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Walker in the wilds

08 May 2015

Adam Ford reviews the story of a "truely extraordinary person, mountain man, and wilderness sage"


Tribute money: the design of the United States' commemorative quarter coin for California in 2004, by the artist Garrett Burke, showed Yosemite Park, John Muir, and a California condor in flight

Tribute money: the design of the United States' commemorative quarter coin for California in 2004, by the artist Garrett Burke, showed Yosemite Park...

John Muir: The Scotsman who saved America's wild places
Mary Colwell
Lion Books £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9

JOHN MUIR was a truly extraordinary person, mountain man, and wilderness sage. Emigrating with his family from Dunbar in Scotland, to become settlers in Wisconsin, at the age of 11 in 1849, he became famous throughout the United States for championing the great wilderness places of the continent.

He was one of the most vocal of the founding fathers of the movement to establish National Parks across the country. Rather in the manner of an Old Testament prophet, he spoke with passion for the world of nature; he gave it a voice.

Mary Colwell has performed a great service in bringing this engaging character to our attention. Her very readable account of his colourful life, and the contradictions within it, is liberally leavened with quotations from his extensive writings, many of which would serve well as texts for sermons or for private meditation. He wrote in the mode of the New England Transcendentalists, and we discover that Ralph Waldo Emerson made a pilgrimage to California to visit Muir in his beloved Yosemite Valley.

John was raised by a tyrannical Evangelical father, who made him learn the whole of the New Testament (and much of the Old) off by heart. Hard work and simple fare dominated his youth. But then, as he grew up, he began to find another book that spoke to him of God - the book of nature. Flowers and animals, through his eyes, became fellow mortals. He was appalled at the commerce-driven but sometimes wanton destruction of the living world; the felling of giant redwoods or the shooting of polar bears. He would spend weeks on his own in the wilderness among mountains, forests, and glaciers, lonely but entranced by God's creation.

He even strapped himself to the trunk of a Douglas fir, 100 feet above ground, to experience the life of a momentous storm. "In every walk with nature", he wrote, "one receives far more than one seeks."

The Revd Adam Ford is a former Chaplain of St Paul's Girls' School.

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