Sunday, January 25, 2009

Muir Words

It seems fully appropriate that my journey through John Muir's Essential writings was so leisurely and peaceful.  I don't even remember exactly when I started reading, but it's probably been at least a year.  It isn't even very long.  It collects letters, essays, and excerpts from his larger books, and stitches them together into a great yet brief volume of just over 100 pages.  It isn't the sort of thing one wants to tear through, though.  His words are evocative, and I enjoyed reading a few sentences at a time, then pausing to reflect and try to imagine what his landscapes looked like over 100 years ago.

The cool thing, of course, is that his landscapes are also my landscapes.  Muir is most famous today as the muse of California wilderness; he saw the majesty and awe-inspiring beauty of the virgin landscape, cringed at its impending desolation, then eloquently and passionately communicated its importance to people who had never seen the sights.  It's an impressive example of the power of words to affect history, and it isn't that much of a stretch to say that without John Muir (who also befriended Teddy Roosevelt), we might not have a park system today.  If we did have one, it would certainly be diminished.

I was surprised at the less well-known aspects of this character, though.  The book doesn't open with natural rhapsodies; instead, it focuses on this Scottish immigrant's young life, showing an inquisitive mind that is fascinated by science and discovering how things work.  He would become an adventurer and explorer later in life, and I think this is a more interesting way to view Muir: not as some blissful savant, but as a passionate and enthusiastic scientist.  He classifies species, carefully notes the leaf shapes of trees he encounters, acquaints himself with several million years of geological history, and studies the ecological impact of deforestation.  He happens to write really well, but from a certain perspective, you can classify his writings as very well-done treatises.

It's also funny, and occasionally touching.  There is one heart-touching section where he describes working his way through the icy crevasses in Yosemite during winter.  He spends several pages describing the agitation of his dog, Strickeen, who is transformed from a famously stoic animal into a yipping, howling bundle of worry.  Muir bestows tremendous empathy upon the beast while still refusing to anthropomorphize him.

The book was a great introduction to an impressive man, one that goes beyond the one-paragraph summary of Muir's life that most people know (if they know him at all).  In all honesty, I'm not sure if I'll ever go back and read any of Muir's longer works - while I admire his style, it does move more slowly than I generally pick for pleasure reading.  Even if I don't though, I won't feel the loss so painfully, knowing that I did encounter his "essential" writings.

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