Even if you’ve never loaded up a backpack, you probably know about the National Parks and the Sierra Club, and you might even be familiar with the name “John Muir.” But how many people know his personal story? His philosophy about life and nature? His belief that he was “called to wander in wildness” and through that, to preserve the spectacular paradise of America’s natural wonders?

Noted environmentalist and writer Anne Rowthorn has compiled a biography of the famed Scottish-American naturalist and, illustrated it with quotes from Muir’s own works. Thanks to Rowthorn, we see through Muir’s eyes as he experiences nature from a young age in Scotland, and brings his deep faith and reverence for the outdoors to America. Anyone who has taken even a short nature walk will understand how deeply Muir’s experiences resonated within him.

“How imperishable are all the impressions that ever vibrate one’s life! We cannot forget anything.” (A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf)

Beyond the lush classical lyricism of the Victorian writing, Muir’s words are both intensely personal and honestly beautiful. He strives—and succeeds—to give his experiences context and meaning in the larger world. Although he did not intend his letters and journals to be published, we are fortunate that his friends like Robert Underwood Johnson, prevailed. Had John Muir’s book Our National Parks (1901) never been published, President Teddy Roosevelt might not have gone trekking with the naturalist, and we might never have enjoyed the national forests, parks and monuments that were the legacy of that encounter.

“Nevermore, however weary, should one faint by the way who gains the blessings of one mountain day; whatever his fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, he is rich forever.” (Journal Entry, June 23, 1869)

Beginning with his first book, The Mountains of California (1894), Muir’s writings will definitely inspire you to travel in his footsteps, regardless of how many trips you’ve made to these familiar places. They will provide calm moments of meditation whether you read them before burrowing down for the night in your sleeping bag or taking a moment out of a busy day at the office.  They can be read and reread the way you listen to a song over and over because it brings you such pleasure each time you hear the music.

While Rowthorn’s admiration of John Muir is clear, her writing is awkward and suffers from a lack of solid editing.  It’s certainly interesting to learn the detailed facts about Muir’s life but readers may find themselves skipping over them to get to the “good stuff.” You probably don’t want to take up space in your backpack with this book but you would be well-served to read it before your make your next trip. It’s a pretty safe bet that among the 10 books John Muir wrote and the four collections of his letters, you will find something you do want to bring along as a worthy companion on your next trek into the mountains, whether it’s the Sierras or the Himalaya.

“This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never dried all at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on seas and continents and islands, each in turn, as the round earth rolls.” John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir

Book Review:    The Wisdom of John Muir: 100+ Selections from the Letters, Journals, and Essays of the Great Naturalist

Author:             Compiled by Anne Rowthorn

Publisher:         Wilderness Press

Pages:              213, paperback

Date:                2012

ISBN:                978-0-89997-694-5

Image Courtesy of Wilderness Press


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