This picture book about an episode in naturalist John Muir’s life is visually stunning, and it tells an exciting story, worth the read.
April, 1871. Two evenings ago, I climbed the mountain to the foot of the upper Yosemite Falls . . . My wetting was received in a way that I scarcely care to tell. The adventure nearly cost all. ~John Muir’s journal.
Muir was a passionate naturalist, and his writing, mostly essays for magazines and newspapers, allowed him to earn a living while also pursuing his desire to observe nature and to preserve it. A friend of Teddy Roosevelt, Muir and the president went camping together in 1903, at which time Muir was able to enlist TR in his campaign to preserve America’s wilderness. Partly because of Muir’s influence, Teddy Roosevelt was able to lead the national government to set aside millions of acres of land for national parks, monuments, and wilderness preservation.
The event that is featured in this picture book, Muir’s near-death experience while exploring behind a Yosemite Valley waterfall, took place in 1871. Muir wrote two separate essays about the experience, and the author, Julie Danneberg used both essays to fashion her own version of Muir’s adventure behind the falls.
What you may not know about John Muir (not necessarily from the book, but mostly from Wikipedia):
1. Muir was born in Scotland, the third of eight children.
2. His family were Campbellites (Disciples of Christ), and “by age 11, young Muir had learned to recite ‘by heart and by sore flesh’ all of the New Testament and most of the Old Testament.” (Wikipedia)
3. In early March 1867, an accident changed the course of his life: a tool he was using slipped and struck him in the eye. He was confined to a darkened room for six weeks, worried whether he would ever regain his sight. When he did, “he saw the world—and his purpose—in a new light”. Muir later wrote, “This affliction has driven me to the sweet fields. God has to nearly kill us sometimes, to teach us lessons.” (Wikipedia)
4. In September 1867, Muir undertook a walk of about 1,000 miles (1,600 km) from Indiana to Florida, which he recounted in his book A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf.
5. Ralph Waldo Emerson, on a trip to Yosemite in 1871, met John Muir and offered him a professorship at Harvard, which Muir declined. (Muir had never graduated from college, although he did attend classes at a college in Wisconsin.)
6. Muir was extremely fond of Thoreau and was probably influenced more by him than even Emerson. Muir often referred to himself as a “disciple” of Thoreau.
7. John Muir petitioned Congress to establish Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks.
8. California celebrates John Muir Day on April 21st each year.
9. “God never made an ugly landscape. All that the sun shines on is beautiful, so long as it is wild.” ~John Muir.
10. “My eyes, at times, would fill with tears in the editing room as we worked on telling Muir’s story. It was a pleasure getting to know him better.”
~Ken Burns, filmmaker for “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea
So, for a small introduction to the life and thought of John Muir, with beautiful illustrations by Jamie Hogan, see John Muir Wrestles a Waterfall. He may have wandered into what I would call “nature worship” as he grew older and left his Campbellite (and biblical) foundations, but nevertheless, he did have a fine and passionate appreciation for God’s creation, an appreciation that he was able to communicate to the rest of America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to the betterment of our national heritage.