Review: Travels in Alaska by John Muir

Edition published in 1979;  318 pages; ★★★★☆

…but when we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.”

In the late 1800s, John Muir made several trips to the pristine, relatively unexplored territory of Alaska, irresistibly drawn to its awe-inspiring glaciers and its wild menagerie of bears, bald eagles, wolves, and whales. Half-poet and half-geologist, he recorded his experiences and reflections in Travels in Alaska, a work he was in the process of completing at the time of his death in 1914. As Edward Hoagland writes in his Introduction, “A century and a quarter later, we are reading [Muir’s] account because there in the glorious fiords . . . he is at our elbow, nudging us along, prompting us to understand that heaven is on earth—is the Earth—and rapture is the sensible response wherever a clear line of sight remains.”
(From Goodreads)

John Muir took me by surprise, though I really shouldn’t have been so shocked.  For some reason, I assumed this book would be dense, erudite, and difficult to read – but Muir wouldn’t have been the father of modern American conservation if his writing had been inaccessible.  Indeed, Travels in Alaska is surprisingly readable, lyrically and beautifully written.  While there’s no plot underlying this rambling travelogue, I found it to be nonetheless a fascinating and meditative reading experience.

The most striking quality of Muir’s writing is the way that his sheer love of nature shines through.  His enthusiasm for geology, glaciers, and Alaskan flora were palpable, and personally I found them familiar – I’ve grown up with family who love the wild in the same way (and indeed borrowed this book from a family member).  It’s easy to see how he managed to persuade others, including the President, of the importance of conservation; he fills pages upon pages with enthusiasm and passion for things many visitors to the wilderness might have overlooked.  In Muir’s writing, Alaska is richer in nature than it could ever be in gold, and every last nook and cranny full of new things to marvel at.

One of the things I was struck by, too, is that this ethos isn’t just Muir’s – many of his traveling companions and even total strangers he encountered seem to share it.  In one case, he recounts part of a meeting with a French-Canadian coureur de bois:

“After crossing many smaller streams with their strips of trees and meadows, bogs and bright wild gardens, we arrived at the Le Claire cabin about in the middle of the afternoon.  Before entering it he threw down his burden and made haste to show me his favorite flower, a blue forget-me-not, a specimen of which he found within a few rods of the cabin, and proudly handed it to me with the finest respect, and telling its many charms and lifelong associations, showed in every endearing look and touch and gesture that the tender little plant of the mountain wilderness was truly his best-loved darling.”

In its own way, this book is very much a historical document.  It can be read as an ecological time capsule, with Muir’s meticulous identification of plants providing a record of what southeastern Alaska looked like in the late 1800s, prior to most of white America’s expansion into the area.  The Inside Passage that Muir visited no longer exists; the glaciers have retreated significantly, and ship traffic is heavy enough in Glacier Bay that marine biologists are deeply concerned about noise pollution underwater.  There are still many places in the world where it is possible to explore the natural world in near-complete isolation from humanity, but their number is shrinking.  Travels in Alaska is a loving portrait of one such place at the end of its time.

(It also preserves an image of exploring which is unimaginable in a modern context.  Often, Muir writes about hiking for miles on the surface of a glacier with very little food or gear, and if he carried a compass he never mentioned it – there are very few hikers who would take these kinds of risks today, even in less dangerous areas.)

There is one area where I’m skeptical of the historical accuracy of Muir’s writings, and that is his depictions of Alaskan Native populations.  Almost all tribes are presented as eager, self-deprecating converts to Christianity, and… I find this a little hard to believe.  There’s something about it which is just too self-effacing, too full of glorifying the ways of the ‘white man’ – I wondered several times if these parts were edited, or even fabricated in part or in whole, to play better with white Christian readers in the continental states.

The clear love and admiration with which Muir wrote makes me wish he’d been able to visit more of the world.  Alaska alone would take hundreds of lifetimes to fully explore, but – so far as I can tell, he never got to see Denali, let alone the North Slope.  And what of the Rockies, the North Cascades, Grand Teton?  Traveling between these places certainly wouldn’t have been as easy and convenient for him as it is for us.

Then again, though… if there’s a lesson to be learned from John Muir’s writing, it might be that there is beauty everywhere, and no place that isn’t worth exploring and marveling at.  As someone who finds a kind of spiritual solace in wilderness, this resonated with me.  Muir, better than any writer I’ve ever encountered, conveyed the sense of wonder of being there (wherever ‘there’ may be) that makes the wilderness important.  Whether you’re a lifelong backpacker or someone who’s never hiked a day in their life, I think you’ll get something out of works like this.


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