Thursday, May 26, 2011

John Muir reads nature - the pro-Transcendentalist Butcher's Crossing

But I was only leaving one University for another, the Wisconsin University for the University of the Wilderness. (John Muir, The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, 1913, last sentence)

Something about Butcher’s Crossing was nagging at me.  Something about the young man heading into the mountains under Emersonian principles; something about the date, the early 1870s.  A glance at the Chronology section of the Library of America edition of John Muir’s Nature Writings (1997) confirmed my hunch.

Muir’s historic first trip to the Yosemite Valley, recounted in My First Summer in the Sierra (1911), took place in 1869.   Muir actually met Emerson in Yosemite in 1871 – Emerson was there as a tourist – and acted as his guide to the area.  So I began to read My First Summer in the Sierra.

John Williams had certainly read it.  Muir is in Yosemite as a transhumant shepherd, leading the “hoofed locusts” up to their summer pastures; Andrews, in Butcher’s Crossing, is after buffalo hides, not wool; wild wool, not domestic.  Andrews begins the book knowing nothing about nature, and ends the same way; Muir is extraordinarily knowledgeable from the beginning, yet learns more.  Andrews hopes that his encounter with wildness will erase his personality; Muir is overspilling with personality.  Yet they are both up in the mountains because Emerson wrote “Nature” and Thoreau wrote Walden.  One disappears into the emptiness of the West; the other becomes the greatest American naturalist.

The young John Muir was as committed to the authentic experience of nature as his fictional counterpart.  Muir, though was extraordinarily, almost superhumanly knowledgeable.  An intense experience of the natural world was not incompatible with learning, but instead required it.  A key lesson for Muir is his lack of knowledge (he is surveying the view from eleven thousand feet, atop Mount Hoffman):

What questions I asked, and how little I know of all the vast show, and how eagerly, tremulously hopeful of some day knowing more, learning the meaning of these divine symbols crowded together on this wondrous page. (LOA, 240)

The metaphor occurs repeatedly.  Nature is a book, or a manuscript.  Nature is something to read.  Muir was a capacious reader – see the hilarious Chapter VII of My Boyhood and Youth – and an energetic, prolific writer.  Andrews has deliberately rejected reading and writing.

I don’t know that John Williams had Muir in mind at all while composing Butcher’s Crossing.  But Muir provides an alternative to the facile ideas, such as they are, of Andrews.  Butcher’s Crossing is not an attack on the Transcendentalists and their ideas about nature, but a warning about the dangers of a narrow and hasty attraction to them.  John Muir’s experience of nature, which includes sketching, scientific names, technical descriptions of plants and minerals, and not-so-technical descriptions of animals (“A Douglas squirrel, peppery, pungent autocrat of the woods”), is also authentic and powerful.  To Muir, it is explicitly a religious experience, his direct contact with the works of God.  But it requires time: observation and study, writing and reading.

Perhaps I am returning to the ideas of this post.

Today is, the Library of America blog Reader’s Almanac informs me, the centennial of the publication of My Summer in the Sierra.  What a pleasant coincidence.

I may return to Muir soon, but I have other things to do tomorrow.  Tune in for the announcement of what I believe to be the greatest readalong opportunity in book blog history.


  1. Just caught up with you--and I certainly WILL tune in tomorrow to check out that read-along opportunity, even though I have aboaut 50 books piled up already that I want to get to. . .

  2. Why, Anything Ubu barely counts as a book, barely counts as reading.