The naturalist John Muir, that great lover of flora and fauna, rock and ice, the natural world in all its grandeur, died a century ago on Christmas Eve. He had been admitted to California Hospital in Los Angeles the day before, wracked by pneumonia. Like many nature-lovers, Muir had courted countless opportunities to “die doing what he loved,” as the euphemism goes, whether by freezing on a mountaintop, falling off a cliff, or being eaten by a bear who shared his views on the interdependence of all living things. That he met his end in a hospital bed is not such a tragedy; Muir was, in fact, doing something he loved at the time, working on the manuscript of his memoir Travels in Alaska (1915).
The journeys described in that book furnish most of the subject matter of Kim Heacox’s entertaining, albeit overly politicized, biography, John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire: How a Visionary and the Glaciers of Alaska Changed America, published earlier this year. Alaska also furnished Muir’s best-loved work, Stickeen (1909), first published in The Century Magazine as “An Adventure With a Dog and a Glacier” in 1897. “Adventure” was putting it mildly. What the story recounts is another of those near-death experiences, in this case, with the titular terrier mutt on a treacherous glacier in Taylor Bay.
Heacox’s book is a fine introduction to John Muir’s life, work, and legacy, but Stickeen is an ideal one. Heacox provides deeper insight into what is well known about his subject. Muir was ensorcelled by birds and forests. He was an avid student of glaciers and their behavior. He was a pioneering preservationist, who befriended and influenced Theodore Roosevelt and the nature writer John Burroughs; he quarreled with Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the Forest Service. Muir was responsible in large part for some of our most marvelous National Parks, including Yosemite and Sequoia. He tried and failed to save Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley. He founded the Sierra Club.
Nevertheless, only Muir’s writing—and Stickeen is a standout in this regard—can evoke Muir’s mysticism, his unusually strong identification with the natural world, and the awe and exultation he felt whenever in the midst of it:
That [Stickeen] should have recognized and appreciated the danger at the first glance showed wonderful sagacity. Never before had the daring midget seemed to know that ice was slippery or that there was any such thing as danger anywhere. His looks and tones of voice when he began to complain and speak his fears were so human that I unconsciously talked to him in sympathy as I would to a frightened boy. . . . “Hush your fears, my boy,” I said, “we will get across safe, though it is not going to be easy. No right way is easy in this rough world. We must risk our lives to save them. At the worst we can only slip, and then how grand a grave we will have, and by and by our nice bones will do good in the terminal moraine.”
It is also the case that only Muir’s writing can evoke Muir’s writing. He is remembered chiefly for serving as a custodian of the American landscape, for being an early champion of preservation, but Muir is just as valuable as a writer. That his books’ “characters” are, as often as not, flowers, animals, streams, or sheets of forbidding ice may tax the concentration of readers accustomed to such things as conflict and plot. Yet, by presenting this challenge his books teach precisely the kind of attention and patience that one needs to appreciate nature in anything like the manner that Muir did. As another nature lover, Paul Rezendes, put it in his textbook Tracking and the Art of Seeing (1999), “The tracker in the forest is in love with his or her surroundings. In nature, we are open to a larger perspective of self.” Love and a “larger perspective” are exactly what pervade Muir’s animated and, at times, ecstatic sentences.
Kim Heacox’s biography of Muir should be read by anyone who cares about the outdoors, whether or not he is interested in Muir. It is easy to forget that America’s treasured wild places have not been set aside simply because they are too big and beautiful to be spoiled. It took the intercession of men like Muir to ensure that a nation bent on expansion and prosperity did not treat these resources in a shortsighted way. Heacox renders a personality stubborn and strange enough to tackle that task. He is also an excellent travel writer, even if the travels in question are not his own; in his hands, Muir’s Alaskan sojourns take on the quality of legend.
Muir, Heacox writes, “was the Johann Wolfgang von Goethe of his day, a holistic thinker who challenged the modern scientific revolution to find a balance between the rational, quantitative mind and the intuitive, qualitative mind.” Muir believed that scientific inquiry “requires experience, a deep knowing and sense of wonder that comes from being out there, barefoot in the meadow, alone on the ice, naked in the storm.” Heacox presents a Muir in ragged clothes, extravagantly bearded, eating only stale crusts of bread and venturing out into ice-choked waters with Tlingit Indians. Muir trusted his curiosity and instinct more completely than the Tlingits trusted their own canoes:
Even brave old Toyatte, dreading the treeless, forlorn appearance of the region, said that his heart was not strong, and that he feared his canoe, on the safety of which our lives depended, might be entering a skookum-house (jail) of ice, from which there might be no escape; while the Hoona guide said bluntly that if I was so fond of danger, and meant to go close up to the noses of the ice-mountains, he would not consent to go any farther.
Muir, like Patrick White’s Voss or Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, persuaded the men to follow. In this case, their faith was rewarded—by not dying. But it is clear from Heacox’s telling that Muir was a bit of a lunatic. He once told a man he had asked for directions out of San Francisco that he wanted to go “anywhere that is wild”; it is clear that to Muir “wild” meant not only unspoiled but also unpredictable or dangerous. Many would regard Muir’s behavior as selfish and reckless. Still, there are places one cannot penetrate under ideal conditions without being reckless, natural wonders that are sealed off forever from those who are not fearless. Heacox’s book is a tribute to one of those rare birds who would not take oh no for an answer.
Heacox’s narrative follows Muir and his band of explorers, including the Presbyterian missionary S. Hall Young, on their interactions with Alaskan natives and Alaskan glaciers. (Muir, at times playing the pantheist missionary, is playfully described as a “Druid priest.”) We travel with Muir in Glacier Bay, which became its own National Park and is the home of Muir Glacier. We watch with amusement as Muir becomes an unlikely father of cruise-ship tourism, and with pride as, on his own steam, he earns recognition as a glacial geologist. Yet we never lose the sense that a sort of benign madness was Muir’s greatest asset, and that no truly sane person could love nature with anything approaching his ardor.
