The Wildest, Highest Places
- 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.
The two things in the Sierra which he did his utmost to save unspoiled, with results that have lasted to this day in the National Parks he helped to found, are the monumental sequoias growing on its western slopes and the glaciated granite valleys that make its arteries. The sequoias rise so tall, on their 200-foot trunks like furred brown tendons, that as you stand beneath them and look upward to their crowning needle-clusters, you feel yourself sucked through a time-tunnel into some primal and unpeopled continent. Muir rejoiced to think that they were in their prime and ‘swaying in the Sierra winds when Christ walked the earth’. He made some of the first estimates of their age and studied their distribution in relation to soil depths and water. As you walk through the Yosemite valley with the colossal front of El Capitan standing up straight and steely to your left and the hunched mass of Tissiack (Half Dome) to your right, its curve sheared off frontally, you feel your shoulders brace and your brain contract as though you were having to hold apart the irresistible gravity and closure of the Earth’s crust. Muir called it ‘a grand page of mountain manuscript that I would gladly give my life to be able to read’, then did just that, moving across it with the freedom of a flying, swimming creature. He knew it through shepherding and sawmill working; he sensed the curve of its domes, the shining of its surfaces, the angling of its clefts so intently that he became able to explain its formation as though he had been an eye-witness of the Ice Age. When expert geologists were still asserting that the valley floor had dropped in some huge seismic event, Muir could see that it had been made by glaciers moving down the cleavage joints of the granite, shearing, graving, polishing, dumping boulders and moraines.
Now, after a century and more of aerial mapping, examining fossilised pollen through the microscope, sampling ice in cores hundreds of feet deep, we can say that the work of glaciers is obvious. To make sense of the labyrinth of mountain, forest, glen and ice-field by living in it and traversing it, with no instruments and precious few maps, was a physical and intellectual feat. Muir could comprehend that world – meaning both ‘encompass’ and ‘understand’ – because he delighted in it, was equal to its rigours, and craved to understand its least leaf and crystal, swarming up its pines in gales of wind and leaning out over the lips of its waterfalls.
His feeling for nature is scarcely separable from his piety, which is luxuriant and ecstatic. In the Californian Sierra, ‘the presence of an atmosphere is hardly recognised, and the thin, white, bodiless light of the morning comes to the peaks and glaciers as a pure spiritual essence, the most impressive of all the terrestrial manifestations of God.’ Canoeing along the ice-cliffs of coastal Alaska he feels the same: ‘bays full of hazy shadows, graduating into open, silvery fields of light, and lofty headlands with fine arching insteps dipping their feet in the shining water ... Forgotten now were the Chilcats and missions while the word of God was being read in these majestic hieroglyphics blazoned along the sky.’ So organised religion shrinks and falls out of the frame as the potency of nature comes over him. Essential belief never leaves him. On the glacier near Wrangell, among the ‘gashed and sculptured’ ice-walls and cornices, ‘every feature glowed with intention, reflecting the plans of God.’ He can see it all as divinely created (although he knew about evolution and wholly accepted it) because it strikes him as beautiful and wholesome – utterly so. The ice, on which nothing can grow, which crushed rocks and swamped canoes (and nearly killed him as he paddled between two closing icebergs), has a ‘broad melting bosom’ which is ‘filled with light, simmering and throbbing in pale-blue tones of ineffable tenderness and beauty’. In this Nature of unalloyed goodness, there can be no poison, injury or disaster. When an entire cliff on the south wall of Yosemite collapsed, he saw the rockfall as ‘an arc of glowing passionate fire ... as true in form and as serene in beauty as a rainbow’. A spate that tore away rocks and swept whole trees down from Mount Hoffman to plunge over Yosemite Falls is part of ‘the universal anthem storm’. He developed a philosophy of storms to counter our tendency to fear them out of a ‘lack of faith in the Scriptures of Nature’ (for which he faulted Ruskin) and he argued that storms of rain or snow were ‘a cordial outpouring of Nature’s love’. Nature was whole, where people are divided and confused: ‘How terribly downright must be the utterances of storms and earthquakes to those accustomed to the soft hypocrisies of society.’
His determination to see nature as benign has been called a flaw by his most intelligent critic, Michael Cohen, in The Pathless Way. As we climbed together on a route called Great White Book in the Tuolumne domes east of Yosemite, he told me how Muir was disconcerted by the writhen and stunted junipers rooting in crevices of the granite because they were struggling, not harmoniously healthy. For Muir nature must be good, and this goodness was almost personal. So storms ‘utter’; trees ‘behave’, whether they are ‘thoughtful’ or ‘wideawake’; rock pinnacles at sunrise ‘shout colour hallelujahs’. Lichenous trees ‘sing psalms’ in the light of an Arctic camp-fire. Grouse and ptarmigan, anemones and ferns, are ‘mountain people’ and ‘plant people’. Snowflakes ‘journey down with gestures of confident life’. Daisies and sedges, ‘brought forward in the fire-glow, seem full of thought as if about to speak aloud and tell all their wild stories.’ Tissiack (Half Dome) is ‘full of thought ... no sense of dead stone about it, neither heavy looking nor light, steadfast in serene strength like a god’.
