Book Notes: A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir

“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”
โ€” John Muir

Donald Worster begins at the beginning. For John Muir the beginning was the High Street of Dunbar in the Scottish lowlands, born 21 April 1838. “He came forth into a world of dressed stone, cobbled streets, and somber controlling civilization, where everything green was carefully tucked away in back gardens.” Muir’s pragmatic father taught his children to grow vegetables in their back yard. Muir and his siblings each had his or her own small plot and learned the value of planting seeds and raising their own food. This, then, was their primary introduction to Nature.

In February 1849 young Muir’s life takes a drastic turn when his father announces to the family that they are moving the next day to America. Muir’s young life unfolds in Wisconsin as a pioneer, working long hours and day after day helping to establish a homestead on 160 acres his father purchases at $1.25 an acre.

Eventually Muir arrives at that point in every young male’s life where he reaches a crossroads. He must choose his own path or stay with the family. As you are probably inclined to know Muir opts for a life of adventure, of botany, of glacier study, of passion for nature and an unexpected destiny that has influenced the entire of America, resulting in the preservation of vast tracts of precious wildlands through the establishment of a national park system. His most important point of entry to this very large calling was most likely his discovery of Yosemite Valley.

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.”
~John Muir, The Yosemite (1912)

So within A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir one finds what one would expect to find in such a lofty undertaking, the story of the life of John Muir. What one is not expecting to find, however, are the many threads that influence the life of this extraordinary man. For Donald Worster is a master historian and a scholar extraordinaire. And with these gifts he has woven an inordinately complex context of the political and religious and societal influences which bore upon and spoke to and challenged John Muir. The poets and writers, as one might imagine, include Thoreau, Emerson and his own precious Scotsman, Robert Burns. What I’m certain Muir himself did not expect was that his life kept expanding into ever widening circles attracting and maintaining close connections with the Rich and Powerful of the Day. And therein lies his story.

Muir and Theodore Roosevelt at Glacier Point, Yosemite, 1903 (Library of Congress)

To try to summarize or create a synopsis of a nearly 500 page scholarly tome is not going to be the focus of this post. I say, read the book. What I must share, however, is that this book has had and continues to have a profound impact on me. I’m still digesting and I suspect I will be digesting over the next year. For on so many levels this book resonates with my core. Not simply as a gardening blogger; not simply as a nature lover or the pantheist I know myself to be. This is personal.

John Muir w/dog at home in Martinez, CA
John Muir and I share a deep connection with the San Francisco Bay Area. When I read of his living in San Francisco where he could “see Angel Island” I am immediately cast into my memories of living in Sausalito until my daughter was five, in a lovely small house overlooking the San Francisco Bay, and particularly Angel Island. Antonia and I both spent many years listening to the fog horns on that bay, taking delight in small boats traversing the bay, and watching that glistening precious small island as John Muir did. Muir Woods were part of our terrain. As Muir’s story unfolds in Contra Costa County, increasingly his widening circles embrace my own. Imagine my delight and surprise in the discovery that so very many of the writers, trees (the great sequoias), rivers, roads, valleys, creatures that inspired John Muir are the very same that have long touched and inspired me. I say this humbly and reverently. As Muir was inspired to write of what he had seen and experienced, particularly his own deep conviction that nature was inherently wise, are the very threads, however simple, that I have committed to harkening to myself in my own writings. The impulse lives on.

“Civilization has not gone very deep as yet, but we are making some slight progress heavenward.” ~John Muir

Worster writes in his epilogue:

“All those efforts as nature preservation, protecting the high and the mighty, the extraordinary and the ordinary, the obscure and the beloved, flow out of the worldview of liberal democracy. Modern societies have not only fought to preserve Nature in all her forms but also to open those preserved places to any and all human beings, regardless of class or ethnicity, far more so than our universities, country clubs, or gated communities. In that preservation effort they have acknowledged a moral obligation beyond the species. Americans, like other peoples, have followed Muir’s youthful trail of passion toward a more comprehensive egalitarianism in our relations with the earth.”

