This post is a review of the select John Muir essays found in the exquisite volume called Nature Writings.
I pulled 24 of Muir’s best quotes from its pages. The quotes are shared below, along with brief summaries of each essay.
I’ve also included Muir’s short story called Stickeen – an adventure with a dog and a glacier.
Nature Writings includes 18 of Muir’s essays, hand-picked by William Cronon. Each essay highlights a different aspect of his career.
They come from numerous original sources. Four of his earliest essays first appeared in the Overland Monthly (an out-of-print California magazine), and four of them originally appeared in his book Our National Parks.
These essays are preceded in the volume by three of Muir’s finest books. I’ve reviewed these books elsewhere, dedicating an individual post to each, as follows:
Page number attributions are listed as they appear in Nature Writings. The Nature Writings volume is rounded off at the end by a chronology of Muir’s life, acting as a brief biography.
Stickeen is unlike most of Muir’s writings. It’s a short story, and a true story, about his experience exploring an Alaskan glacier with a dog called Stickeen. It’s one of his most widely-known writings, and has appeared in countless formats since its original publication in 1897.
Its events took place in 1880, so it took Muir 17 years to put it into writing and get it published. In summary Muir, alone with this dog, finds himself in a hazardous situation on a glacier – hindered by darkness, unfortunate weather, and deadly crevasses.
More background on the story can be found here through the Sierra Club.
Never before or since have I seen anything like so passionate a revulsion from the depths of despair to exultant, triumphant, uncontrollable joy. He [Stickeen] flashed and darted hither and thither as if fairly demented, screaming and shouting, swirling round and round in giddy loops and circles like a leaf in whirlwind, lying down, and rolling over and over, sidewise and heels over head, and pouring forth a tumultuous flood of hysterical cries and sobs and gasping mutterings. [page 569]
2) Yosemite Glaciers
As the title suggests, this essay is a study of the glaciers found in the region of the ensuing Yosemite National Park.
Most notably, this was John Muir’s first published essay (1871).
In its reading, one must keep in mind that compared with today, very little was known about glacial activity. Muir was spearheading the research on the subject with his extensive fieldwork, so it makes sense for this to be the subject of his early writing.
I have set fire to two pine logs, and the neighboring trees are coming to my charmed circle of light … Grandly do my logs give back their light, slow gleaned from suns of a hundred Summers, garnered beautifully away in dotted cells and in beads of amber gum; and, together with this outgush of light, seems to flow all the other riches of their life, and their living companions are looking down as if to witness their perfect and beautiful death. [page 586]
3) Yosemite Valley in Flood
Muir describes the results of a major rainstorm as viewed in Yosemite Valley on December 16, 1871. He viewed anywhere from fifty to “upward of a hundred” spontaneous falls along the walls of the valley.
and be it remembered, that these falls and cascades were not small, dainty, momentary gushes, but broad, noble-mannered water creations; sublime in all their attributes, and well worthy Yosemite rocks, shooting in arrowy foam from a height of near three thousand feet; the very smallest of which could be heard several miles away: a perfect storm of waterfalls throbbing out their lives in one stupendous song. [588-89]
4) A Geologist’s Winter Walk
This is Muir’s account of a hike in Yosemite, up Tenaya Canyon in winter.
I ran home in the moonlight, with long, firm strides; for the sun-love made me strong. Down through the junipers – down through the firs … frost crystals flashing all the sky beneath, as star-crystals on all the sky above. All of this big mountain-bread for one day! One of the rich, ripe days that enlarge one’s life – so much of the sun upon one side of it, so much of moon on the other. [page 597]
5) Wild Wool
On it’s surface, this is a rather silly essay that expounds upon Muir’s assertion that the wool of wild sheep surpasses that of domestic sheep. His initial background working for a shepherd in My First Summer in the Sierra partially explains the source of these thoughts.
Looking a little deeper, this comparison serves as an excuse for Muir to do some philosophizing on his developing notions of conservationism.
No dogma taught by the present civilization seems to form so insuperable an obstacle in the way of a right understanding of the relations which culture sustains to wildness, as that which declares that the world was made especially for the uses of men. Every animal, plant, and crystal controverts in the plainest terms. [page 602]
6) Flood-Storm in the Sierra
This essay is an early version of what’s found as chapter 11 of The Mountains of California (there it’s titled “The River Floods”). The latter half of this essay differs from what’s found in the aforementioned book.
Here in the essay, Muir expands on more details of the foothills where this flooding took place. He also touches upon the notion that natural “disasters” such as floods are needed to bring society back down to earth from its luxuries, even then in 1875.
How terribly downright must seem the utterances of storms and earthquakes to those accustomed to the soft hypocrisies of society. Man’s control is being steadily extended over the forces of nature, but it is well, at least for the present, that storms can still make themselves heard through our thickest walls. [page 615]
7) Living Glaciers of California
Again, Muir continues his study of mountain glaciers. On page 324, he interestingly shares the specifics on how he placed rods in the Sierra’s Maclure Glacier in order to log its relative movement.
