Book Review: The life of John Muir


Donald Worster

Oxford University Press, 18.99

SCOTLAND has claimed John Muir – a trust, a park, a coastal trail – but would he have become a 19th century conservation pioneer if he had stayed in his native Dunbar instead of being taken to America as a boy? Possibly not on the sweeping scale he achieved in his battle for a Yosemite national park, his concern for Alaska and the Californian Sierras and the influence of his writing on the American public.

But, as portrayed by Professor Donald Worster in a thorough and detailed style that does justice to the man's action-packed life, the stubborn, tireless, sinewy Muir would have made his mark in some way even if his imagination had never been fired by "that glorious Wisconsin wilderness".

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It could have been as an inventor. Harshly treated – for the good of his soul in old Scottish traditional style by a father who sank from pioneer to religious maniac – in spite of doing a man's work on the immigrant family's farm from the age of 11, Muir found time and energy to invent a more efficient sawmill, unusual clocks and a tipping bed.

They were, says Worster, the first examples of a lifelong impulse to improve the world whenever he could. Inventing became an obsession which, combined with the beatings by his father, drove him from home to the town of Madison and a short-lived college career.

Until his late 20s, Muir was a sawyer and forester with a talent for improving factory efficiency, noted again when he settled down years later to run the wine and fruit growing estate of his wife's family and made hefty profits.

Long before that, after a work accident that almost blinded him, he recuperated by taking his first long walk, a thousand miles from Jeffersonville, Indiana, to Cedar Keys, Florida, on bread, water and what hospitality he could find.

That was quintessential Muir, relying on strength and stamina, observing nature as he went, rather than planning ahead. He did much the same throughout his Sierra and Alaskan summers, his myriad walks in Yosemite and late-life travels in all continents.

He might have remained, as Worster claims, a Lowland Scot all his days, proud of his origins, reverencing Burns and eating porridge but, to me, there is more of the expansive American than the dour Scot in Muir's belief that nature never betrayed the heart that loved her.

He was ever enthralled by ice and mountains, forests and weather, risking his life on glaciers or riding out a gale in a tree's highest branches.

Reaching California aged 30, he was smitten by land in a state of nature and devoted much of the rest of his life to its preservation and convincing others of the need for that. Along the way, he married, managed his new family's large estate, looked after relatives, made money and – the cautious Scottish side peeking through – made the classic political transition from free-thinking soft-left to conservative right.

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But through it all he became the recognised and authentic "American voice of conservation", even if he needed prompting by campaigning magazine editor Robert Johnson. He also got help from railroad magnate Edward Harriman, and fell in, then out, with US President Theodore Roosevelt.

His most obvious monument is the Yosemite National Park, but there is much more, Worster concludes – America's National Wilderness System, established in 1964 to preserve more than 100 hundred million acres in pristine condition, partly owes its existence to Muir. Inspired by his example, Americans have expanded their national park system to almost 400 sites. Every endangered species is protected.

Muir's belief that "Nature loves man, beetles and birds with the same love" may not be now, or ever, universal as it confronts religious orthodoxy which puts man at the centre of the known world, and big business which puts money there. But without Muir and his core beliefs, care for the natural world would not have come so far in the past 100 years. v

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