On one of his many treks in Alaska, the naturalist John Muir chided a companion for staying back at camp while Muir enjoyed a spectacular day out among the glaciers.
“I’ve been wandering through a thousand rooms of God’s crystal temple,” he reported. “Such purity, such color, such delicate beauty! I was tempted to stay there and feast my soul, and softly freeze, until I would become part of the glacier. What a great death that would be.”
Muir, the preservationist who helped convince Theodore Roosevelt that untrammeled land was priceless, gladly gave his life to the natural world. As Alaska nature writer Kim Heacox notes in his sure-handed biography “John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire,” Muir was a bird lover and a botanist, but he reserved his greatest ardor for the “blue ice rivers” that helped shape the entire planet. A globally influential figure in his lifetime, the “self-styled poetico-geologist” was to glaciers, the biographer suggests, as “Jacques Cousteau would be to the oceans and Carl Sagan to the stars.”
For Muir, the son of a strict Presbyterian Scotsman, the wilderness was a vast cathedral. He studied Darwin’s theory of evolution, but not to the exclusion of a supreme being — “an Intelligence” — behind it.
“Every cell, every particle of matter in the world requires a Captain to steer it into its place,” he once jotted in the margin of a book.
Awe was Muir’s daily pursuit. With friends once on a hike in the High Sierras, he scoffed at their elaborate picnic as he nibbled on a piece of crust. “To dine with a glacier on a sunny day is a glorious thing and makes common feasts of meat and wine ridiculous,” he wrote to his sister. “A glacier eats hills and drinks sunbeams.”
Heacox, whose last book, “The Only Kayak,” was an elegant memoir of living in ever-changing Alaska, seems ideally matched to his subject.
Over time, the mighty glaciers have been forced to retreat. Muir, Heacox claims, may have been the first naturalist to attribute the phenomenon to global warming. Muir Glacier, named for the explorer after his first visits (beginning in 1879) to what is now Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska, terminates 35 miles farther north than it did in Muir’s time.
“Nothing dollarable is safe,” said Muir. With swift strokes, the author sets the wanderer’s work in the context of the stampeding progress of the late 19th century, when Carnegie forged steel, Edison illuminated the cities, and materialist expansion “put us on the road to universal abundance.”
Muir’s journeys have been chronicled in more exhaustive detail, most recently in the 2009 biography “A Passion for Nature,” by Donald Worster. But Heacox’s book deftly zeroes in on the environmentalist’s glacier studies to imply the urgency of climate change awareness and activism.
Muir’s pivotal camping trip in Yosemite with Roosevelt, which helped inspire the president to set aside 230 million acres of federal land (more than California and Texas combined), takes the book on a vivid detour, with “the president fit for a Kipling novel, dressed in his khaki jodhpurs and a Rough Rider hat” and Muir “in his loose-fitting suit, the hobo intellectual, a sprig of cedar poked through a buttonhole.”
In a graceful coda noting the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act and other conservationist legislation, Heacox transfers Muir’s mind-set into the present day. “The last frontier is not Alaska, outer space, the oceans, or the wonders of technology,” he writes. “It’s open-mindedness.”
Muir, who found heaven on Earth, would have said so himself.