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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

John Muir’s “long moment of ecstasy,”
My First Summer in the Sierra

View of Upper Tuolumne Valley
May 26 marks the centennial of the publication of My First Summer in the Sierra, John Muir’s landmark account of the summer he spent in 1869 as a thirty-one-year-old herding sheep (which he came to call “hoofed locusts”) to the “high, cool, green pastures of the Sierra.” Muir would revisit the journal he kept that summer, revise and rewrite it, and then revise it again. As biographer Donald Worster writes in A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir:
For all its seeming spontaneity and immediacy, the printed version was a much-labored over and retrospective account. . . . What seems clear is that his Sierra summer awakened the deepest and most intense passion of his life, a long moment of ecstasy that he would try to remember and relive to the end of his days. His whole body, not his eyes alone, felt the beauty around him. Every sense became intensely alive. He bounded over rocks and up mountain sides, hung over the edge of terrifying precipices, his face drenched in the spray of waterfalls. . . . Each thing he saw or felt seemed joined to the rest in exquisite harmony. . . . He experienced, in the fullest sense yet, a profound conversion to the religion of nature.
Muir always traveled light but never without his notebook. My First Summer in the Sierra is filled with his fine line sketches; his observations of plant and animal life, the shapes of landscapes and waterfalls, the changing textures of light and shadow; humorous accounts of his dealings with crazy shepherds, rampaging bears, and skittish sheep; and lyrical passages on the impact a firsthand experience of nature has on the senses and the spirit. Here is Muir on how his day begins:
July 19. – Watching the daybreak and sunrise. The pale rose and purple sky changing softly to daffodil yellow and white, sunbeams pouring through the passes between the peaks and over the Yosemite domes, making their edges burn; the silver firs in the middle ground catching the flow on their spiry tops, and our camp grove fills and thrills with the glorious light. Everything awakening alert and joyful; the birds begin to stir and innumerable insect people. Deer quietly withdraw into leafy hiding-places in the chaparral; the dew vanishes, flowers spread their petals, every pulse beats high, every life cell rejoices. The very rocks seem to thrill with life. The whole landscape glows like a human face in the glory of enthusiasm, and the blue sky, pale around the horizon, bends peacefully down over all like one vast flower.
Muir’s experiences that summer would lead to his path-breaking research into the glacier formation of the surrounding valleys—and deepen a passion that fueled his writings and work for the next forty-five years. He would go on to inspire the movement to create the first National Parks, co-found the Sierra Club, and become America’s first great environmentalist. As Worster writes:
What [Muir] gave the [conservation] movement was indispensable: the compelling image and words of a prophet standing before unsullied nature in a posture of unabashed love. That love of nature was both rhapsodical and worldly, a love that knew no bounds but knew how to compromise. He inspired Americans to believe that nature deserved higher consideration. Plenty of others shared that belief, but no one articulated it better.
Also of interest:
Related LOA works: John Muir: Nature Writings; Treasury of American Nature Writing (6 books)

1 comment:

  1. I was planning to write on this book today, by complete coincidence. Thanks for the post and the helpful links.


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