Course: John Muir's Backpack

HC 421H

Professor: Barbara Mossberg

Scientist or Poet? John Muir’s death certificate lists his occupation as Geologist. He was known worldwide as a botanist. He stands a mountaineer in the California quarter. He is legendary in first ascents lore. First president of the Sierra Club, he is credited as grandfather of the national parks who wrote the Game Book on environmental advocacy.

John Muir is associated with dozens of environmental laws, court cases, and public policy decisions that still are headline news. Yet his fame came and endures as a writer. His writings have inspired civic leadership and activism of presidents and Congress, business and civic communities, journalists and artists, scholars and scientists. Our course investigates John Muir as a writer in his own right. We will meet him on his own terrain, his M.O. for engaging his world, the backpack he shouldered when he set off on his lifelong sojourn beginning with his epic thousand-mile walk. We explore his backpack’s contents as a clue to how he inspired a nation to value, preserve, and protect wilderness.

“Drilling down” into the bedrock of his abilities to interpret the natural world, we examine his journals and the books he carried literally and in his mind (many memorized), from Homer, Shakespeare, and the Bible, to Milton, Romantics, Emerson, Thoreau, and Bobby Burns. We will tramp with a celebrity “outsider,” who read nature as a classic text. We will saunter with John Muir as an excited and exciting writer, whose reading shaped and formed his iconic art and science of experiencing the world. We will explore how reading a poem may be intrinsic to how a scientist discovers, interprets—and expresses-- reality.