8) God’s First Temples
Subtitled How Shall We Preserve Our Forests?
“Old West” utilization of America’s forests was in its heyday in the 1870s, rapidly falling to the burgeoning lumber industry and rampant burning by pioneers. A case is specifically made for protecting California’s Sequoia trees.
This seems to be mostly a local plea, published in the Sacramento Daily Union newspaper in 1876.
9) Snow-Storm on Mount Shasta
A great overall piece about Mount Shasta – this essay opens with a natural description of the mountain and its features.
Even better, it goes on to describe a gripping experience where Muir and his companion Jerome Fay are stuck overnight near its summit in a surprise storm.
We lay flat on our backs, so as to present as little surface as possible to the wind. The mealy snow gathered on our breasts, and I did not rise again to my feet for seventeen hours. [page 645]
This is the longest essay in the volume. Muir paints a sweeping picture of the part of Alaska of which he is most familiar. It acts as a sort of tour brochure, specifically for the steamer trip from Puget Sound to the Alexander Archipelago.
For those less familiar with the state, the archipelago refers to the state’s southern coastal region near the capital of Juneau. Today’s cruise ships still tour through the region, and they call it the Inside Passage.
In a most humble, expected fashion, Muir refers to his namesake “Muir Glacier” without mentioning that the feature is, in fact, named for him.
No written words, however put together, can convey anything like an adequate conception of its [the glacier’s] sublime grandeur, the noble simplicity and fineness of the sculpture of the walls, their magnificent proportions, their cascades, gardens and forest adornments, the placid water between them, the great white and blue ice-wall stretching across in the middle, and the snow-laden mountain peaks beyond. [page 676]
One learns that the world, though made, is being made; that this is still the morning of creation, that mountains and valleys long since conceived are now being born, channels traced for rivers, basins hollowed for lakes; that moraine-soil is being ground and outspread for coming plants, coarse boulders and gravel for forests, finer meal for grasses and flowers … which, like fluent, pulsing water, rise and fall and pass on through the ages in endless rhythm and beauty. 
11) Features of the Proposed Yosemite National Park
This is a straightforward, concise essay that Muir wrote as part of the national lobby to protect Yosemite. In his topographical summation of what would become the Park, his description of the Hetch Hetchy is most notable, as it would be later be the site of controversial dam.
Yosemite was signed into law in 1890 – the same year this article was published. Upon its creation, its boundaries were even greater than those outlined here by Muir.
on the north side of the [Hetch-Hetchy] valley is a rock about 1800 feet in height, which presents a bare, sheer front like El Capitan, and over its massive brow flows a stream that makes the most graceful fall I have ever seen. Its Indian name is Tu-ee-u-la-la, and no other, so far as I have heard, has yet been given it. [page 695]
Imagine yourself in Hetch Hetchy. It is a sunny day in June, the pines sway dreamily, and you are shoulder-deep in grass and flowers. Looking across the valley through beautiful open groves you see a bare granite wall 1800 feet high rising abruptly out of the green and yellow vegetation and glowing with sunshine, and in front of it the fall, waving like a downy scarfsilver bright, burning with white sun-fre in every fiber … It is a flood of singing air, water , and sunlight woven into cloth that spirits might wear. 
12) The American Forests
Upon noting the title and length of this essay, I feared I’d be in for a detailed list of the most notable trees of the entire nation, complete with the nature of their leaves, bark, average height, preferred habitat, and more… a’la The Forests chapter in The Mountains of California.
I was pleasantly mistaken! Instead, this is a call to arms for the preservation of America’s forests. The extractive invasion of the Old West was in full force in the late 1800s. Muir’s primary argument here is against the destruction caused by rampant burning and logging.
Published in 1901, this was still in the days before the establishment of the US Forest Service (1905) or the National Park Service (1916). As an example, the article mentions similar government agencies in European nations that were already managing its forests.
Muir’s voice as a conservationist really begins to shine here.
In the settlement and civilization of the country, bread more than timber or beauty was wanted; and in the blindness of hunger, the early settlers, claiming Heaven as their guide, regarded God’s trees as only a larger kind of pernicious weeds, extremely hard to get rid of. Accordingly, with no eye to the future, these pious destroyers waged interminable forest wars 
13) Wild Parks and Reservations of the West
As the title implies, this essay is an overview of the National Parks and Forest Preserves as they existed in 1901. In addition to the evocative descriptions that are to be expected, the article serves as a convenient historical snapshot of the west’s public lands.
Muir lists only 4 National Parks that existed at the time – Yellowstone, Yosemite, General Grant, and Sequoia. Upon inspection, we learn that General Grant was the original name for Kings Canyon National Park.
Generous commentary is given on the numerous Forest Reserves, many of which would later become National Parks, like Mount Rainier, the Badlands, Grand Canyon, and more.
Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life. 
The quotation below refers to Bitterroot Range of Idaho and Montana.
Wander here a whole summer, if you can. Thousands of God’s wild blessings will search you and soak you as if you were a sponge, and the big days will go by uncounted. 
