CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship - Winter 2010

Review Book


A Passion for Nature: the Life of John Muir

By Donald Worster. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008; 544 pp., hardcover, $34.95.

Donald Worster has written the definitive volume on the life of John Muir. The depth of research in this work is most evident. The resulting text gives the details of a remarkable man’s life, organized and presented not only as a chronological outline, but more so as a portrait of a passionate and complicated environmental advocate who became an unwilling icon of the 19th century’s preservation movement.

This book dispels any illusions about Muir’s life and character and the reader will likely have their traditional “legendary” image of Muir challenged as a result. The nostalgic pioneering western image demonstrating independence, self-reliance, wilderness adventure, and the like, slowly shifts in each chapter into something less sure and exact than our traditional view of Muir. Worster’s research and resulting narrative exposes details, circumstances, and situations in Muir’s life and shows his very human and conflicted individual self in a way that initially almost seems at odds with this icon of the environmental movement. The work creates a greater appreciation of Muir’s life and times by exploring the challenges he faced, by understanding his own physical, familial, and economic constraints—all framed within the shifting, rapidly changing cultural context of his adult life between the Civil War and World War I.

We have previously only known the legendary Muir as an independent mountaineer, living on tea and bread crusts while on long explorations in the Sierra Nevada. Worster now provides a more measured and human portrait. He notes that the iconic Muir was a draft dodger. He was influenced most in the development of his character by forward-thinking women. He was a doting family man who died a multi-millionaire by today’s dollar reckoning. Such facts may be altogether difficult to believe for many Muir admirers. We are used to the larger-than-life Muir, the mountaineer and activist. But those events comprise a short period in his life.

Muir spent more years as a farmer and fruit grower than he did as a mountaineer. These little-known facts about Muir’s personal life and the influence of his friends and associates on his public life are documented in 26 pages of end notes. Worster did an astounding amount of reading in various archives and collections to bring us a synthesis of Muir’s life that has no equal in print. For anyone interested in Muir and the early history of the environmental movement, this book will provide a breadth of historical research and evenness in interpretation seldom found in the biographies of environmental pioneers.

Larry L. Norris
National Park Service