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The Pathless Way: John Muir and American Wilderness

by Michael P. Cohen

( from the book's dust jacket )

The Pathless Way: John Muir and American Wilderness
by Michael P. Cohen
University of Wisconsin Press. Madison

In this powerful study, Michael Cohen captures as never before the complex consciousness, vision, and legacy of the pioneering environmentalist John Muir. More than just another biography, Cohen's analysis assumes the shape of a spiritual journey that traces Muir's developing thought, his enlightenment in the Sierra Mountains, and his attempt to translate transcendental convictions into effective public writing and political strategy. Perhaps most important, Cohen conveys the heart of Muir's journey -- the wilderness experience -- with an immediacy, eloquence, and personal understanding that reflect Cohen's own years in the Sierra. Anyone interested in environmental studies, in American history and literature , or in the future of our natural heritage will be drawn by the credible, human, questing Muir and the very bracing flavor of this wilderness odyssey, evoked here by one of his own -- a twentieth-century mountaineer and literary craftsman.

In tracing Muir's spiritual and intellectual evolution Cohen examines not only published texts but the writer's notebooks, drafts, and letters. The path leads from a Presbyterian childhood and Muir's early years as an inventor of machines to his pivotal enlightenment in the Sierra. It was that enlightenment, Cohen argues, that represents both the climax of Muir's intensely personal search for self-knowledge and the enduring foundation of his ecological consciousness.

Giving himself up to the experience of wilderness with all the discipline and asceticism of a religious pilgrim, exuberantly immersed in nature's flow of sun, rain, wind, flood, and blizzard, Muir came to embody the very meaning of his vision in the mountains of California . Muir sought and found in wilderness the source of humanity's spiritual health and wholeness. Only by submerging oneself in nature's unified, eternal, and always changing landscape could men and women appreciate the process of creation and perceive their own part in it.

Ultimately, Cohen stresses, this ecological consciousness would generate an ecological conscience. It was no longer enough for Muir to individually test and celebrate his enlightenment in the wild. His vision, he now felt, must lead to concrete action, and the result was a protracted campaign that stressed the ecological education of the American public, government protection of natural resources, the establishment of National Parks, and the encouragement of tourism. If, as Cohen suggests, these public positions sometimes compromised Muir's early principles, the larger vision subsisted. It was his baptism in the Sierra "contemplating the lace- like fabric of streams outspread over the mountains" that would remain, to the end, the inviolable, cherished, and consuming core of his life and thought. By clarifying the meaning and importance of that central consciousness, Cohen illuminates not only Muir but his fledgling movement, and the magnetism of his beloved mountains.

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