The following location refers to the Flathead Reserve, which you may now know as Glacier National Park.
the best care-killing scenery on the continent, – beautiful lakes derived straight from glaciers, lofty mountains steeped in lovely nemophila-blue skies and clad with forests and glaciers, mossy, ferny waterfalls in their hollows, nameless and numberless, and meadowy gardens abounding in the best of everything … Give a month at least to this precious reserve. the time will not be taken from the sum of your life. Instead of shortening, it will indefinitely lengthen it and make you truly immortal. Never more will time seem short or long, and cares will never again fall heavily on you, but gently and kindly as gifts from heaven. [730-31]
14) The Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone was America’s (and perhaps the world’s) first national park, established in 1872. In this essay, Muir gives a virtual tour of its features, including its thermal attributes, its grand canyon, its namesake lake, Amethyst Mountain, and more.
Most interesting to me was his description of the cross-cut face of a mountain that reveals layers upon layers of petrified forests.
I was also delighted to come upon one of his most famous quotations here:
Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you , and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on , one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but Nature’s sources never fail. Like a generous host, she offers here brimming cups in endless variety, served in a grand hall, the sky its ceiling, the mountains its walls, decorated with glorious paintings and enlivened with bands of music ever playing. The petty discomforts that beset the awkward guest, the unskilled camper, are quickly forgotten, while all that is precious remains. Fears vanish as soon as one is fairly free in the wilderness. 
Now comes the gloaming. The alpenglow is fading into earthy, murky gloom, but do not let your town habits draw you away to the hotel. Stay on this good fire-mountain and spend the night among the stars. Watch their glorious bloom until the dawn, and get one more baptism of light. Then, with fresh heart, go down to your work, and whatever your fate, under whatever ignorance or knowledge you may afterward chance to suffer, you will remember these fine, wild views, and look back with joy to your wanderings in the blessed old Yellowstone Wonderland. 
15) The Forests of the Yosemite Park
This piece has much in common with The Forests chapter of The Mountains of California. Here Muir gives an inventory of the majority of trees to be found in Yosemite, with the same sleep-inducing details about the nature of their bark, cones, average height, etc. The writing in this essay, however, is slightly more engaging than the aforementioned chapter.
At its conclusion, the essay is redeemed by a fascinating account of when Muir spent a short time in Yosemite with Ralph Waldo Emerson.
The party mounted and rode away in wondrous contentment … Emerson lingered in the rear of the train, and when he reached the top of the ridge, after all the rest of the party were over and out of sight, he turned his horse, took off his hat and waved me a last good-by. [page 789]
16) The Grand Cañon of the Colorado
Since John Muir identifies so strongly with the High Sierra, it’s especially refreshing to read his accounts of a place like the Grand Canyon. Like most writers, Muir concedes that it is indescribable, yet goes on to give it a shot.
it is impossible to conceive what the cañon is, or what impression it makes, from descriptions or pictures, however good. 
It seems a gigantic statement for even nature to make all in one mighty stone word, apprehended at once like a burst of light, celestial color its natural vesture, coming in glory to mind and heart as to a home prepared for it from the very beginning. Wildness so godful, cosmic, primeval, bestows a new sense of earth’s beauty and size. Not even from the high mountains does the world seem so wide, so like a star in glory of light on its way through the heavens. 
secondary gorges and cirques gradually isolate masses of the promontories, forming new buildings, all of which are being weathered and pulled and shaken down while being built, showing destruction and creation as one. We see the proudest temples and palaces in stateliest attitudes, wearing their sheets of detritus as royal robes, shedding off showers of red and yellow stones like trees in autumn shedding their leaves, going to dust like beautiful days to night, proclaiming as with the tongues of angels the natural beauty of death. 
17) Hetch Hetchy Valley
This is Muir’s argument and written plea to save Hetch Hetchy from being buried beneath a reservoir. He led the Sierra Club in a valiant fight to protect the valley from the dam’s construction, but failed.
The conflict was a landmark piece of the history of American conservation, as this may have been the first time an organization like the Sierra Club reached out to individual citizens to rally to the cause.
This essay shares similarities with Muir’s description of the valley in “Features of the Proposed Yosemite National Park,” with added notes about the proposed dam development.
Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man. 
18) Cedar Keys
In a change of pace from the other essays in the volume, this passage is pulled from Muir’s Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf. Posthumously published, the book chronicles one of Muir’s early adventures, before he’d ever set eyes on the Sierra.
Cedar Keys is about his time spent on the west coast of Florida, including a serious bout with malaria.
The universe would be incomplete without man; but it would also be incomplete without the smallest transmicroscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful eyes and knowledge. 
19) Save the Redwoods
The volume ends with a concise essay about the state of California’s Redwood trees, and the argument to protect them.
To close this summary, Muir has provided a rare bit of wit regarding saving the Redwoods:
No doubt these trees would make good lumber after passing through a sawmill, as George Washington after passing through the hands of a French cook would have made good food. [page 828]
This selection of essays is the perfect way to wrap up Nature Writings, playing a key role in its status as the best collection of Muir’s writings in print.