Paper: An Introduction to the Life of John Muir

"Muir filled some 60 journals with the observations he made during years of hiking in and studying the wilderness. Drawing heavily on these, he wrote dozens of sketches and essays for local newspapers and for popular American magazines such as Century , Overland Monthly , and the Atlantic Monthly , many of which were later revised for inclusion in his books. In spite of this considerable output, Muir found writing very difficult. Recording observations in personal journals was one thing; reporting them to the public, quite another. When he had to address a broader audience, words came to him “slow as a glacier." The Mountains of California ( 1894), his first and possibly his best book, was published only when he was in his mid-fifties. His difficulties can to some extent be attributed to the rhetorical situation in which he, like many nature writers since, found himself. To evoke in the American public an active interest in nature, to take them out of their expanding cities and make them realize the need for limits on urban growth, Muir knew he had to revivify what Americans had come to take for granted; yet in using language to achieve this he risked drawing their attention to words rather than living things. The paradox of nature writing clearly frustrated him: "No amount of word-making will ever make a single soul to know these mountains," he complained. “One day's exposure to mountains is better than cartloads of books."The attempt both to inform and to move his readers was not always successful. In some essays, Muir's sustained descriptions of nature may seem tedious to the modern sensibility, and his scientific reportage dry; in others, his attempts to convey his awe in the face of nature's wonders seem somewhat inflated and altogether too dependent on eager intensifiers and superlatives....