gulf of Mexico, botanizing nearly every step of the way.
Muir ultimately followed the nation west, to California. He was in search of mountains rather than gold. He would make seven trips to Alaska to study glaciers and would also travel the globe to investigate trees, but he was most strongly associated with the Sierra Nevada (which he famously called "the range of light") and Yosemite. Although Yosemite was not the nation's first national park (Yellowstone has that distinction), Muir is nonetheless often credited with having been the father of the national park system, for it was his argument on behalf of nature aesthetics, recreation and preservation that helped Yosemite to become the first national park established with the goal of protecting nature from commercial logging, grazing and mining.
Muir would later assist in founding the Sierra Club to help protect the environment. By the start of the 20th century, he was the best-known and most public spokesman for a new environmental ethic -- he challenged the presumptions of anthropocentrism, argued for the spiritual and aesthetic value of nature, and advocated for environmental preservation in an age largely dominated by ruthless industrial forces.
It is difficult to take the measure of Muir's life as a scientist. He was a gifted amateur naturalist, and his expertise as a botanist was widely celebrated. More important was his insightful work in glaciology. A young and mostly untutored Muir challenged the dominant geological theory regarding Yosemite's formation. Basing his arguments on glacial striation patterns on rock and on other observations made during his Sierra rambles, Muir insisted that the sublime landscape of Yosemite had been sculpted by ice rather than caused by a catastrophic subsidence of the valley floor (the scientific explanation then endorsed by most professional scientists -- including Josiah Whitney, who lambasted Muir as an "ignoramus"). Muir was right, of course. He not only wrote articles and gave lectures making his case, but also used his courage and skill as a mountaineer to discover that living glaciers, remnants of the last ice age, still existed in the remote high Sierra. Even the geological catastrophists found it difficult to repudiate this physical evidence for the glacial theory.
Despite such achievements, science was not Muir's true vocation; he soon abandoned strictly scientific writing in favor of direct wilderness experience, a more lyrical form of nature writing, and a calling to save what he could of America's wild places. He referred to himself not as a glaciologist, but rather as a "poetico-trampo-geologist-botanist and ornithologist-naturalist." Although he received honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale and Berkeley, Muir refused offers to become a professional scientist or an academic, instead choosing a more experiential and reverential path through the wilderness.
Worster is an environmental historian whose distinguished career includes such books as Nature's Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas, The Ends of the Earth: Perspectives on Modern Environmental History and A River Running West, a biography of John Wesley Powell. In A Passion for Nature, Worster has given us what is clearly the most detailed and complete account of Muir's life. He has soundly rooted this biography in manuscript evidence rather than depending on popular accounts of Muir's adventures.
Muir's status as the iconic representative of the fledgling environmental movement gave him a larger-than-life role in the American imagination. As a result of this exaggerated public persona it has sometimes been difficult to distinguish the iconic "John O' Mountains" from John Muir the man.
A Passion for Nature helps correct a number of distortions and omissions that are perennial in popular representations of Muir's life. For example, we have generally preferred to envision Muir as a solitary rambler, alone in the mountain tabernacle of the high Sierra. Worster's account, if less dramatic, makes clear that although Muir was often a solo wilderness adventurer, he was also a remarkably sociable man who nurtured and enjoyed his relationships with family and friends.
Likewise, Muir has often been depicted as an inspired pauper who renounced commercial activity in favor of the unsullied wilderness, a distortion that has caused us to elide the long chapter of his adult life that was devoted to profit-generating agricultural enterprise. Worster brings Muir's Martinez, California, fruit-growing business into focus. He also shows that Muir was close friends with many of the wealthiest and most powerful men of his day (including Theodore Roosevelt and the railroad magnate E. H. Harriman), and that the adult Muir was rather well off for an inspired tramp.
Worster is also more honest than many previous commentators in acknowledging that Muir was, despite his generally egalitarian views of human and nonhuman beings alike, deeply ambivalent about Native Americans and also about Chinese immigrants, a number of whom worked as laborers on his ranch. If A Passion for Nature is biography rather than hagiography, however, it is far from being an expose; on the contrary, Worster remains respectful of Muir's vision and accomplishments throughout.
Among the few disappointments is Worster's tendency in the book to focus on examining Muir as an actor in the drama of American environmental history, only rarely analyzing his work as a writer. It is true that the literary Muir was a late bloomer who did not publish his first book until 1894, when he released The Mountains of California at age 55. Nevertheless, it was his writing that moved so many Americans to recognize, develop and express their own relationship to nature. In scores of periodical essays, as well as in the half dozen books he published during his lifetime, Muir crafted new approaches to writing about the relationship between nature and the self, and in so doing helped shape a genre of American environmental literature that remains vibrant today. Although A Passion for Nature is not intended as a literary biography, closer analysis of Muir's literary techniques -- including his deliberate self-fashioning of the "John O' Mountains" icon -- would have been a welcome addition to Worster's treatment.
A Passion for Nature is an excellent, readable, engaging piece of scholarship that should now be considered the definitive biography of one of America's most influential advocates for nature. Although John Muir was not an "American scientist" in the strict sense, his life and work provide an inspiring model of the sort of broad-minded, multidisciplinary, ethically engaged relationship to nature on which support for environmental protection still depends.
Michael Branch is Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, and in the spring of 2009 will be in a visiting appointment as Thomson Professor of Environmental Studies at Davidson College. He is Book Review Editor of the journal ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment and coeditor of the University of Virginia Press book series Under the Sign of Nature: Explorations in Ecocriticism. His books include John Muir's Last Journey: South to the Amazon and East to Africa (Island Press, 2001) and Reading the Roots: American Nature Writing before Walden (University of Georgia Press, 2004).