Online Edition: Fall 2006

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Essential Muir

A Selection of John Muir's Best Writings

edited with an Introduction by Fred D. White

Heyday Books ($11.95)

by Spencer Dew

John Muir's childhood reads like legend. When, for instance, his eccentrically fundamentalist father, angry that young John was sneaking a few minutes of candle-lit reading each night after the rest of the family went to bed, told him he could get up as early as he wanted, Muir began rising at one a.m. Remarkably industrious, working full days on the farm (and under his father's whip), Muir was somehow still able to scrounge scraps of time in which to make a variety of inventions: "waterwheels, curious door locks and latches, thermometers, hygrometers, pyrometers, clocks, a barometer, an automatic contrivance for feeding the horses at any required hour, a lamplighter and fire-lighter..." The list goes on. In college, Muir's room, full of experiments and prototype gizmos, "was regarded as a sort of show place by the professors, who oftentimes brought visitors to it on Saturdays and holidays." He admits that he "should have stayed longer" in school, but he "wandered away on a glorious botanical and geological excursion, which has lasted nearly fifty years and is not yet completed, always happy and free, poor and rich, without thought of a diploma or of making a name, urged on and on through endless, inspiring, Godful beauty."

This is the Muir most of us have some passing acquaintance with--the naturalist, or, more to the point, the writer awe-struck by nature. This selection is a useful sampler of a much larger oeuvre, and the pieces are well chosen. There is a list of sources from which they come, but this contains only publication date, so to know what year Muir took a certain trip or wrote a given piece requires external legwork. Moreover, the introduction is intended for Muir disciples, rather than for those unfamiliar with his work. The book's largest failing is that it lacks any commentary to help the reader understand his notion of "Godful beauty" so central to Muir's thought. The editor's few words on religion are confusing rather than helpful--a loss for readers who could use some guidance on Muir's tangled relation to faith.

Born into a time of shifting religious fads and fervors, Muir grew into a man who carried with him always, in his sparse knapsack, a copy of Paradise Lost, the New Testament, and the poems of Robert Burns. As a child, debating with his father on whether God intended us to be vegetarians, he argued against the idea, citing the story of Elijah, fed by ravens. Surely he was brought flesh, not "vegetables or graham bread?" As a man, he became a bard of religious sensibility. "The darkest scriptures of the mountains are illumined with bright passages of love," he tells us. Reflecting on nightfall across a glacier, Muir writes, "Long, blue, spiky shadows crept out across the snowfields, while a rosy glow, at first scarce discernible, gradually deepened and suffused every mountaintop, flushing the glaciers and the harsh crags above them. This was the alpenglow, to me one of the most impressive of all the terrestrial manifestations of God."

Muir is awfully good on glaciers, their blue fissures, their swirling rills. This text includes not only part of his classic cross-glacier adventure with his dog, but also several other selections with lengthy and rewarding descriptions, including an anthropomorphized account of the process by which a glacier dies. Other well-known Muir writings are also represented, like his account of riding out a storm clinging to the boughs of a flailing tree. He relays the experience of the storm, but his musings on the larger phenomena and design of nature allow him his best moments of poetry. "Winds," he writes, "are advertisements of all they touch." Elsewhere he expands on this, a sort of mystical unification via the senses, part Proust, part Buddha:

Today I reached the sea. While I was yet many miles back in the palmy woods, I caught the scent of the salt sea breeze which, although I had so many years lived far from sea breezes, suddenly conjured up Dunbar, its rocky coast, winds and waves; and my whole childhood, which seemed to have utterly vanished in the New World, was now restored amid the Florida woods by that one breath from the sea. Forgotten were the palms and magnolias and the thousand flowers that enclosed me. I could see only dulse and tangle, long-winged gulls, the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth, and the old castle, schools, churches, and long country rambles in search of birds' nests. I do not wonder that the weary camels coming from the scorching African deserts should be able to scent the Nile.

At its best, the writing is very good: sharp-leaved swamp plants of Florida are "vegetable cats" and in the antebellum South "the seal of war is on all things," the very roads "wander as if lost." Ignore the introduction, and take the pieces free of any framing, as products of a particularly inspired pen. Should you want more Muir, there is much available. But one benefit of this slim volume--as Muir would surely point out--is that it slips nicely into a knapsack pocket.


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