The Not-Quite-Sober John Muir (review)

Here’s a book review/essay I wrote a while back for a journal called Wild Earth, that I repost here on A Change in the Wind because I want it to be Google-able. Below the fold I’ll put it the remainder of the review in a standard font. For Muir admirers, please let me say it includes some of his “lost” poetry, and that it’s worth your five minutes.

So John Muir’s epistolary relationship with Jeanne Carr was blessed from the start. Back to the review:

Inspired, Muir went on to write Carr hundreds of letters. They are the fount of some of his best work, and have been in print for almost a century — at least in part — but only in bits and pieces has Carr’s side of the story been told. Gisel has balanced the scales, giving us both sides of the correspondence, as well as a much fuller picture of the relationship. She briskly scotches rumors of a fling between the two, but comes up with plenty of delightful new details (Muir once felled an 80-foot pine with a hatchet to make a bridge across the Merced River for a party including Carr — only to see it break upon landing!) Her scholarly attention to fact ensures that this book will find its place in libraries: for those eager to know Muir first-hand it will be invaluable.

Michael Branch, in John’s Muir’s Last Journey, with equal thoroughness gives us an elegiac picture of Muir at the end of his days. Included is a previously unpublished letter in which Muir, age 74, declares to his sister that he has enough material for 100 books, “but of course I won’t live long enough to write that many.” Yet he had time to journey to South America, across the continent, impulsively sail for the Canary Isles, and then around Africa, through the Middle East, and homeward by way of Gibraltar. No longer young, and no longer able to adventure where he so chose on foot, these are the letters and notes of an older, saddened man. Because Muir is weary, his writing here cannot offer the excitement of his earlier works, but John’s Muir’s Last Journey does allow the admirer to see the enormity of his curiosity, and hear again the metaphors by which he lived.

He was near the end of his life; he had lost the titanic struggle to save Hetch-Hetchy, as well as his devoted wife. When after eight months abroad he returned, he found his two daughters had put the family home, a mansion surrounded by a substantial fruit ranch, up for sale. His wife had left it to the children. Muir bought it back from them “for the sake of the dearly cherished memories about it and the fine garden grounds full of trees and bushes and flowers that my wife and [her] father and I planted.” He continued, “but there’s no good bread hereabouts and no housekeeper, so I may never be able to make it a home, fared, perhaps, to wander until sundown.”

This sort of dashed-off poetry rarely appears in the natural histories he wrote, mostly in middle age, for what he once described as “muddy purposes.” In his most professional work, he leaves his impetuous self out of the picture, overstuffs his sentences, and ends up with pieces that can be as laborious to read as they were for him to write. The harder he drove himself in his “scribble den,” the more plodding his books became. Yet in his outbursts — especially in journals and letters written under the influence of the Sierra — the exuberant, spontaneous Muir soars to unsurpassed heights of natural rhapsody.

This paradox was more apparent to friends at the time than to readers a hundred-odd years later. When Muir the young man complained to Carr that he could not bring the mountains down to people on little scraps of paper, she threatened to make an article out of his letters herself. When he continued to stall, she slapped together two of his letters, and — with minimal editing — sent the final results to The Atlantic, where the lyrical masterpiece was published unaltered as “A Geologist’s Winter Walk.”

IF IT IS TRUE, as critic Harold Bloom has famously argued, “that the meaning of a poem could only be another poem,” then, by extension, when Gary Snyder found a new poem inside Muir’s story of a near-fatal climb of Mt. Ritter he found, in effect, a new Muir. This is the Muir seen in Tom Killion and Gary Snyder’s The High Sierra of California. He sounds less like his Puritanical father and more like the poet Han-Shan; what’s more, this new Muir speaks with a clarity as timeless and captivating as the mountains themselves:

After scanning its face again and again,
I begin to scale it, picking my holds
With intense caution. About half-way
To the top, I was suddenly brought to
A dead stop, with arms outspread
Clinging close to the face of the rock
Unable to move hand or foot
Either up or down. My doom
Appeared fixed. I MUST fall.
There would be a moment of
Bewilderment, and then,
A lifeless rumble down the cliff
To the glacier below.
My mind seemed to fill with a
Stifling smoke. This terrible eclipse
Lasted only a moment, when life blazed
Forth again with preternatural
I seemed suddenly to become
Of a new sense. My trembling muscles
Became firm again, every rift and
   flaw in
The rock was seen as through a
My limbs moved with a postiveness
   and precision
With which I seemed to have
Nothing at all to do.

