It is the day before the autumn equinox, and my wife and I are descending the steep slope of Dundas Street in Edinburgh, heading for the city's Canonmills district and the botanical garden. My wife begins to say something, but her utterance is consumed by an outburst from an impact wrench. This motorized tool is being used to tighten the nuts on some scaffolding that is being erected in front of the building we are passing.
The jangling rattle shreds my nerves – as it always does. Familiarity has done nothing to lessen the wrench's impact on me; and I have had plenty of chance to grow accustomed to the sound, with all the theft of the sky that has gone on in recent years in the residential streets that surround my home, near London. I know it is possible to find tranquillity in a city. This, in part, is what is drawing my wife and me, on this mild and fair morning, towards the botanical garden. Then again, I know how easily that peace can be shattered, and how quickly one can lose all bearings.
For someone with a particular dislike of jarring noises, it is inconvenient, for instance, to find sanctioned explosions restricting my options for a midday walk in London on my birthday each year (unless it falls on a Sunday, when quiet reigns). If I head towards Hyde Park, then my greeting will be an onslaught of forty-one blasts. Should I instead be tempted by a stroll beside the Thames but stray too near to the Tower of London, that number will rise to sixty-two. Even the land outside the motorway that encircles the capital is not safe. A trip to Windsor Great Park will expose me to twenty-one detonations.
In other words, having a special occasion coincide with that of a ruling monarch comes – for as long as royal gun salutes continue – with its disadvantages. At the same time, if I did not share a birthday with the head of state, then I would not also have one in common with the Father of the National Parks, John Muir. Such are life's checks and balances.
Muir was a prophet of ecological wisdom. He sermonized about our right relations with non-human others and eulogized nature with genuine veneration. And, in my view, there has not been a voice among modern westerners that has surpassed his in importance. Perhaps no quotation better underscores his status as a visionary than the following trifold exclamation: "How narrow we selfish, conceited creatures are in our sympathies! How blind to the rights of all the rest of creation! With what dismal irreverence we speak of our fellow mortals!"
What is remarkable is that these words were written in the 1860s. What is troubling is that, had they instead been penned today, they would still be ahead of their time.
"Have you seen this one about John Muir?"
The question has been posed, in a muted tone, by my wife, who is with me in the rear room of the St Columba's Hospice second-hand bookshop. Here, the wealth of old volumes renders inapposite any sound above a whisper.
Our visit to the shop had been intended as a momentary diversion on our way to the botanical garden. That the pile of books I am clutching has approached double digits in number evidences the naivety of this intention. Part of the problem is that the staff have deviously organized their stock in such a way that makes visitors liable to find just the thing they are after.
Somehow, I had missed the spine on which my wife's right index finger now gently rests. It bears the title On the Trail of John Muir and the name Cherry Good. Setting my stack down on a chair to free my hands, I make a brief study of the book, learning that the author is a wilderness advocate and that she tells Muir's story by visiting some of the most significant places that relate to his life. I gleefully add this to the pile and, not wanting to get greedy, head to the counter.
While an elderly lady behind the till slowly rings up the items, indicating her struggle with technology through periodic exhalations, I make a faux complaint about how dangerous it is for charity shops to arrange their books in such a systematic fashion. The lady peers up at me with a delicate movement of her neck and delivers a reply of delicious wit. She had met my mock blade with her own and disarmed me. (Sadly, I showed my naivety once more by thinking, once I realized that I would be writing this piece, that I would be able to recall her rejoinder without committing it to paper, but more time has passed and it has now slipped right out of my memory.)
Like the author of On the Trail, I have felt an urge to visit important locales from John Muir's life-path and to visit those places that today commemorate him. Accordingly, I am eager to get an overview of Good's itinerary in writing the book. Following our delayed arrival at the entrance gates to the botanical garden, we head first, therefore, in search of a bench. And what we are after, of course, is the quietest spot that we can find. Our hunt is satisfied by a seat in the woodland garden, on the southern edge of the grounds.
Once settled, I open the book. (My wife, meanwhile, studies one of the other purchases, a copy of Cheryl Strayed's Wild.) The early pages of On the Trail present a series of maps of areas in North America and Scotland, each one marked with places of Muir significance. I first examine the street plan of Dunbar, his hometown, and find happy memories resurfacing of my own trip there: the profoundly moving visit to his birthplace museum; the carefully picked path around the same rockpools that enthralled him as a wee bairn; the view out to Bass Rock, which hosts the Earth's largest colony of northern gannets. There was also my short walk to view the spectacular sixteen-foot-tall metal sculpture honouring Muir, on the town's edge. Unofficially known as the DunBear, it symbolizes his travels through the American wild. This does not feature on Good's map of the town, but it would be unfair to call it an omission: the sculpture was unveiled in 2019, while her book dates to the year 2000.
The silence of our reading is broken. A couple appear ahead of us, and they are talking to another person, who is wearing a lanyard and badge. I guess that this third person is a member of the botanical garden's staff, and, by eavesdropping, I am able to confirm this. She is answering questions about the couple's upcoming wedding ceremony. And what a beautiful spot to choose to get married, I reflect. Then I notice the trees in front of us, finally. They are giant redwoods. Six of them. The staff member points to a ground-level plaque, which the couple read for a few seconds. I can only see its edge but am curious to know what it says.
At length, they move on, the silence returns, and I lower my head to the book once more. The next map that I look at is one covering the whole of Scotland. The points of interest, other than those in the immediate vicinity of Dunbar, comprise Glasgow (from where the Muirs sailed to America), four wild places cared for by the John Muir Trust, and a dot in Edinburgh. My excitement increases. I wonder what this marked place could be, and whether we will have time to visit it. I turn my eyes to the legend. A most wondrous surprise meets them. The place is within the botanical garden. It is known as the John Muir Grove. It is – I realize in an instant – the very trees whose output of oxygen is currently filling my lungs.
As the exhilaration of this coincidence slowly subsides, I search for Edinburgh in the book's index and find myself reading a few paragraphs about John Muir's sole trip back to his homeland. Good observes that he "thoroughly disliked" London. (In a letter to a friend, he described it as "a confused world of streets, cars, hotels, stations, etc," and in another he admitted to feeling "woefully lost.") But he did, Good notes, enjoy his visit to the botanical garden at Kew.