This is a mighty book, dear readers. It is vital, inspiring and an important documentary of our own history. All and any working in the Earth would be well advised to make time to read it.

Love and Nature blessings,
Kathryn xoxox

Good News! Oxford University Press has generously agreed to send along a copy of A Passion for Nature for a lucky winner! On Sunday July 2nd I will put the names of all those who have left (legitimate) comments on this post in a hat. Winner pulled from the hat will receive a copy of this marvelous book!

AND THE WINNER IS!!!!: Julie, a biology professor in Ohio and perfect recipient of this wonderful biography! Congratulations, Julie!!

13 Responses to “Book Notes: A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir”

  1. How fascinating, mom! Great pictures of Yosemite, too. I am really looking forward to reading the book and learning more about Muir’s life! Thanks for the great recommendation.


  2. Hi, Antonia! Thanks! I can’t wait for you to read this book and we can discuss!
    I know you will love it. Love, Mom xoxo

  3. I must read this book. Thanks for the introduction.

  4. Hi, Julie, Yes, you of all folks should read this book. You will so love Muir’s passion for glaciers, and his deep and abiding research into their effect on the landscape! Let me know! Kathryn xoxo

  5. Thanks for such wonderful quotes in your review.

    Ever since we visited the Muir Woods, I have always enjoyed references to Muir’s love and respect for all natural things.
    You share so many special things, Katherine.]]

    Fondly, betsy

  6. Hi, Betsy! So glad you have visited Muir Woods. I intend to go soon and will share. Thank you for your kind words. Kathryn xoxo

  7. Dearest Zoe, this is just the kind of comment that leaves me in tears. ๐Ÿ™‚ (The Good Kind. :)) Thank you so very much for this beautiful sharing. I am so happy you enjoyed Plant Whatever Brings You Joy and are visiting the blog as well. Thank you for your very kind words. It means a lot to me. Kathryn xoxo

  8. This man was as kind to the earth and animals as I feel all my friends are specially you Kathryn.

  9. Hi, Lucy! Oh, thank you, my dear. So kind. Yes, Muir’s destiny was a big and almost unlikely one. I learned so much about him in this very thorough book and I’m deeply grateful to have the new information. It’s really deepened my appreciation for what I have and who I am and my own trajectory. Enjoy, friend. Kathryn xoxo

  10. Kathyrn,
    Well as a Muir and a gardener, this post got my attention. And I’m so glad to read your post because I learned more new info facts from the excerpts than anything I’ve read in years. My grandfather emigrated from Scotland, so I like to believe there’s a family connection there.. All I know is I’ve gardener since i was 4 and I visited Muir Woods at age 14 and was blown away by its beautY So, I will always have a close connection with my Uncle John..

  11. Hi, Patrick, Lovely. And as a genealogist I would strongly encourage you to do the research and find out precisely what your connection to this Muir family is. It will stand you in good stead. Good luck! And thanks for the visit. I’m glad it inspired you. Kathryn xoxo

  12. John Muir is a hero of mine. I loved reading the post here, and looking and the beautiful photographs. I have followed some of his footsteps, to stand where he did on a rock in the middle of Kings Canyon where he would speak, and i have thought of him while hiking on Mt Tam. Muir, I think, was a figure who changed consciousness about the natural world, as something to be treated reverently for its own sake, and not just as assets to be exploited, or thought as what can be a return on investment. We need Muir’s reminder today more than ever.
    Hugs, xxoo Thank you for the inspiring post.

  13. Hi, Philip! Then you absolutely must read this book. It’s incredibly well detailed and researched. Scholarly but gripping at the same time. I learned SO much reading this book. Having an idea of how much you love the Bay Area I guarantee you will love this book. It will very much deepen your appreciation of all around you! Enjoy! Kathryn xoxo

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