Mount Carleton and the Kedgwick River

Wilderness Essays, John Muir


Writing: 5/5
Research: I suspect he went on a lot of hikes…
Scale: 4/5
Inspiration A BILLION /5

For those of you who aren’t familiar, John Muir was a Scottish naturalist who fought for the preservation of wilderness in the United States. He was particularly fond of the Yosemite and the Rocky Mountains of the western states. He co-founded the long-running Sierra Club (which now has multiple regional branches full of committed and passionate naturalists), and performed vital geographical, geological, and botanical surveys of various wild places. He also fought to preserve the Yosemite in many ways – the most interesting of which may have been his back-country expedition in the deep mountains with President Theodore Roosevelt, alone. Furthermore, he was a prolific and poetic writer, publishing over 300 articles and 12 books. Some call him the “patron saint of the American wilderness” – I call him my newest hero.

Muir and Roosevelt at Yosemite, courtesy of the National Park Service

The warm air throbs and wavers, and makes itself felt as a life-giving, energizing ocean embracing all the earth. Filled with ozone, our pulses bound, and we are warmed and quickened into sympathy with everything, taken back into the heart of nature, whence we came. (The Alaska Trip)

I had been wanting to read some of his work for quite a while, so I picked up this volume of collected essays a few days after committing to this whole reading endeavour back in July. While it’s a bit of a departure from the strictly non-fiction, activism-science wave I had been riding (but not as much of a departure as The Creative Habit), it was a welcome breath of inspiration. Essays included are: The Discovery of Glacier Bay, The Alaska Trip, Twenty Hill Hollow, The Snow, A Near View of the High Sierra, Among the Animals of the Yosemite, The Yellowstone National Park, A Great Storm in Utah, Wild Wool, and The Forests of Oregon and Their Inhabitants.

‘Poetic’ doesn’t come close to describing his writing – his use of language borders on the divine. Each word seems simultaneously perfectly chosen yet unexpected. I found myself slowing down to savour the vocabulary, treating each sentence like a sip of fine wine. I now find myself writing sentences like that one – clearly either his style is rubbing off on me or I’m trying way too hard to emulate my new idol (three guesses as to which it probably is…). In all seriousness, his writing style is something I can only aspire to. He brings his reader with him on his journeys physically, emotionally, and intellectually.

Instead of vanishing as suddenly as it had appeared, it spread and spread until the whole range down to the level of the glaciers was filled with the celestial fire. In color it was at first a vivid crimson, with a thick, furred appearance, as fine as the alpenglow, yet indescribably rich and deep – not in the least like a garment of a mere external flush or bloom through which one might expect to see the rocks and snow, but every mountain apparently glowing from the heart like molten metal fresh from a furnace. Beneath the frosty shadows of the fjord we stood hushed and awe-stricken, gazing at the holy vision; and had we seen the heavens open and God made manifest, our attention could not have been more tremendously strained. When the highest peak began to burn, it did not seem to be steeped in sunshine, however glorious, but rather as if it had been thrust into the body of the sun itself. Then the supernal fire slowly descending, with a sharp line of demarcation separating it from the cold, shaded region beneath, peak after peak, with their spires and ridges and cascading glaciers, caught the heavenly glow. (Discovery of Glacier Bay)

This book is ideal for anyone who has lapsed into a state of what I like to call “de-nature-ation”. If you feel disconnected from nature in any way – whether it be dissatisfaction with your ecological research (gee, I wonder where that example came from…) or a general sadness and longing for trees – this book can bring you back to the wonder of the wilderness. It has pushed me out of my front door with my snowshoes on more than one occasion and inspired me to start planning my summer camping adventures, even though it’s only February.

Muir has also – unbeknownst to him – soothed the mental chafing I get from reading apocalyptic climate change and habitat destruction literature for my thesis, by bringing me back to the beauty of nature and re-invigorating my will to fight for it. If you’re suffering from “global warming burnout” (or any other kind of burnout), I’d recommend a soothing afternoon picnic in whatever piece of wilderness you can find, and a copy of this gem. You won’t regret it.

Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grass and gentians of glacier meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of Nature’s darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as the sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. (The Yellowstone National Park)

Muir at Washington Column, courtesy of Yosemite National Park