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Book review: The Yosemite


I read this book because I feel I owe John Muir a debt of gratitude. His all-encompassing, almost mystical and always infectious appreciation for wilderness helped start a movement to conserve wild places for the enjoyment of all. One of those places is Yosemite. I had the opportunity to visit recently and picked up a copy of this book. Pictures from another recent visitor (thanks Stephanie) prompted me to pull this out and read it.

It was published in 1912 and the style is certainly dated, but it was an enjoyable read mostly because it launched me right back to the days spent wandering in awe through the remarkable valley (though, it would seem we experienced slightly more visitors in those few days than Mr. Muir might have encountered in his life).

More of a hiking guide than a rumination, it was still highly enjoyable — featuring a breathless description of, well, everything, down to the most minute details. And in those details, he found infinity. On Yosemite Falls (which the drought had shut off when we visited): “At the top of the fall they seem to burst forth in irregular spurts from some grand, throbbing mountain heart.”

I was struck throughout by his almost lackadaisical regard for his own well being. After being flung down the canyon wall on top of an avalanche: “When the avalanche swedged and came to rest I found myself on top of the crumpled pile without a bruise or a scar. This was a fine experience.”

When he awoke in the middle of an earthquake dropping boulders around him: “I was awakened by a tremendous earthquake, and though I had never before enjoyed a storm of this sort, the strange, thrilling motion could not be mistaken, and I ran out of my cabin, both glad and frightened, shouting, “A noble earthquake…”

During a massive storm that was flooding the valley, he noted how one bird kept singing though all others were hushed in terror — the ouzel: “…who could no more help giving out sweet song than a rose a sweet fragrance. He must sing, though the heavens fall.”

It is this sense of wonder, of spirituality, that I find so appealing about Muir. When writing about the glaciers, he said this about South Dome: “It’s entire surface is still covered with glacial hieroglyphics whose interpretation is the reward of all who devoutly study them.”

Written as more of a travel guide, this book is less enjoyable than some of his more philosophic works, but it’s entertaining and makes it’s clear to me we need more people like him today, “devoutly” studying the importance of wilderness unspoiled by the machinery of capitalism and available for the enjoyment and spiritual well-being of all.