Gift books: John Muir's green legacy

As a new Administration rings in a new green era, it befits us to remember John Muir, without whom we'd have precious little Nature left. But first, a little holiday rant:  Yes, Kindle e-books have sold out, but you can still have gorgeous illustrated volumes you'd never read in e-form, anyway. The New York Times has run its list of books  "worth buying a coffee table for." Here's Plenty's green-minded short list of titles from that endangered species, independent publishers (five conglomerates in the U.S. control 80% of book sales.)

*A peak experience:  Forget that  "Jeremiah Johnson" DVD and buy your mountain man or woman Above All:  Mount Whitney & California's Highest Peaks,(Heyday Books, $35), with stunning landscape photographs by David Stark Wilson, text by Steve Roper and a foreword by Ken Brower, a son of David Brower, first executive director of the Sierra Club and the subject of John McPhee's  Encounters with the Archdruid. In the Sierra, per Brower, a tent is for sissies. Hang a tarp, baby! Or let this book loft you to the 15 peaks higher than 14,000 feet in California's Range of Light .

The panoramas are mostly of the moonscape above the treeline, where the horizon draws a long prism, as if seen from an airplane. Jagged red and ochre peaks lean back out of glacier-scooped valleys. There are long lakes like fjords, round lakes like black thumbprints, a high green meadow under cloudless skies, fields of purple lupine or dry red grass, and no signs of human habitation in all that vast space. "The many places, resembles rows of crocodile teeth," Roper writes of "these 15 sky-bending mountains" whose names include Shasta, Whitney, and, of course, Muir.

*The beauty of small things: Muir, the Glasgow immigrant who hiked the length and breadth of the Sierra and co-founded the Sierra cCub, stopped off at many places before he found his true love, Yosemite. About the Wisconsin Dells, he wrote:  "The wallls are fringed and painted most divinely with the bright green polypodium and asplenium and allisum and mosses and liverworts and gray lichens and here and there a clump of flowers and little bushes...," this from another new Heyday book, Nature's Beloved Son: Rediscovering John Muir's Botanical Legacy ($45), by Bonnie J. Gisel with images by Stephen J. Joseph and a foreword by David Raines Wallace. An elegant sort of bio-scrapbook, it contains writings from Muir's nature diaries, lists and charts of flora and fauna; sketches (he could draw a glacier on a postcard), pressed plant specimens, photographs of Muir and his favorite haunts, and an illustrated, annotated gallery of plants such as the common thistle, maidenhair fern, purple-headed "Muir's Fleabane," and his beloved sequoias, "Greatest of trees, greatest of living things." Gisel's description of Muir out for a walk, stuffing his pockets with plants, is especially endearing.

*The man in full A Passion for Nature:  the Life of John Muir (Oxford University Press, $34.95), is the first comprehensive biography of Muir in 60 yrs, written by Donald Worster, a professor at the University of Kansas who launched the study of environmental history in the 1970s. Worster, appropriately, brings us Muir as one of the first environmental journalists, who in the course of writing his magazine series, "Studies in the Sierra," learned that "his method of opening others' eyes must be through scientific exploration and scientific explanation."  Then there was the fun part: "As part of that mission he went out to climb several of the highest peaks in the state..."  Worster brings to life Muir's relationships with mentors, patrons, lovers, children and friends, the latter including Teddy Roosevelt and Ralph Waldo Emerson. When we're asked to see the mountains through Muir's eyes--"His gaze swept from the fine scratching and polishing of rock surfaces by slow-moving ice to the piling up of long terminal and lateral moraines of glacial till to the carving of valleys, ridges, lake basins, and the whole jagged skyline of the Sierra"--we could be looking at  the photos in Above All. Thanks to Muir, the peaks are still there for us, unspoiled. After perusing these books, you'll want to lace on your hiking boots and experience them for yourself. 

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