Dave Buckhout .
On completing Donald Worster’s biography of John Muir: “A Passion for Nature, The Life of John Muir” (Oxford University Press), I had the feeling I had never actually read a real bio before. It set the bar so high that it has ruined many of the books I have read since. A good bio has you walking alongside the subject through their days, soaking in the environments and events that make a life. A great bio goes further: it engages your senses, strips away the reader’s observer status and invests you emotionally in the life unfolding on the pages. This bio did all of that; but it also achieved something no other bio I have yet read has. I not only walked alongside Muir, felt the influence of environmental factors as Muir felt them, smelled the smells, heard the sounds, felt the soul-rush while looking on at signal natural sights – I also felt as if I was living alongside Muir, to the point where I could interact with him. In my opinion, the greatest success of Worster’s work is his ability to dust off the facts of this man’s life to the degree that it seems contemporary; or, more appropriately, you are transformed into Muir’s contemporary. John Muir lived a life so rich, so successful – and a life so heavily weighted by the usual mortal tonnage of suffering and loss – that a well-studied straightforward telling was all that was needed; no more or less. And when an author achieves that ‘just right’ balance, it is worth telling others about. Such is the case here.
But I want to go beyond a summary or review of the book. (A number of well-done reviews have appeared over the years; Jackson Lear’s review in The New Republic the reason I added the book to my list.) The point of this post is to, first, urge everyone to drop whatever they are doing, go-out-get-and-read Donald Worster’s “A Passion for Nature, The Life of John Muir.” Second, I want to share a few personal journal entries written while reading the book, one in particular written just after finishing it. Keeping in mind the signal success of Worster’s narrative, as I read on and continued to sink deeper into a real relationship with the subject, I felt as if I were engaged in a running conversation with John Muir – Donald Worster, where needed, serving as our interpreter …
“Evolution need not undermine faith or hope …” John Muir (through Worster) said to me. “The moment of creation is now. Change is constant. Change is good.”
Looking on at Worster as he finished each translation, my philosophical penchant primed, I would turn back to Muir and counter with something like:
“Sure, I have thought these things too, John; but what of the unknown quantity that lingers once you strip away institutional certainty? How do we reconcile the naturally-occurring – and man-made – variables that often create a freaking mess of this miracle-in-constant-motion, this evolving paradise?“
Worster would dutifully look over at Muir – the three of us sitting around a cafe table, sipping coffee, eating doughnuts (in my mind) – waiting for Muir to respond, ready to interpret if needed:
“Yes, that’s a question I have spent all my years considering. I have spent a lifetime – in settings removed, isolated from all societal influence – mulling over an adequate answer. I am not sure I am quite that wise, but will say this to you, Dave,” John Muir leaning over, waiting for Worster to interpret before finishing with a direct quote needing no interpretation:
“We cannot find in nature any soothing escape from history, impermanence, strife, or death. But learning how nature manages that change and how it generates a unified complexity is good tonic for the troubled, careworn human mind.”
I kept a close record of these ‘conversations’ throughout the few weeks it took me to devour the 466 pgs of Worster’s bio, recording quotes, thoughts, the muse behind it all. One final entry covers the gist of Muir & my running conversation. Here is what John Muir was trying to tell me:
“Be awed! Put yourself in a place remote from our socially-created security, detached from the false idols of material superiority, sure ideology, vital profit. Put yourself on a mountain, in a forest, in a place where you are no longer the central selfish concern, a place where you are just an ant among the many millions of ants – where you are as vital a microcosm as a blade of grass, a minnow in shallows, a leaf. Go, put yourself in that place. Do not run. Walk into the woods. Do not turn your back on society. Go into the woods, onto a mountain, to that remote place in order to re-capture that piece of spirit / character / ethos so readily submerged beneath the swarm of survival. Go! Be awed by the beauty of nature’s God, while wrapped in its loving arms.”
I would do well to follow this advice, precisely.
Donald Worster › "A Passion for Nature, The Life of John Muir"
John Muir is a unique historical figure for all the obvious reasons: a driven protectorate of wildlands, an early and central champion of vast park systems, founder of the original nature-preservation organization (Sierra Club), a man as much as any ‘living advocate’ who walked-the-walk—often to an obsessive degree. John Muir is the intellectual, and physical, successor to Thoreau, a man who—like Thoreau—was schooled in ‘the cathedral of nature.’ To both men, the preservation of wildlands was a moral imperative, their callous abuse for resources nothing less than the destruction of the soul of a ‘living Earth.’ “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” wrote Thoreau. “The moment of creation is now,” wrote Muir, as if appending to the conversation begun by Thoreau … The litany of obvious reasons why John Muir stands as a giant in American history would run out to several pages. But there is another reason, which is only obvious after reading about, and thinking over the man and his efforts: the more you learn about him, the more you want to learn, period. Muir’s work, writing and life are an expanding universe of substance. Case-in-point: once I finished reading the fine-point scrutiny of Donald Worster’s fantastic bio—having gained a deep understanding of Muir in the process—all I wanted was to know more. Even after savoring 466 detail-laden pages, I was left wanting to learn more. I can’t think of a more fitting biographical tribute to an individual forever pushing to learn, observe and teach more.
In an eariler post (above), I heaped deserved praise on the conversational rhythm Worster sets down in “A Passion for Nature.” This biography would stand tall on its mastery of the factual data alone. But it is much more than the simple history of a life. The book itself reads like an open-forum in which reader & subject are often in direct conversation. At most, Worster steps in as an occasional interpreter before casually sliding his chair back from the round-table and allowing the conversation between Muir & reader to proceed, unimpeded by the author’s ‘middleman’ views. It is a very pure style, a purity of focus that epitomizes John Muir’s thirst for observing and learning. And herein lies Worster’s primary achievement: he has researched and written a biography that does not attempt to settle any discussion, but instead seeks to carry forward the discussion John Muir himself picked up, fueled brightly, and placed at the core of his life’s purpose. Worster writes: “Not merely to write about the natural world, but to ‘be Nature’ was Muir’s public role.” Again, it is a fitting tribute that “A Passion For Nature” so effectively drives its readers to learn—and to be—more … Here’s a selection of signal quotes:
“[Through Muir’s own observations] Nature had come to supplant written revelation as a source of truth and as the only heaven he needed, and before that nature, an old-fashioned humble, unquestioning reverence remained the only acceptable stance.”
“[Muir believed] No species existed primarily for the welfare of other species, including human. It was an ‘enormous conceit’ to think otherwise, and it led to a false celebration of human greatness.”
“We cannot find in nature any soothing escape from history, impermanence, strife, or death. But learning how nature manages that change and how it generates a unified complexity is good tonic for the troubled, careworn human mind.” ~ John Muir
“Learn to bend with the trees in the wind.” ~ John Muir
SOURCE : Worster, Donald. A Passion for Nature, The Life of John Muir. Oxford University Press, 2008.
Publication Date: March 21, 2012