John Muir, a godlike figure among environmentalists, has been the subject of more than 50 biographies. Utah writer Rod Miller gives us one more, a worthy addition to the pantheon.
Miller structures his biography topically, which helps clarify some key issues Muir dealt with while trying to protect America's wilderness, especially the great forests of California.
One chapter illuminates Muir's fight to prevent the damming of the Tuolumne River and turning Hetch Hetchy Valley into a reservoir for San Francisco. He helped convince presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft the dam shouldn't be built, but he lost one of the most famous environmental fights ever when President Woodrow Wilson approved it.
"Dam Hetch Hetchy!" Muir wrote. "As well dam for water tanks the people's cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man."
Another chapter details the three-way, often bitter disagreement among the most famous environmentalists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Muir, Charles Sargent and Gifford Pinchot. Sargent was a "preservationist" who wanted wild lands to remain unused with a prohibition on "virtually all grazing, logging, mining and most kinds of development," while Pinchot was a "conservationist" who thought some of these activities would be fine if properly regulated. Sargent, in particular, loathed Pinchot. Muir, who was friendly with both men, sided with Sargent.
Miller, like most thoughtful biographers of Muir, believes a famous confrontation in a Seattle hotel between Muir and Pinchot probably never took place. The alleged confrontation has Muir demanding to know if Pinchot really thought sheep should be allowed to graze in national forests. (As a young man, Muir was briefly a sheepherder and came to believe they damaged forests. He called sheep "hoofed locusts.") Pinchot replied that he did, the story claims, and Muir angrily left, saying "I don't want anything more to do with you."
Another chapter follows Muir on many trips, including a 1,000-mile walk from Louisville to the Florida Gulf Coast; to Canada during the Civil War to avoid the draft; to California, the state he's most associated with (he was born in Scotland and raised there and in Wisconsin); and his seven trips to Alaska to see glaciers. Also included is an 1877 trip to Utah's Wasatch Mountains.
One chapter focuses on Muir as a writer and explains how he recycled his words: "Our writer's journal entries found their way into letters, which became newspaper stories, were later fashioned into magazine articles, then gathered as essay collections or included in the narrative of books."
Muir did not enjoy writing. He found it hard and tedious. But he helped awaken a nation's soul with his cries to save the wilderness. "God has cared for these trees," he wrote, "saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods, but he cannot save them from fools - only Uncle Sam can do that." Miller adds, "But, it seemed, Uncle Sam could not."
Miller has given us a compact, readable, enjoyable understanding of Muir and his importance - a century ago and today.
Martin Naparsteck reviews books from and about the West for The Salt Lake Tribune.