The Public Domain Review

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Houdini on his Water Torture Cell (1914)

Tuesday 2 August 2011 at 17:59



Houdini made the only known recordings of his voice on Edison wax cylinders on October 29, 1914, in Flatbush, New York. On them, Houdini practices several different introductory speeches for his famous Chinese Water Torture Cell. In the trick, Houdini’s feet would be locked in stocks, and he would be lowered upside down into a tank filled with water. The mahogany and metal cell featured a glass front, through which audiences could clearly see Houdini. The stocks would be locked to the top of the cell, and a curtain would conceal his escape. In the earliest version of the Torture Cell, a metal cage was lowered into the cell, and Houdini was enclosed inside that. While the escape was advertised as “The Chinese Water Torture Cell” or “The Water Torture Cell”, Houdini always referred to it as “the Upside Down” or “USD”. The first public performance of the USD was at the Circus Busch in Berlin, on September 21, 1912. Houdini continued to perform the escape until his death in 1926.

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Beela Boola by the Electric City 4 (1920)

Hungarian Rag - Pietro Deiro (1913)

As a Porcupine Pines for its Pork - Billy Jones & Ernest Hare
(1925)

Popeye, the Sailor Man - Al Dollar & His Ten Cent Band with Billy Murray (1931)

Chopins Funeral March - The Edison Concert Band (1906)

Houdini on his Water Torture Cell (1914)

Lomax Collection Recording of English

Enrico Caruso - A Dream (1920)

Source: http://publicdomainreview.org/2011/08/02/houdini-on-his-water-torture-cell-1914/


Chopin’s Funeral March – The Edison Concert Band (1906)

Tuesday 2 August 2011 at 17:32



Chopin’s “Funeral March” is the third movement of his Piano Sonata No. 2. It was used at the state funerals of John F. Kennedy and those of Soviet leaders, including Leonid Brezhnev. It was played at the graveside during Chopin’s own burial at Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris in 1849 with Napoléon Henri Reber’s instrumentation.

MP3 Download
Internet Archive Link



Beela Boola by the Electric City 4 (1920)

Hungarian Rag - Pietro Deiro (1913)

As a Porcupine Pines for its Pork - Billy Jones & Ernest Hare
(1925)

Popeye, the Sailor Man - Al Dollar & His Ten Cent Band with Billy Murray (1931)

Chopins Funeral March - The Edison Concert Band (1906)

Houdini on his Water Torture Cell (1914)

Lomax Collection Recording of English

Enrico Caruso - A Dream (1920)

Source: http://publicdomainreview.org/2011/08/02/chopins-funeral-march-the-edison-concert-band-1906/


M (1931)

Tuesday 2 August 2011 at 16:24



Directed by Fritz Lang, M is about the search for a child murderer in Berlin, and as the story, and the search progress, the high profile murderer begins to inhibit the lives of everyone from the Police, to the criminals, to innocent bystanders who are accused of being the murderer for even the slightest contact with any child. It was Lang’s first sound film. It has become a classic which Lang himself considered his finest work.

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CLIPSSHORTFULL LENGTH SILENTFULL LENGTH TALKIE
Princess Nicotine (1909) 6min

Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) 12min

Last of the Mohicans (1920) 1hr11min

Meet John Doe (1941) 2hr3min

The Unappreciated Joke (1903) 1min

Frankenstein (1910) 13min

The General (1926) 1hr19min

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) 1hr19mins


The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895) 21sec

The Great Train Robbery (1903) 10min

Wolf Blood (1925) 1hr7min

M (1931) 1hr57min

Source: http://publicdomainreview.org/2011/08/02/m-1931/


Wolf Blood (1925)

Tuesday 2 August 2011 at 16:14



Dick the lumberjack gets a blood transfusion with unexpected results. Wolf Blood, also known as Wolfblood: A Tale of the Forest, is the oldest surviving werewolf movie. Starring and directed by George Chesebro.