In Muir’s account of the mountain cimb from which the above was drawn, hea dmitted he did not understand how he survived, adn he wondered if he might have been saved by “bygone experience, Instinct, or Guardian Angel.” Snyder post the past experience, the instinct, and the angel out of Muir’s passage, added line breaks but not a single word, and let the result stand as a poem.

In this new light, many of Muir’s most startling passages look as mysterious and Buddhist as they do awed and Christian. His devotion to wild things of all varieties — from the hardest of rocks to the tiniest of beings to the furthest rays of light in the sky — becomes as revolutionary as it is loving. After an introduction to Killion’s extraordinary prints, interspersed with Muir’s mountain-inspired rhapsodies, comes a selection from Snyder’s backpacking journals, as well as a sprinkling of his poems and haiku. About the journal entries Snyder is becomingly modest; in his introduction he calls them “over-laconic.” Though too sketchy to coalesce into a narrative, these notes nonetheless glitter with shards of on-the-spot poetry, sharp comments, and evocative descriptions of bold mountaineering. Snyder gave Killion his journals for publication because, he admits, the prints “stole his heart.” He will not be alone: Killion captures the starkness of the mountains and their skies with exacting precision and great love.

Were Muir to see this book, he might nitpick. Killion takes liberties with color: Muir kidded his painter friend William Keith about the Impressionistic smears that Keither allowed into his Sierra landscapes. Muir might also object to some of Killion’s content, such as the naked women in “Kern River Hot Springs.” But he might surprise us: Muir’s outbursts frequently were too sensual or frank to be published in his prim, Victoria era.

Only now, nearly a hundred years after his best books were published, is it apparent how mercurial was the nature of Muir’s talent, and how badly his writings could be damaged by editors, including himself.

“There is no pain here for me, no dull empty days, no fear of the past,” might have been too raw an admission in 1887, when Muir first transcribed his early Yosemite journals. Twenty-three years later, have already exclaimed over bears and glaciers and squirrels, Muir published the journals of his own conversion experience in California, trimmed but little rewritten, as My First Year in the Sierra.

This is the book most admirers consider his best, complete with the pain and loneliness usually left out of his more settled, middle-aged work. It’s Muir’s penultimate book, and one of his least — or most subtly — structured. Synder’s journals and notes in The High Sierra of California are similarly spontaneous and even more hard-headed. He challenges not just Muir’s habitual reliance on Biblical metaphors, but also his love for Nature without people. This edginess gives the book spine; the poetry adds insight, and even a hint of climax. Despite his complaints, however, Snyder is quick to declare that “Yosemite Valley and the High Sierra were created by the minds of John Muir and Joseph LeConte.”

Snyder’s notes, gathered over a period of forty years, seem sparse in comparison to the outpouring from Muir, whose journals over the years 1868-1875 require 84 chapters, according to the micro reel records available in University of California libraries. Thankfully, Killion and Snyder include many Muir passages rarely seen, including a haiku-like journal entry he wrote while camped near water. Once in a letter, he admitted to Jeanne Carr that “I never can keep my pen perfectly sober when it gets into the bounce and hurrah of cascades, but it never has broken into rhyme before.” This was one of those not-quite-sober times:

The night wind begins to flow
and sigh over rock and through
the clumpy trees. The rush of the
waterfall blends
with wind and fire.
[August 1, 1876]

In his Sierran landscapes, Killion finds a unity — a balance between jagged and smooth, high and low, dark and light — that implies a spirituality. This oneness is not always evident in photographs of these mountains, but it is always present in Muir’s writing.

