Jason Mills's Reviews > Travels in Alaska

Travels in Alaska by John Muir
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Apr 30, 12

bookshelves: biography-and-memoir, non-fiction, travel, science
Recommended for: Anyone who can read.
Read from March 28 to April 30, 2012, read count: 1

A remarkable man writing about remarkable places in remarkable prose. John Muir, a Scot, was an advocate for the Great Outdoors, instrumental in the setting up of National Parks in the US, passionate about exploring the wilds of nature and passionate too in describing them. We find him striding fearlessly off to study his beloved rivers of ice, not sheltering from storms but rushing out in them, not shirking from danger but relishing it. So mad are his exploits that even the local Indians shake their heads and worry about him. If, like me, you've read Mark Helprin novels and wondered if such exuberant, larger-than-life characters could actually exist, wonder no more! Yet Muir makes us understand what compels him:
The day was warm, and back on the broad melting bosom of the glacier beyond the crevassed front, many streams were rejoicing, gurgling, ringing, singing, in frictionless channels worn down through the white disintegrated ice of the surface into the quick and living blue, in which they flowed with a grace of motion and flashing of light to be found only on the crystal hillocks and ravines of a glacier.

Such vivid scenes burst from every page. I don't share his view that:
Every feature glowed with intention, reflecting the plans of God.

But the god of his conception is at least bent on magnificence and munificence. I was dismayed to see how the Indians were sold education and religion as an inseparable bundle, though Muir expresses no such concern. Accompanying a missionary, Muir himself is called on to speak to the local Indians, and his unfeigned love of the land appears to impress them more than Mr Young's preaching, prompting one to say:
It has always seemed to me while trying to speak to traders and those seeking gold-mines that it was like speaking to a person across a broad stream that was running fast over stones and making so loud a noise that scarce a single word could be heard. But now, for the first time, the Indian and the white man are on the same side of the river, eye to eye, heart to heart.

Though Muir's descriptions are always glorious, there are also moments of heart-stopping adventure. Terrified though he is, it is all in a day's work for our hero to find himself canoeing in darkness through a four foot wide passage between drifting icebergs, or carrying down from a mountaintop a companion with two dislocated shoulders.

Nonetheless, for Muir it is the landscape that matters. "[It] seemed inconceivable that nature could have anything finer to show us", he remarks, and yet he brings forth new wonders as if from a bottomless chest. Two days crossing a glacier that is fifteen miles wide; an enormous campfire built in a thunderstorm amidst giant redwoods; thousands of icebergs nodding in greeting to a new one calved from a glacier's snout. Not surprising, then, that when the townsfolk come out to meet him and Mr Young after a long expedition, he is unmoved by the comforts of civilisation:
Mr Young was eager for news. I told him there could be no news of importance about a town. We only had real news, drawn from the wilderness.

And what kind of news?
Twice to-day I was visited on the ice by a hummingbird, attracted by the red lining of the bear-skin sleeping bag.

It's bloody marvellous!
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