A Passion for Nature, By Donald Worster

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John Muir was born in Dunbar, Scotland in 1838, and emigrated with his family to Wisconsin in 1849. His father, a farmer and religious schismatic, was in search of a harder path to salvation. Muir found his own redemption in the wilderness landscape, becoming one of the founders of the nature conservation movement, and a household name equal to Emerson and Thoreau in the 19th-century pantheon of American Transcendentalism and nature-worship.

How this happened is explained in Donald Worster's fine biography, though not without difficulty and much supporting detail. The young Muir lost interest in his studies and failed to complete a degree. He was a foolhardy mountaineer and traveller, sometimes putting others at risk. He was inconsistent in his religious beliefs and also found writing difficult: his few books are compilations of essays and journalism. To cap it all, he was a political ingénu, easily out-manoeuvred by politicians and businessmen: fair game to those who characterised the enemies of progress as short-haired women and long-haired men. Muir's face was often wholly obscured by a shovel beard and dangling lank hair.

Yet he galvanised American opinion as a prophet who testified to the natural majesty of the landscape as a major element in the nation's manifest destiny. While his father always believed that America was the world's best hope for the future in social and religious affairs, the son gave this belief a geological and ecological foundation. The cover photograph depicts Muir in the conventional rückenfigur pose of European Romanticism – back to the camera, poised upright at the head of a river gorge, alpenstock in hand, gazing into the far distance. He could see into the future.

Muir's life's work as an advocate for the conservation of rugged landscape was based on years exploring the Yosemite Valley and the Sierra Nevada (as well as Alaska). It was the sheer fecundity of life in these places that raised him to ecstasy: in a square yard of Nevada prairie he once counted 7,260 flower heads, representing 16 different species. He travelled lightly, depending on the hospitality of native Indians and isolated smallholders, and often slept in the open, even in the rain.

He personified the rugged trailsman but was also a charmer and a wonderful raconteur. Such personal qualities proved highly effective in rallying opinion in favour of protecting the great landscapes as national parks from the 1860s onwards – long before anywhere else. The English diplomat, Lord James Bryce, declared that national parks were the best idea America ever had, and Muir was the man responsible for creating them.

He was ahead of his time in other ways, an early exponent of animal rights, and a firm believer in the companionate nature of trees. Responding to someone who asked if the sequoia made good furniture, he asked if they would murder children. He could see the need for limits to economic growth, and argued that outdoor recreation offered a better paradigm of the good life than one wholly based on material wealth. That early love of the outdoor life as a key element in American popular democracy was regarded with suspicion by de Tocqueville. This and other countervailing intellectual and political philosophies are well documented by Worster.

Muir was the first president of the Sierra Club, America's largest and most influential environmental organisation (which partisanly declared for Barack Obama in the recent election).

Yet while the nature conservation movement inspired by Muir grows, concerns remain as to how best protect endangered landscapes while allowing public access. Muir blew hot and cold on this, sometimes arguing for unlimited access as a democratic right, at other times making the case for strict regulation.

He would have been intrigued by a recent development in the Netherlands – the creation of a wildlife park re-introducing long-lost native species, and closing the site permanently to human visitors. Eden restored, but with no one to eat the apple. Such a radical move would have given Muir much food for thought.

Ken Worpole's 'Modern Hospice Design' will be published by Routledge in May

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