- John Muir’s Passion for Nature: An Interview with Donald Worster
Donald A. Yerxa: What drew you to write a biography of John Muir?
Donald Worster: There was a mix of reasons, some personal, some scholarly. The scholarly side is that there has not been a full-blown comprehensive study of the man’s life since the 1940s. There have been a number of books on Muir, but their authors didn’t draw extensively on archives and letters, or they haven’t told the full scope of Muir’s life or tried to put it into the context of his times. For all of us in environmental history, John Muir is such a crucial figure. To know him and understand him better seemed to be an important contribution to that part of our history. On the personal side—and this does get personal—I suppose as one gets older, you start looking back on your life and thinking about where you’ve been and the turns in the road your life has taken and how you got to where you are, for good or bad. In other words, you get into a biographical mood. I had been drawn to a couple of people in recent years, John Wesley Powell and John Muir. Both of them grew up, as I did, in evangelical, Protestant, midwestern American families. Muir was even closer to my roots. I had a Scottish grandmother who was a Campbellite, part of the same religious tradition Muir grew up in. So I’ve always felt an affinity for him, and I wanted to understand his life along with my own life a little better.
Yerxa: What are some of the main themes in Muir’s life that you discuss in the book?
Worster: A lot of the book has to do with not only Muir himself but also with the origins of the conservation movement in the United States. That movement has often been treated in a kind of cartoonish way, and I wanted to make it a little more complicated. Muir seemed a good place to start because he’s been the ultimate cartoon figure, grooving on nature, but not having a very hard, practical sense about him. That wasn’t the way the conservation movement has ever been; it always had a really strong mix of both the spiritual and the practical. Another theme that I think is fairly fresh and new in this book is my effort to ground John Muir in some of the broad political and social changes of his day, particularly on the level of ideas—ideas about society and power. I refer to those ideas simply as liberalism and democracy or liberal democracy. I’ve tried to see Muir in the context of that movement, which emerges out of England and sweeps the United States as it goes along its path. I see Muir as very much coming out of that tradition as well as being a conservationist.
Yerxa: Muir’s life bore witness to a fair number of inconsistencies. Could you speak to some of these?
Worster: When you start digging into anybody’s life, you soon realize that we’re all full of contradictions and inconsistencies. And ultimately they’re irresolvable. It’s those tensions and contradictions that make change happen. One contradiction that Muir faced all through his life was his intense love of machines, of industrialization, and of the practical art of making things and making them more efficiently. He would have made a terrific industrialist and inventor. Actually, he was an inventor. But he could have been one on the scale of Edison (well, maybe not of that stature, but certainly of considerable importance). Similarly, he could have been a great industrialist like his fellow countryman and immigrant, Andrew Carnegie. Muir had all the “cultural genes” for that. And on the other side, there was this love of the wild that for many people seemed almost feminine and certainly was religious and spiritual. Also, Muir was extraordinarily humble in many ways. He lived a very austere life and showed no interest in glamour and cities and restaurants with their velvet ropes and all...