Book Review: John Muir In His Own Words

John Muir In His Own Words:  A Book Of Quotations, by John Muir, Compiled and Edited by Peter Browning

Those who are familiar with the environmental movement in the Western United States will likely know John Muir for his work in preserving Yosemite and in his unsuccessful efforts to save the Hetch Hetchy Valley from being dammed to create San Francisco’s water supply.  This book is mercifully short at under 100 pages and will likely be seen in one of two ways.  Those who approve of the author’s environmentalist worldview and his preachy attitude (I do not) will find a lot in here that likely echoes their own self-righteous and smug condemnation of tourists and ordinary people, and those who do not will wonder why this fellow is considered to be such a big deal given his socialist worldview and his adoration of nature that crosses over into actual nature worship of some sort of sacred earth mother.  Sadly, there is far too much of the preacher for environmentalism here and far too little of the sort of mystic who loves nature without feeling it necessary to attack others [1].  Had there been more of the mystic in love with God’s creation this book would have been far more enjoyable to read.

In terms of its contents, this book contains 332 quotes that are edited and compiled in thirteen sections organized in a chronological fashion, followed by a topical index that misses my favorite would-be reference of the lot [2].  From the quotes it is fairly obvious that John Muir wrote a lot of letters and a lot of articles, and tended to reuse his quotes later on if he thought they were good ones.  He also shows himself to be pretty tiresome and to have somewhat unusual hostility to sheep as well as the ordinary people upon whose efforts society depends for its survival.  John Muir, at least in these pages, comes of less like someone one would have wanted to get to know and whose opinion one would value and more like someone who was a cross between a misanthropic hermit and someone who fancied himself an intellectual with a great deal of political interests and some clout among certain audiences.

In reading a book like this, one wonders what Muir was after.  Was he really interested in helping to preserve creation from harm?  If so, there are a lot better ways to go about it than he did.  Indeed, this book demonstrates that at least from its beginning within the United States, the environmentalist movement has been all about looking down on humanity, showing immense snobbery and self-righteous hypocritical criticism of other people, and pointing to like minded environmentalists as being part of some sort of unaccountable and undemocratic elite that deserves to appropriate creation under government control.  Quite honestly, unless one is already sympathetic to both the means and the ends of Muir and others of his ilk, this book makes him come off particularly poorly, and makes him a rather poor model for others to follow in.  This book could have had some poetry if Muir had been a lyrical person when it came to nature, but instead what we find in this book is Muir as a technocrat and socialist with very little to offer contemporary people who appreciate God’s creation but do not appreciate people like Muir being stewards over it.

[1] See, for example:

[2] This is the following quote:

“You may be a little cold some nights, on mountain tops above the timber-line, but you will see the stars, and by and by you can sleep enough in your town bed, or at least your grave (60).”

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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