John Muir and The Geography Of Hope
John Muir grew into likeness with the mountains he loved. The most famous photograph of the elder Muir – the guardian of Yosemite, the family man, the esteemed essayist and memoirist – shows him in profile, seated on a boulder of his cherished Californian granite. The tones of his shirt, and the colour of his beard rhyme perfectly with the pale grey of the rock beneath him. He is half Victorian patriarch, half geological extrusion.
Muir (1838–1914) himself never knew quite what he was, and it delighted him not to know. ‘I am a poetico-trampo-geologist-bot. and ornith-natural, etc.!!!’ he wrote gleefully to a friend in 1873. Looking back over his long life, one sees why he had to weld together such a compound description of himself – there are so many John Muirs. There is Muir the long-distance tramp, vagabondizing a thousand miles from Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico. There is Muir the mountaineer, stalking the high ridges of the Sierra Nevada range in California, and making the first ascents of several of its biggest peaks. There is Muir the geologist, decoding the glacial origins of the Yosemite Valley. There is Muir the explorer, opening up unmapped regions of Alaska in his fifties. There is Muir the botanist, striding through the pollinous bee-meadows of the Sierra, counting the ten thousand flower-heads in a square yard of sub-alpine pasture, and worshipping in the crypt-light of the sequoia groves. There is Muir the traveller, visiting the eucalyptus forests of Australia’s Great Dividing Range, and the Jenolan Caves of the Blue Mountains. There is Muir the activist, successfully lobbying the US Congress for the creation of a National Park in the Yosemite region. And there is, of course, Muir the nature writer, finessing a prose style which, more purely and ringingly than any other, communicates the joy of being in the wild.
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