The Loma Prietan - July/August 2009

Book Review

A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir by Donald Worster

by John Velcamp

This new biography of John Muir explores the man's extraordinary personality as well as his gift for enabling others to see the hallowed beauty of the natural world. A Passion for Nature is the most extensively researched account to date of this icon of conservation and founder of the Sierra Club. Author Donald Worster, an eminent scholar of the environmental history of North America, delved into every piece of correspondence and Muir's often indecipherable journals to craft this scholarly work.

Abundant in information, the book chronicles Muir's life from his boyhood in Scotland and the hinterlands of Wisconsin, through his adult life in California immediately after the Civil War, and up to his death just before World War I. Worster recounts telling details of Muir's family life and marriage, his relationship with his abusive father, his numerous acquaintances (including Theodore Roosevelt and Ralph Waldo Emerson), and his role in shaping the modern American conservation movement. He became friends with many of the most powerful men of his era, which sometimes forced him to reconcile the country's dreams of economic success with saving the beauty and integrity of the nation's natural environs.

Inspired early in his life by the new Wordsworthian religion, Muir renounced the beliefs and tenets of his father's faith. He found an enduring pantheistic inspiration in his beloved Sierra and other mountains in the US. He worked hard to become an adept writer, perfecting the articulation of his spiritual vision in copious journals. The inspiration derived from his articles and books was instrumental in the creation of a long and stunning list of parks and wilderness areas. Muir himself was called upon again and again to lead the public campaign to preserve the Sierra Nevada, but was outmaneuvered politically in the fight to save the Hetch Hetchy Valley.

Worster skillfully balances Muir's public life with his private one as a successful fruit grower, world traveler, and self-taught scientist (with little formal tutoring in geology, Muir developed the first records of glacial movement in California), as well as devoted husband and loving father. It is this balance of insights that makes A Passion for Nature most readable and enjoyable.

Worster gives clearer meaning to Muir's own words:

"In God's wilderness lies the hope of the world—the great fresh unblighted unredeemed wilderness!"

John Velcamp is a lifetime member of the Sierra Club and a member of the Mountain Lion Foundation.