“MUIR’S DESIRE to protect the wilderness was a way of preserving what he believed [were] the primary sources of God’s word,” writes Dennis Williams in God’s Wilds: John Muir’s Vision of Nature, his thoughtful exploration of Muir’s faith. Williams digs out the roots of Muir’s spirituality, showing how to the fierce fundamentalism of his father — a lay preacher for the Disciples of Christ — Muir grafted the much sweeter Presbyterian fruits of his mother. From his father came the wholehearted and unembarrassed evangelicism; from his mother, a trusting. Because his disagreemtrns with his overbearing father were so dramatic — and so well-told in his Boyhood and Youth — Muir’s agreement with his mother has been almost completely forgotten.

Williams takes us back to the rock of natural Presbyterianism, the Belgic Confession of 1619, which declared that we know God first “by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book.” Not only does the literary metaphor reoccur repeatedly in Muir’s writing, especially about Yosemite, but so too does the underlying faith — that to be truly wild is to be led by God. This faith made possible a fearlessness that enthralled his contemporaries. Who else would charge a bear, or climb a tree in a windstorm, or ride an avalanche? One night he clambered out under Yosemite Falls, about five hundred feet above ground, only to be battered with the huge column of water shifted and pelted down on him. Somehow he survived. He wrote about it to Mrs Carr, claiming that he “supposed” he was “in a trance,” adding, “How little do we know of ourselves, of our profoundest attractions and repulsions, of our spiritual affinities!” For another man this would be a rhetorical question: for Muir it meant betting his life, often against his own better judgment. “We never know where we must go, nor what guides we are to get — men, storms, guardian angels, or sheep…” he wrote in My First Summer in the Sierra. “Almost everyone in the least natural is guided more than he is ever aware of.”

Muir did not so much write this book as release it, just as he did not so much conquer the Sierra, as allow them to conquer him. Having been transformed by faith, Muir came to trust in the spiritual power of the universe to guide, change, and renew, according to a wisdom past human understanding. As a young would-be geologist, Muir bet his reputation on the idea that Yosemite Valley had been sculpted over the eons by glaciers, not made in a day by a disastrous earthquake. Though he conducted experiments to prove his point, Muir’s scientific argument, paradoxically, grew out of an essentially theological understanding of the world.

“I feel strong enough to leap Yosemite walls at a bound,” he declared in an 1872 letter to Mrs. Carr. “Hotels and human impurities will be far below. I will fuse in spirit skies. I will touch naked God.”

This letter was omitted when Muir’s letters to Mrs. Carr were first published, by his daughter Wanda in 1915. In 1923, when William Bade bought out the authorized biography, the letter was quoted, but the reference to “naked God” was left out.

It’s easy to see why. It’s still a startling statement, both in his urgency and its ambition. That’s the nature of Muir: a determination to storm the heavens, the inexhaustible energy with which to do it, and an unshakeable faith in the truth of what will be found there, whether or not we can understand it. We read of his exploits, and think we know him, but in fact the “guided” Muir could startle those who knew him to the very end of his life, as when he insisted on taking a 40,000-mile journey around the world, alone, at age 71.

Though a cottage industry has grown up around Muir that puts out a half-dozen books a year — not to mention CDs, documentaries, dances, musicals, plays, and screenplays — most of these works concentrate on his adventures and natural histories. As Williams points out, in contrast, “the urgent and excited prose of Muir’s not yet fully digested ideas in the field notebooks is reading Muir at his best.” This is the mysterious, almost Heraclitean Muir now slowly coming to light.

“One’s feelings are almost always in advance of words,” Muir once mused, “so much is deeply felt is in its very nature undefinable, especially when we travel alone.”

Ninety years after his death, John Muir can still surprise us, just as — under the influence of the universe — he often surprised himself.

[Reviewed by Kit Stolz, a writer from Upper Ojai, California, who has written about John Muir for Sierra and also contributes to the Los Angeles Times]

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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