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One Picture

Photo Essay
Cry for Joy
John Muir was a plant lover whose collections, brought to life in a new book, celebrate America’s botanical magnificence.

 

In the spring of 1864, John Muir began a walking tour through the Ontario countryside.

One day, tired and wondering if he would emerge before dark from a remote bog, he came upon what he later called “the rarest and most beautiful of the flowering plants.” It was an orchid of wild, wet places—the calypso, or fairy slipper.

Wild Ginger
Asarum canadense
Ontario

“It sprung from a small white bud, imbedded in the moss, and it had only one leaf and one flower,” wrote the influential naturalist and conservationist. “The flower was white and made the impression of the utmost purity and chastity—pure and chaste as snow. I sat down opposite it and cried for joy.”

Bleeding Heart
Dicentra spectabilis
Indiana

Now, in a remarkable publishing event, this plant and many others Muir encountered on his wanderings are on the page for all to see. Not drawings, not photographs of present-day examples of the species but reproductions of the very specimens Muir had picked and dried in his bulky plant press on those far-off days in far-flung places. The plants, with every crinkle in the blossoms, every tear in the leaves, are represented as they exist today in herbaria around the country.

Tulip Tree
Liriodendron tulipifera
Indiana

The book is Nature’s Beloved Son: Rediscovering John Muir’s Botanical Legacy, written by Bonnie J. Gisel, with images by Stephen J. Joseph (Heyday Books, 248 pages, $45). A product of persistent research and skilled modern photography, it presents enhanced images of the dried remains of nearly 100 plants the inexhaustible explorer collected in Canada, the southern United States, California, and Alaska during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of the plants from Muir’s collections had been lost or scattered through the years, but Gisel, curator at the Sierra Club’s LeConte Memorial Lodge in Yosemite National Park, tracked them down in various botanical institutions and universities.

Northern Clintonia
Clintonia borealis
Ontario

Joseph, a landscape photographer skilled in digital technique, spent three and a half years scanning the sere and fragile specimens, then restored them to their original clarity and splendor with Photoshop. “I am pleased to say not a single plant was damaged in the process,” he says. “When I opened a folder containing a plant, I felt as if I was on a journey of discovery. I never tired of the thought that John Muir had picked and preserved each plant.”—Frank Graham Jr.

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