A riveting biography of John Muir (1838–1914), America’s foremost “naturalist, activist, and pacifist.”
Examining Muir’s legacy and recounting how his vision altered America’s perception of the natural world, Alaska-based author Heacox (The Only Kayak: A Journey into the Heart of Alaska, 2005, etc.) ably explores the story of the man who changed popular attitudes toward the American landscape. Told chronologically in four parts, Heacox begins in 1879 with Muir’s “watershed” trip to Alaska, the first of seven he would make. Traveling by canoe with a group of Tlingit natives, Muir first glimpsed Glacier Bay, where he saw “the imposing fronts of five huge glaciers flowing into the berg-filled expanse of the bay.” Toggling between Muir’s life story and the popular culture of his time, Heacox creates a fully formed portrait of this American icon. A well-known cast of characters graces the pages of the author’s narrative, including the nature writer John Burroughs, President Theodore Roosevelt, photographer Edward Curtis, author Mark Twain and the man who would become Muir’s nemesis, the nation’s chief forester, Gifford Pinchot. Pinchot viewed the forest as an asset to be managed for wise use and harvested regularly, while Muir valued the aesthetics supplied by untouched landscapes. His books and magazines greatly influenced popular opinion about mountains, forests and glaciers. Moreover, he “may have been the first naturalist to ascribe glacial retreat to global warming.” Though Muir made “no major peer-reviewed contributions to the science of glaciology,” he would be, writes Heacox, “what Jacques Cousteau would be to the oceans and Carl Sagan to the stars.” The author concludes with a moving epilogue artfully stitching Muir’s legacy into the 21st century and the issues presented by climate change and its perils.
A gripping biography of “a gentle rebel, a talkative hermit, an enthusiastic wanderer, a distant son of the Scottish Enlightenment, inspired by ice.”