“I must drift about these love-monument mountains, glad to be a servant of servants in so holy a wilderness.” John Muir – “My First Summer in the Sierra”
My friends, I’ve fallen head-over-heels in love. This is the literary equivalent of texting your bestie from the bathroom at a date to tell her that you have found *the one*. I can’t believe I’ve gone this long without really getting to know this man who is so very perfect for me.
In a desultory fashion, I saw his book when I was up at Mt. Rainier buying All The Mt. Rainier Things. And I now own no fewer than two t-shirts that say “The mountains are calling and I must go” citing him and Rainier in the same breath. So before I headed off backpacking with my son I downloaded his “Nature Writings” – which start with his autobiography. His life starts out both hard and common. He speaks of the beatings, the fighting, the memorization that mark his childhood. To modern ears it sounds beyond brutal and brutalizing. In his teenage years, his father abandons him down a well for the better part of a day for days on end (where he nearly dies), and his growth is stunted by the heavy constant labors of plowing and toiling in fields. But somehow he wakes up hours early every day and invents (without the internet, or even many books) devices whose purpose I can’t even understand, never mind whose workings.
Somehow, from that drudgery and brutality, is born an open-hearted poet.
This man speaks to me in a way I thought only Tolkien could. He is a co-religionist in every sense. Like me, he was a Presbyterian, although raised in a much more stern and unforgiving religious environment. But he seems to find God in the same places I do – in the mountains and streams and forests. His love of nature is a worshipful reflection of a God whom he never seems to be able to see as nearly as cold and unkind and punishing as his father apparently did. While is story of his youth makes you want to pity him, you can’t. Because through the 16 hour days, the frozen feet, the stunted growth he’s always noticing the beauty and the loveliness of the world and people around him.
I’ve just started on his “My First Summer in the Sierra” and oh! How he speaks of the mountains! It’s like hearing someone praise your own beloved, but in words better than you could find. It’s like hearing a prophet speak of your faith, or finding a poet whose words express your heart’s great secrets. I thought that in reading Muir I’d have to put on my “reading 19th century white dude” filter (well-honed to note and then pass by mysogyny, colonialism, racism, and a belief that not only were the spoils of the Americas limitless they were the rightful property of white folks). I’ve been astonished to meet among the pages of these mountain praises the thoughts of a man who generally seems to see all other humans as of equal worth – a man who also understands the gift and limitation of nature’s bounty. Even as he leads sheep to fatten on alpine meadows, he laments the impact of mankind and our beasts on the world, “Only the sky will then be safe, though hid from view by dust and smoke, incense of a bad sacrifice.” (p. 208) One begins to understand by whose hand, and why and how, these marvels were set aside for us in the first place.
My reading has just begun. I start to wish that I had a lovely copy of his works – a Riverside Muir as you would. It seems almost sacrilegious to read his works on the most quintessentially modern Kindle. I feel like I should find a grove in which to encounter his texts as sacred witness to God’s most glorious creations.
There should be some great conclusion here – some wrapped up discovery. Instead there’s just a hopefulness – that his other writings refresh and inspire my heart so. The astonishing awakening of the morality and decency of those from whom we expected a more “of their era” myopia – and perhaps a similar inspiration to be better than our own era demands. The rising heart of someone who has discovered a whole body of work that seems designed to inspire them, and of which they’ve barely sipped. I can see my future self slowly meting out writings in moments of either great reflection or great need, to feed a famished soul.
“Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, inciting at once to work and rest! Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God. Nevermore, however weary, should one faint by the way who gains the blessings of one mountain day; whatever his fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, he is rich forever.”
Muir, John. John Muir: Nature Writings (LOA #92): The Story of My Boyhood and Youth / My First Summer in the Sierra / The Mountains of California / Stickeen / essays (Library of America) Library of America. Kindle Edition.
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