John Muir was born in Scotland in 1838. He emigrated to the United States with his family at the age of 11, but he always retained his sense of being a Scotsman: the Presbyterian hymns and Scots vocabulary of his childhood stayed with him all his life. He enrolled in the University of Wisconsin to study chemistry, geology, and botany, but he didn’t complete his degree; an instinctive pacifist, he left after three years to avoid military conscription during the American Civil War. At this point, rootless, he wandered all over the country, from the Great Lakes to the East Coast (including a thousand-mile trek from Kentucky to the Florida Coast), through the Sierra Nevada and parts of Canada, keenly and enthusiastically observing the natural world. He finally settled in California, where he became one of the first “preservationists,” arguing for complete preservation of huge areas of land, ethically and politically opposed to the “utilitarians,” who believed that intensive commercial use was consistent with conservation. He was a co-founder of the Sierra Club, and a key figure in the preservation of Yosemite Valley (his main technique in doing this was to take political figures camping with him in his beloved California mountains.) From Muir Woods to Muir Glacier, his name and his presence infuse American natural history. Travels in Alaska is the last book John Muir wrote, and it tells the story of the three trips he took to Alaska, in 1879, 1880, and 1890, to study everything that came under his joyfully observant eye: plants, animals, people, and above all glaciers and their effect on the land.
I wish I could convey the force of personality that comes through this book. Good nature writing leaves us with the conviction that every part of the natural world is fascinating, if only we have the eyes to see it — ants are fascinating, newts are fascinating, chicken mites are fascinating, and glaciers too — and holy cow, does John Muir have eyes to see. For him, every day is “newborn,” every evidence that a glacier has passed is evidence that creation is still ongoing. At night, camping among the mountains, he is too happy to sleep; during the day, he tucks a chunk of bread in his pocket and bounds up four-thousand-foot mountains, eager to see what there is to be seen:
It was raining hard when I awoke, but I made up my mind to disregard the weather, put on my dripping clothing, glad to know it was fresh and clean; ate biscuits and a piece of dried salmon without attempting to make a tea-fire; filled a bag with hardtack, slung it over my shoulder, and with my indispensable ice-axe plunged once more into the dripping jungle…. And the wet berries, Nature’s precious jewelry, how beautiful they were!–huckleberries with pale bloom and a crystal drop on each; red and yellow salmon-berries, with clusters of smaller drops; and the glittering, berry-like raindrops adorning the interlacing arches of bent grasses and sedges around the edges of the pools… In the gardens and forests of this wonderful moraine, one might spend a whole joyful life.
Every page is full of this joy and this enthusiasm. His prose is not elaborate, but it’s replete with words like “fine” and “glad” and “rich.” He clearly feels that the happiest man is the man who owns the least, and who is closest to the natural world; the enemy of mankind is not wolf or bear, but man. He’s got a keen eye for ironies to do with the interactions between white men and native Americans, too, though some of his perspective is of his time, as might be expected.
One of the most breathtaking stories in the book comes when he is exploring an unknown glacier, followed by his little dog, Stickeen. The dog follows him bravely and without complaint, but toward the end of a demanding day, they become trapped in a maze of dangerous crevasses, and the only way out is across a knife’s-edge bridge, a sliver of ice with a drop of hundreds of feet. The way the two of them get across is thrilling, and moving.
I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. There’s an energy, a happiness, and a fascination about it — truly, a breath of fresh air. I look forward to finding more of Muir’s writing, and perhaps to using more of my own capacity to see what’s around me in the world.