John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire

JohnMuirCover sizedRead an exclusive excerpt from author Kim Heacox's new book, John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire: How a Visionary and the Glaciers of Alaska Changed America.

John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire

By Kim Heacox, author of The Only Kayak


AMERICA must be harnessed and put to work, people said. Natural "capital" must be turned into consumable products. Materialist expansion must sweep away misery and social inequality, and put us on the road to universal abundance. It was the right thing to do, our destiny, written in books, newspapers, the Bible, and the stars. To argue against such improvements was a fool's errand.

Yet the great American novelist and Muir contemporary, Mark Twain, was beginning to do just that. An eloquent gadfly on the sticky paper of progress, he would be Muir's soul brother in more ways than one, noting that Shakespeare created King Lear's fool for a reason: to express a wisdom others did not.

Twain and Muir, only three years apart in age, would both live three-fourths of a century. In that time, from their births in the 1830s until their deaths in the second decade of the 1900s, America would transform itself from an agrarian democracy into an industrial oligarchy that brought with it feasts of conspicuous consumption, an era that Twain called the "Gilded Age." He further used a term not unfamiliar to Muir: "citified," an epithet, Twain noted, "which suggests the absence of all spirituality, and the presence of all kinds of paltry materialisms, and mean ideals, and mean vanities and silly cynicisms."

Alaska would be to John Muir what the open ocean was to Mark Twain, or the mountains of Assisi, in central Italy, had been to Saint Francis, his wildest dream, a place of healing distances and deep silence and blessed meditation. While California was Muir's home, Alaska would be his dream, his escape, incomprehensible in its beauty, vastness, and unforgiving ruggedness.

Just the way he liked it.

Over the next twenty years, 1879-99, Muir would make seven journeys to Alaska. In that time, he would evolve from a self-taught naturalist, glaciologist and ecologist into a best-selling author and unapologetic preservationist, America's pre-eminent fang in the fight against irresponsible industry and runaway development.

"Nothing dollarable is safe," he would say. And so Alaska inspired him to battle the universal conceit that nature was put here for us to use as we please.

TRAVELING by canoe into the icy wildness of Glacier Bay in October was not madness, as the Tlingits might have thought. For John Muir, it was a joy, a revelation.

Madness was out there, all right, but not in the temples of wild nature. Any student of natural history could see that nature was beautiful and brutal. Witness how the swallow skims the river and catches bugs on the wing, how the cougar takes down the deer, how the eagle snaps the duck. It's a lethal, bloody affair. But none of these animals create a machine to magnify their killing. None invent an economy that's never full. None create corporations that at all costs, even the loss of dignity, must forever grow.

It was a simple matter of how you saw the world, and your place in it.

Where others found gold, John Muir found glaciers; where they saw timber, he saw trees. Where they sought profit, he sought a prophet, an expression of God's greatest creation, nature, the wisest of all teachers, not to be chopped up and sold, but left as it was, held in deep regard. Never mind utility. Wild nature had value in and of itself, what he called "mountain nourishment."

This book is an exploration into what made John Muir who he was; how Alaska shaped him – specifically its glaciers – and how he shaped us.

To Muir, glaciers had character, power and grace. They were alive and deserving of our deepest understanding and respect. In their presence, he became a druid, of sorts, a Celtic priest, or more accurately, the Johann Wolfgang von Goethe of his day, a holistic thinker who challenged the modern scientific revolution to find a balance between the rational, quantitative mind, and the intuitive, qualitative mind. Muir could have done this with wolves or bears, or with flowers, as Goethe had done. But he did it with glaciers, cold rivers of ice that appeared static but in fact moved dynamically over the land and shaped everything around them, making them a perfect piece of symbolism in today's warming world.

"THE ONLY THING that counts is that which can be counted," said Galileo three hundred years before Muir. Together with Rene Descartes, Isaac Newton and others, Galileo gave us our modern scientific revolution, our Age or Reason, the triumph of the rational mind. And while he and his brilliant contemporaries were right, they were also wrong. They separated us from nature, rather than made us participants in nature. They made us clever and powerful, but not wise.

Muir was a revolutionary of another kind who said there's much more to good science – and right livelihood – than connecting data and dissecting frogs. There's a deeper meaning than conventional analytical reason. Experiment is not enough. Good science also requires experience, a deep knowing and sense of wonder that comes from being out there, barefoot in the meadow, alone on the ice, naked in the storm. "When we try to pick out anything by itself," Muir would write, "we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."

Galileo and Descartes had rational knowledge; Muir had intuitive wisdom acquired from the smallest flower and the largest glacier. He didn't merely learn about the natural world, he learned from it. He went out there and slowed down and listened until his intuitive mind could dance with his rational mind. By doing so, he could "feel" the qualities of things around him. This enabled him to widen his circle of compassion. And with this wisdom and compassion, with this deep sense of the sacred, he would begin to write about the natural world and campaign for its defense while the rest of America hypnotized itself with a thousand clever devices that consumed nature wholesale.

THERE WAS NOBODY else like him. John Muir popularized geology, especially its young subset science, glaciology. He gave America a new vision of Alaska, and a new and brighter vision of itself. He reordered our priorities, and contributed to a new scientific revolution picked up a generation later by Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson, and championed today by E.O. Wilson, Carl Safina, Stephan Harding and others. He was a gentle rebel, a talkative hermit, a distant son of the Scottish Enlightenment, inspired by ice.

YOU CANNOT STARE into the eyes of a glacier. It's not a wolf. But you can stare into its face, its tidewater terminus, a stunning, imposing ice wall rising from the sea, two hundred feet high, deeply weathered, a threshold where the glacier ends and everything else begins, where blue seracs collapse into the ocean and primal thunder booms down rock-ribbed inlets. In rare cases the glaciers might advance. Most often, though, in today's changing world, they retreat; they shrink back and die. Sometimes they hold steady, as a few do in Glacier Bay. John Muir found inspiration in these blue ice faces, as if the glaciers, like wise elders, had stories to tell and warnings to give.

To this day he challenges us to see what he saw and do what he did, and more.

He became our patron saint of flowers and birds, glaciers and bears, wilderness and wolves, by far the most vocal preservationist in a young nation hell-bent on making money. He became our corrective lens, our better conscience; he spoke for the wild places and gave them credible value. He showed us an Alaska as a New World's new world, a place to unmap and remap what remained of America, and our destiny in it.

On his last trip north, as an elder member of the prestigious 1899 Harriman Alaska Expedition, financed by Edward H. Harriman, president of the Union Pacific Railroad, one of the richest men in America, Muir would quip, "I don't think Harriman is very rich. He has not as much money as I have. I have all I want and Mr. Harriman has not."

THE GLACIERS Muir found in Alaska were larger and more dynamic and robust than anything he had ever seen or imagined. They were his abacus, his new ruler and measuring stick that made all remaining wild lands down south seem small and vulnerable. They were his metaphor, flowing through the land, yes, and through his open heart and mind, through time and events and all things until he transcended the mentality of separateness and reductionism, and experienced man and nature as one, the wholeness outside continuous with a healthy inside.

These great ice rivers, tumbling down mountains and into the sea, birthed icebergs and blended as a single essence with the snow, which in turn, Muir wrote, blended "with the invisible breath of the sky." They awakened in him what he called "the gospel of glaciers," an awareness and red-hot activism that would carry him through the rest of his days and consume him in his later years, and give birth to the modern American conservation movement.

They were the ice that started a fire.

If you would like to read more of John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire, you can order it HERE.

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