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  • A Citizen of the Community of Nature
  • Glenn Altschuler (bio)
Donald Worster. A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. 512 pp. Notes, bibliography, and index. $34.95

In 1868, John Muir moved into Yosemite Valley, which the federal government had just assigned to the state of California to preserve for public use and recreation. A native of Dunbar, Scotland, he identified himself as “John Muir, Earth-planet, Universe,” a citizen of the community of nature. Eager to experience a season of snow and ice, he took a job as a sawyer and handyman at a hotel in the valley. For two years, Muir made Yosemite his wilderness university.

A University of Wisconsin drop-out and aspiring inventor, a nobody in the eyes of the world, Muir concentrated on cultivating his own garden, by incorporating the beauty of nature into his daily, lived experience. “I’m in the woods woods woods and they are in me-ee-ee,” he wrote to his friend, Jeanne Carr, after a visit to a sequoia grove in the fall of 1870. “The King tree & me have sworn eternal love,” he rejoiced, “sworn it without swearing and Ive taken the sacrament with Douglass squirrels drank Sequoia wine, Sequoia blood, & with its rosy purple drips I am writing this woody gospel letter.” When seen with sunbeams in it, the color of sequoia juice “is the most royal of all royal purples. . . . I wish I was so drunk & sequoical that I could preach the green brown woods to all the juiceless world, descending from this divine wilderness like a John the Baptist eating Douglass squirrels and wild honey or wild anything, crying, Repent for the Kingdom of Sequoia is at hand” (p. 173).

Until his death in 1914, Muir did just that. A founder—and patron saint—of the modern conservation movement, he taught millions, in books and articles in popular magazines, that nature never betrays a heart that loves her and that every person, not just the rich or well-educated, has an innate passion for its sublime properties. Muir led the fight to make Yosemite a national park. He fought against the plan to dam the Tuolumne River in the Hetch Hetchy Valley to provide water to San Francisco. And in 1892, he became the first president of the Sierra Club, a position he held for the rest of his life.

In A Passion for Nature, Donald Worster provides a beautifully crafted, richly detailed, and sophisticated biography of Muir. Acknowledging that [End Page 1] Muir had “wildness in his blood,” Worster argues that he is best understood as a child of the liberal-democratic revolution of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which had social justice at its core, and advanced a new understanding of the relationship between human beings and nature (p. 5). Worster’s Muir is Whitmanesque, large enough to contain the contradictions that characterized the Victorian Age. With his long, scraggly beard, and sermons about the simple life, he looked like an Old Testament prophet. But he was also a prosperous businessman, who lived in a spacious manor house stocked with flowers, fresh fruit, fine wines, cigars, and custom-made clothes. Wary of partisan politics, Muir was a pragmatist, who sought to enlist the monied classes in his cause—and not antagonize them.

Since Muir never provided a systematic exposition of his philosophy, Worster has difficulty tracing the influence of ideas that were “in the air” on his perceptions of the natural world. Were liberal and romantic writers formative, even essential, to him? Or did Muir use them like a drunk uses a lamp post, more for support than illumination? Did he come to think of animals as “fellow mortals,” with minds and rights, because he read the work of Robert Burns when he was a boy? Or did Burns’s influence seem more decisive than it actually had been as Muir aged, memorized the poems of the Scottish bard, and carried his books in his backpack?

Was Muir a Transcendentalist? Although Emerson embraced him as “one of my men” in 1871, Worster acknowledges that the label ignores other, earlier influences, scientific and cultural...


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