Roger Cox: John Muir Festival kicks off

Conservationist John Muir. Picture: Contributed
Conservationist John Muir. Picture: Contributed
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ABOUT ten years ago I wrote a story for this newspaper about the Hemingway Days festival, which takes place every summer in Key West, Florida.

A celebration of the life and work of Ernest Hemingway, who lived in Key West from 1928 until 1939, it comprises a huge range of events, from serious literary soirées to what can only be described as profoundly un-serious bar-room spectacles, best enjoyed after several mojitos.

Firmly in the latter category is the Hemingway Lookalike Competition, which is rowdily contested in Sloppy Joe’s bar on Duval Street every year by a mob of elderly gents calling themselves “the Papas”. Predominantly white of beard 
and rosy of complexion, these jovial souls all bear more than a passing resemblance to their hard-drinking idol in his declining years, which makes winning a singular honour.

When I was in town, the contest was being judged by Hemingway’s granddaughter, Lorian, and when I asked her what she thought the original Ernest would have made of all the hoop-la going on in his name she didn’t sound entirely sure.

“The Papas would want me to say, ‘Oh, he would think it was a great time, he’d be partying along with everybody else’,” she told me. “But I don’t know. I’d like to think he’d think it was fun, because those guys have a hell of a lot of fun.”

I was reminded of this conversation recently while flicking through the programme for this year’s John Muir Festival, a celebration of the life and work of another notable beard-cultivator, which takes place from 17-21 April in venues across the Central Belt and, like Hemingway Days, features a lookalike event. What, I wondered, would the great conservationist and outdoorsman think of lots of people donning fake beards and pretending to be him? And what would he think of some of the 70-plus other events taking place to mark the centenary of his death?

The official opening of a long-distance footpath called the John Muir Way by Alex Salmond on 21 April is something of which Muir would definitely have approved, even if, with his profound love of wild land, he might not have seen eye-to-eye with the First Minister on the need to plaster the countryside with wind turbines. The 134-mile path will run from Dunbar, where Muir was born, all the way to Helensburgh, where, aged 11, he set sail for America with his family in search of a better life.

In truth, Muir probably wouldn’t have delighted in walking every inch of the new route – he wasn’t a big fan of towns, cities and “the trivial world of men” in general, so if he’d been designing the trail he’d probably have made it loop around Edinburgh, Linlithgow, Falkirk and other urban centres rather than having it run straight through them. Still, broadly speaking I think he could only have been pleased by an initiative intended to get more people into the great outdoors.

Certain other events in the programme, however, I suspect he may have found a little baffling. On Thursday, the John Muir Festival kicks off with HOME: The International Launch of the Kelpies – the Kelpies being the two 30-metre (100ft) high, 300-tonne steel horse-head sculptures designed by artist Andy Scott and erected just outside Falkirk as “monuments to horse-powered heritage”.

HOME will apparently consist of a spectacular “light, sound and flame display” and a stroll around the illuminated artworks. Dramatic as the Kelpies undoubtedly are – and I’m sure they’ll look lovely all lit up – it’s hard to see what they have to do with Muir. The sculptures were conceived as a tribute to the tradition of working horses in Scotland, and they are sited where horses used to pull barges along the Forth & Clyde canal. As such, they are really symbols of the Industrial Revolution – something that was pretty emphatically not Muir’s bag. Oh, and did I mention they’re 30 metres high and made of steel? Had Muir been alive today, and aware of the effects of man-made climate change, it’s hard to imagine that he would have approved of their elephantine carbon footprint.

If you want to do something to remember Muir this week, why not simply take his advice: “Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer.”