Book Review: Travels In Alaska by John Muir

A little like Nan Shepherd’s classic ‘The Living Mountain’, John Muir’s ‘Travels in Alaska’ is truly a meditation on nature. Rarely has nature been written about with fervour and purity as it is here: this book catches a man’s wonderment at the natural world.As Muir travels a country less sullied than the world we live in, he encounters countless mountains, rivers, peoples and glaciers that capture his imagination. This is particularly the case with glaciers, they seem to possess him and call to him throughout his writing, their raw beauty and power and the tracks of their moraines are an endless source of fascination to him. Indeed so regularly does he meditate on them and bring them to life that the reader is left wondering of their current state of existence amid this bleak Anthropocene in which we are living. It would interesting challenge for a modern day explorer to travel the same routes and report their findings and how numerous those glaciers are today.Muir was a man of faith and this shines through at various points of the book. He glorifies God’s name in creating the many wonders that he uncovers. On his travels Muir is regularly in contact with various tribes of indigenous peoples across Alaska and he is often accompanied by ministers looking to evangelise native peoples and turn them to the ‘true faith’. With hindsight these sections, while interesting, are sometimes a little uncomfortable to read as it often meant the erosion of indigenous cultures.Muir’s prose typically flows very well and is naturally descriptive. His joy at what he finds across Alaska often leaps off the page so clear are his descriptions, the images are often colourful and rich, panoramic in scope. His descriptiveness is both a strength and weakness. Muir had a tendency to sometimes list all that he saw and short of having doctorate in flora it is difficult to visualise and enjoy the numerous plants often mentioned. What does hit the reader when wading through the lists of flora growing on Alaskan mountainsides is just how varied and numerous the flowers and plants were, again begging the question of what our mountains in the UK today could look like if they weren’t used so extensively for grazing, and if some braver form of rewilding were reintroduced in the British Isles.This is a book different to many that I have read, both eye opening and enjoyable for it. The style of the writing and essentially the constant exploration across a landscape can at times be a little repetitive but this is easily overcome by Muir’s pure joy at what he sees around every corner. I very much enjoyed reading it, usually around a chapter a day – treating the book very much as a retreat into nature that, in small chunks, was both enthralling and inspiring.

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