The Mountains of CaliforniaThe Mountains of California by John Muir

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Few places in this world are more dangerous than home.

It is difficult to spend any time in northern California without coming across the name of John Muir. He is the patron saint of the state’s wild beauty. The John Muir Trail, passing through Yosemite Valley and the Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, and Muir Woods, home of the majestic redwoods, are just two of the most prominent monuments to his life’s work.

I picked up a copy of this book on a recent trip to North Cali, while visiting the Donner Museum—near Donner Lake, up in the Sierra Nevada—which commemorates not only the unfortunate party of lost pilgrims, but some of the other epochal events of the region, such as the goldrush, the building of the North Pacific Railroad, and construction of the major highways. Not many years after the Donner Party lost themselves in the Snowy Range, this infrastructure tied the previously isolated region to the rest of the country.

Perhaps it would have seemed grimly ironic to the Donner survivors that, a generation later, people would be fighting to keep this dangerous place pristine, resisting the encroachment of civilization. Yet in hindsight we can only regard this effort as prescient. That there is any nature left at all is largely thanks to Muir and his ilk, who not only directly intervened to preserve wilderness, but through his writings helped to evoke a groundswell of appreciation for natural beauty.

This book is a piece of propaganda on behalf of wilderness. Though Muir was highly knowledgeable in botany, geology, and in the study of glaciers, the information he presents is strictly secondary to his fundamental purpose: to evoke the beauty of the place. Few people in history, if any, had such a sensitivity to nature. Squirrels sent him into ecstasies, bird calls lifted him into mystic regions of delight, and mountain scenery brought him close to death with pleasure. Indeed, one quickly gets the impression that he could be equally happy in the rainforests of South America, the deserts of Arabia, or the bogs of Scotland. This, ironically, makes the book rather monotonous. Since the bees and birds, the flowers and ferns, the pine trees, fir trees, cedars, sequoias, and all the rest are equally majestic, noble, exquisite, etc.—in every season and all times of day—the descriptions become difficult to attend to. The emotional tone is endlessly euphoric.

Muir’s writing comes most alive when he switches from descriptions of nature to first-person accounts of his explorations. For he was not a note-taking Darwin or a rhapsodizing Wordsworth with a walking stick, but a serious adrenaline junkie. He describes, for example, climbing to the top of a 100-foot tall tree during a heavy storm, and clinging to the end while it got whipped about in the wind, and assures us that “never before did I enjoy so noble an exhileration of motion.” He goes on to describe the experience:

The slender tops fairly flapped and swished in the passionate torrent, bending and swirling backward and forward, round and round, tracing indescribable combinations of vertical and horizontal curves, while I clung with muscles firm braced, like a bobolink on a reed… I kept my lofty perch for hours, frequently closing my eyes to enjoy the music by itself, or to feast quietly on the delicious fragrance that was streaming past. … from the chafing of resiny branches against each other, and the incessant attrition myriads of needles, the gale was spiced to a very tonic degree.

Passages like this are entirely typical. Never is there even a hint of discomfort or fear. Everything he does is unselfconsciously joyful. Muir gives us a (perhaps unwitting) self-portrait in his description of the Water Ouzel: “he never calls forth a single touch of pity; not because he is strong to endure, but rather because he seems to live a charmed life beyond the reach of every influence that makes endurance necessary.” The rest of the descriptions applies equally well: “For both in winter and in summer he sings, sweetly, cheerily, independent alike of sunshine and of love, requiring no other inspiration than the stream on which he dwells. While water sings, so must he, in heat or cold, calm or storm, ever attuning his voice in sure accord; low in the drought of summer and the drought of winter, but never silent.”

So must Muir sing his cheerful tune, whether hanging from cliffs, being buffeted in snowstorms, or crawling through thick brush on all fours. It is hard not to envy a man so seemingly impervious to all negative feeling, sensation, or thought. One suspects that Muir is not giving us the whole picture; but he could not have lived such a life if it did not fulfill him. And, as Bill McKibben states in the introduction, in many ways Muir falls comfortably within an American cultural tradition, running from the exhuberance to Whitman, the nature-worship of Thoreau, and the transcendental enthusiasm of Emerson, on through Muir to the drug-fueled ravings of the Beats and beyond. Muir is a shining exemplar of the outdoorsy woodsman, actuated by individual grit and positive thinking, that is so dear to the national myth. And, in truth, he did a lot of good.

All this being said in his praise, I still must give this book a middling rating. Muir is a prime example of a writer who excels on the level of sentences—writing lyrical, poetic descriptions of all he sees—but who falls short on the level of the whole book. The enthusiastic tone and passionate descriptions drift off into homogenous yelps of beauty. And, while evocative and impressionistic, Muir fails to give a fleshed-out, coherent picture of the mountain wilderness. Still, in his best moments Muir is unforgettable; and I confess that he did inspire in me some faint longings to go out hiking myself—though I would prefer a well-marked trail.

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