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When Writing About John Muir, I Had to See What He Saw

For the past seven years I have been busy writing, in my non-teaching hours, the life story of the great California naturalist, John Muir.  Part of the reason it took me so long is that he left hundreds of personal letters and unpublished journal fragments, much of which had never been carefully examined or put in their full historical context.  But also I wanted to see as much as possible of what Muir saw of the natural world—and he was one of the most widely traveled persons of his time.  I too had to do a lot of traveling.

Muir started out as a boy on the North Sea coast of Scotland, grew up in the Wisconsin woods and prairies, then spent time in the Canadian wilds, the American South, Panama, and of course every part of California, Yosemite most of all.  He camped at Crater Lake, on Mt. Rainier, and along the Alaskan shore.  He saw the Wanganui River of New Zealand, the larch forests of Finland, the Victoria Falls of Zimbabwe, and New England’s Walden Pond.  All of those places, and more, I have gone to see as part of my research.  My theory of biography is that one needs to know all the varieties of nature that the subject experienced, for nature can be as important as other people in making us what we are.

Remarkably, on this planet that is now populated four times more densely than in Muir’s day, we can still experience much of the natural world as he knew it.  Many of his favorite places have been carefully preserved as parks or monuments, virtually all the animals and plants he knew are still out there someplace in the wild, and it is not impossible to sleep on a bed of granite as he did or stand in a darkly shaded karri grove in Australia or touch fibrous sequoia bark in the Sierra.   That few people try to do so today tells us more about motivation than opportunity.  We are more absorbed in our work, more surrounded by technology, more limited to city life than he was. 

Even in Muir’s own day such absorption was becoming the pattern of his fellow citizens’ lives.  He had to struggle to escape the factory work he seemed destined for in the Midwest and to reconnect his life with nature.  Nature gave him joy, peace, spiritual fulfillment, self-understanding, and a sense of harmony that no job, church, or classroom could ever do.  He published his rambles not because writing books or articles gave him pleasure—it was awfully hard work--but because others pushed him to write; they wanted to see and experience through his words.  Those words became his readers’ means of knowing how nature works and creates order and beauty around us.  All his books are still in print, so apparently he continues to serve us as he did his contemporaries.  But ultimately even Muir’s words are inadequate.  Readers need to go out and see for themselves, and to feel more directly the physical and psychological bond that links us to all other forms of life, to realize that this is where we came from.

Nature, to be sure, is around us wherever we live.  Even in the largest, most polluted or paved-over metropolis, it is impossible not to live in nature, if we mean the circle of seasons, the play of wind currents, the spread of pollen or bacteria, the path of growth and decay.  But Muir understood that achieving a full sense of belonging to a nature that is older and greater than us is much easier when we actually walk in a primeval forest or sail among a pod of migrating whales.  If you want to feel connected to the richness and variety of humanity, then you want to stand in the midst of Grand Central Station or stroll through the Louvre with guidebook in hand.  But if you want to remember, deep down in your bones, where humanity originated, then you need to get up into the mountains or hike down into the Grand Canyon.

Preserving those places that stimulate deep remembering is what I think most profoundly conservation meant to Muir.  He believed we should save natural places because we need them to explore our roots.   We should not conserve, he thought, merely to provide future resources for consumption.  We need to conserve our natural heritage for greater self-awareness.  We should conserve the habitats of fellow species that have been around throughout our entire hominid existence.   If we lose those species and the places where they live and were formed, we would feel lost on this planet, like an immigrant who doesn’t speak the language or know anybody.  

Muir believed, and illustrated in his life, that the conservation of nature is essential to keeping ourselves oriented in this industrial age of rapid, bewildering change.  He was not against railroads or telephones.  He practiced modern horticultural methods on his fruit ranch in California.  He needed, however, to smell, touch, and observe the wild plants of the earth, to experience the geological forces that carved the Sierra peaks and the valley where he lived.  So he devoted much of his later years to pressuring legislators and presidents to save large parts of the natural landscape.   Our extraordinary array of parks, forests, desert and marine reserves, and wildlife refuges owe more to Muir than any other individual.  It took politicians like Theodore Roosevelt to give such conservation the force of law, but it was naturalists like Muir who developed a public hunger for such places.

Writing Muir’s biography has given me more insight into this extraordinary man and his times.  But getting away from my keyboard and file folders in order to see the places that he explored has been eye opening and soul fulfilling.  I have learned more about botany, his favorite subject.  Like him, I have fallen in love with trees, tree ferns, grasses, wildflowers, sedges, brambles, cacti--all those plants that turn solar radiation into the food that keeps us and a few million other species alive, through cold and heat, rain and drought.    If we were a nation of botanists, all of us in love with plants as Muir was, we would be better environmental citizens.   More knowledgeable and caring about the green world, we could survive almost anything.

This article was first prepared for Powells.com.