How, then, does one become John Muir? He bequeathed us a blueprint in his 1913 Story of My Boyhood and Youth. Muir was born April 21, 1838 in Dunbar, Scotland, and there, by his account, he divided his time between being thrashed at home, being thrashed at school, thrashing and getting thrashed by other boys, and—improbably, given all this “disorder and din”—developing a fondness for birds to rival St. Francis’s. Muir’s curiosity about the natural world was keen: “We used to wonder how the woodpeckers could bore holes so perfectly round, true mathematical circles. We ourselves could not have done it with gouges and chisels.”
He did not paint his young self as a saint, however, in all of his dealings with animals. Having acknowledged the “natural savagery of boys,” he confessed to complicity in dropping a terrified cat from a window (it lived), to watching dog-fights, to playing spectator at the butchering of pigs. “[I]f the butcher was good-natured,” he wrote, “we begged him to let us get a near view of the mysterious insides and to give us a bladder to blow up for a foot-ball.” He came to understand the “humanity” in animals gradually, which is to say honestly, by careful observation—and there were many opportunities for that after the next turn young Muir’s life would take.
In 1849, Muir’s father took him to America, bought an eighty-acre wilderness in Marquette County, Wisconsin, and established a farm. Muir learned to ride a pony; to tell venomous from harmless snakes; to fish (for “pickerel, sunfish, black bass, perch, shiners, pumpkin-seeds”) and hunt; to swim; to identify flowers, plants, and insects. (Muir is best read with a Google Image Search open.) He devotes a chapter of The Story of My Boyhood and Youth to birds, and reminisces about the late, great passenger pigeon, quoting Pokagon, an Indian writer, on its golden age: “I saw one nesting-place in Wisconsin one hundred miles long and from three to ten miles wide.”
If this sounds impossibly idyllic, bear in mind that what Muir mostly did is work. The Muir farm raised wheat, corn, potatoes, and melons, and of course kept horses and cattle. If spring with its plowing and summer with its harvesting, corn-hoeing, scythe-grinding, cattle-feeding, wood-splitting, and water-carrying sound difficult, consider the image Muir gives us of winter mornings, everyone’s “soggy boots frozen solid.” With no time to waste on such luxuries as a fire, the family “had to squeeze our throbbing, aching, chilblained feet into [boots], causing greater pain than toothache, and hurry to our chores.” Here, one guesses, is the origin of the adult Muir’s celebrated tolerance for bad weather.
Muir’s childhood was defined by unmediated exposure to nature, with precious little to distract from it save books; the boy Muir, both a dedicated reader and a prodigious inventor, once devised an alarm clock so that he could rise at one o’clock in the morning to read. Surely, this enforced attention to natural detail, combined with a self-guided education in classic literature—Shakespeare, Milton, and Cowper were among Muir’s favorites—accounts for the richness and beauty of his prose.
Muir could paint a cloud as lovely as anything produced by Frederic Edwin Church: One “resembled a fungus, with a bulging base like a sequoia, a smooth, tapering stalk, and a round, bossy, down-curled head like a mushroom—stalk, head, and root, in equal, glowing, half-transparent crimson” (“Yosemite Valley in Flood,” The Overland Monthly, April 1872). His dry wit savors of Twain. An elaborate description of a shepherd’s filthy clothes in My First Summer in the Sierra (1911) is worth reading in full; it ends with: “These precious overalls are never taken off, and nobody knows how old they are, though one may guess by their thickness and concentric structure. Instead of wearing thin they wear thick, and in their stratification have no small geological significance.”
The kind of upbringing that produced John Muir is rarer today. We have phrases like “outdoor kid” and “free-range kid” for children who encounter the outdoors on vastly gentler terms than Muir did. Yet we have no shortage of eco-activists who model themselves on Muir at his crankiest. After an accident on a mountain, Muir thundered at his feet, “[T]hat is what you get by intercourse with stupid town stairs, and dead pavements” (“A Geologist’s Winter Walk,” The Overland Monthly, April 1873). In My First Summer in the Sierra, he sneers at “another party of Yosemite tourists” who “seem to care but little for the glorious objects about them.” For “but little,” read “less than I do.” This dismissal of civilization, even if it is a joke, and of people with different passions or priorities, is far from charming.
Man’s needs must be weighed prudently against the needs of nature, and it seems wisest to raise children who fall at a comfortable midpoint between contempt for, or indifference to, nature and messianic devotion to it. The scolding and doomsaying of too many of Muir’s philosophical heirs are surely as apt to put people off nature as to encourage a love of it. Heacox’s biography is an occasional offender in this regard, as when he asserts, with evident relish, that “while we cannot live without the forces and creatures of the nonhuman world, they can live without us.”
This perverse delight in the superfluity of our species is not unusual among today’s environmentalists. Is it an attempt to chasten us? A warning? If evolution is indifferent, then no condition it produces can be deemed better or worse than any other; there can be no condition that is supposed to be and, thus, no obligation on our part to maintain it. If man is destructive, the immutable laws of nature have made him so. Protection of the environment is reduced by this attitude to a question of aesthetics, of preference—of human preference, and not even unanimous preference. Man wiping out everything and man wiping himself out, or even putting himself out, to save everything are equally meaningless.
It seems the anthropocentrism of the unbeliever is every bit as irrational and arrogant as the anthropocentrism of a medieval Christian, or of Muir, a believer in his own way. We will have to go on teaching our children that what they do with nature is up to them, and that there are no right or wrong answers, but we might at least furnish them with a field guide like John Muir to assist in that solemn enterprise.