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Home / Articles / · Archive / Arts & Entertainment /  Books | Online Exclusive: Donald Worster writes a new biography on John Muir.
Arts & Entertainment

Books | Online Exclusive: Donald Worster writes a new biography on John Muir.

By Jerre Wroble
Posted // December 31,2008 - n

In a world growing ever more focused on “living green”—and in a state where preserving natural beauty is always part of the political debate—it’s a fitting time to take another look at the life of pioneering environmentalist John Muir. Environmental historian Donald Worster takes a comprehensive look at the scientist and Sierra Club founder in A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir by poring through his private correspondence, emerging with a portrait of a world-changing but often solitary existence. Join Worster for a reading and signing from this new biography at Sam Weller’s Bookstore, 254 S. Main, 328-2586, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 7 p.m. SamWellers.com  [Scott Renshaw]
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Jerre Wroble interviewed Donald Worster as follows:

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Why should Utahns care about a Scottish-born nature enthusiast born in 1838?
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Muir was no stranger to Utah. He swam in the Great Salt Lake, climbed Mount Nebo, and wrote about Utah’s people and land in several essays as he did about other parts of the American West, leaving a unique portrait of this place for future generations. We can learn from his life how and why Americans first began to protect the natural world and why that protection is still needed and important today.

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Briefly describe a few of John Muir’s lasting legacies.
nHis most visible legacy are the national parks and forests that he cared about and helped Americans to see in their natural splendor. Yosemite was his favorite, but many more of our most beautiful landscapes owe their protection in part to Muir. He was also the founding president of the Sierra Club, which may be the world’s most famous and effective environmental organization. Through his influence Americans, both men and women, began to take a more compassionate and respectful view of the natural world.

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Why another book about Muir?
nMine is the first truly full-scale biography of Muir, using all the available letters, journals, and miscellaneous jottings he left behind, the first such biography to be written since the 1940s. Several reviewers have called it the most comprehensive account of his life we have. It is also the work of a historian who tries to see Muir against the backdrop of his times.

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What, in your opinion, did Muir leave out of his autobiography?
nMuir’s autobiographical My Life and Boyhood covers his years only up through college. Beyond that, we have only his journals, many of them unpublished, and his letters, most of them unpublished. Like most of us, he wanted people to see his positive traits only. He tended to create a mythology about his daily life that his readers and friends wanted to hear. He tried to live up to his image as a lone mountain man, living in the wild, descending only occasionally to the mundane world to bring good tidings of nature. In reality, he lived most of his life in a close family relationship, doing a lot of manual work for his bread, writing long hours in his study far away from the wilderness.

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What would Muir think of the modern environmental movement?
nWhich part of it? The movement to protect nature from exploitation, to protect endangered species or wilderness areas or scenic beauty, he would have applauded. He would probably have supported the “wise use” of our natural resources, for he was a very thrifty man who hated waste and extravagance. But he would not have accepted the notion, common in some circles, that environmentalism ought to be redefined wholly as “environmental justice” or “sustainability.” He was a liberal and a democratic in his social outlook, but he would not agree with many urban-centered environmentalists that protecting human health or wealth should be the only moral consideration.

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In modern times, few Americans take the time to become immersed in wilderness. Even in national parks, there are rules to follow and paths to stay on. How would someone follow in young John Muir’s footprints today?
nMuir was no advocate of breaking rules and doing whatever you feel like doing, in the wilderness or anywhere else. He went into nature with a reverential and spiritual feeling that was liked to a great deal of self-discipline and self-restraint. He may have broken away from society’s expectations as a young man and hungered for independence, but he was not against developing a strong moral check on his behavior. He would tell anyone, young or old, that expressing one’s passion for wild nature is not the same as letting one’s ego run loose.

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As he matured, Muir seemed to enjoy his creature comforts and grew more tolerant of societal conventions he rebelled against as a youth. Where did his passion go?
nOne’s passions always change over time, and Muir’s certainly changed as he grew older. Although he never lost his enthusiasm for wild places, his body grew more vulnerable to the elements while his responsibilities increased as a man living in society. He looked back with great enthusiasm to his youthful days in the Sierra Nevada and loved reading and re-reading his journals of those days. But after decades of living alone, he accepted the advice of others to settle down, find a good wife, bear children, take a role in society, mix enjoyment with obligation. He had gathered a rich store of memories, so I don’t think he was deeply bothered by those changes. Others, however, may find his life as a family man and a relatively well-to-do businessman a little disappointing. Yet without those compromises he would have been far less influential or effective politically.

 
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