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The father of our national parks saw divinity at work in plants large and small.

John Muir is remembered for his grand vision of wilderness preservation that gave Americans such magnificent national parks as Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. But the Sierra Club founder was also enamored of nature’s smallest details, seeing in each veined leaf and delicate bloom the mysteries of all creation. “When I first entered the woods and stood among the beautiful flowers and trees of God’s own garden,” Muir wrote to his sister in 1866, “I could not help shedding tears of joy.”

Muir collected thousands of botanical specimens during his treks through America’s wildest natural places, and he wondered at flora’s perfection: how it adapted to its surroundings, how it held within itself the blueprint for rebirth. It was, according to Bonnie Gisel and Stephen Joseph’s new study of Muir the botanist, Nature’s Beloved Son (Heyday), an affirmation of life.

The images of the specimens, beautifully—and tastefully—enhanced by photographer Joseph, reflect the glory Muir must have seen in the plants when he plucked them from the wild more than a century ago. Today, with renewed interest in restoring native landscapes, Muir’s botanicals are a timely reminder of nature’s original plan.


Originally published in the February 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.