Such personifications, all positive and happy, may seem too soft-focused. Sometimes the rhapsodies cloy: ‘Glaciers came down from heaven, and they were angels with folded wings, white wings of snowy bloom. Locked hand in hand the little spirits did nobly’ (letter of 1871 to Mrs Carr). Or again, from his marvellously fresh and sustained My First Summer in the Sierra: ‘it was in the wildest, highest places that the most beautiful and tender and enthusiastic plant people were found ... I said: How came you here? How do you live through the winter? Our roots, they explained, reach far down the joints of the summer-warmed rocks.’ Surely personifying nature flies in the teeth of the evidence that life is an unfolding of organic and inorganic materials according to their composition, without the intervention of any other agency? And yet, as an (almost) lifelong atheist, I can read Muir with more quickening and illumination than I get from either Ruskin or Thoreau, because his response to nature is so absorbed and direct. He sees, touches and hears far more than he philosophises. Although the pious remarks are heartfelt, they are not hard to treat as interjections in the flow of richly physical prose. In this he is closer to the master wildlife writers of our own time – Barry Lopez or Mike Tomkies, Jim Crumley or John Baker – than to the moralistic and didactic Victorians.
In Muir a delighted immersion was primary. He was born like that and he grew up like that. Activity and gleeful sensing were second nature to him – or should I say first nature? When he starts his Story of My Boyhood and Youth, he takes it for granted that he will begin, not with parents or forebears, but with the eels and crabs he found in the tidal pools along the south coast of the Firth of Forth. The first anecdote is about a walk in a hayfield when he was barely three, hearing a ‘sharp, prickly, stinging cry’, and delving in the hay to find a fieldmouse with six young ones suckling at her teats. The pulsing of the waterfalls, the springing of the forest trees spoke to him because their energies corresponded to his own. A missionary, Samuel Young, who explored glaciers with him in Alaska, described Muir’s way of moving on rough, steep terrain: ‘Then Muir began to slide up that mountain ... A deer-lope over the smoother slopes ... a serpent-glide up the steep ... spreading out like a flying squirrel and edging along an inch-wide projection ... leaping fissures, sliding flat around a dangerous rock-breast ... always going up, up, no hesitation – that was Muir!’ This bodily fluency fed directly through to his observing of nature, his interpreting of it, his writing about it. A technical paper on how glaciers change direction as they carve out valleys, illustrated by his own diagrams full of arrows and As and Bs, culminates like this: ‘we find everywhere displayed the same delicate yielding to glacial law, showing that, throughout the whole period of its formation, the huge granite valley was lithe as a serpent, and winced tenderly to the touch of every tributary.’ When rain falls, in his narrative of shepherding in the summer of 1869, he brims over at once into an unstoppable vision of the water ‘plashing, glinting, pattering, laving’, flowing over domes, through lakes, down falls, in and out of woods and bogs, glinting on crystals (each one geologically specified) and pattering on flowers (likewise botanically named).
This direct and unlearned affinity with the natural world – developed by lifelong fieldwork and reading – enabled him to see equivalences everywhere. His writing, considered as one piece, is a web of likenesses, noted with exactitude and delight. Butterflies emerge from the chrysalis ‘like cotyledons from their husks’. Plants of the Adiantum fern waving in air currents between the Upper and Lower Falls stir like the purple dulses he remembers from the tidal pools of Lothian. Woodsmen’s faces are ‘furrowed like the bark of logs’ and their trousers, sticky with resin and never washed, thicken as they build up concentric layers of sawdust like growth-rings in a tree-trunk. The song of the dipper is like the noises of the rapids it lives among, which the bird must learn ‘before it is born by the thrilling and quivering of the eggs in unison with the tones of the falls’. He tries to spell phonetically the song of the distinctive Western meadow-lark and is fired to this vision: ‘Drops and sprays of air are specialised, and made to plash and churn in the bosom of the lark, as infinitesimal portions of air plash and sing about the angles and hollows of sand-grains.’ On a larger scale, the gradation of spruces on islets of the Alexander Archipelago, from tallest in the centre to smaller at the ends, is as harmonious as ‘the arrangement of the feathers of birds or the scales of fishes’. Larger again, and the South Lyell Glacier has the gnarled, bulging base and wide-spreading branches of an oak. His life was confirmed in its direction by an epiphany he described many times. After crossing the Diablo range down into the San Joaquin valley, on first heading for the Sierra, he found himself wading through a meadow five hundred miles long and forty across, one golden drift of Compositae, daisies and tansies and asters, ragwort and dandelions. Three years later this issues in a Wordsworthian passage of seeing and connecting: ‘Well may the sun feed them with his richest light, for these shining sunlets are his very children – rays of his ray, beams of his beam ... The earth has indeed become a sky; and the two cloudless skies, raying toward each other flower-beams and sunbeams, are fused and congolded into one glowing heaven.’
