It seems only natural that Kim Heacox would write a book about John Muir. In a previous volume, The Only Kayak, Muir figures prominently but takes something of a back seat to Kim’s close circle of friends in and around Glacier Bay and his deeply meaningful relationship with the late Michio Hoshino. Still, the author’s admiration for Muir is clear, as is his storyteller’s delight in describing how Muir coaxed the little dog, Stickeen, across an ice bridge.
Nine years on, he has written what will surely be a lasting and influential biography, titled John Muir and the Ice that Started a Fire (Lyons Press 2014). The book works just fine as an account of Muir’s life, the broad outlines of which are probably known to most people reading this blog. But its special contribution is interweaving Muir’s story with his passion for glaciers, which inspired and sustained his activism, which in turn ignited the fire of the conservation movement in America. This is history, to be sure, but it is history with a razor-sharp relevance to the fight for conservation today.
Kim writes that “One should never upstage a glacier,” and he is careful not to do so. By letting the ice speak for itself, Kim is able to remain largely in the background as a neutral narrator. He draws the reader along with his graceful prose, letting the story of Muir and the glaciers sweep in a massive amount of historical and natural information, from the seminal battle over the Hetch Hetchy dam to the climatic effects of the earth's axial wobble to the distinctly American culture of the expanding frontier. The information goes down smoothly, but flows with the inexorable power of glacial ice.
As a biographer, Kim is erudite in the best senses of the word, meaning well and widely read, and handy with facts, but not pedantic or scholarly. His mind roams at will among philosophers (Hume, Rousseau), scientists (Darwin, Agassiz, Arrhenius), politicians (Roosevelt, Taft), writers (Thoreau, Emerson, Twain), historians (Nash, Brinkley), and – well, you get the idea. But the writing is always at ease, never interrupting the flow of Muir’s compelling story and his love of the glaciers, including the one bearing his name.
The American Antiquities Act comes up in the context of Teddy Roosevelt's first use of national monuments for conservation. "In the decades ahead," Kim observes, "other presidents would invoke the Antiquities Act to safeguard spectacular amounts of wild acreage, most notably in Alaska." I have to pause here to note that about a week ago the House of Representatives passed a partisan bill that would severely undermine the Antiquities Act by adding various bureaucratic hurdles to national monument designations. One can only assume, and hope, that this bill will find a quiet demise in the Senate, where it is unlikely to come to a vote.
The narrator peeks out from behind the curtain a few times in the body of the book, but steps right out on stage in the brief chapters following Muir’s death. This is the Kim Heacox who wrote The Only Kayak: committed, inspirational and poetic. He is an uncompromising, never-surrender activist, observing that “Saving the natural world and finding our rightful place in it can be a nasty business.” In these sections, he breaks out in full infectious cry, revealing himself to be as passionate and prophetic about wilderness as Muir ever was.
John Muir and the Ice that Started a Fire was officially released on April Fool’s Day, but there is nothing remotely foolish about it. The book is an important history and, more so, a contemporary call to action to continue the movement that Muir started.
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