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My First Summer in the Sierra

Author : John Muir
Published : 2011-03-10

Though John Muir was an early scout in the national park movement, touching many landscapes that now are parks, he's best connected with Yosemite National Park and the surrounding High Sierra.

So taken with this landscape was he that he wrote a book, My First Summer in the Sierra, in 1911. A century later this book has been revisited in a special 100th anniversary edition, one with striking photography.

Reading the naturalist's essays, it's easy to understand his love for this high country. Few aspects of his travels seemed to escape his eye, as the following excerpt, written as he prepared to head up into the high country with a sheep herder, demonstrates.

June 3, 1869. This morning provisions, camp-kettles, blankets, plant-press, etc., were packed on two horses, the flock headed for the tawny foothills, and away we sauntered in a cloud of dust: Mr. Delaney, bony and tall, with sharply hacked profile like Don Quixote, leading the pack-horses, Billy, the proud shepherd, a Chinaman and a Digger Indian to assist in driving for the first few days in the brushy foothills, and myself with notebook tied to my belt.


During that summer Mr. Muir's eyes  seemed to flit everywhere, pulling into focus everything in the landscape before him. He wrote of Douglas squirrels -- "the little Douglas is fiery, peppery, full of brag and fight and show, with movements so quick and keen they almost sting the onlooker, and the harlequin gyrating show he makes of himself turns one giddy to see." -- and clouds, of trees and birds, and, of course mountains.

The big Tuolumne Meadows are flowery lawns, lying along the south fork of the Tuolumne River at a height of about eighty-five hundred to nine thousand feet above the sea, partially separated by forests and bars of glaciated granite. Here the mountains seem to have been cleared away or set back, so that wide-open views may be had in every direction. The upper end of the series lies at the base of Mount Lyell, the lower below the east end of the Hoffman Range, so the length must be about ten or twelve miles. They vary in width from a quarter of a mile to perhaps three quarters, and a good many branch meadows put out along the banks of the tributary streams. This is the most spacious and delightful high pleasure-ground I have yet seen. The air is keen and bracing, yet warm during the day; and though lying high in the sky, the surrounding mountains are so much higher, one feels protected as if in a grand hall. Mounts Dana and Gibbs, massive red mountains, perhaps thirteen thousand feet high or more, bound the view on the east, the Cathedral and Unicorn Peaks, with many namless peaks, on the south, the Hoffman Range on the west, and a number of peaks unnamed, as far as I know, on the north.


Reading his passages, it's easy to feel Mr. Muir's passion for this landscape and that which it catches from horizon to horizon. And it's easy to understand how the experience drove him to devote his life to seeing this setting preserved.

Adding even more depth to the imagery of his words are the photographs of Scot Miller, who carefully framed his shots to complement Mr. Muir's words. Among the 72 photographs interspersed through the 204 pages are those that capture purple blooms of lupines, South Dome under morning's fresh light, panoramas of the Merced River Basin dominated by Half Dome, and the soft light of sunset splashed across Tuolumne meadows.

Just as wonderful are sketches Mr. Muir made while in the mountains, and sections of his handwritten manuscript in his flowing penmanship.

The import of that summer in the Sierra to the national parks movement was highlighted in a foreword to the book written by Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan.

That first summer in the Sierra, John Muir fell in love with Yosemite and found his voice, which he used to awaken a nation to a "beauty beyond thought everywhere, beneath, above, made and being made forever." He would use it to save Yosemite's high country as a national park, protecting the alpine meadows from the descendants of Delaney's sheep, the voracious "hoofed locusts" whose harm, he declared, "goes to the heart." Then he would save Yosemite Valley as well, transferring it from state control to become part of the national park. Other national parks would bear his mark: Mount Rainier, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Glacier Bay, and Petrified Forest among them.


Were Mr. Muir alive today, it'd be fascinating to get his take on the current state of the parks movement. In the pages of this book, though, one can revel in the majesty of the landscape that lay before his eyes and before it was cut by roads and dotted with development.

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