In this climactic passage, from an essay called ‘Twenty Hill Hollow’, we can feel how he needs new language for his perceptions as he sees the ‘sunlets’ of the asters radiating ‘flower-beams’ that ‘congold’ with the light of the sky. His linking of natural things by their equivalence is knit into the fibre of his style, for example those distinctive compound nouns. Forests are ‘tree pastures’. Foam on rocks makes ‘wave embroidery’. Towering cumulus clouds above the Sierra at summer noon-times are ‘light fountains’ springing from ‘shadow caves’. Scars in the ground made by uprooted trees are ‘ditch writing’ – a metaphor that reminds us of the root of the word ‘write’ in the Old English writan, to ‘scratch’ or ‘score’. In those same years Hopkins was minting words like ‘bone-house’, ‘yestertempest’, ‘leaf-light’, ‘knee-nave’, ‘shadowtackle’, ‘trambeams’, because the stuff of life sank into him so deeply that to express its being he had to fuse one thing with another.
The muscular impulse of Muir’s writing was like his walking and climbing and probably like his speech. We know that he laboured over his writing, struggling to cope with the ‘lateral, terminal and medial moraines’ of notes on his study floor, and regarded the making of whole books as ‘unnatural’. He published only three in his lifetime, although he made a good income from his articles. He felt himself ‘begin to labour like a laden wagon in a bog’ when he took up his pen, yet his prose feels fluent, even headlong, and palpably has the character of his speech. This was so vital and appealing that people invited him to private and public gatherings and his conversation ‘lingered as a literary tradition in California’. In a sense he was preaching – akin to the ’almost wholly extempore and unrecorded sermons and prayers’ whose ‘astonishing wealth of imagery and illustration, sometimes sonorously eloquent and sometimes racily colloquial’, was regarded by Sorley MacLean as the ‘great prose’ of the (Gaelic) Presbyterian culture.
Muir had escaped from the fundamentalist Christianity of his father. When they set brush fires in Wisconsin to clear scrubland for the plough, Daniel compared their heat with hell and the branches with bad boys: ‘Now, John, just think what an awful thing it would be to be thrown into that fire ... their sufferings will never, never end because neither the fire nor the sinners can die.’ Twelve years later Muir can write to his brother that he has been baptised three times that morning, in ‘balmy sunshine’, in the ‘rays of beauty that emanate from plant corollas’, and in ‘the spray of the Lower Yosemite Falls’. He made his own the thinking of the pioneering scientists, Darwin on species, Lyell on rocks. He saw that the Bible account of creation was for its own time, not for all time. A letter about Ruskin is vehement in its dislike of the doomy piety Muir saw in him: ‘Nature, according to Ruskin, is the joint work of God and the devil ... made up of alternate strips and bars of evil and good ... You never can feel that there is the slightest union betwixt Nature and him. He goes to the Alps and improves and superintends and reports on Nature with the conceit and lofty importance of a factor on a Duke’s estate.’ (In Ontario Muir had met many refugees from the Sutherland Clearances.) He especially opposed Ruskin for regarding plants as ‘evil’ because they were poisonous. His only bête noire seems to have been the black ant with its seemingly wanton biting and widespread distribution. Here he perhaps laughs at his own Panglossian optimism: ‘I see that much remains to be done ere the world is brought under the universal rule of love and peace.’ This is rather like the devoted missionary Mr Sorley in A Passage to India, who believed that God’s mercy, being infinite, ‘may well embrace all animals’ but ‘became uneasy during the descent to wasps’.
Muir deeply respected Thoreau but he would not have sympathised with the sage of Walden’s dismay at the damp and mossy woods of Maine (in a posthumous book quoted by Simon Schama in Landscape and Memory): the swamps and the slopes pockmarked with bears’ dens were ‘the most treacherous and porous country I ever travelled’, the bare summits desolate and savage, ‘made out of Chaos and Old Night ... It was Matter, vast, terrific.’ Although Thoreau’s description, in Chapter 4 of Walden, of his new-scrubbed furniture out on the grass with blackberry vines running round its legs, is charmingly fresh, his account of the cabin he built for himself in the Massachusetts woods near Concord is low-key compared with the poem in wood which Muir (an inventor and skilled craftsman) made for himself in Yosemite. A stream ran through it to lull him at night, his bed was ‘suspended from the rafters and lined with libocedrus plumes’, and when Pteris ferns pushed up through the flooring planks, he trained them in an arch over his desk so that the tree frogs climbing up it at night could entertain him with their sounds.
Thoreau had been conducting what he called an ‘experiment’. Ruskin was Britain’s most distinguished aesthete, travelling to Switzerland (on private means) to admire and paint the Alps from a distance. Muir worked in the Sierra (as shepherd, sawyer and fruit farmer), he explored them for many years on end, and the richness of his writing roots deeper into the terrain than any other wilderness writer known to me. To know this book is on your shelf is like having your woodshed filled with dry peats or your mind with glowing memories.