Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Muir reads the grand mountain manuscript, and writes his own books

John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra (1911) is three books in one.  The base of the book is the 1869 journal of Muir’s trip into the Sierra Nevadas as a shepherd, a succession of incidents and adventures – the night the bears discovered his sheep, for example.  The incidents are not especially exciting, although they have their moments.

Muir reworked the journal for publication forty years later, creating books two and three.  My First Summer is a genuine work of scientific description, but I suspect much of the scientific matter was added or polished later.  Here Muir is describing “a typical glacier meadow”:

The showy flowers are mostly three species of gentian, a purple and yellow orthocarpus, a golden-rod or two, a small blue pentstemon almost like a gentian, potentilla, ivesia, pedicularis, white violet, kalmia, and bryanthus.  There are no coarse weedy plants.  Through this flowery lawn flows a stream silently gliding, swirling, slipping as if careful not to make the slightest noise.  (288)

I included the last line to undermine the impression that Muir’s scientific prose is merely technical.  Metaphor are necessary tools for science writers.  That list of flowers, though, is daunting; useful, presumably, but not without additional assistance.  The passage suggests a hypothetical edition of the book, one filled with color photos of each species mentioned, and multiple photos of each tree.  Muir spends a lot of space describing trees – silver firs, Sierra junipers, and so on.  He gives the trees a lot of personality, actually – the juniper is:

A thickset, sturdy, picturesque highlander, seemingly content to live for more than a score of centuries on sunshine and snow; a truly wonderful fellow, dogged endurance expressed in every feature, lasting about as long as the granite he stands on. (248-9)

Muir is a fine science writer.  The question is just how much information a reader wants on heights and diameters, soil conditions, and percentage of cloud cover.  It’s all easy enough to skim if too tedious, I guess.

And the details about tree bark and insects and glacial activity provide the necessary foundation for the third book, the extended metaphor of the Church of Nature.  Muir alternates his thick description of nature with wild religious effusions.  Nature, or something more specific – a meadow or mountain or sky – is an altar or “the grandest holiest temple” (he’s writing about frost crystals) or a “grand mountain manuscript.”  Muir repeats that idea incessantly.  He is always reading nature.  All of this is a form of worship:

Here ends my forever memorable first High Sierra excursion.  I have crossed the Range of Light, surely the brightest and best of all the Lord has built; and rejoicing in its glory, I gladly, gratefully, hopefully pray I may see it again. (309, last sentence)

Long before this point, I had understood that Muir was only employing the religious metaphors as a piece of his attempt to do something difficult, to accurately describe his genuine spiritual response to the wild, and to give some idea of how his reader can experience the same feeling.  Or (now I have thought of book #4) why even a spiritually blighted reader should want to preserve the wilderness, perhaps as a National Park, for those who do have that sort of response.

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