Thursday, June 9, 2011

John Muir - present and future reading

John Muir’s memoir, The Story of My Boyhood and Youth (1913) is a treat, packed with curious incidents and close observations of nature, but it is a simple book.  Muir dictated his history and then fixed it up for publication, and I could tell.  It is a charming and instructive book, but not a complex one.  I mean, not complexly written.  Budding twelve year-old nature lovers could, and should, read it.

Same goes for Muir’s most popular work, the 1909 Stickeen, which is only nineteen pages long in the Library of America Nature Writings collection.  It describes “the most memorable of all my wild days” (559), when Muir and an adorable dog were caught in a storm while exploring an Alaskan glacier.  Again, an all ages story.

My First Summer in the Sierra (1911) is a more complex book, as I tried to argue yesterday, multi-purpose, rhetorically complex, artistically varied, surprisingly funny.  Do not miss the passage in which Muir describes his greasy fellow shepherd, so “oleaginous” that he involuntarily collects natural specimens, “pine needles, thin flakes and fibres of bark, hair, mica scales… feathers, seed wings, moth and butterfly wings,” all of this adorning his “precious overalls” which “in their stratification have no small geological significance” (227).

Muir, even here, is less complex than his intellectual mentor Henry David Thoreau, less imaginative in his metaphors, less endlessly ironic, or, as Thoreau-haters might think, more honest.  Muir’s actively worshipful attitude toward nature is his own, not Thoreau’s.

What more should I read?  The Library of America collection includes an additional 260 pages of essays, plus one more book, The Mountains of California (1894).  This book seems to resemble My First Summer in the Sierra in its descriptive and scientific passages, while sacrificing the diaristic narrative.  Kevin at Interpolations just wrote about an outstanding fragment of The Mountains of California, a single excellent metaphor, describing a little cluster of ten small lakes as “like eggs in a nest.”  Kevin is familiar with the area, and has seen the lakes himself, so the passage has a less abstract meaning to him than to me.  Yosemite National Park is, I think, my number one American Humiliation.

The Sierra Club has a nice site devoted to their co-founder,  including a list of and links to “favorite passages.”  I haven’t read any of them!  A chapter from Mountains, “The Water-Ouzel,” is “one of the finest animal biographies ever written,” while another chapter describes Muir’s experience of a massive wind-storm from the top of a Douglas fir.  John Muir was a lunatic.

All right, I should read The Mountains of California someday.  Absolutely.  Maybe before a visit to Yosemite.  What else?  If you know, please share.


  1. You just need to go to Yosemite (preferably in the off-season with fresh snow) whether or not you read any more Muir.