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Letters from Alaska by John Muir

reviewed by Bill Hunt

A review of the book
Letters from Alaska by John Muir
Edited by Robert Engberg and Bruce Merrell
Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1993
(115 pages; $12.95 paper, $30 hardback)

"John Muir was no ordinary tourist in Alaska"

By Bill Hunt
Anchorage Daily News
February 6, 1994

"Go," said John Muir to readers of the San Francisco Chronicle , "go and see!" Alaska is Marvelous.

Muir's newspaper letters, composed on his 1879 and 1880 cruises to Southeastern, echoed his sense of wonder. He was no ordinary tourist, and if some fellow travelers thought his wild enthusiasm for the Alaska scenery "crazy," others grasped his sense of gratified amazement.

In time, Muir's disciples became a social and political force in America and formed a tradition and a program of nature preservation.

Editors Robert Engberg, a California teacher and author, and Bruce Merrell, the Alaska bibliographer at Anchorage's Z.J. Loussac Library, have combined their scholarship and enthusiasm to make Letters from Alaska readable and authoritative, providing numerous illustrations, an excellent introduction and descriptive annotations to the text.

Muir's first Alaska letter was written from Wrangell, then "a rough place" and the staging area for mining in the Stikine River area. A temporary journalist, Muir dutifully described the excitment of mining, even though he preferred to focus on nature: "The forests and the glaciers are the glory of Alaska."

Of a glacial valley, he wrote of a "broad, continuous ice sheet." Of the rainforest, he wrote of "dense trees that never suffer thirst.... never have been wasted by fire ... and have never been touched by the ax of a lumberman."

Any traveler could report on scenery, Indians, misssionaries and the mining excitement that had been extended from Wrangell to Juneau, but Muir propounded lessons from glacial and forest scenes. Drawing on visions stimulated by the mountains of California, he urged readers to experience the ultimate adventure - a journey of the spirit inspired by the wilderness.

In Alaska, Muir traveled with Indians and missionaries and seems to have had little patience for the interests of the latter - though he was pleased when the clergy was stimulated by nature's glory, as when he and his fellow travellers navigated Wrangell Channel amidst forested mountains.

"Forgotten now," Muir noted, "were the souls of the Chilkats and the whole system of seminary and pulpit theology, while the word of God was being read in those majestic hierogrlyphics blazed along the edge of the sky. The earnest, childish wonderment with which this glorious page of Nature's book was contemplated was hopeful and reassuring. All evinced a commendable desire to learn it."

Muir was pleased to answer the clergymen's questions about the extent of glaciers and their icy depths because he was the foremost preacher of the "glacial gospel," a religion with no churches save canyon walls and no concern with arid, ancient disputations.

Muir enjoyed chiding his pious companions, reminding them that divinity could be found in a sparkling summer day like that on whch they voyaged.

"There was plenty of free religion in the air, and about the islands amid which we now traced our way, and in the chaste seawater and dancing spangles. Sermons, too, in the glacier boulders on the beach where we landed, and how impressive was the ceremony of the baptism of the landscpae in the drenching sun flood that day."

Muir was more impressed by Alaska's Indians than those he encountered in California and was concerned about their future. As little as he liked missionaries, he hoped their influence would protect Indians from more rapacious whites. He had no expectation that government would protect Natives.

Muir's observations on Alaska, also formulated in the posthumous publication of his book, "Travels in Alaska," announced a new chapter in Alaska's history. He did not denounce the mining development, but called attention to values that transcend the economic. Increasingly, Americans who have learned from Henry Thoreau, Muir and their successors have come to question some kinds of resource exploitation.

This book is a good start toward understandng Muir's contribution.

A book jacket summary of this book is available.

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