Nature’s Beloved Son

THE HABIT OF pressing plants began early for John Muir. He collected them for pleasure; he collected them to add to his store of knowledge. Muir’s plant press was a close companion on all his travels — his drawings show him sleeping with the press nearby, or swimming rivers holding it above his head.

A beautifully produced book, Nature’s Beloved Son is a treat both for Muir-lovers and plant people. Through stunning digital photographs of the botanical specimens collected by Muir during a lifetime of wandering, the authors tell the tale of Muir’s travels in Wisconsin, Canada, Indiana, Florida, Cuba, and elsewhere, ending with major chapters on California and Alaska. The text, by naturalist Bonnie Gisel, clearly the result of massive research, hits the highlights of Muir’s life, beginning with his early aptitude for mechanical invention (including an alarm clock that tilted him out of bed in the morning). He was pulled into the natural world by an irresistible force, which expressed itself first through the plant world. In this he reminds us of Henry David Thoreau, whose last and most major study included hundreds of pages of closely observed descriptions of the lives of the plants around him.

The word specimen doesn’t adequately convey the feel of these gorgeous plates by photographer Stephen J. Joseph. Each is elegantly rearranged on the page, caught in its moment of life, and a powerful connective zap moves from Muir to us through these photos of the plants he encountered, described, and collected. Joseph’s digital reworking of the often frayed and broken specimens required from three to twenty hours for each plant. Among the most stunning plates are those reflecting Muir’s love of ferns, whose intricate spore patterns seem to jump off the page. Joseph says, “I never tired of the thought that John Muir picked and preserved each plant.”

Nor does specimen convey the reverence felt during the “botanical moment,” the meeting in time and space of plant and collector, as well as the faith in the future required to put oneself in the way of these plants at their moment of flowering, to gather, dry, press, identify, label, and convey them to a safe, moisture-free, rodent-proof place — there to wait for viewing. Muir entrusted his plants to friends and family (“Now do take the extremest care of my specimens,” he exhorts his siblings), and herbaria to Harvard, the Missouri Botanical Garden, and the University of the Pacific, among others. Some spent almost one hundred years in a trunk or attic. They were found through heroic acts of detection and perseverance on the part of author Bonnie Gisel. Some, however, were lost forever.

It’s a gift to be able to scrutinize Muir’s letters, both received and sent, his graceful sketches, his botany textbooks, and almost two hundred of his plant specimens. Nature’s Beloved Son provides opportunity to rest from the fray, get drunk on beauty, and be grateful for a genius of our tribe.