The Wildest, Highest Places

David Craig

  • John Muir: His Life and Letters and Other Writings edited by Terry Gifford
    Baton Wicks, 912 pp, £20.00, November 1996, ISBN 1 898573 07 7

When John Muir, the son of an emigrant from East Lothian to southern Wisconsin, was 16, in 1855, his father lowered him daily down a well shaft on their new farm at Hickory Hill. John cut with chisel and hammer through fine-grained sandstone until he struck ‘a fine, hearty gush of water’. By then he had dinted his way through eighty feet of rock, working alone from dawn till dark. When he was overcome with choke-damp at the start of work one day, he was hauled up unconscious – and resumed after a day or two once water had been thrown down the shaft ‘to absorb the gas’ and a bundle of brushwood had been dropped on a rope ‘to carry down pure air and stir up the poison’. This was only the most spectacular, and symbolically oppressive, of the Herculean ordeals which ingrained in Muir an extraordinary hardihood and helped to make him the finest field naturalist and most eloquent wilderness writer of his age. As eldest son he did most of the ploughing and stump-digging on the family’s virgin land and split a hundred fencing rails a day from their knotty oak timber: ‘I was proud of my skill and tried to believe that I was as tough as the timber I mauled, though this and other heavy jobs stunted my growth and earned for me the title “runt of the family”.’

The beauty of this monumental volume, and of Muir’s Eight Wilderness Discovery Books, which were republished in 1992, is that they make one weave of his life and his literary work – perfect for a writer whose thinking and experiencing are hard to separate. The Life and Letters volume reprints the first biography, by his masterly literary executor William Frederic Badé. The narrative is laced with Muir’s letters, which rival Lawrence’s in the wholeheartedness of their responses to life around him and to his correspondents. In them we see a man at one with himself and with the granite, the fast rivers, the mighty resinous trees of the western Sierra Nevada. In a letter of 1871 to the friend who elicited much of his most heartfelt incidental writing, Jeanne Carr, wife of the professor of agriculture at San Francisco, he jotted down this statement of his ideal: ‘Patient observation and constant brooding above the rocks, lying upon them for years as the ice did, is the way to arrive at the truths which are graven so lavishly upon them.’ To another of his women friends – his ‘spiritual mothers’, as they are called by Thurman Wilkins, his latest biographer – he wrote the following year, welcoming her to come and camp in Yosemite: ‘People who come here ... should forget their individual existences, should forget they are born. They should as nearly as possible live the life of a particle of dust in the wind, or of a withered leaf in a whirlpool.’

‘Lying on the rocks for years’ is not a metaphor, it is how he did his fieldwork. He walked great distances and climbed great heights, nearly always alone. In the wilderness he lived on bread and tea, boiled on a fire of fossil wood or shavings from the underside of his sledge. To save weight he usually did without blankets and ‘made my bed of rich, spicy boughs, elastic and warm’. In a cleft three miles back from the brow of El Capitan, ‘I lay down and thought of the time when the groove in which I rested was being ground away at the bottom of a vast ice-sheet that flowed over all the Sierra like a slow wind.’ He carried little but his notebook tied to his belt and a spray of fir-needles in his buttonhole, and he walked extremely fast – a friend called him ‘dear old streak o’ lightning on ice’. His daring was unshakeable. The rock-faces he climbed were often of the severity we now grade 5.8 (US) or Hard Very Severe (UK). This is near the limit I will climb with a companion and several hundred pounds’ worth of ropes and metal protection gear. Muir was climbing alone – to observe the glaciation of rocks and the moulding of valleys; the terrain was untouched; no guidebooks had yet been written. He was virtually naked in the face of the cliffs and cascades, the glaciers he explored in Alaska, and the deep trackless marshes in Ontario where he waded all day, steering by compass, in search of new flower species.

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