A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir

A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir

A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir

A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir


"I am hopelessly and forever a mountaineer," John Muir wrote. "Civilization and fever and all the morbidness that has been hooted at me has not dimmed my glacial eye, and I care to live only to entice people to look at Nature's loveliness. My own special self is nothing."

In Donald Worster's magisterial biography, John Muir's "special self" is fully explored as is his extraordinary ability, then and now, to get others to see the sacred beauty of the natural world. A Passion for Nature is the most complete account of the great conservationist and founder of the Sierra Club ever written. It is the first to be based on Muir's full private correspondence and to meet modern scholarly standards. Yet it is also full of rich detail and personal anecdote, uncovering the complex inner life behind the legend of the solitary mountain man. It traces Muir from his boyhood in Scotland and frontier Wisconsin to his adult life in California right after the Civil War up to his death on the eve of World War I. It explores his marriage and family life, his relationship with his abusive father, his many friendships with the humble and famous (including Theodore Roosevelt and Ralph Waldo Emerson), and his role in founding the modern American conservation movement. Inspired by Muir's passion for the wilderness, Americans created a long and stunning list of national parks and wilderness areas, Yosemite most prominent among them. Yet the book also describes a Muir who was a successful fruit-grower, a talented scientist and world-traveler, a doting father and husband, a self-made man of wealth and political influence. A man for whom mountaineering was "a pathway to revelation and worship."

For anyone wishing to more fully understand America's first great environmentalist, and the enormous influence he still exerts today, Donald Worster's biography offers a wealth of insight into the passionate nature of a man whose passion for nature remains unsurpassed.


In the summer of 1877, John Muir set out from the irrigated fields of Pasadena, California, where acres of orange trees had recently been planted, on a long and solitary hike. He followed Eaton Creek upstream toward what he called a “little poem of wildness” high in the looming San Gabriel Mountains, along a trail shaded by native oaks and bordered by thick chaparral covering the hillsides like prickly fur. In his pack he carried three freshly baked loaves of bread and a bottle of water, his usual sustenance on the trail.

Although nearly forty years old, he was still relatively unknown to the world. It would be a decade or two before he became celebrated as the nation’s most ardent lover of wild places, the founding president of the Sierra Club, and the author of popular articles and books on the mountains of California and the national parks. It would be another century before historians looked to him as the greatest forerunner of modern environmentalism, a powerful influence on people far beyond the West Coast and even beyond America’s shores. In 1877 Muir was only an obscure figure, a joyful but unprepossessing hiker into the backcountry.

As he followed the trail up Eaton Canyon, he came upon “a strange, dark man of doubtful parentage” who had built a cabin in a streamside meadow. “All my conjectures as to his nationality failed,” Muir wrote, “and no wonder, since his father was Irish and his mother Spanish, a mixture not often met even in California.” Because night was approaching, the stranger invited Muir to share a meal and bed down at his campfire, and the two men fell into a conversation that lasted for hours.

That was vintage Muir. Throughout his life he liked to gab only a little less than he liked to hike. Wherever he went, he started a conversation, and typically it went on and on, Muir doing most of the . . .

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