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CLIPSSHORTFULL LENGTH SILENTFULL LENGTH TALKIE
Princess Nicotine (1909) 6min

Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) 12min

Last of the Mohicans (1920) 1hr11min

Meet John Doe (1941) 2hr3min

The Unappreciated Joke (1903) 1min

Frankenstein (1910) 13min

The General (1926) 1hr19min

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) 1hr19mins


The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895) 21sec

The Great Train Robbery (1903) 10min

Wolf Blood (1925) 1hr7min

M (1931) 1hr57min

Source: http://publicdomainreview.org/2011/08/02/wolf-blood-1925/


The Great Train Robbery (1903)

Tuesday 2 August 2011 at 16:05



Considered to be one of the first significant early US narrative films. Greatly influenced by the British film “Daring Daylight Robbery” (1903) it introduced many new cinematic techniques (cross cutting, double exposure, camera movement and location shooting) to American audiences. It was directed by Edwin S Porter and stars Justus D. Barnes as the head bandit, G. M. Anderson as a slain passenger and a robber, Walter Cameron as the sheriff.

Download from Internet Archive



CLIPSSHORTFULL LENGTH SILENTFULL LENGTH TALKIE
Princess Nicotine (1909) 6min

Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) 12min

Last of the Mohicans (1920) 1hr11min

Meet John Doe (1941) 2hr3min

The Unappreciated Joke (1903) 1min

Frankenstein (1910) 13min

The General (1926) 1hr19min

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) 1hr19mins


The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895) 21sec

The Great Train Robbery (1903) 10min

Wolf Blood (1925) 1hr7min

M (1931) 1hr57min

Source: http://publicdomainreview.org/2011/08/02/the-great-train-robbery-1903/


The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895)

Tuesday 2 August 2011 at 15:35



Representing the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots. A realistic reproduction of an historic scene

Download from Internet Archive



CLIPSSHORTFULL LENGTH SILENTFULL LENGTH TALKIE
Princess Nicotine (1909) 6min

Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) 12min

Last of the Mohicans (1920) 1hr11min

Meet John Doe (1941) 2hr3min

The Unappreciated Joke (1903) 1min

Frankenstein (1910) 13min

The General (1926) 1hr19min

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) 1hr19mins


The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895) 21sec

The Great Train Robbery (1903) 10min

Wolf Blood (1925) 1hr7min

M (1931) 1hr57min

Source: http://publicdomainreview.org/2011/08/02/the-execution-of-mary-queen-of-scots-1895/


Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)

Tuesday 2 August 2011 at 15:27



Written and directed by infamous director Edward D. Wood, Jr. The film features Gregory Walcott, Mona McKinnon, Tor Johnson and Maila “Vampira” Nurmi, and also bills Bela Lugosi posthumously as a star, although silent footage of the actor had been shot by Wood for other, unfinished projects just before Lugosi’s death in 1956. The plot of the film is focused on extraterrestrial beings who are seeking to stop humans from creating a doomsday weapon that would destroy the universe. In the course of doing so, the aliens implement “Plan 9″, a scheme to resurrect Earth’s dead as what modern audiences would consider zombies (called “ghouls” in the film itself) to get the planet’s attention, causing chaos. Wood was posthumously awarded the Medveds’ Golden Turkey Award as the worst director ever.

Download from Internet Archive



CLIPSSHORTFULL LENGTH SILENTFULL LENGTH TALKIE
Princess Nicotine (1909) 6min

Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) 12min

Last of the Mohicans (1920) 1hr11min

Meet John Doe (1941) 2hr3min

The Unappreciated Joke (1903) 1min

Frankenstein (1910) 13min

The General (1926) 1hr19min

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) 1hr19mins


The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895) 21sec

The Great Train Robbery (1903) 10min

Wolf Blood (1925) 1hr7min

M (1931) 1hr57min

Source: http://publicdomainreview.org/2011/08/02/plan-9-from-outer-space-1959/


The General (1926)

Tuesday 2 August 2011 at 15:17



A Buster Keaton classic. Johnnie loves his train (“The General”) and Annabelle Lee. When the Civil War begins he is turned down for service because he’s more valuable as an engineer. Annabelle thinks it’s because he’s a coward. Union spies capture The General with Annabelle on board. Johnny must rescue both his loves.

