The Swarm

Mix it up with The Bee's editorial board.

August 10, 2011
Reading Rack: John Muir's complexity

A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir. By Donald Worster, Oxford University Press, 535 pages.
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John Muir, who is pictured on the California quarter along with Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, is well-known as an explorer and for his writings on and advocacy for national parks and wilderness. The cover of this book shows Muir as we imagine him - with long, flowing beard and walking stick in a wild place - but Worster quickly shows us that Muir was much more.

Worster places Muir in the important time period from just after the Civil War to the early twentieth century. He shows Muir as part of a generation that was exploring new ideas about the individual, nature, technology and economics.

Muir, a Scottish immigrant to the United States, was steeped in the poetry of Scottish poet Robert Burns ("indeed he was always with me," wrote Muir, "for I had him by heart...Wherever a Scotsman goes, there goes Burns") and the exploration narratives of Scottish explorer Mungo Park into the interior of Africa. From early in Muir's life, nature and exploration went together.

Muir also was an inventor of labor-saving machines from a self-setting sawmill that automated the sawing of logs into lumber to clocks to water wheels to automatic feeders for horses to an alarm-clock bed that dumped him upright on the ground. He was a botanist, who collected plants and sent them on to scientists; he has at least one plant named after him. Muir also was a largely self-taught scientist, who pioneered new understanding of mountain geology and glaciers. He was criticized at the time as "wrong" and an "ambitious amateur." But the amateur, it turns out, was right.

Muir's love of nature was scientific, artistic and spiritual. And that took him into politics - finding new ways for individuals to press their government into setting aside wild places for all citizens to enjoy. We take that for granted today, but Worster shows just how unique and hard-fought it all was and how one individual made his mark.

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About The Swarm

The Swarm is written by members of The Sacramento Bee's editorial board. They meet daily and are separate from the newsroom. Views included here are those of individual writers, and do not necessarily reflect those of a majority of the board or the positions expressed in The Bee's editorials.

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