The last earthly home of the mystic-naturalist John Muir was a 14-bedroom Victorian mansion on the fringes of Martinez, California. Before that Muir’s home had been the wilds of America, days spent roaming the peaks and valleys of the West. But in 1878, when Muir turned 40, his friends urged him to leave the mountain life and rejoin civilization. “John Muir! The great prophet of the American wilderness!” they would say at dinner parties and in print, and then remind Muir in private that his way of living was impossible.

By all accounts, John Muir became a good husband and a good father after he came down from the mountain. He wrote books about his experiences in the wild, and tended the enormous fruit ranch that belonged to his father-in-law. Every so often, Muir’s wife would find him gazing into the air. She would send him off for a mountain… More…

 

Given the state of the natural world right now, it’s hard to get through a book of nature writing without getting depressed. It’s not about documenting these trees, this stream, that coastline. It’s these disappearing trees, this dying stream, that polluted coastline. The most optimistic nature writing in the last several years was Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, which assured humans that once we are wiped out by the plague or manage to kill off one another, the world will restore its balance. The damage is not permanent, as long as we disappear one way or another.

This state of the world is reflected in the title of Jonathan Rosen’s The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature. Rosen writes, “Birds bring news of this [man-diminished world] like nothing else — they are like… More…