Download from Internet Archive



CLIPSSHORTFULL LENGTH SILENTFULL LENGTH TALKIE
Princess Nicotine (1909) 6min

Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) 12min

Last of the Mohicans (1920) 1hr11min

Meet John Doe (1941) 2hr3min

The Unappreciated Joke (1903) 1min

Frankenstein (1910) 13min

The General (1926) 1hr19min

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) 1hr19mins


The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895) 21sec

The Great Train Robbery (1903) 10min

Wolf Blood (1925) 1hr7min

M (1931) 1hr57min

Source: http://publicdomainreview.org/2011/08/02/the-general-1926/


Was Charles Darwin an Atheist?

Tuesday 28 June 2011 at 12:11

Leading Darwin expert and founder of Darwin Online, John van Wyhe, challenges the popular assumption that Darwin’s theory of evolution corresponded with a loss of religious belief.

The religious views of Charles Darwin, the venerable Victorian naturalist and author of the Origin of Species (1859) never cease to interest modern readers. Bookshops and the internet are well-stocked with discussions of Darwin’s views and the implications of his theory of evolution for religion. Many religious writers today accuse Darwin of atheism. Some popular proponents of atheism also enlist Darwin to their cause. Even while Darwin was still alive there were widely varying descriptions of his religious opinions – which he kept mostly private. In 1880 the Austrian writer Ernst von Hesse-Wartegg visited Darwin at his home, Down House, in Kent. The coachman who drove Hesse-Wartegg from the train station at Orpington opined of the famous Mr. Darwin: “Ha es en enfidel, Sar- yes, an enfidel — an unbeliever! and the people say he never went to church!”. The passage quoted here was actually marked in Darwin’s copy of this German newspaper (the Frankfurter Zeitung und Handelsblatt) – no doubt it amused Darwin as much as the German attempt to capture the Kentish accent through phonetic spelling.

Other commentators were more generous in their interpretations of Darwin’s religiosity. The modern myth of a timeless conflict of science and religion was far from the reality experienced by Victorian readers who first turned the pages of Darwin’s Origin of Species and Descent of Man (1871). It is now widely forgotten that the scientific debate over the theory of evolution was over within twenty years of the publication of Origin of Species. Yet how could that be given that the Victorians were, by and large, far more religious than people generally are today and the scientific evidence for evolution was far less complete than it is now? The explanation is that for very many Victorians the choice was not between God and science, religion or evolution, but between different notions of how God designed nature. It was already widely accepted that fixed natural laws (or secondary laws) had been discovered that explained natural phenomena from astronomy and chemistry to physiology and geology. Darwin, it was believed, had simply discovered a new law of nature designed by God. And it seems this was how Darwin himself viewed at least part of the religious implications of his evolutionary theory. This also makes it all the more understandable that Darwin was buried by the nation in Westminster Abbey in 1882.

"A Venerable Orang-outang", a caricature of Charles Darwin as an ape published in The Hornet, a satirical magazine

A few of Darwin’s private letters referring to religion were published near the end of his life and more after his death. These have been very widely quoted in the voluminous discussions of Darwin’s religious views. Searching for other material which might have bearing on the question of his religious views, I turned to Darwin Online, an online repository of Darwin’s corpus where it is possible to search the works by key term. Putting in terms like ‘atheist’ and ‘atheism’ I found what seems to be a previously unknown discussion of this question by Darwin himself. The passage occurs in Darwin’s lengthy 1879 “Preliminary notice” to the English translation of Ernst Krause’s biography of Darwin’s freethinking paternal grandfather, the poet and physician Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802). Darwin addressed the question of whether his grandfather was an atheist:

Dr. Darwin has been frequently called an atheist, whereas in every one of his works distinct expressions may be found showing that he fully believed in God as the Creator of the universe. For instance, in the ‘Temple of Nature,’ published posthumously, he writes: “Perhaps all the productions of nature are in their progress to greater perfection! an idea countenanced by modern discoveries and deductions concerning the progressive formation of the solid parts of the terraqueous globe, and consonant to the dignity of the creator of all things.” He concludes one chapter in ‘Zoonomia’ with the words of the Psalmist: “The heavens declare the Glory of God, and the firmament sheweth his handiwork.”

