I first read John Muir some 25 years ago when I bought a second-hand copy of The Mountains of California. I didn’t know much about Muir then – he was little known in his native Scotland – but my interest had been piqued by walking the John Muir Trail through the High Sierra in California and by the founding a year earlier of the John Muir Trust in Scotland. Since reading that first book I’ve read much more by Muir in the two wonderful volumes edited by Terry Gifford: John Muir The Eight Wilderness-Discovery Books and John Muir His Life and Letters and Other Writings. I’ve also read much about Muir, in particular Frederick Turner’s 1985 biography Rediscovering America: John Muir in His Time and Ours and Michael P.Cohen’s excellent The Pathless Way: John Muir and American Wilderness, an analysis of Muir’s philosophy and how it developed and was expressed in his writing. Now there is a new book about Muir, written by historian Donald Worster. Whilst this is a biography like Turner’s it also examines and analyses the development of Muir’s thoughts and beliefs and looks more critically at his decisions and actions and how his trust in wealthy business friends to always defend wilderness was naive. As such it is more rounded and interesting than Turner’s book. Packed with detail and revealing comments it’s thought-provoking and stimulating. Worster places Muir in the context of his time and shows how he fitted in with the growth of liberal democracy and became part of the American intelligentsia. Muir is a key figure in the development of a wilderness consciousness, the belief that nature is worth preserving and has a value separate from its practical usefulness, so this excellent book about him is worth reading by anyone with the same concerns. (Those of us familiar with Scottish history will have to forgive the author’s surprisingly basic factual errors regarding Mary, Queen of Scots and the Covenanters – I presume that the author, who is a Professor of American History at the University of Kansas, is more accurate regarding American history).
The end of the book discusses Muir’s defeat over Hetch Hetchy, a remote and spectacular valley that was dammed and turned into a reservoir despite being in Yosemite National Park, and the type of attacks made on him by the development lobby, which sound depressingly familiar. Muir and his supporters (many of whom were women) were called soft and effeminate as opposed to hard-headed and practical like the developers. Today they would be called tree-huggers. Destroying nature is still seen by too many as sensible and realistic whilst conservation is for those with their heads in the clouds, day dreamers who don’t understand the necessity of constant exploitation and development. Yet it is the practical nature-destroyers who are the cause of our environmental problems and who may well create an earth unfit for human habitation. The global threat to a natural world with room for human beings (nature will continue with or without us) wasn’t a consideration in Muir’s day but his understanding of why we need wild places is still relevant, as is his belief that having the power to alter nature gives us a responsibility about how we use it. At the end of his book Worster writes “Looking back at the trail he blazed, we must wonder how far we have to go”. A very long way, I suspect, but Muir can still help light us along the way.