Standing on the summit of Washington’s Mount Rainier, on August 14, 1888, fifty-year-old John Muir suggested that his enthusiasms for nature had run amok. “I didn’t mean to climb it,” he wrote Louie, “but got excited and soon was on top.”
That was his wry humor at work: climbing a 14,410-foot peak that had been summited only a few times previously required great planning. Comparing it to the other Northwest volcanoes—Mounts Baker, St. Helens, and Hood—Muir once wrote that Rainier “surpasses them all in height and massive grandeur—the most majestic solitary mountain I have ever yet beheld.”
Muir in 1888 had a contract with a publisher to compile a serialized, illustrated book on nature’s beauty. It offered him an excuse to travel: from Martinez in the Alhambra Valley, he headed north with his closest friend, painter William Keith. Muir and Keith were both Scotsmen born in 1838, devoted to each other, and constantly sparring. “Those who know them best are convinced that the tie that binds their hearts together is the difference between their similarities,” the San Francisco Call later wrote. “Mr. Muir is convinced in his heart of hearts that Mr. Keith cannot paint a true picture and Keith is sure Muir is all wrong in his glacial theories.” The newspaper quoted Muir confronting Keith: “Why in the deuce don’t you imitate nature? You’ll never paint a decent picture till you can do that.” On this trip, they visited California’s Lake Tahoe and Mount Shasta, Oregon’s Columbia River, and Washington’s Puget Sound. In Seattle, Muir assembled a team of nine mountaineers and arranged for a guide who had ascended Rainier once before.
Muir had a genius for combining recreation and work, spirituality and science. Clearly this trip was great fun, a vacation from his orchard and family obligations. Yet it was also work, research to be written up to fulfill a publishing contract. As always for Muir, his work proselytized for nature, encouraging people to gain a deeper, more spiritual relationship with the natural world. And yet his path to that spiritual fulfillment involved intense scientific observation of unusual snowfields and plants, both of which were abundant on Rainier’s little-explored high slopes.
The plants led to a note in Garden and Forest magazine, which called Muir a “well-known student of the Cordilleran glaciers.”30 The magazine, which was founded in that same year of 1888, was the brainchild of eminent horticulturalist Charles Sprague Sargent, who knew so much about trees that he was compiling a fourteen-volume encyclopedia, Silva of North America.
Sargent directed Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum, an outdoor museum of plantings designed for botanical research. Although Sargent’s interest was strictly scientific, the Arboretum, in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, was also part of Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace of Boston city parks. As a human-designed space, with plants manipulated to serve human needs, an arboretum resembled a private garden. However, Sargent also wanted to learn about plants in their natural settings. That’s why he used part of his family fortune to start Garden and Forest: to contextualize the Arboretum’s botanical research with field reports.
Sargent was a chilly man, heavyset and imperious, bearded, with a strong chin and nose. As a Harvard student he’d been undistinguished—eighty-eighth in a class of ninety, and without any study of botany—but when he got the opportunity to run the Arboretum, he succeeded through single-minded determination. Sargent spent most of his waking hours either studying plants or reading and writing about them. He was the sort of long-term strategist who negotiated a thousand-year lease between Harvard and the city—with an option to renew for another thousand years. He was well-bred, with a quiet charm, but his Boston Brahmin reserve meant that he preferred scholarship to people. As an heir to a banking fortune, he was economically conservative, generally opposed to government overextension. But he saw forests in crisis. He worried that as America eradicated its forests, it was dooming unusual plants to extinction. Thus Sargent and his magazine advocated for strict restrictions on forest development. Without government interference, he once wrote, “I don’t see how our mountain forests can be saved from entire extermination.” For five years now he had been urging the federal government to establish “forest reserves” in ecologically valuable places such as Mount Rainier. At the moment, Rainier was still open to homesteading; Muir encountered settlers cutting and burning the forest to provide meadows for their cows.
Muir and Sargent were natural allies, given their formidable intellects and shared passion for plants. Indeed, after they met in person in 1893, they proved to be good friends, even traveling together for large parts of a round-the-world tour in 1903–04. But their outlooks and temperaments differed violently: Muir tattered and unpretentious, Sargent ponderous and formal; Muir enthusiastic and spiritual, Sargent reserved and pedantic. From Sargent’s wealthy youth overseeing luxurious gardens, he had learned that people could improve on the randomness of nature; Muir’s poor youth toiling on a homestead caused him to revere nature without man’s input. When traveling, Sargent marched, seeing only trees and plants; Muir wandered, investigated, and lingered, seeing God. Approaching nature, Sargent the scholar sought knowledge, classification, and control; Muir the prophet sought opportunities for spiritual wonder. They personified societal rivalries in approaches to nature—although theirs was not the only rivalry in the small community of nature lovers.