He published an ode on the folly of atheism, with the motto “I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” of which the first verse is as follows:—

1.
Dull atheist, could a giddy dance
Of atoms lawless hurl’d
Construct so wonderful, so wise,
So harmonised a world?

It is curious that this passage has not been noticed before. If Charles Darwin argued that his grandfather’s frequent published “expressions” about a creator meant he was not an atheist, it is possible to put Darwin’s own writings to the same test. By searching his published writings on Darwin Online for “creator” one can quickly see the life-long use that Darwin made of this language.

Diagram representing the divergence of species, from Darwin's Origin of Species

The first occurrence is in his first book, Journal of Researches (first edition of 1839, based on his Beagle diary) now known universally as The Voyage of the Beagle referring to an excursion in Australia:

A little time before this I had been lying on a sunny bank, and was reflecting on the strange character of the animals of this country as compared with the rest of the world. An unbeliever in every thing beyond his own reason might exclaim, “Two distinct Creators must have been at work; their object, however, has been the same, and certainly the end in each case is complete.”

The term does not appear in Darwin’s published writings again until the first edition of Origin of Species (1859) and the many different editions and rewordings that followed until 1872.

Darwin next used the term in his following book on the pollination adaptations of orchids in 1862:

This treatise affords me also an opportunity of attempting to show that the study of organic beings may be as interesting to an observer who is fully convinced that the structure of each is due to secondary laws, as to one who views every trifling detail of structure as the result of the direct interposition of the Creator.

This shows Darwin’s position very clearly. Even more informative are the concluding paragraphs of *Variation of Animals and Plants (1868), one of his clearest and most powerful expressions of his theory of natural selection:

Some authors have declared that natural selection explains nothing, unless the precise cause of each slight individual difference be made clear. Now, if it were explained to a savage utterly ignorant of the art of building, how the edifice had been raised stone upon stone, and why wedge-formed fragments were used for the arches, flat stones for the roof, &c.; and if the use of each part and of the whole building were pointed out, it would be unreasonable if he declared that nothing had been made clear to him, because the precise cause of the shape of each fragment could not be given. But this is a nearly parallel case with the objection that selection explains nothing, because we know not the cause of each individual difference in the structure of each being. The shape of the fragments of stone at the base of our precipice may be called accidental, but this is not strictly correct; for the shape of each depends on a long sequence of events, all obeying natural laws; on the nature of the rock, on the lines of deposition or cleavage, on the form of the mountain which depends on its upheaval and subsequent denudation, and lastly on the storm or earthquake which threw down the fragments. But in regard to the use to which the fragments may be put, their shape may be strictly said to be accidental. And here we are led to face a great difficulty, in alluding to which I am aware that I am travelling beyond my proper province. An omniscient Creator must have foreseen every consequence which results from the laws imposed by Him. But can it be reasonably maintained that the Creator intentionally ordered, if we use the words in any ordinary sense, that certain fragments of rock should assume certain shapes so that the builder might erect his edifice? If the various laws which have determined the shape of each fragment were not predetermined for the builder’s sake, can it with any greater probability be maintained that He specially ordained for the sake of the breeder each of the innumerable variations in our domestic animals and plants;— many of these variations being of no service to man, and not beneficial, far more often injurious, to the creatures themselves? Did He ordain that the crop and tail-feathers of the pigeon should vary in order that the fancier might make his grotesque pouter and fantail breeds? Did He cause the frame and mental qualities of the dog to vary in order that a breed might be formed of indomitable ferocity, with jaws fitted to pin down the bull for man’s brutal sport? But if we give up the principle in one case,—if we do not admit that the variations of the primeval dog were intentionally guided in order that the greyhound, for instance, that perfect image of symmetry and vigour, might be formed,—no shadow of reason can be assigned for the belief that variations, alike in nature and the result of the same general laws, which have been the groundwork through natural selection of the formation of the most perfectly adapted animals in the world, man included, were intentionally and specially guided. However much we may wish it, we can hardly follow Professor Asa Gray in his belief “that variation has been led along certain beneficial lines,” like a stream “along definite and useful lines of irrigation.” If we assume that each particular variation was from the beginning of all time preordained, the plasticity of organisation, which leads to many injurious deviations of structure, as well as that redundant power of reproduction which inevitably leads to a struggle for existence, and, as a consequence, to the natural selection or survival of the fittest, must appear to us superfluous laws of nature. On the other hand, an omnipotent and omniscient Creator ordains everything and foresees everything. Thus we are brought face to face with a difficulty as insoluble as is that of free will and predestination.

