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

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Charles Darwin, On The Origin of Species

The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp


Writing: Yes/5, Research: her whole life, so why bother with ratings?, Scale: universal, Inspiration: obviously. I give up these arbitrary numerical ratings. This book exceeds them anyway. 

It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a book, even though I have three very-nearly-complete reviews sitting idle in my “Drafts” folder. I keep telling myself that I’ll get to them eventually… And I might. However, this book made me open up a blank screen and start typing – which is certainly saying something given my writing schedule of late. It’s not a book that I set out to review (i.e. it’s not science-related and directly contributing to my development as a scientist/writer), however it’s a book that I feel very strongly about sharing with my fellow humans. So, I’m going to wax on about it for the next couple paragraphs, in the hopes that I might convince you to pick up a book you may not have otherwise considered.

The Creative Habit was recommended to me by Natalie Sopinka, a postdoc at U Windsor and a fellow fisheries biologist. She gave a talk during CCFFR 2016’s science communication session about the role of creativity in science communication, which managed to synthesize some scattered thoughts I had been having into something really convincing. What struck me most was twofold:

1) She pointed out the obvious but often overlooked fact that, until the word “scientist” was coined in 1833 (by William Whewell), the people we think of as the greatest “scientists” we also quite often great (or at least moderately talented) artists.

2) She described creativity as a skill that can be developed through regular practice.

Image courtesy of Psychology Today

I don’t think I need to convince anyone who is reading this that science involves a lot of creativity (see here and here for some self-serving links), but the idea that practicing your creativity outside of science could enhance your creative abilities was a new (but welcome) idea to me. So, having been thoroughly intrigued, I picked up a copy of The Creative Habit.

I have to admit that the fact that it was written by one of my idols, Twyla Tharp, made it easy to convince me of its worth. Those who have been strictly labelled as scientists their whole lives may not know her but, as a one-time hopeful (but tragically gangly and giraffe-like) ballerina, I was all too aware of her choreographic prowess. Pieces like “In the Upper Room” always spring to my mind whenever someone asks me why I love dance. So naturally, I was drawn to a book that might let me inside – even for a moment – her brilliant brain.

She writes the book like a map for creativity; from setting up your environment to promote inspiration to fostering it throughout a lifetime. She takes you through her creative process (my dream come true) using examples from her expansive body of work. However, while she uses dance and choreography to illustrate her points, the principles she teaches are universal. I knew that the moment I read the first set of “exercises”.

At the end of each chapter, Tharp gives her readers a small collection of exercises to reinforce the chapter’s ideas, spark inspiration or develop new skills. These aren’t boring back-of-the-textbook exercises though – they make you think long and hard about what you’ve just read, how you can use it in your everyday life, and how this book is slowly changing your life, sometimes by forcing you to throw a handful of coins on a table. I found that a lot of her ideas resonated deeply with the scientist in me, especially since I’ve recently found myself in a thesis rut. I’ve been desperately seeking new ways of attacking my research, even if only to get chunks of it out of the way. In her chapter on the rituals of preparation (or, getting ready to be creative), she lists her five biggest fears:

1) People will laugh at me
2) Someone has done it before
3) I have nothing to say
4) I will upset someone I love
5) Once executed, the idea will never be as good as it is in my mind

I took extreme solace in the fact that a lot of my biggest fears, especially the ones preventing me from confronting my thesis, are the same as hers. I suspect that a lot of my fellow scientists’ biggest fears are also suspiciously similar – it just so happens that we call this collection of fears “imposter syndrome” in the biz. Knowing that artists and creatives shared my fears started to open my mind to the idea that maybe we aren’t so different after all. But more on that later…

Graphic courtesy of David Whittaker (@rundavidrun)

The most life-changing chapter I’ve read so far is her chapter on boxes (you’ll understand when you read it), where the only exercise she leaves the reader with is called “Begin!” After ten pages on researching and storing ideas, she drops the ‘scientific’ approach and, in three short paragraphs, forces you to stop making excuses for yourself. She tells a brief anecdote about Chekhov, who was asked by his nephew how he knew where to start. His response was: “Take your blue book and tear it in half. Begin there.” Then, she briefly describes how she choreographed “The Fugue” (a piece performed in silence, save for the sound of the dancers’ feet) by walking into a studio, stomping her foot, and shouting “Begin!” While tackling my thesis the next day, I opened a new Word document and “Began!” to work on a completely different part of my research. The work flew out of me, and I spent the next three days absorbed in literature about fine sediments and salmon eggs. I rode my productivity like a wave, right into the next section about water levels in winter. It was then that I realized that The Creative Habit isn’t just for artists. It’s not even for people who are creating things in general. It’s for anyone who needs motivation, inspiration, or assurance. The principles are universally helpful.

In short, I would highly recommend this as required reading for all humans. The principles and exercises I’ve engaged with have put me back in touch with myself, my work, and my relationship with others. Go and get this book from your local library and take notes on it. Seriously – you’ll thank me (but mostly Twyla) later.

The greatest scientists are artists as well.
Albert Einstein

Disclaimer: I’m writing this review without actually having finished the book. I couldn’t hold in my excitement long enough for my thoughts to coalesce properly. You’ll probably be hearing more about Tharp’s brilliance in the future…

Summary of CCFFR-SCL

If you want to know more about the 2016 Canadian Conference for Fisheries and Aquatic Science (and the Society of Canadian Limnologists), look no further! I wrote a summary for the Canadian Aquatic Resources Section of the AFS recently – check out the storify of our #scicomm session too 🙂

Summary of CCFFR – SCL