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Book Review: The Wilderness World of John Muir, Edited by Edwin Way Teale

Reviewed by Harold W. Wood, Jr.


I am often asked for a recommendation of what among Muir's writings, or writings about him, one should first read. After spending more than 30 years appreciating both his writings and most of the books about Muir that have been published during that time, and after ten years editing the John Muir Exhibit online, I can only turn to the same book that originally enthalled me with John Muir: The Wilderness World of John Muir, edited by Edwin Way Teale.

This book was edited by someone who was himself an able naturalist and nature-writer, and therefore someone who could understand Muir in a way that most academics, whether professors of literature or historians, cannot. Edwin Way Teale (1899-1980), has been ranked as a nature writer with been ranked with Henry David Thoreau, John Burroughs, as well as John Muir himself. His honors include being elected as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, receiving the John Burroughs Award in 1943, and the Pulitzer Prize in 1966. He was the author of 32 books. Teale's sympathy for Muir's message is shown in the book's Dedication page, which is "Dedicated to The Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, The National Parks Association, and all those who are fighting the good fight to preserve what John Muir sought to save."

This book serves as both an anthology of the very best of Muir's writings, and also a biography, compellingly provided by Teale.

The biographical value of this work is often under-stated, even by the publisher. The book is typically viewed as an anthology, and indeed it is, primarily; but it also contains a wealth of biographical information, far more than the typical anthology.

Teale commences his book on John Muir with an authoritative 10-page Introduction, that not merely identifies the key events in Muir's life, but provides an assessment and perspective of how Muir stacks up with other nature writers. He provides facts you won't find elsewhere: "While visiting friends, Muir sometimes would talk four hours at breakfast." Teale, writing in 1954, was able to talk with several people who knew Muir personally. He noted that everyone he talked to had a different view of which phase of natural history held first importance in Muir's mind. Some thought it was trees; another thought it was geology, another plants. Teale points out the fourth view, probably the nearest right of all: "... the whole interrelationships of life, the complete rounded picture of the mountain world. Today, Muir probably would be called an ecologist." Teale 's assessment of Muir as an "ecologist" pre-dates the "ecology movement" of the 1970s by at least 15 years. Teale admirably tells of the scope of the places, glaciers, plants, and animals named after him, and Muir's contributions to science and conservation. Although public appreciation for Muir has grown dramatically since Teale's book was first published in 1954, The Wilderness World of John Muir still provides the best introduction to Muir's life and writings.

Following the admirable Introduction, each of the 51 excerpts from Muir's writings commences with a preface by Teale, of up to a page in length, presenting in chronological order the story of Muir's life, and putting each of Muir's writings into context.

Although serving as a biography, the Wilderness World is, in fact, primarily a superb anthology. Rather than simply re-printing the full text of such of Muir's works as The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, My First Summer in the Sierra, Travels in Alaska, Our National Parks , and the Journals, Teale provides short snippets from the best of Muir's writings, arranged into seven broad categories:

I. Memories of Youth - reprints Muir's writings about his boyhood in Scotland, life on the Wisconsin Farm, seeing immense flocks Passenger Pigeons, nearly dying of choke-damp while digging a well, his inventions, and his enrollment at the University of Wisconsin.

II. University of The Wilderness - Excerpts from A Thousand Mile Walk, including people by the way, camping among the tombs of Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia, and Muir's visit to Cuba and New York.

III. The Range of Light - Muir's adventures in the Sierra, including his first glimpse from Pacheco Pass and crossing the bee pastures of the Central Valley, his first visits to the High Sierra, climbing on the brink of Yosemite Falls above the Valley, tributes to wildlife including bears and grasshoppers, and his telepathic experience sensing the presence of his former University Professor Butler in the Valley.

IV. The Valley - Muir's glorious tributes to Yosemite Valley's waterfalls, the water ouzel, the earthquake, and Ralph Waldo Emerson's visit.

V. Forests of the West - Including Muir's adventure high atop a Douglas fir during a wind-storm, and writings about Silver Pine, the Douglas Squirrel, Sequoia, Nevada Nut Pines, and Muir's clarion call to protect the forests, "Any Fool Can Destroy a Tree."

VI. Glacier Pioneer - Muir's discovery of the Sierra glaciers, his climb of Mount Ritter, his perilous night on Mount Shasta, and his travels in Alaska, including his discovery of Glacier Bay and his adventure with Stickeen.

VII. The Philosophy of John Muir - excerpts from many scattered sources focusing on Muir's views on mankind's relationship to Nature. For many, this is the favorite part of the book, the part one returns to again and again for inspiration.

Despite this, the book does have some failings. The book belies the importance of Muir's family and friends, which becomes so evident upon reading his extensive correspondence. Nor does the book do more than barely mention some important places in Muir's life, such as his global travels to such places as the glacial mountains of Europe, the forests of Siberia, the Himalayas and forests of India, Australian and New Zealand forests, and, the fulfillment of his life-long dream, his last trip to see the forests of South America and Africa. The book emphasizes Muir's appreciative writings about Nature, and only briefly mentions the conservation battles which consumed so much of his life, including his long campaign to protect Hetch Hetchy. To obtain a whole picture of Muir, the reader will need to also read another work about Muir's conservation campaigns, such as Roderick Nash's chapter on "John Muir: Publicizer" in Wilderness and the American Mind, Stephen Fox's John Muir and His Legacy: The American Conservation Movement, or John Muir and the Sierra Club: The Battle for Yosemite by Holway R. Jones.

Since the book was originally published in 1954, it is not informed by some of the more recent research resulting from Muir's unpublished journals and correspondence, published in the John Muir Papers in 1980. Given the popularity of this book, fifty years after its first publication, the publishers should consider a second edition, again using a nature writer rather than a literary critic or historian to update the book.

Overall, in this book Muir comes alive, as someone who can can at once write inspiringly and poetically about trees, storms, mountains, glaciers, and forests, but yet also show the attention to detail of an analytical scientist. Muir is revealed as adventurer, a lover of nature, a person who can still excite the imagination of readers. As Teale concludes, "Rich in time, rich in enjoyment, rich in appreciation, rich in enthusiasm, rich in understanding, rich in expression, rich in friends, rich in knowledge, John muir lived a full and rounded life, a life unique in many ways, admirable in many ways, valuable in many ways.... In his writings and in his conservation achievements, Muir seems especially present in a world that is better because he lived here."

August, 2004


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