Then in 1871 Darwin addressed the subject of religion in the Descent of Man:

Belief in God—Religion.—There is no evidence that man was aboriginally endowed with the ennobling belief in the existence of an Omnipotent God. On the contrary there is ample evidence, derived not from hasty travellers, but from men who have long resided with savages, that numerous races have existed and still exist, who have no idea of one or more gods, and who have no words in their languages to express such an idea. The question is of course wholly distinct from that higher one, whether there exists a Creator and Ruler of the universe; and this has been answered in the affirmative by the highest intellects that have ever lived.

And in the conclusion to the second volume Darwin wrote:

He who believes in the advancement of man from some lowly-organised form, will naturally ask how does this bear on the belief in the immortality of the soul. The barbarous races of man, as Sir J. Lubbock has shewn, possess no clear belief of this kind; but arguments derived from the primeval beliefs of savages are, as we have just seen, of little or no avail. Few persons feel any anxiety from the impossibility of determining at what precise period in the development of the individual, from the first trace of the minute germinal vesicle to the child either before or after birth, man becomes an immortal being; and there is no greater cause for anxiety because the period in the gradually ascending organic scale cannot possibly be determined.

Darwin's first diagram of an evolutionary tree from his First Notebook on Transmutation of Species (1837)

Darwin himself was not entirely consistent in the language he used to describe his beliefs. And of course his views changed over the course of his life. Starting in 1876 he began writing a private autobiography for his children and grandchildren. In it he mentioned the change in his religious views. A gradual scepticism towards Christianity and the authenticity of the Bible gradually crept over him during the late 1830s – leaving him not a Christian, but no atheist either; rather a sort of theist. To be a ‘theist’ in Darwin’s day was to believe that a supernatural deity had created nature or the univerise but did not intervene in the course of history. Darwin used the term in one famous passage in the autobiography:

… the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity of looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist. This conclusion was strong in my mind about the time, as far as I can remember, when I wrote the Origin of Species; and it is since that time that it has very gradually with many fluctuations become weaker.

At other times he used the term ‘agnostic’ – a word coined and made fashionable by the naturalist Thomas Henry Huxley. In an 1879 letter, written around the same time as the autobiography and first published in Life and Letters, he writes:

In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an Atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. I think that generally (and more and more as I grow older), but not always, that an Agnostic would be the more correct description of my state of mind.

Given the paucity of evidence, and the ambiguity of the statements that do remain, we will probably never be able to completely refine our definition or understanding of Darwin’s religious views. But that is not to say that there are some things that cannot be known. One point is abundantly clear, all the surviving evidence contradicts the assertion that Darwin was an atheist.



John van Wyhe is Senior Lecturer at the National University of Singapore. He has published four books on Darwin, including the illustrated biography: Darwin (Andre Deutsch 2008). He is also founder and director of Darwin Online.

