21 January 2007

1. My First Summer in the Sierra by John Muir

I have been interested in reading some Muir for a good long time. I had stumbled across references in magazine articles and other books about his travels, his books, his ideas for years. It's somewhat difficult to find copies of his books in used books hops here in the Northeast for some reason. I thought it was because so few were produced. I mean, I couldn't really find that many in big chain bookshops either.

Well, when I was in Colorado for the December break I stumbled upon pounds and pounds of his books. I grabbed this one for $5. And there were plenty more copies where that came from, too. I also grabbed a copy of The Mountains of California.

I should also admit here that my mind, philosophy, worldview, whatever you want to call it, is already sympathetic to Muir's. While I have no idea what the Sierra Club's politics or tactics are, I support any sort of nature preserving. I find the British Romantic poets compelling for the same reason, and on this side of the pond, Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Melville. Deep in my heart's core I feel like there really is little we see in nature that is ours, that truly we ARE out of tune, and if I had my druthers I would be a pagan suckled in a creed outworn standing by a small cabin of clay and wattles made.

This book is about Muir's first summer in the Sierra where he gets a job helping a shepherd herd a 2000-head flock of sheep. Delaney, the overseer, is a Fellow Traveller (he's not a Communist, I just mean he is sympathetic to Muir's goals) and allows Muir to have few responsibilities as possible to allow for notebook writing and sketching.

The descriptive powers of Muir (remember, I warned you that I am predisposed) are beautiful. He seems to sense the ephemeral and seductive powers of Nature without commodifying it in any way. Each mountain pass, mountain flower, every variety of pine is unique to Muir - "every tree calls for special admiration." What's more, he describes them in a way that suggests that Muir recognizes that we (animals, mountains, bugs and vegetables) are all linked in a complicated relationship. I imagine most people, especially capitalists, think it's hokey to think of a waterfall singing to a person. Or that the mountains would extend an invitation to the explorer.

"Our flesh and bone tabernacle seems transparent as glass to the beauty about us, as if truly an inseparable part of it, thrilling with the air and trees, streams and rocks, in the waves of the sun, - a part of all nature, neither old nor young, sick nor well, but immortal."

His descriptions of trees and flowers were particularly compelling. I have always half-thought of trees as sentient beings. Ridiculous, I guess, and perhaps I read The Giving Tree too many times, or took the Ents too much to heart.

"Here we are camped for the night, our big fire, heaped high with rosiny branches, is blazing like a sunrise, gladly giving back the light slowly sifted from sunbeams of centuries of summers; and in the glow of that old sunlight how impressively surrounding objects are brought forward in relief against the outer darkness!"

I mean, I could quote passages that seduced me all day here, but suffice it to say, the book moved me. I was reminded of the feeling I get when I am at the beach or sailing - that I am in and with Nature, like I have just landed the canoe on Innisfree. I do find mountain and hiking stories compelling for their man-and-nature quality, and I feel like that's why I like so much of Thoreau and Wordsworth and, now, Muir.

I will leave you with one more quote:

"Nevermore, however weary, should one faint by the way who gains the blessings of one mountain day: whatever his fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, he is rich forever."

No comments: