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The Naturalist

Pleasant Hill photographer Stephen Joseph uses cutting-edge technology to restore John Muir’s work.


{tecoma radicans} Trumpet Flower picked in the woods outside of Indianapolis, Indiana, in July 1866.

courtesy of John Muir National Historic Site

Some 150 years ago, legendary environmentalist John Muir walked the wild spaces of North America, writing essays and books that would change the way the world appreciated nature. Between gazes at the panoramic vistas, the Martinez resident also looked down at the ground and kept copious notes when collecting a range of flowers and leaves.

“We all know John Muir as the great environmentalist, the Father of the National Parks,” says Stephen Joseph, a Pleasant Hill photographer who is famous for his stunning landscape pictures of Mount Diablo. “But he’s not nearly as well known for his incredible work as a botanist.”

That’s about to change, thanks to Joseph and Muir historian Bonnie Gisel, who have created an impressive exhibition, featuring wall-sized photographs of Muir’s botanical discoveries. “Nature’s Beloved Son: Rediscovering John Muir’s Botanical Legacy” opens at Walnut Creek’s Bedford Gallery on January 9, before heading on an international tour.

The exhibition is the finishing touch on a labor of love (emphasis on labor) for Joseph and Gisel, who collaborated on Nature’s Beloved Son, a 2008 coffee-table book about Muir’s botanical research.

{ calla palustris } Wild Calla picked 40 miles northeast of Hamilton, Canada, in 1864.{ polypodium californicum } California Polypod picked in Sierra Nevada, California, in 1875.


Their project was laborious because most of Muir’s clippings were buried in archives under mountains of bureaucracy. “His clippings and notes are scattered in archives across the United States: Some are at Harvard, some in the Smithsonian, some at his estate in Martinez,” says Joseph. “To make things trickier, the clippings are not filed in the museums as John Muir’s plants but are filed under the species of plants, so that required a whole other level of investigation to identify which entries were Muir’s.”

Gisel, curator of the Sierra Club’s LeConte Memorial Lodge in Yosemite, spent five years as a kind of botanical Sherlock Holmes, tracking down and authenticating Muir’s plant specimens. “I had to reread all of Muir’s writings and make long lists of the plants he saw and where he saw them, and then go to the various herbaria around the country to identify his clippings,” says Gisel.

The process, though exhausting, was filled with great discoveries. “As I searched, I would find these amazing artifacts, like little envelopes with John Muir’s handwriting,” Gisel says. “One of the most thrilling was a little leather wallet that Muir’s mother had brought to America, from Scotland. There were these tiny seedlings inside, which had probably not been seen in well over a hundred years. It was an amazing moment, realizing that his mother brought those seeds because she valued the place she was coming from and felt hopeful about the place she was going to.”

Once Gisel had identified a range of Muir’s findings, Joseph came on to photograph the clippings for the book. Most of the plants were poorly preserved: They were broken, crumbling, glued, stapled, and faded. Joseph used high-tech scanners and his advanced Photoshop skills to adjust the plants’ colors and textures to the hues that Muir would have discovered in the wild spaces of North America around the time of the Civil War.

{ solidago gigantea }  Giant Goldenrod  collected in Ontario, Canada, in August 1864. { rosa gymnocarpa }  Wood Rose  picked in the Yosemite Valley, in 1907.


“Ten years ago, the technology didn’t even exist to make this project possible,” says Joseph. “I had to use all the skills I’ve developed in my career as a photographer to bring this project together.”

Bedford Gallery Curator Carrie Lederer jumped at the opportunity to host the “Nature’s Beloved Son” exhibition. “I’m a big fan of Stephen Joseph’s work and have known it for years. I have always been drawn to the unique way he portrays the land of Contra Costa County,” says Lederer. “That this exhibition also looks at the life of John Muir, an important man who lived in our backyard, makes it a multipronged perfect fit for the Bedford.”

After the Bedford exhibition wraps in March, Gisel and Joseph will coordinate with the California Exhibition Resources Alliance to show 23 enormous photo re-creations at museums and galleries around the country, and, next year, in Muir’s birthplace in Dunbar, Scotland.

“This exhibition is such a wonderful way to celebrate the world that John Muir saw and loved,” says Gisel. “Plants hold the world together. The opportunity to create budding botanists in kids and adults who see this project is a real pleasure.”

“Nature’s Beloved Son: Rediscovering John Muir’s Botanical Legacy” runs January 9–March 27 at Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek. For information, visit bedfordgallery.org.

{ woodwardia radicans }  Chain Fern  collected in Sierra Nevada, California, in 1875.{ gleditsia triacanthos }  Honey Locust  collected near Hamilton, Canada, on September 5, 1864.


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