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Sensuous detail and immediacy
on March 11, 2006
The question is not whether Muir is a terrific writer-but how he got that way, and secondarily, why it is important. The Mountains of California was his first book, published in 1894, and was an instant success. This book contains not just some of the best nature writing, but for its vividness, immediacy and vision some of the best writing in English in any genre. Modern Library's edition is quite special with its introduction to Muir by Bill McKibbon and about 50 illustrations, though I wished there were better maps for following the footsteps of Muir's many great narratives among the fabulous natural wonders of the Sierra.
Muir succeeds in his writing in ways that Emerson and Thoreau fall short. Emerson's nature is an internal construct, almost a habit of mind. Thoreau conveys something of the immediacy of Muir in selected writing (and he, like Muir, actually immerses himself in nature itself), but his writings and especially his journals seem chaotic at times and lack a unifying vision.
Muir, on the other hand, always draws the reader forward from one vision to another, each one more fantastic than the previous.
My favorite passages are his descent into the Merced Glacier (in "the Glaciers"), and his description of being on the high slopes during a major windstorm when he climbs a swaying pine to get an even better look. His description of the Giant Sequoia is a work of great subtlety and richness--I seriously doubt you will find a more enchanting description of the two California Species of Sequoia anywhere.
This work abounds with rich and sensuous passages that are descriptions of actual experiences in over a decade of exploring, mostly alone, in the high Sierras. The strength of Muir's writing is based on the depth of his emotional experience of nature-his very personal relationship to the whole and many specific animals, trees and features of the landscape. You would say that it's mystical except for the fact that it's very sensual and very concrete. Muir employs religious language though he never becomes ethereal or abstract as Emerson sometimes does. The reader is always right in the immediate moment of the present listening to Muir's voice. And that suggests another reason why this writing is great. Muir's Scottish heritage (he was born in Dunbar Scotland in 1838) has provided him with a rich, luxurious and slightly exotic vocabulary for describing all the natural wonders that he sees, feels, and hears. It's a voice like no other in American writing.
Of course, the reason it is important is because of what Muir spawned through his vision and experience-he was the true creator of the conservation movement leading to modern environmentalism. I should say that this work is all luxurious description and scientific discussion and rarely becomes didactic or preachy-as modern environmental writers sometimes do. It is not fashionable to think that one person of vision can create so much;but it's hard to conclude otherwise about Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, after reading this work.