Just before the alpenglow began to fade, two crimson clouds came streaming across the summit like wings of flame, rendering the sublime scene yet more intensely impressive; then came darkness and the stars.
John Muir, The Yosemite
American literature has been enriched, from its very beginnings, by the writing of gifted observers of nature. From the hazardous sea voyages and awestruck encounters of Walter Raleigh in the Age of Exploration, and the pathbreaking expeditions of Lewis and Clark in the nineteenth century, to the impassioned explorations of a much-diminished natural world by Rachel Carson, Edwin Way Teale and Annie Dillard in the twentieth, the descriptive power of their narratives has given form to the wonder they felt as they found their own paths into the heart of the American wilderness.
In the long series of tales that serves to preserve for later generations the adventures of our poet-naturalists, the journeys and testimonies of John Muir (1838-1914) have an enduring value. For that Scottish immigrant has also the honor of having successfully preserved much of the landscape that he wrote about so indelibly.
John Muir, who seems to have lived awake through what William Blake once called “the lost traveler’s dream under the hill,” was changed forever by his many startling encounters with the wild and vivid splendor of the North American continent.
We know, from the marvelously crafted pages of his journals, that Muir, who waded through marsh, prairie grass and bogs, and ascended mountains, came back to the haunts of men with a singular and determined vocation: to save from all spoliation that untamed, vibrant country which had enthralled his heart.
How did he go about painting that land for all those who wished to view, if only in his books, the most splendid vistas of their country? Here, as one example of his “rough magic,” is John Muir, ensconced among the towering Sequoias, as he fuses precise powers of observation with a wonderful sense of place: “Imbedded in these majestic woods there are numerous meadows, around the sides of which the Big Trees press close together in beautiful lines, showing their grandeur openly from the ground to their domed heads in the sky. For every venerable, lightning-stricken tree, there is one or more in the glory of prime, and for each of these, many young trees and crowds of saplings.”
Muir’s ability to capture and hold in mind such a well-focused picture of the teeming world before him was, apparently, already present in his early life. In his memoir The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, as he recalls growing up as a young man on a Wisconsin farm, he tells how, after hearing the songs of the birds, “We boys often tried to interpret the wild ringing melody and put it into words.” Such brief and telling vignettes, placed beside his most inspired musings and his unrivaled views of lofty pines and soaring peaks, can present us with a fairly accurate idea of John Muir’s way of approaching the natural and human world. We may also gather further insight into his thought from his correspondence, as in the following letter, quoted by one of his biographers, Frederick Turner: “I suppose I must go into society this winter,” he wrote to his beloved sister, Sarah, adding that “I would rather go back in some undiscoverable corner beneath the rafters of an old garret with my notes and books and listen to the winter rapping.”
Perhaps Robert Burton, had he known a man with John Muir’s personality, would have found a secure place for him in the pages of The Anatomy of Melancholy, along with scholars and sundry other lovers of solitude. Indeed, Burton affirms, “from these melancholy dispositions no man living is free.”
Nonetheless, it could only have been sheer joy that animated Muir, that tireless, solitary walker, when he first viewed the lush reaches of the great forested valleys and crystalline cascading streams of Northern California.
How else may one explain John Muir’s ability to capture in words, time and again, the supernal beauty of unbounded nature, as he does here, in The Yosemite: “Now and then one mighty throb sends forth a mass of solid water into the free air far beyond the others, which rushes alone to the bottom of the fall with long streaming tail, like combed silk, while the others, descending in clusters, gradually mingle and lose their identity.”
In such a manner did John Muir offer his readers stunning portrayals of a still wild and unblemished American landscape, which he set out to save for all generations to come. And so he did, throughout his long life, working with unceasing labor to protect such natural wonders as the Grand Canyon, the redwoods and the Petrified Forest, and winning over his friend and woodland companion Theodore Roosevelt to the cause of national conservation.
From his own testimony, it is possible to gauge that Muir must have possessed an extraordinary inner strength in order for him to pursue such a dedicated and austere vocation, despite many setbacks and considerable opposition. For, then as now, a number of powerful special interests had little sympathy for Muir’s spirited, pugnacious defense of our imperiled natural heritage. In fact, the long, protracted struggle that Muir and like-minded allies waged to win over leading public figures to policies of conservation and wise stewardship of land and resources finally drove him to affirm that the virtually unspoiled tracts that, at that time, still lay across America, should be placed off limits to public use, even for camping and recreation.
That view, in the end, was to put John Muir at odds with one of his most cherished confreres, Gifford Pinchot. Although, to be sure, theirs was but a merry quarrel, after all, between two far-seeing men, who had shared many a campfire under the stars.
Judged by Stuart Udall, John F. Kennedy’s Interior Secretary, to be among the most distinguished of all the men who have held that office, Pinchot knew, from his hard but successful struggle to have nature preserves set aside in his home state of Pennsylvania, that the public must be enlisted in the cause of conservation.
And so they should certainly have access to our great natural sites, under the responsible vigilance of those charged with the care of preserved lands.
As an inspired but practical bureaucrat, Gifford Pinchot foresaw that, were that not so, then the entire enterprise for which they had so long toiled could come to be viewed as the genteel hobby of an elite leisure class, “tree-huggers” in current parlance. In saying so, Pinchot surely must have had in mind the terrible reverse for the cause of natural conservation that he, Muir and others had suffered in the catastrophic flooding of the pristine Hetch Hetchy Valley in California, a decision made at the highest levels of government.
If we wish to fathom John Muir’s sense of what was (and is) truly lost by the promotion of such calamitous policies, we need only look at the exquisitely rendered remembrances that he set down of his early life. There he demonstrates a remarkable appreciation of the qualities that inhere in creatures of the field and woodland, and a fascination with the teeming, multifaceted life he saw disporting along the riverbanks, in the swamps and on the prairies. Of the oxen on his father’s farm, he wrote, “We recognized their kinship, by their intelligent, alert curiosity, manifested in listening to strange sounds; their love of play; the attachments they made; and their mourning, long continued, when a companion was killed.”
To read these pensive musings of the aged naturalist, recalling so well his changing cast of mind as a young man, is to become aware that John Muir, almost from the beginning of his career as a defender of America’s imperiled natural treasures, “had begun,” as his biographer notes, “to discover for himself a way of living not on the land but with it, so that he might receive its gifts of the spirit.”
Thus, of John Muir it can justly be said that he anticipated, far in advance of Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac (1949), the valuable and far-seeing concept of a “land ethic.” Here is yet another example of his reverent regard for the sylvan realm that lay in his all-encompassing view: “When I entered this sublime wilderness the day was nearly done, the trees with rosy glowing countenances seemed to be hushed and thoughtful, as if waiting in conscious religious dependence on the sun, and one naturally walked softly and awe-stricken among them.”
So did John of the Mountains strive, with his finely crafted prose poetry, to engage his contemporaries, and later generations to come, in saving the patrimony that is part of our “goodly heritage.”
“This grand show is eternal,” Muir wrote. “It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising.
“Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.”
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, William Zehringer. All rights reserved.