New book explores John Muir's passion for botany

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Naturalist John Muir maintained a legendary devotion to California's Sierra Nevada. A new book explores the lesser-known passion that rooted his love for nature: plants. KPCC's Molly Peterson says Muir cultivated his botanical studies through a Southland connection.

Molly Peterson: John Muir preferred learning in the wild to studying in classrooms. But after he quit college in Wisconsin, he kept up with his former teacher Ezra Carr and Ezra's wife Jeanne. Environmental historian Bonnie Gisel says the Carrs moved in the late 1800s to Pasadena.

Bonnie Gisel: It was pretty rough back then. This was a sun-scorched sheep run area.

Peterson: The Carrs bought a 42-acre property, Carmelita, at the corner of Orange Grove and Colorado Boulevards. Jeanne Carr, an amateur botanist, battled windstorms and coyotes to create her estate.

Gisel: She planted vines around the house that grew quickly and soon engulfed the house in a web of leaves and flowers. The entrance was surrounded with Manzanita masked in roses, and eventually more than 90 varieties of trees and grapes ands strawberries and raspberries were planted.

Peterson: Some took root in Pasadena by John Muir's hands. Jeanne Carr nurtured Muir's love of plant life. His writing blossomed in letters to Carr, like this one about a plant he found in remote Ontario.

John Muir (as read by Euan Kerr): No other bloom was near it, for the bog a short distance below the surface was still frozen, and the water was ice cold. It seemed the most spiritual of all the flower people I had ever met.

It was growing not in the ground but in a bed of yellow moss. It had only one leaf and one flower. The flower was white and made the impression of the utmost purity and chastity. Pure and chaste as snow.

Peterson: Muir stuffed wildflowers in his pockets on hikes, or pressed them between boards. Bonnie Gisel's new book, Nature's Beloved Son, examines Muir's belief that beauty inspires people to contribute more to the world.

Gisel: That beauty for him resided in flowers. And every petal and every seed that he ever saw. And it never changed for him, and it was always new and fresh.

Peterson: The plants Muir collected are not, anymore. Gisel says she found his samples scattered at universities, taped to yellowing paper in private collections, and tucked away in his relatives' attics. Co-author Stephen Joseph scanned those keepsakes and created art from the images.

Gisel: They were covered with glue and tape. Some of them had labels on them, some of them did not. But all of these plants are sort of held in perpetuity in time. That is, they've lost much of their natural color. And now they look like dried parchment paper essentially.

Peterson: It's hard to find any writing of Muir's that doesn't describe trees and plants. When he visited wild places in Alaska and California, his observations gave him new insight into natural links.

Gisel: Many of his plant specimens that he had seen in the High Sierra around Yosemite were similar to the alpine varieties he saw in Alaska. Though they were smaller in stature and oftentimes more flowery than leaf.

Peterson: Drawing on travels, botany, and geology, Muir came to believe that glaciers formed the Sierra Nevada – at a time when more scholarly men believed earthquakes had shaped the range. The samples he picked up, Gisel says, increased what the world knew about plants.

Gisel: This record of their lives helps us to appreciate issues like biodiversity, plant extinction. It helps us to celebrate the way we would like to create some historical gardens.

Peterson: Gisel believes botany gave life to Muir's philosophy.

Gisel: He felt like when you picked up one part in the universe it was connected to everything else. For Muir plants are, as they should be for all of us, the essential building blocks of life. Without plants we would not be here.

Peterson: Gisel believes, as Muir did, that people should be aware of that. Through words and action, she lives her connection to Muir. From mid-April to October each year, she occupies a tent in Yosemite – a place John Muir called a greater temple than any made by human hands.