Seeds of Change: The John Muir Exhibit At the Ontario Museum Offers Us a Way Forward

Lower Yosemite Fall in Yosemite National Park.
Lower Yosemite Fall in Yosemite National Park. | Photo: Stuart Barr/Flickr/Creative Commons License

John Muir worked on a large canvas. He loved tall mountains and big places. His adoration of the Sierra Nevada knew no bounds; just as unfettered was his advocacy for the preservation of majestic valleys, soaring sequoias, and thick slabs of ice and rock. A tireless promoter of nature with a capital N, the grand was this garrulous man's muse.

His fascination with glaciers and their frigid force seems consistent with this outsized vision. Until, that is, you read Muir's response to Alaska's once-vast Davidson icesheet: "The mills of God ground slowly but exceedingly fine." What seemed so massive in scope was in fact best observed in its residue of pebbles and sand. Grit mattered enormously.

That's the essential theme of "Nature's Beloved Son: Rediscovering John Muir's Botanical Legacy," a new exhibit at the Ontario Museum of History and Art which runs until January 12 (relatedly, on Thursday, January 9, at 7:00 p.m., I will host at the museum a screening of the documentary, John Muir in the New World, with discussion to follow).

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It is well worth immersing yourself in the exhibit's remarkable displays of the great naturalist's botanizing around the globe. Jostling for space in the small traveling show are some of the many plants he plucked and pressed and which are given vivid display courtesy of photographer Stephen J. Joseph's brilliant, high-resolution images.

Wild Ginger. | Photo: Courtesy Stephen J. Joseph
Wild Ginger. | Photo: Courtesy Stephen J. Joseph

Laid out as well are Muir's field notes and journal entries that detail what he saw, where he saw it, and what he thought about while wading through fetid swamps or cold streams, scrambling on hands and knees across a flowery alpine meadow, or shinnying up a resin-sticky pine.

Historian Bonnie J. Gisel sets Muir's thoughts and acts in context, and in doing so demonstrates a passion for detail that rivaled her subject's: Before she curated "Nature's Beloved Son," and wrote the eponymous companion book, Gisel tracked down seemingly every specimen the indefatigable Muir sent to countless family, friends, and museums.

Perhaps his eye was acute because its focus was on the minute. "I seek to spell out by close inspection things not well understood" -- Muir's words, emblazoned on a rectangular banner, draws you into the exhibit, and as we peer over his shoulder while he paused before bush, tree, and grass, seed and bud, you begin to understand why he concluded that the "most microscopic portions of plants are beautiful in themselves."

This quest for beauty in the overlooked shaped how Muir described these more humble elements of the natural world. In August 1872, high up in the Tuolumne Divide, he carefully uprooted a small clump of what he later determined was Bent Grass (Agrostis exarata). "I think this is Agrostis," he scribbled. "I do not know the species [and] have not means just now of knowing."

However careful he was about not speculating before the fact, Muir did not hesitate to exult in the plant's "tall, unbranched, strong" features, to gush that its "panicle of purple flowers, arches and waves above the low velvet sod like tropical bamboos."

His giddy prose notwithstanding, Muir was not blind to the vital connections between individual plants and their ecological niches. After collecting a California polypod in 1875, he noted ts precise placement: in a "delightful nook, or recess, running back of the foot of Yosemite fall about a hundred yards on the west side, its walls well fringed with maidenhair and piraea and tufts of live oak. Near the fall is a ledge thickly fronded with Polypodium [californicum]." Plants live in community.

Bleeding heart. | Photo: Courtesy Stephen J. Joseph
Bleeding heart. | Photo: Courtesy Stephen J. Joseph

As Muir communed with them, his imagination soared. He spotted flowers large, petite, and delicate. Blooms clustered and singular. Stalks thin or robust, leaves slender, broad, or crimped. Yet whatever their size or shape, he never failed to embrace their aesthetic qualities and biological utility: "Were not all plants beautiful. Or in some way useful?" Even those with thorns and burrs gained a hearing. So he averred when he chanced upon the common thistle: "Would not the world suffer by the banishment of a single weed?"

Suburbanites might balk at such an inclusive claim. Living as so many of us do in a landscape made monocultural, a green-grass terrain that by design, and with the aid of fertilizers, herbicides, and roaring mowers, beats back the natural and diverse, it is hard to replicate Muir's sharp sense of color, form, and smell. Were we to follow his 1868 hike through Twenty Hill Hollow near Snelling, California, would it nurture the same biota he spotted along the way? Would our noses be as attuned as his to a ground that "steamed with fragrance"?

Probably not. But then that may be the point of "Nature's Beloved Son," to jolt us out of our ready acceptance of a world we have made bland, uniform, monochromatic. To suggest that there is another way to see and feel.

If this compelling exhibit propels us into action on behalf of the vibrant, say, by digging up our yards, cutting out the invasives and exotics, and replacing them with indigenous plants adapted to local soils and microclimates, we might in a small way undergo the kind of transformation Muir seemed to experience every time he bent over to collect whatever caught his eye and then carried the specimens home in pocket or pouch.

These botanical treasures speak still, Gisel writes, for they "draw us closer to the world [Muir] knew, where we find the purity of which he spoke and the God-given grace and sympathy in which he believed."

We could do a lot worse than to follow his divine lead.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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