Links to works

Source: http://publicdomainreview.org/2011/06/28/was-charles-darwin-an-atheist/


John Muir’s Literary Science

Thursday 9 June 2011 at 12:35

The writings of the Scottish-born American naturalist John Muir are known for their scientific acumen as well as for their rhapsodic flights. Terry Gifford, author of Reconnecting with John Muir, explores Muir’s multifaceted engagement with ‘God’s big show’.

John Muir was not unaware of how his discoveries from his empirical research in Yosemite were being used by the professionals who were impatient for conventional scientific papers from him. Muir suspected that his refusal of scientific discourse initially left him vulnerable. Muir’s early revolutionary newspaper article titled ‘Living Glaciers of California’ began life in a letter of 8 October 1872 to his friend Jeanne Carr in which Muir set out his empirical research results in glaciology, joking, ‘You will have the first chance to steal’. This follows his complaint that a paper for the Boston Society of Natural History from Professor Samuel Kneeland drew from Muir’s work ‘and gave me credit for all of the smaller sayings and doings, and stole the broadest truth to himself’. When Muir’s literary executor William Frederic Badè compiled The Life and Letters (1924; reprinted 1996) he tactfully omitted a paragraph from this letter in which Muir also wondered how much credit he was being given in a lecture by the Berkeley geologist Professor LeConte whom Muir had guided with his students in Yosemite two years before. This lecture was to be published and was advertised as ‘advancing many new and interesting theories’. Muir wrote to Jeanne Carr that he could better express his own thoughts for the public than LeConte’s ‘second-hand rehash’. So Muir’s resolve to publish his own work more effectively, using Jeanne Carr as, in effect, his literary agent, derived, at least in part, from a mistrust of professional scientists. In his determined amateurism and refusal to limit himself to the discourse of the professionals, Muir reached a wider audience with greater effect, gaining for himself a place not only in scientific, but also in literary history. In the richness of Muir’s discourse he reveals himself to be what he admired in Asa Gray, ‘a great, progressive, unlimited man like Darwin and Huxley and Tyndall’.

What are the ways in which Muir’s discourse might be described as ‘progressive’ and ‘unlimited’? Two key features are narrative and metaphor. Even as he prepared to give the facts and figures of the movements of his stakes in the Mt McClure glacier which proved that the living glaciers of the high Sierra were moving at one inch each day, Muir launched into a mystery narrative, vivid with detail, lively in analogy, seductive in alliteration and powerfully rhythmic:

One of the yellow days of last October, when I was among the mountains of the Merced group, following the footprints of the ancient glaciers that once flowed grandly from their ample fountains, reading what I could of their history as written in moraines and canyons and lakes and carved rocks, I came upon a small stream that was carrying mud I had not before seen.

Ending this sentence with a slightly formal inversion enables Muir to produce the rhyme that sets up the mystery: ‘stream’/’seen’.

In his personal narratives Muir frequently exclaims aloud: ‘Before I had time to reason I said, “Glacier Mud! – mountain meal!”’ The dramatic effect of this on the page has actually been enhanced by Badè’s addition of the quotation and exclamation marks. It is worth remembering that Muir developed a reputation for oral dramatic story-telling that must have been symbiotic with his written narrative sense. Ronald Limbaugh has brilliantly shown that Muir integrated not only his reading, but his oral story-telling with what we have in print in the case of the story of Stickeen. (See Gifford 1996, page 893ff, for a memoir of Muir’s ‘wonderful story-telling ability’.) So, as the narrative unfolds, mud leads to a terminal moraine, above which is snow, on which are lines of stones clearly moving in curves and ‘I shouted, “A living glacier!”’ The Berkeley scientist LeConte had mistrusted Muir’s sample of glacier ice that he had sent him years before, so Muir ‘determined to collect proofs of the common measured arithmetical kind’ which in this letter/article/paper he goes on provide. Of course, what Muir’s measurements revealed was a narrative much more important than that of personal discovery, solving a mystery, or correcting the sceptical professionals of his day who clung to a belief that Yosemite Valley was formed by a single seismic cataclysm. Muir’s is the fundamental narrative demonstrated from different data by Darwin, that creation is still ongoing.

