Monday, June 20, 2011

A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, by John Muir: a book review

Muir circa 18
"Often I thought I would like to explore [New York City] if, like a lot of wild hills and valleys, it was clear of inhabitants."

In September of 1867, age 29, John Muir set out for a walking tour of the South, which extended to Cuba and eventually ended in California. Visiting home in Wisconsin, Muir traveled by train to Jeffersonville, Indiana, crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky, and started walking.

Not a book designed by Muir, this narrative was prepared by William Frederic Bade and copyrighted by Houghton Mifflin Company in 1916, two years after Muir's death, using Muir's original journals, a "typewritten, rough copy of the journal," "two separate elaborations of his experiences in Savannah when he camped there for a week in the Bonaventure graveyard," and an excerpt from a letter summarizing his first visit to Yosemite.

Connecting the time recounted in Muir's autobiography, The Story of My Boyhood and Youth with My First Summer in the Sierra, this is a book about a young man intensely focused on the beauty and wonders of nature, who "botanizes" his way through his 1,000-mile walk, and discusses all else in passing--for instance, the after-effects of the just-ended Civil War. Talk of the Civil War is characterized as interminable "political discussions."

Compiler William Bade comments: "[Muir] apparently intended to use this raw material at some time for another book. If the record, as it stands, lacks finish and adornment, it also possesses the immediacy and the freshness of first impressions."

How does Muir traverse Louisville, Kentucky? "Crossing the Ohio at Louisville [September 2], I steered through the big city by compass without speaking a word to any one."

Those words by Muir pretty much sum up his love for nature and his dislike for what humanity has done to it. He frequently describes leaving a town or homestead as escaping into the forest. "September 5. Escaped from the dust and squalor of my garret bedroom to the glorious forest."`

Muir's 1,000-mile journey includes the following:
  • horseback guerrilla robbers, holdouts from the Civil War
  • white racists and their interminable complaints
  • the ignorance and poverty that followed slavery and the war
  • Blacks who would rob and kill for a few dollars
  • Florida and malaria
His account mostly describes, though, the fascinating forests, plains, swamps, and the ocean and their specific flora and fauna. Most of his descriptions of people are of those kind, sharing people, blacks and white, who took in this eccentric lover of nature, who wandered into their homes from the forest.

Muir on his walk is not unaware of the viccitudes of slavery or poverty; he simply acknowledges it but places almost all of his attention on his botanical studies. The journal is more a study of Muir as the "transparent eyeball" that Emerson iterates in his essay "Nature." Muir loved nature, and he followed his bliss.

After having dinner with a Southern family: "Heard long recitals of war happenings, discussion of the slave question, and Northern politics; a thoroughly characteristic Southern family, refined in manners and kind, but immovably prejudiced on everything connected with slavery."

As modern readers, we read Muir's account and realize the struggles of the one hundred years following his walk that were needed to right the wrongs of that time. We even read Muir's words, terms he uses in his discriptions, and realize the difference of those times--even down to a commonly used vocabulary that would not be used today.

My interest in this book was primarily to enjoy Muir's love of God's woods--he was a religious man and saw God's work in nature. However, the candid, unfiltered view of the world from 150 years ago is also fascinating. It is a wonder to follow the journey of an eccentric of the 1870's who was destined to become a prophet of our world of today.

Available as a free ebook:
Copyright 2011 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved
Review copyright transferred to Creative Commons, via Open Library


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