Review: The Mountains of California

Review: The Mountains of California

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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Review: A Sand County Almanac

Review: A Sand County Almanac

A Sand County Almanac: With Essays on Conservation from Round RiverA Sand County Almanac: With Essays on Conservation from Round River by Aldo Leopold

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a dull world if we knew all about geese!

Nature is refreshing. Even a short walk in a park can powerfully clear one’s head. For whatever reason—perhaps because our ancestors lived in trees—surrounding oneself with birches and maples produces in nearly everyone feelings of warmth, comfort, and peace. And for many people, nature is more than refreshing: it is awe-inspiring, even divine. Natural environments are, for some, more uplifting than cathedrals. Emerson might have captured this strain of mystical naturalism best:

In the woods, we return to reason and faith. … Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being flow through me; I am part or particle of God.

I myself have had comparable experiences in the woods. Yet both Emerson and I are pure amateurs next to Aldo Leopold.

Leopold was a pioneering conservationist and forester. He was also a superlative writer, and in this brief book he covers a lot of ground. He begins with a month-by-month account of Sand County, a poor farming region in Wisconsin. This was my favorite section, since Leopold’s sensitivity to his environment is nearly superhuman. He has a keen sense of both the history of environments—how they change with the seasons, how they have evolved through time, how they have been warped by human activity—and the close-knit interdependence of ecosystems, how each organism shapes and is shaped by every other organism, forming a perfect whole.

As a stylist, he manages to be lyrical and poetic while sticking scrupulously to what he sees and hears. His sentences are short, his diction simple, and yet he manages to evoke a densely complex ecosystem. This is because, unlike Emerson or I—and more so than Thoreau—Leopold really understood his environment. He can name every species of plant, and tell what soils they prefer and what plants they like as neighbors. He can identify every bird by its call, and knows where it roosts, what it eats, when it migrates, and how it mates. Scratches on a tree tell him a deer is nearby, his antlers fully grown; the footprints in snow tell him a skunk has passed, and how recently.

All this is described with exquisite sensitivity, but no romantic embellishment. To borrow a phrase from E.B. White, Leopold had discovered “the eloquence of facts.” And, like White, Thoreau, and Emerson, his writing has a pleasing, folksy, rambling, ambling quality, wherein each sentence is nailed to the next one at an oblique angle.

In the rest of the book, Leopold puts forward a new philosophy of conservation. This train of thought reminded my very much of another book I read recently, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In that book, Jane Jacobs explains how top-down approaches to city planning killed neighborhood vitality. Just so, when Leopold was a young man in the forestry service, he participated in the policy of removing predators—bears, wolves, and mountain lions—to protect livestock and to increase the supply of hunting animals, like deer. When hunting became necessary to control population, parks began building more and more roads to make access easier; and meanwhile the exploding deer population prevented new trees from growing. Thus the park was encroached upon by cars, and the ecosystem thrown off balance—in the same way that blindly building highways and public housing can destroy neighborhoods.

Leopold was, I believe, one of the first to popularize the idea that ecosystems act like one giant organism, with a delicate balance of cooperating and competing components. Every healthy ecosystem is a harmony that cannot be disturbed without unpredictable results. To again borrow from Jacobs, an ecosystem—like a city economy or a human brain—is an example of “organized complexity.” Thus ecosystems baffle attempts to understand them by thinking of their components separately, as a collection of individual species, or even statistically, as the average behavior of interchangeable parts. Complexity like this tends to be a product of historical growth, with each distinct component making minute adjustments to each other in a dense network of influence. Leopold doesn’t say this in so many words; but he does something even more impressive: he illustrates this quality using short anecdotes and schoolboy vocabulary.

His most philosophic contribution to the environmental movement is what he called a “land ethic.” Previous arguments for conservation were couched in terms of expediency: how national parks and nature reserves could benefit us economically. Leopold believed that this approach was too narrow; since hunting lodges and mechanized farms are always more profitable in the short term, this would eventually result in the destruction of wild ecosystems and the disappearance of species. We needed to move beyond arguments of expediency and see the land—and everything on it—as valuable for its own sake. Leopold believed that we had an ethical duty to preserve ecosystems and all their species, and that the aesthetic reward of wild nature was more valuable than dollars and cents could measure.

I want to go along with this, but I thought that Leopold was unsatisfyingly vague in this direction. It is simply not enough to say that we have an ethical duty to preserve nature; this is quite a claim, and requires quite a bit of argument. Further, aesthetic value seems like a slender reed to rest on. For every Emerson and Thoreau, there is a Babbitt whose tastes are not so refined. To his credit, Leopold does argue that a great part of conservation must consist in elevating the public taste in nature. Otherwise, conservation will consist of little more than the government using tax dollars to purchase large swaths of land. Individuals must see the value in wilderness and actively participate in preserving it. But molding tastes is no easy thing; and, more importantly, if we are to do so, there must be compelling reasons to do it.

The most compelling reasons for conservation are, I believe, expediency—but expediency in the widest sense. The difference between folly and wisdom is not that the former is preoccupied with expediency and the latter higher things; it is that wisdom considers what is expedient on a grander scale. Leopold comes close to making this same argument. He was, for example, ahead of his time in being deeply concerned about extinction. Every time a species disappears it is an irreplaceable loss; and considering that our medicine partly depends on new discoveries, extinctions may have terrible consequences for us down the line. (I saw a PBS special the other day about scientists trying to discover new antibiotics by shifting through raw soil.) Since Leopold’s day—long before Silent Spring or An Incovenient Truth—we have learned plenty more ways that environmental destruction can be equivalent to self-destruction.

Carping aside, this is a deeply satisfying book: lyrical, descriptive, educational, and innovative. Leopold realized what Orwell also realized: that winning converts requires both argument and propaganda. He does not only argue for the value of nature, but he really captures the beauty of unspoiled environments and serves it up for his readers’ consideration. We are not only convinced, but seduced. This is propaganda in its noblest form—propaganda on behalf of nature.

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