It is the dynamic interplay of elemental forces in the natural world that is Muir’s central narrative and the reason why his writing is so dramatic is because he seeks to place himself in their way for the purpose not only of empirical observation, but also to be at home in them as a species. Muir’s scientific data is always a personal narrative because he wants to demonstrate that it is possible for our species to find a place in that ongoing creation. His personal example leads his readership to be aware of choices crucial to its influence on evolution. If, for example, logging reduced the number of tree species in America, the future evolution of American forests was limited in its development. Conservation became, for Muir, not just nostalgic preservation, but an intervention in potential futures. In specific cases this narrative would determine whether the human species could survive in America. Muir noted that the logging of watersheds, for example, was having a disastrous effect upon water conservation in a California that looked unlikely to be able to sustain its growing human population.

Commenting on Darwin’s evolutionary narrative Gillian Beer writes, ‘Evolutionary theory brings together two imaginative elements implicit in much nineteenth-century thinking and creativity. One was the fascination with growth … The other was the concept of transformation.’ When Beer writes that the reason why Wordsworth and Coleridge mattered to Darwin was because of their ‘emphasis on growth and process rather than on conclusion and confirmation’, one recognises Muir’s central narrative drive. For Muir that unfinished process of American nature – rather than American ‘landscapes’ – had implications for the human species that called for a conservation debate that went deeper than the usual nineteenth century American concept of ‘wise use of resources’. This required a popular mode of writing that could draw upon all the resources of rhetoric. As a trained scientist who had studied the Bible, Milton and Burns, Muir had the literary skills as well as the discipline-base to combine the discourses of authoritative scientist, popular poetic nature writer and conservationist preacher with, admittedly, varying degrees of success.

Picture of Muir Glacier printed in Samuel Hall Young's "Alaska Days with John Muir" (1915)

Unlike Darwin, it is clear that Muir delighted in his rhetorical resources. ‘Despite the metaphoric density of his writing,’ Beer writes, ‘Darwin seems never to have raised into consciousness its imaginative … implications … He saw some of the dangers of “authorisation”.’ Muir revelled in ‘authorisation’, playfully and brilliantly mixing his metaphors to startling effects. One of the techniques Muir frequently used to generate the awe of looking at something afresh was the analogy of poetic images. Thus we have in the discourse of the Studies in the Sierra (1874; reprinted in Gifford 1996) ‘ice-ploughs’, ‘glacial cultivation’, ‘ice-wombs, now mostly barren’, ‘pages of rocks embellished with gardens’, a ‘canyon-tree’ of ice whose ‘fruit and foliage’ are ‘meadow and lake’, together with a ‘five-petalled glacier’. In her study of Victorian scientific prose, Gillian Beer notes the use of poetic effects: ‘Poetry offered particular formal resources to think with … The poet sets up multiple relations between ideas in a style closer to the form of theorems than of prose.’ It is clear that Muir was thinking with his metaphors, as when he wrote that whilst the tree analogy for a river served some aspects well, in other respects they ‘more nearly resemble certain gigantic algae with naked stalks’. The essay on the ‘Formation of Soils’ concludes with Muir’s all-encompassing proto-ecological vision that all his poetic devices try to serve: ‘Nor in all these involved operations may we detect the faintest note of disorder; every soil-atom seems to yield enthusiastic obedience to law – boulders and mud-grains moving to music as harmoniously as the far-whirling planets.’ The scope of this, as well as its biblical construction and rhythms, conveys a subtle spiritual dimension that is inherent rather than explicit. But later in life, faced with the urgent need for conservation campaigning, based upon his then extensive scientific knowledge, Muir was also to be roused to the ranting discourse of the preacher.

