John Muir - An Appreciation
by Harriet Monroe
I was fortunate enough to take two Sierra Club outings when John Muir was of the company during the whole four weeks - the first in 1908, through the Kern, and again the next year in the Yosemite. He talked often at the camp-fires, giving generously of his knowledge and love of nature, as everyone knows. But he talked also to smaller groups, and even to any chance companion on the trail, and it is some of these casual hours of happy intercourse which I remember most vividly.
One day, at the Big Arroyo camp, it was butterflies, for some youth was trying to take a picture of one as it poised on a flower. I was struck with the old man's tenderness for these exquisite fairies of the forest, and with the depth and breadth of his knowledge. This was a rare spirit; never had I encountered such delicacy of sympathy with little fluttering, flitting lives. Again, in some high place, it was of a certain species of little bird he talked - have forgotten their name - a Latin one, for they live incredibly high, beyond the reach of the vulgar tongue - and his voice softened as he described the valor of their daily life.
But it was on two occasions in the Yosemite that John Muir gave me perhaps the richest of my mountain days. And each day took form in a poem, which I shall probably quote on the trail as we pass. One morning we were climbing out of the Valley by way of Vernal and Nevada Falls. I was a poor climber, always the last on the trail, and Nevada, the dancer, held me back with her beauty. When at last I reached the level granite above her, John Muir was there, mounted on the horse which he rode now and then when no woman would accept the loan of it. He was rapt, entranced; he threw up his arm in a grand gesture. "This is the morning of creation," he cried, "the whole thing is beginning now! The mountains are singing together" - ah, I can not remember his dithyrambic pæan of praise, which flowed on as grandly as the great white waters beside us. Four days later I made of it this poem, which offers something of what he said, though his free biblical rhythms feel somewhat cramped in my rhymes, and it was I who dragged the human beings in:
It is creation's morning
Freshly the rivers run.
The cliffs, white brows adorning,
Sing to the shining sun.
The forest, plumed and crested,
Scales the steep granite wall.
The ranged peaks, glacier-breasted,
March to the festival.
The mountains dance together,
Lifting their domed heads high.
The cataract's foamy feather
Flaunts in the streaming sky.
Somewhere a babe is borning,
Somewhere a maid is won.
It is creation's morning
Now is the world begun.
A few days later we took the "long, long hike," as my diary records it, from Lake Merced to Tuolumne Meadows. Before many hours I met John Muir, who insisted on my riding his horse most of the time; and so it was in his company that I crossed the wet snows and slushy waters of Vogelsang Pass. He introduced me to that lady of the snows, the mountain hemIock, who was just then lifting her head from under the white weight of winter, and spreading her trailing garments an the sun. He told me how she pushed out of the rock and grew, how she bowed to the wind and gently resisted the storm; how she bent under mountain-loads of ice each year, and rose again to the beauty of the sun for a brief summer of joy. He described her moods, revealed her graces - gave me her individuality, her
poet, until I felt something of his love and intimacy. "You, poet, write about that!" he commanded, and so once more - a few days later - I tried to catch the beauty of the moment:
The mountain hemlock droops her lacy branches
Oh, so tenderly
In the summer sun
Yet she has power to baffle avalanches
She, rising slenderly
Where the rivers run.
So pliant yet so powerful! Oh, see her
Her thin sea-green dress!
Now from white winter's thrall the sun would free her
To bloom unenduringly
In his glad caress.
I wonder sometimes if there was ever such another lover of nature as John Muir. Never at least for me! He really loved every littlest thing that grows; studied the mole, the beetle, the lily, with complete and perfect sympathy. And for his glorious commanding love nothing was too sublime - not the sequoia, the cataract, the blizzard in the mountains.
Source: Sierra Club Bulletin, Vol. 10, No. 1 (1916 January)
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