John Muir, America’s greatest naturalist, was spurred to his vocation (and avocation) by an accident that left him temporarily blind as a young man. In the immediate aftermath, he vowed that if his sight returned he would devote his life to nature. Return it did, and he made good on his vow, to the benefit of all of us.
Kim Heacox tells us of Muir’s life and of his evolution as a natural scientist, conservationist, and political activist in John Muir and The Ice That Started a Fire. After recovering, Muir left his home and strict Calvinist upbringing behind, walking from Kentucky to Florida and eventually finding his way across the Panama isthmus and to California. It was after seeing Yosemite that Muir seemed to find himself, and Heacox has told Muir’s story in a manner that, while jumping back and forth in time, makes Muir’s life and professional development a seamless story that brings out the iconic Muir’s human side.
As Heacox tells it, while Muir was devoted to and engaged in all of nature, it was Alaskan glaciers that most fascinated Muir. Returning several times for months at a time, Muir studied glaciers by walking them, often alone and frequently sleeping on them, without benefit of shelter. As the title suggests, Heacox focuses much of the book on Muir’s repeated trips to Alaska, canoeing with Tlingit natives along glacier fronts and hiking among the ice fields. Muir’s physical endurance and indifference to hardship are striking, especially in light of the fact that he made these trips over 130 years ago with none of today’s modern clothing, gear, or technology.
It was Muir who most deeply understood first how glaciers transformed the earth where they advance and recede. Muir wrote of nature extensively, publishing numerous magazine articles and several books. It was the popularity of Muir’s writings that created the Alaskan tourist industry, which still thrives today, and more importantly spurred political leaders and the general public to understand the importance of wild places and the imperative to protect them. It is largely due to John Muir’s influence that we have so many and varied national parks, national monuments and wildlife areas.
Heacox is an accomplished writer, and he has crafted an engaging and enjoyable book that will appeal to anyone interested in nature and conservation, and anyone who enjoys a good biography.