“I never before saw a plant so full of life, so perfectly spiritual. It seemed pure enough for the throne of its Creator. I felt as if I were in the presence of superior beings who loved me and beckoned me to come. I sat down beside them and wept for joy. Could angels in their better land show us a more beautiful plant?” So rhapsodized John Muir about a flower that he observed while rambling in his beloved outdoors. A tireless champion for a wilderness that he believed to be divinely created, spiritually redemptive, and worthy of protection from Gilded Age laissez-faire industrial expansion, Muir saw getting back to the land at least occasionally as balm for “thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people” — a judgment shared by contemporary visitors to the Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks seeking their own “mountain baptism.”
Muir’s humbler love of plants, however, is the focus of Nature’s Beloved Son: Rediscovering John Muir’s Botanical Legacy, a California Exhibition Resources Alliance traveling show debuting in Walnut Creek, not far from Muir’s final home in Martinez (now John Muir National Historic Site). For five years, biographer Bonnie Giesel scoured the herbaria (specimen collections) of botanical gardens, natural history museums, universities, and national parks for specimens that Muir had collected over a fifty-year span — in Canada, Indiana, the American South, California, and Alaska — some still bearing Muir’s handwritten annotations. Nearly 200 of those specimens have been photographically scanned and restored — repairing the damage from fading, breakage, and acid burn — by Pleasant Hill nature photographer Stephen Joseph, so that they now resemble what Muir saw and collected. Twenty-three are on display: the Lady’s Slipper (Ontario, 1864), mentioned above; a Washington Lily and California Polypod (Sierra Nevada, 1875); a Pygmy Buttercup (Siberia, 1881); an Engelmann Spruce (British Columbia, 1879); Sea Oats (Florida, 1898); a Fivespot (Yosemite, 1907). It’s a solitary walker’s family album: “Are not all plants beautiful? Would not the world suffer by the banishment of a single weed?” Also included are blowup photos of Muir’s journal entries, including a sketch of Muir in Florida hiking regalia saluting a cabbage palmetto tree. A beautifully produced catalog is available.
Also on view is a related show entitled Inventoried Range of Light: Explorations on the John Muir Trail. Tony Bellaver spent a month trekking the 211-mile John Muir Trail from Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney, bringing back an “inventory of moments: “spectacular photographs of landscapes and animal life edited into a sumptuous video, insect samples (taken from authorized locations), and journals, both scientific and artistic. Nature’s Beloved Son runs through March 27 at Bedford Art Gallery (1601 Civic Dr, Walnut Creek). 925-295-1417 or BedfordGallery.org