‘Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well as dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.’ Muir could work his rhetoric up to end a book with a bang. ‘God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought disease, avalanches and a thousand straining levelling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools – only Uncle Sam can do that.’ The final arguments of The Yosemite and Our National Parks respectively are not Muir’s strongest, despite their strong form of discourse. Both arguments appear to appeal to the religious norms of his readers, but both are flawed by their own internal logic. If man-made temples are not as holy as Hetch Hetchy Valley they might actually provide better water-tanks. And no post-Darwinian proto-ecologist can believe that ‘God’ has ‘saved’ America’s forests. In fact, the rather more measured discourse that has preceded these resounding final rants is more convincing.

On the Hetch Hetchy issue, Muir took each of the popular arguments for flooding the valley and corrected false information and impressions. Muir argued that this valley is ‘one of the greatest of all our natural resources for the uplifting joy and peace and health of the people … where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.’ The argument for the healing power of direct contact with wild nature for urban humans appealed to both utility and spirituality. In his later writing Muir’s democratic appeal on behalf of ‘the people’ was the basis for his conservation strategy. As himself an immigrant with an immigrant’s faith in American democracy, Muir made a moving argument at the end of Our National Parks about America’s welcoming those to the woods who would live wisely in them, but that regulation for sustainable living must ultimately be made by the federal government to control corporate lumber interests. So ultimately, it is not just that Muir could not confine himself to the discourse of the empirical scientist, could not deny his poetic muse. Muir’s talent as a popular writer reaching a wide audience throughout America was put at the service of the American land through the medium of the voting power of the American people.

John Muir with U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt on Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park

Of course, some of Muir’s writing can seem excruciatingly New Age to the contemporary reader unsympathetic to this discourse, as in the most sentimental of Muir’s personifications when, returning from days spent on the glaciers, ‘bird and plant friends’ welcomed him back among them. It is worth noting Gillian Beer’s observation that Darwin’s anthropomorphisms were ‘based on the assumed congruity of man with all other forms of life’. It is fair to recognise that Muir’s eccentric whimsical persona produced these effects partly out of the same mode of discourse that allowed for ‘snowflowers’ and ‘petalled glaciers’. Images that reminded readers of the seamless nature of the processes of growth and decay, of the sensitivity of everything to its context, were key features of Muir’s rhetorical strategy. We may now wince ourselves to read in the Studies that ‘the huge granite valley was lithe as a serpent, and winced tenderly to the touch of every tributary’. But here was a work of science that sought to convey a vision of more than just ‘congruity’ that strains at the limits of the resources of human discourses themselves.

Muir’s earliest published journal, A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf, is probably his earliest sustained prose attempt to find a discourse adequate to his sense of the dimensions of the world to which he was so alert. This journal is a young man’s purging of many of the assumptions with which he has grown up. It is both a humbling and an uplifting experience: ‘The substance of the winds is too thin for human eyes, their written language is too difficult for human minds, and their spoken language mostly too faint for the ears.’ But for Muir the demand for a rich use of multiple discourses that not only integrate our forms of knowledge but our modes of expression, is produced by the attempt to confront the complexity of the world in which we have to be at home or die. Muir’s early frustration at the limits of human discourse arose out of a deep sense of the richness of relations in the natural world he wanted to mediate. In that early journal Muir wrote: ‘There is not a fragment in nature, for every relative fragment of one thing is a full harmonious unit in itself. All together form the one great palimpsest of the world.’ Only a literature such as Muir developed, that drew from all the multiple modes of discourse available, could hope to see into and serve that palimpsest.

Terry Gifford is Professor of English at Bath Spa University and University of Alicante. This article is an adapted extract from Chapter 3 of his book Reconnecting with John Muir: Essays in Post-Pastoral Practice (2006). It also features material in his John Muir: The Life and Letters and Other Writings (1996).

Links to works

Scanned copies of The Writings of John Muir (1916)

Complete HTML versions of all John Muir’s writings, including articles and selected passages

Alaska Days with John Muir (1915) by Samuel Hall Young

Source: http://publicdomainreview.org/2011/06/09/john-muirs-literary-science/