John Muir: America’s Ice-Chief

John Muir in 1907.  Public Domain. Source: Francis M. Fritz
John Muir in 1907.
Public Domain. Source: Francis M. Fritz

A rhapsodic wanderer trained in geology and botany, John Muir had a big hand in launching the American environmental movement and is considered by many to be the godfather of America’s national parks. The Scottish-born naturalist wrote numerous screeds in defense of wild places for national magazines around the turn of the 20th century that electrified the American public, and he influenced both Presidents Roosevelt and Taft to take major measures to protect iconic American landscapes. He was also one of the founders of the Sierra Club.

In a book out last year, Kim Heacox argues that it was the glaciers of Alaska that inspired Muir’s fiercest passion for the wilderness and animated his efforts to protect wild places. Thus, the title of Heacox’s book: John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire: How a Visionary and the Glaciers of Alaska Changed America. Muir “would popularize glaciers unlike anybody else, and be to glaciers what Jacques Cousteau would be to the oceans and Carl Sagan to the stars,” writes Heacox, an independent scholar who lives in Alaska.

The story is an entertaining and elegantly written romp through Muir’s evolution from a self-described tramp and outsider who scorned all things urban and “civilized” into a formidable force for conservation in the United States. Along the way, he cultivates friendships with some of the greatest minds of the era, and takes painstaking efforts to nourish his literary talent. The lure of Alaska’s majestic and otherworldly ice-scapes for Muir are a constant throughout, and Heacox’s descriptions of his adventures there are some of the most lively passages in a lively book.

Screen Shot 2015-01-13 at 10.49.55 AMMuir was undeniably enamored of the unforgiving rivers of ice that blanketed his beloved mountains in California’s Sierra Nevada and the United States’ new frontier, Alaska. He called glaciers “God’s crystal temple,” in one passage cited by Heacox, from a book by his friend the Reverend Samuel Young, Alaska Days with John Muir. Muir’s references to God and temples were not just for the reverend’s sake. John Muir believed that heaven lies on earth, that one finds transcendence in the wilderness, that nature is the original church. Muir tells Young,

I’ve been a thousand feet down in the crevasses, with matchless domes and sculpted figures and carved ice-work all about me. Solomon’s marble and ivory palaces were nothing to it. Such purity, such color, such delicate beauty! I was tempted to stay there and feast my soul, and softly freeze, until I would become part of the glacier. What a great death that would be.

While he courted great danger on many of his trips to Alaska, he trusted his own luck and the expertise of his guides, native Tlingits. Muir admired them for their knowledge of and respect for the ice, sea and land. He in turn won their esteem, according to Heacox, with his fearless daring, his death-defying agility and his persuasive oratory. The Tinglits called Muir the ice-chief.

Tourists at the edge of a crevasse on Muir Glacier in Alaska, 1896. public domain.
Tourists at the edge of a crevasse on Muir Glacier in Alaska, 1896. public domain.

It turns out that even then, the ice chief was worried about the ice. When Muir made that first visit to Alaska at the age of 41, he already believed that its massive glaciers had begun melting into the sea. Here Heacox quotes Muir in his own words, from his Travels in Alaska, written at the very end of his life:

Glacier Bay is undoubtedly young as yet. Vancouver’s chart, made only a century ago, shows no trace of it, though found admirably faithful in general. It seems probable therefore, that even then the entire bay was occupied by a glacier of which all those described above, great though they are, were only tributaries…that this whole system of fjords and channels was added to the domain of the sea by glacial action is to my mind certain.

John Muir Glacier and Bay, July 2010. © Eric E Castro
John Muir Glacier and Bay, July 2010. © Eric E Castro

Muir attributed glacial retreat around the world to warming temperatures, and may have been the first naturalist to do so, according to Heacox. In 1896, Heacox tells us, just six years after Muir’s first visit to Alaska, a Swedish physicist and chemist named Svante Arrhenius began to theorize about the effects of burning coal and oil on the atmospheric concentration of carbon, and in turn, the possibility that this atmospheric carbon would have a greenhouse effect, raising the surface temperature of the earth. More than a century later, though scientists have since confirmed both Muir and Arrhenius’ suspicions, climate change remains a subject of contentious debate. (Just witness the lack of commitments to action made by the governments that participated in the December United Nations Climate Change conference in Lima, Peru.)

John Muir commemorative 5 cent stamp, 1964 © U.S. Post Office
John Muir commemorative 5 cent stamp, 1964 © U.S. Post Office

It is likely that the places Muir visited on his first trip to Alaska are now ice free, according to Heacox. “Muir Glacier today, only a fraction of its size in 1890, now rests at the head of Muir Inlet, some thirty-plus miles farther north, and is no longer tidewater,” he writes. Though the glacier that carries Muir’s name may be much diminished, Muir himself remains larger than life—an inspiration to those who work to combat the effects of climate change and who seek solace in the wilderness. Heacox’s book is a timely and poignant addition to a canon of literature about one of America’s favorite mountain men.

For more recent stories about glaciers in Alaska and California, click through to the following stories:

As Glaciers Melt, Mt. Shasta Could See More Mudslides
For One Time Only, the Perfect Glacier Wave
High Schoolers Get Hands on with Alaska Glacier