The Boston Book Review, July/August 1999
Ye banks and braes
The Young John Muir:
An Environmental Biography
Steven J. Holmes
University of Wisconsin
336 pp. $55
suspicion is that Steven J. Holmes isn't the sort of traveler to pack lightly.
If he were to go for a hike, let's say, I imagine him bringing along oodles
of gear, all spanking new. There might be some fantastic Jules Verne-like
contraption, carried by ten boy scouts and requiring a mastery of Sanskrit,
allowing the traveler to know if he is facing up his mountain or down. Another
contraption, still in beta testing, would indicate if one were standing on
solid ground or in a puddle. And the flags! Dear God, Edmund Hillary never
dreamt of so many flags. But then, Hillary wasn't nearly so ambitious as the
In fact, there is nothing to do but tag along, if only to see what all this
equipment can do. To break the ice I ask Holmes what he means by "environmental
biography." This elicits a chuckle. "To my knowledge," he replies,
"no one has proposed a coherent framework for understanding the personal,
psychological, and spiritual dimensions of a concrete individual's experience
of a specific environment over time."
My heart sinks. Could Holmes have that dreaded malady known as 'triplets,'
whose victims speak in groups of three? A fiendish illness, as what seems
to be a desire for precision is in fact a terror of the very same. I hold
out hope that Holmes has been spared but soon he is telling me of "a
living, breathing, growing human being" and I know I am face to face
with the worst case of triplets I've yet encountered.
My heart still sinking, I confront the next crisis. What is a "concrete
individual?" Is this what we are in search of? I fear the worst. Holmes
explains that previous explorers have been all very good in their own way
but none have properly appreciated the role that environments play in the
"personal, psychological, and spiritual" life of a 'concrete individual.'"
Holmes has been reading a new philosopher by name of Searles--in fact, I suspect
it was Searles who sent Holmes into the mountains in the first place--and
Searles is involved in something called "object relations theory."
Perhaps the following piece will suggest the whole:
Object relations theorists have explored the importance of the child's
earliest relationship with the mother--but have also acknowledge that the
mother's influence is mediated, shaped and augmented by a whole range of
relationships with other persons, symbols, and objects such as toys, each
with its own special place and meaning in the child's (and, later, the adult's)
psychic world. In understanding environmental experience, however, the scope
of object relations theory must be expanded to include relations with one's
total environmentwith natural beings and processes, with the built
environment, and even with the beings and forces of the supernatural or
religious realmsas well as with other human, persons and creations.
I'm in a whirl. My only question is this: How did Holmes' predecessors manage?
Clueless to the importance of environments, to say nothing of Searles and
his "object relations," nor any of the other theories Holmes has
packed for his trip, such biographical explorers as Edel and Ellmann, even
the glorious Boswell, managed well enough. Their achievements now seem as
miraculous as pyramids. No, we've solved that one. Stonehenge, then.
Exhausted, I ask Holmes if we might rest, and he agrees. To calm my nerves
I slip from my pocket some light reading that I was fortunate enough to have
brought along--John Muir, as it happens, the American environmentalist. I
ask Holmes if he has ever read any Muir. He smiles oddly. No matter. I read
a few sentences and soon am transported. It is so easy to fall in love with
John Muir. All one has to do is spend a few hours with his slim book, "The
Story of My Boyhood and Youth." In simple, flowing prose-American
prose, I would say-Muir describes his childhood in Dunbar, Scotland,
his explorations of coasts and coastlines, the mysteries of frogs and swimming.
I confess I was so caught up in the last pages, when the young Muir leaves
the University of Wisconsin for "the university of the wilderness,"
that I was weeping like a fool. I am tempted to read passages aloud to Holmes,
but he is reading Searles, and I am reluctant to disturb him.
I never did ask Holmes if he was an academic or a lawyer. It's becoming so
hard to tell. Their language is strikingly similar, and Holmes' impulse to
drag in the names of his colleagues made me imagine he was afraid of lawsuits.
Further, the man can't take a step without throwing down a footnote, and though
he charmingly suggests this practice gives us two paths to follow, one simple
and straight, the other more detailed, in fact the going is slow on both fronts.
Further, I was tempted to point out the irony of Holmes attempting an "environmental
biography" without much interest in environments. I resist.
But I must speak out on one subject. Yes, I do applaud Holmes' pluck, and
stand in awe of his flags and contraptions. But he should put away whatever
flag he would stick into the ground on behalf of the "environmental biography."
Mr. Muir has long since claimed this land. His love of this nation's lakes
and mountains, her flowers and trees, is so eloquent that it will resist all
but the finest touch.
All in all, an exhausting outing. I tell Holmes that we must part. He is
blithe. As I stuff my treasured volumes of Muir back into my pockets, Holmes
tells me of yet another contraption due to arrive any day. I ask what this
will do, and am told it is a granite block that has been ingeniously carved
to roll. For an instant I'm tempted to stay--I would like to settle the question
of whether he is a lawyer or an academic---but finally I decide the latest
contraptions are not for me, and off I go.