Review: Mary Colwell’s book ‘John Muir’ by Ellen Teague

23rd February 2015 - by Ellen Teague

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Mary Colwell, the producer of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Shared Planet’, has a special interest in the relationship between religion and the natural world. A Catholic, she has been a consultant to the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales on environmental justice. I first met her ten years ago when she gave a talk in Clifton Cathedral, in the presence of Bishop Declan Lang, called ‘The Pope and the Iceberg’. We saw a projected image of a wonderful Philippine eagle fly across the concrete cathedral and Mary called for “concern, stewardship and responsibility for the world to be put right back into the heart of everyday Catholic thinking”. She has been a constant collaborator with the Columban JPIC team.


Well, her new book, ‘John Muir – the Scotsman who saved America’s wild places’ tells the story of a man who has influenced her thinking. In his foreward to the book, Jonathon Porrit says that Mary “eloquently captures what it was that made him so special as a naturalist, pioneering explorer, botanist, glaciologist, mystic, writer and activist. I agree completely.

Born in 1838 in Dunbar, Scotland, Muir’s family emigrated to the United States when he was 11. Settling in rural Wisconsin and working hard under the harsh discipline of his father, Muir became a loving observer of the natural word. When he left home, his travels took him to the country’s wild places, making his home in California’s Yosemite for a time. Beginning in 1874, he launched a successful career as a writer. He published around 300 articles and 10 major books that recounted his travels in the wilderness and beckoned everyone to “climb the mountains and get their good tidings”. His writings had a spiritual quality as he celebrated the natural world and drew attention to the devastation of mountain meadows and forests by sheep, logging, large dams. He wondered at human callousness towards God’s creation. Once, coming across Capypso borealis orchids in the Canadian wilderness, he wrote, “I never before saw a plant so full of life; so perfectly spiritual, it seemed pure enough for the throne of its creator.”

Muir was personally involved in the creation of Yosemite, Sequoia, Mount Rainier, Petrified Forest and Grand Canyon national parks and is often called the “Father of the National Park System”. Muir helped found the Sierra Club too, in Muir’s words, “do something for wildness and make the mountains glad”. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt visited Muir in Yosemite. There, beneath the trees, they laid the foundation of Roosevelt’s innovative and notable conservation programs. Muir died in 1914 in California.

Mary picks up on the questions Muir asked a century ago, particularly the debate about whether wild areas are luxuries today’s crowded planet can no longer afford. She asks, “are there some places that provide us with an inspiring manifestation of existence beyond our needs and we have a moral duty to protect them for ourselves and for those yet to come?” In her epilogue she says that the Earth, for Muir, was not an “issue” to be dealt with or a set of problems to be solved. “It glows with a divine presence and is a source of inspiration” she says; “his philosophy took God out of theological straightjackets and allowed every rock, as well as every living thing, to quiver with life”. Perhaps, like Muir we could be more kind to animals, trees and all the natural world. Muir believed that we should protect nature for its own sake rather than as a wise investment in a resource that we might want to harvest in future. He was a strong believer in both God and the essential goodness of humanity to do the right thing.

On her latest blog, Mary reflects that western Christianity can all be lived out in buildings: “You can administer to the poor, treat the sick, protect the vulnerable, pray and sing all inside. Services are inside, sermons are written inside and delivered inside.” She calls for Christians to appreciate the world outside the window and the church building. More than that, to call for an end to the war on nature which has seen Earth lose 50% of its wildlife over the last 40 years and begin to lose the stable climate it has enjoyed for 10,000 years because of human activity. She hopes Pope Francis will urge 1.2 billion Catholics to love the Earth and wonder at it in his forthcoming Encyclical.

I felt privileged to learn about John Muir from Mary’s book, which concludes with the following 1911 quote from him:

Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, inciting at once to work and rest! Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God. Nevermore, however weary, should one faint by the way who gains the blessings of one mountain day; whatever his fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, he is rich forever.”

John Muir – the Scotsman who saved America’s wild places, by Mary Colwell, forward by Jonathon Porritt, is published by Lion Hudson ISBN: 9780745956664 £9.99.


Mary Colwell’s blog:

Quotes from John Muir: