I can’t remember the first time that I came across the name John Muir. It was probably one of those long internet events, those times where you check one name on google and end up following a long line of names, John Muir was probably one of those.
Whatever the event that caused it, I do know that I devoured everything that I could find on John Muir, whether written by himself, or written by others. There is a fair amount of work out there, a number of biographies, old and new, various books and essays about the man, as well as of course the written work of John Muir himself.
There is always an element of hesitation when attempting to read books written a century or more ago. They can often appear to us today to be densely packed, cumbersome, slow. Brevity was not the strongest asset of your average Victorian writer, but to be fair, as anyone who is familiar with my own writing style will be aware, brevity and succinctness tends not to show its face much around me either, so I am probably not the best judge.
However, by the standard of the day, and indeed the standard of our own day, John Muir is a relatively easy writer. His books tend to roll out as effortlessly as do his beloved natural landscapes. Descriptions seem paramount, and the writer is always seems happiest when describing people, animals, plants, forests, mountains, rivers, all seem to catch his eye, catch his imagination, and his interest. Above all, his descriptions tend to be laced with ever present elements of curiosity, familiarity, and even fondness.
His celebration of the natural world is infectious. He saw connecting with nature as the closest that any human could come to a religious experience. He certainly imbued that connection with a spiritual dimension, one that was often pragmatic, practical, and reasonable, but one that he nevertheless insisted was still the most profound experience that any human being could have within their lifetimes.
Illustration: John Muir, age 37
To me, reading and rereading John Muir, reminds me of that constancy of connection with the natural world. We are so often, in our contemporary world, in the habit of continually disconnecting with nature. We have become absorbed with our own human world, the one that compartmentalises nature, limits it to urban gardens and parks, the one that tries to control and reorganise it to suit our artificial human environments. Our dysfunction is now lauded as our own natural, so that concrete and tarmac are seen as the measuring stick of a successful environment. Many of us are now experiencing other forms of life solely through the prism of humanity. Watching the comic antics of an animal on a smart phone is not connecting with nature, believe me.
To touch the leaf of a tree is a magical experience, to pass your hand through cool running water, is to connect with the elements that surround us. To smile at a singing bird, to swerve in order to allow a dragonfly to pass you by, to take an intake of breath when you come across the shyness of a deer, these are the things that root you in the larger world, the world of spiritual dimension, and it is the one that John Muir writes about, the one that he exclaims, and the one that he celebrates.
John Muir has stayed with me as a favourite. He is a writer that you can never really tire of. His enthusiasm is boundless, his courage inexhaustible, his wonder at the natural world around him is tireless. He may well have been dead for over a century, but that seems to matter little. His work connects us to the values that he held as of vital importance, and we live in a world now that needs to uphold those values with an even greater importance.
I have not recommended a singular book for this book review, but have recommended John Muir’s written works in general. All have merit, and all celebrate the natural world through his own inimitable perspective, and that should be good enough for anyone.