Two things are apparent after reading The Wild Muir: Twenty-two of John Muir’s Greatest Adventures published by the Yosemite Conservancy.
One, John Muir was a wild man.
And two, editors deserve more credit.
Scottish-American John Muir was perhaps this country’s most famous and influential naturalist and conservationist. He founded the Sierra Club, and he was instrumental is the creation of the Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. You don’t have to travel around California very long to see his name attached to a street, building, college, forest or beach.
His stories recorded in The Wild Muir show him to be pretty much fearless. At different points in his life, he nearly drowned, froze to death, had a close encounter with a bear, and survived an avalanche, earthquake and windstorm, among other adventures.
That windstorm? Muir climbed up into the tallest Douglas Fir in the forest in one of the tributary valleys of the Yuba River. As the treetop waved from side to side in the high winds, he described the smell of the sea-breeze and observed the wind:
“And when we look around over an agitated forest, we may see something of the wind that stirs it, by its effects upon the trees. Yonder it descends in a rush of water-like ripples, and sweeps over the bending pines from hill to hill. Nearer, we see detached plumes and leaves, now speeding by on level currents, now whirling in eddies, or, escaping over the edges of the whirls, soaring aloft on grand, upswelling domes of air, or tossing on flame-like crests.”
He called it “one of the most beautiful and exhilarating storms I ever enjoyed in the Sierra.”
Who climbs a tree and rides out a windstorm? John Muir. He was a big-picture guy who clearly understood the old trope that when a door closes, God opens a window:
“all Nature’s wildness tells the same story—the shocks and outbursts of earthquakes, volcanoes, geysers, roaring, thundering waves and floods, the silent uprush of sap in plants, storms of every sort—each and all are the orderly beauty-making love-beats of Nature’s heart.”
Muir also was a mountain climber, and “The Rescue on Glenora Peak” recounts how he saved a the young Reverend S. Hall Young, who met misfortune while climbing a mountain in Alaska with Muir. It’s a spell-binding account of Muir’s fortitude, inventiveness and heroism. Other stories are similarly impressive.
Interestingly, I’ve also been reading Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park by Lee H. Whittlesey, which outlines all the ways you can die in the wilderness (besides drowning, freezing to death, falling and other typical mishaps in nature, you can die by getting scalded in a hot spring in Yellowstone, where the natural waters are sometimes highly acidic and boiling hot, which is compelling reading for the morbidly curious). That Muir survived all his adventures and lived to the grand age of 76 to write about them is amazing.
Besides being an adventurer, Muir also was a prolific author. For a reader attempting to get a flavor for Muir, it’s difficult to know where to begin. Which is where Lee Stetson comes into the picture. An actor who portrays Muir in dramatic presentations, Stetson is not technically the editor of The Wild Muir, but he wrote the introduction and selected the stories from Muir’s vast writings about every stage of his life. Stetson provides a bit of helpful background at the beginning of each selection, and then lets Muir’s brilliance shine for itself.
The result is a concise and compelling introduction to Muir’s life and perspectives.
I picked up The Wild Muir at Yosemite National Park, which he petitioned the U.S. Congress to create in 1890, and I’m glad I did.
If you’re interested in hearing a bit more about my visit to Yosemite earlier this year, tune into my personal blog tomorrow.