A Preservationist in the Gilded Age: John Muir's Love for Glaciers in Alaska

John Muir explored Alaska during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. During those years he discovered many secrets of the glaciers in Alaska.

John Muir Postage

John Muir, who took seven trips to Alaska during the second half of his life, became one of nineteenth-century America’s main symbols in the fight against irresponsible industry.

Photo by Fotolia/Lefteris Papaulakis

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In 1879, as the rest of America was becoming more and more concerned with capital gain and economic expansion, John Muir, a glacial geologist, preservationist and explorer of Alaska challenged the direction that America was headed. In John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire (Lyons Press, 2014), author Kim Heacox recounts how Muir influenced others’ views of America and the world during the nineteenth century. This excerpt, which discusses Muir’s ideologies and travelling experiences with S. Hall Young and the Tlingit Indians through Glacier Bay, is from the Prologue, “The Gospel of Glaciers.”

Travelling With John Muir

Was it madness?

A death wish of some kind?

The five Tlingit Indians said little as they glanced at the quiet missionary sitting among them and stabbed the sea with each stroke, paddling their cedar canoe northwest into iceberg-filled waters where no man dared to go this time of year. No man, unless he was a seal hunter. No man, until this other man came along, their second passenger, the one up front who scribbled notes and nibbled on dry crusts of bread. No hunter at all. More of an observer, charismatic in his own way, a good listener, a real talker, this scrappy, bearded Muir, his blue-gray eyes drinking up the country. Half wise elder, half wondrous child, he seemed interested in everything.

Shouldn’t somebody say something? Insist on turning around? They could all die, be overturned and drowned by Kushtaka, the trickster land otter man of Tlingit legend. Or, if they continued on, they might receive mercy from Gunakadeit, a benevolent sea monster.

Onward, Muir compelled them. Onward to the glaciers, he would say. Never mind the wind or rain or ice or cold.

Searching for Glaciers in Alaska

A dour sky pressed down. Rain occasionally lashed them. Pieces of floating ice, calved from tidewater glaciers up ahead, tapped an ancient, forgotten language against the canoe. Ice everywhere, and little sign of life in a land that was once rich in salmon, berries, forests, and firewood. Most of that is gone now, the land’s richness and bounty having been destroyed by an advancing glacier that evicted the Tlingits and entombed the bay for many generations, in some places swallowing entire mountains. Only recently had the glacier begun a dramatic retreat, unveiling a vast, raw, woodless, ice-chafed land in somber shades of gray. A foreboding place.

Summer was over. It was yeis, autumn time, the month Americans called October. Soon it would snow, and the cold, carved moon would turn brittle in the tangle of winter stars. The glaciers would grow still under deep blankets of snow, and darkness would strike all moisture from the air; stillness would pound the land silent, and stretch all the way to the Arctic.

John Muir was forty-one that autumn, engaged to be married the next spring to the only daughter of a prosperous California fruit merchant. With her reluctant blessing—“do not be vexed with me,” she wrote him—he had come to Alaska to see glaciers firsthand, to find out how they worked and shaped the land, how they carved rock and moved mountains. All to help buttress his theory that glaciers, not catastrophic down-faulting, had shaped his beloved Yosemite Valley and much of the Sierra Nevada, the mountains Muir called “the Range of Light.”

While Muir often rode in the front of the canoe, the other white man, S. Hall Young, a Presbyterian missionary, rode farther back. If anybody were to argue for turning around and getting them out of there, it would not be Young. In Muir’s company he was a follower. Young had met the effervescent California naturalist more than three months before, in early July, in Fort Wrangell, some two hundred miles by water to the south; he saw in Muir a man to be admired, not questioned. It would be up to Toyatte, the Tlingit chief and captain of the thirty-five-foot canoe, to bring this adventure to an end. But Toyatte might have seen in Muir the same thing Young saw.

They pushed on.

Camped that night on the west side of what we know today as Glacier Bay, near Charpentier Inlet, with Muir off somewhere climbing a mountain by himself, the Tlingits huddled around a wet, smoky campfire and confided in Reverend Young: This Muir must be a witch of some kind, a nakws’aati, to be so crazy happy in this lean, hard country. Why does he climb mountains in such miserable weather?

“To seek knowledge,” Young told them.

A Preservationist in Mark Twain’s Gilded Age

The year was 1879.

Across the continent, and in western Europe, industrious men went about the exciting business of progress. For ten years, a railroad had spanned the young United States from Boston to San Francisco, and every year more tracks spidered their way over mountains, deserts, and plains, “obliterating great distances,” said one historian, to make the land safe for commerce and cows. No task was too great, no vision too absurd. Thomas Edison invented the incandescent lightbulb to make cities shine at night; Andrew Carnegie introduced the open-hearth blast furnace to mass-produce American steel. The first canned fruits and meats would soon appear, along with the world’s first electrostatic generator. Out west, camps became forts, forts became towns, towns became cities, and cities grew. Custer and his men had been massacred only three years earlier, and quickly avenged.

America must be harnessed and put to work, people said. Natural “capital” must be turned into consumable products. Materialist expansion must sweep away misery and social inequality and put us on the road to universal abundance. It was the right thing to do, our destiny, written in books, newspapers, the Bible, and the stars. To argue against such improvements was a fool’s errand.

Yet the great American novelist and Muir contemporary Mark Twain was beginning to do just that. An eloquent gadfly on the sticky paper of progress, he would be Muir’s soul brother in more ways than one, noting that Shakespeare created King Lear’s fool for a reason: to express a wisdom others did not.

Twain and Muir, only three years apart in age, would both live three-fourths of a century. In that time, from their births in the 1830s until their deaths in the second decade of the 1900s, America would transform itself from an agrarian democracy into an industrial oligarchy that brought with it feasts of conspicuous consumption—an era that Twain called the “Gilded Age.” He further used a term not unfamiliar to Muir: “citified,” an epithet, Twain noted, “which suggests the absence of all spirituality, and the presence of all kinds of paltry materialisms, and mean ideals, and mean vanities and silly cynicisms.”

Alaska would be to John Muir what the Mississippi River was to Mark Twain, or the mountains of Assisi, in central Italy, had been to Saint Francis. It would be his wildest dream, a place of healing distances and deep silence and blessed meditation. While California was Muir’s home, Alaska would be his hope, his escape, incomprehensible in its beauty, vastness, and unforgiving ruggedness.

Just the way he liked it.

Over the next twenty years, until the eve of the twentieth century, Muir would make seven journeys to Alaska. In that time he would evolve from a self-taught naturalist, glaciologist, and ecologist into a best-selling author and unapologetic preservationist, America’s preeminent fang in the fight against irresponsible industry and runaway development.

“Nothing dollarable is safe,” he would say. Alaska inspired him to battle the universal conceit that nature was here for us to use as we please.


This excerpt has been reprinted with the permission of John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire, by Kim Heacox and published by Lyons Press, 2014.