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'Last Journey' Details John Muir's Trip to Amazon

JOHN MUIR'S LAST JOURNEY, South to the Amazon and East to Africa Unpublished Journals and Selected Correspondence, \o7 Edited by Michael P. Branch\f7 , Island Press/Shearwater Books, $27.50, 340 pages

July 19, 2001|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 1867, age 29, John Muir was working as a sawyer and machinist in a carriage wheel factory in Indianapolis. Working late one night, Muir's right eye was pierced by the sharp end of a file. For several weeks he could not see out of either eye. Muir's first reaction, on the scene of the accident writes E.O. Wilson in the foreword to "John Muir's Last Journey," was "My right eye is gone, closed forever on all God's beauty." In the darkened room where his vision returned, Muir was reborn, determined to devote his life to the "study of the inventions of God." His great desire was to travel to the American South and then South America "to see tropical vegetation in all its palmy glory." In fact, later journal entries make clear that it was the great hot Amazon River that was his true destination, "to float down on a raft or a skiff the whole length of the great river to its mouth."

In the autumn of 1867, he set off on foot from Indiana to Kentucky and then a thousand miles to the Gulf of Mexico, where he intended to catch a boat to South America. This walk became the now much-read book "A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf," published in 1916.

But malaria prevented his journey to South America. When he recovered, he had less than a hundred dollars and could not find a ship that would take him. He decided, more practically, to head for the mountains of California, having seen a brochure advertising the Sierra Nevada. "After a year in that interesting country," he wrote, "I can carry out my Amazon plans."

This fateful decision changed the course of American history and certainly American environmental policy.

One of the great and practical functions of literature is making superheroes human. Here in California, John Muir's vivid legacies are numerous. His writing often reveals a driven man with a sense of commitment and purpose. Long in coming and worth waiting for, "John Muir's Last Journey" reveals the flip side of that commitment. Thelife-is-short-and-there-is-much-to-see-and-accomplish side. The vulnerable and often lonely side.

Muir's next 44 years were spent fighting to preserve the Sierra Nevada (some were proposing to build a dam in Yosemite) and writing about his travels and observations there. He became famous and well loved for proving the glacial origins of Yosemite, for his discovery of glaciers and bays in Alaska, and for founding the Sierra Club.

In 1905 Muir's wife, Louise, died. He had two daughters, Wanda and Helen, and several grandchildren. Dictating material for his autobiography, Muir exhumed the ghost of his Amazon journey. "Have I forgotten the Amazon, Earth's greatest river?" he wrote to a friend. "Never, never, never. It has been burning in me half a century, and will burn forever." On Aug. 12, 1911, Muir left Brooklyn by steamer to begin his 40,000-mile journey to Brazil and the Amazon delta, south to Uruguay and Argentina, through the Canary Islands to South Africa, through Suez to Naples and back to New York almost one year later on March 27, 1912, a few weeks before his 74th birthday. He was not, E.O. Wilson notes, "ill a single day." Muir died a year and a half later, on Christmas Eve, 1914.

"John Muir's Last Journey" is a collection of entries from three pocket-sized travel journals Muir carried with him, of letters to friends and family (primarily his friend Katherine Hooker and his daughter, Helen) and a summary between key legs of the journey, written by Muir's editor, Robert Underwood Johnson.

There are many revelations here. In the beginning leg of the journey to the Amazon, Muir's letters to his friends are full of longing (what he calls "oldlangsyne") and concern. It takes a full two months before Muir can see, really see with the joy we know him for, the birds and clouds and waves.

While the Amazon River in its 3,900-mile glory, the "hot river," thrills him, it is not really until Rio de Janeiro in October--when Muir begins to hunt for and then study the Brazilian pine--that he becomes positively gleeful. "Most interesting forest I have seen in my whole life," he writes. "Formal, yet variable, and always impressive with auld-lang-syne Sequoia-like physiognomy." No question about it, the quest to know a species is the finest moment for the naturalist. Like a bird dog on point, all Muir's senses awaken.

In Chile and the Andes, Muir has a new quest: the monkey puzzle tree, so named because "its prickly needles render ascent impossible to the monkey." Muir is exuberant: "Just think of my joy in these noble aboriginal forests--the face of every tree marked with the inherited experiences of millions of years."

Finally, in Africa, Kenya and Uganda, Muir seeks the company of the African Baobab. "Kings may be blest," he writes to his daughter, Helen, "but I'm glorious."

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