A few months ago, before the pandemic started, I went to a local library to see the storyteller/performer Bill Harley. He was telling John Muir’s story “Stickeen,” which is about a dog and a glacier. “Stickeen” was one of Muir’s most popular books, and it’s easy to see why: it’s a great dog story, as well as a travel narrative about Alaska. The audience in the library was engrossed by Bill’s story.
Bill said that he was a fan not only of “Stickeen” but also of Muir’s book, My First Summer in the Sierra. I didn’t want to read “Stickeen” since I had heard the story, so I decided to read My First Summer. I was very impressed with it. It’s a highly readable book — a blend of lively anecdote, scientific observation, and poetic rapture. It consists largely of Muir’s diary entries, made in the summer of 1869, when he was a 30-year-old shepherd driving 2,000 sheep from California’s Central Valley through the Yosemite region and the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and finally to Mono Lake near Nevada, then returning to the Valley in September.
As a business venture, the summer was a success. Almost all the sheep survived, and they grew fat on nature’s bounty, so their owner (“Mr. Delaney”) didn’t need to buy food for them, or grow food. Delaney wanted to drive his sheep out of the valley before the hot, dry weather of summer, enjoy the cooler weather of the high country, then return west to the Valley before the first snowstorm hit the high country.
They often followed the Merced and Tuolumne rivers, both of which flow through Yosemite Park. They traveled east toward the headwaters of the rivers. Muir often describes the difficulty of getting the sheep to cross a river, and he wonders why they have such a strong aversion to water.
Muir wasn’t the chief shepherd, he was an assistant, so he had lots of time to climb mountains, explore Yosemite, study plants, etc. Delaney didn’t discourage Muir’s wanderings; he recognized Muir’s talents, and even predicted that Muir would be famous someday. This prediction, Muir writes, “seems strange and incredible to a wandering wilderness-lover with never a thought or dream of fame.”
The chief shepherd, Billy, wears the same clothes day and night.
|Our shepherd is a queer character [Muir writes]. Following the sheep he carries a heavy six-shooter swung from his belt on one side and his luncheon on the other. The ancient cloth in which the meat, fresh from the frying-pan, is tied serves as a filter through which the clear fat and gravy juices drip down on his right hip and leg in clustering stalactites. This oleaginous formation is soon broken up, however, and diffused and rubbed evenly into his scanty apparel, by sitting down, rolling over, crossing his legs while resting on logs, etc., making shirt and trousers water-tight and shiny.
His trousers, in particular, have become so adhesive with the mixed fat and resin that pine needles, thin flakes and fibers of bark, hair, mica scales and minute grains of quartz, hornblende, etc., feathers, seed wings, moth and butterfly wings, legs and antennae of innumerable insects, or even whole insects such as the small beetles, moths and mosquitoes, with flower petals, pollen dust and indeed bits of all plants, animals, and minerals of the region adhere to them and are safely imbedded, so that though far from being a naturalist he collects fragmentary specimens of everything and becomes richer than he knows....
Man is a microcosm, at least our shepherd is, or rather his trousers. These precious overalls are never taken off, and nobody knows how old they are, though one may guess by their thickness and concentric structure. Instead of wearing thin they wear thick, and in their stratification have no small geological significance.
Muir also criticizes the local Indians for their hygiene. He encountered some Indians near a mountain pass, just west of Mono Lake:
|I at length entered the gate of the pass, and the huge rocks began to close around me in all their mysterious impressiveness. Just then I was startled by a lot of queer, hairy, muffled creatures coming shuffling, shambling, wallowing toward me as if they had no bones in their bodies. Had I discovered them while they were yet a good way off, I should have tried to avoid them....
When I came up to them, I found that they were only a band of Indians from Mono on their way to Yosemite for a load of acorns. They were wrapped in blankets made of the skins of sage-rabbits. The dirt on some of the faces seemed almost old enough and thick enough to have a geological significance; some were strangely blurred and divided into sections by seams and wrinkles that looked like cleavage joints, and had a worn abraded look as if they had lain exposed to the weather for ages.
I tried to pass them without stopping, but they wouldn’t let me; forming a dismal circle about me, I was closely besieged while they begged whiskey or tobacco, and it was hard to convince them that I hadn’t any. How glad I was to get away from the gray, grim crowd and see them vanish down the trail! Yet it seems sad to feel such desperate repulsion from one’s fellow beings, however degraded. To prefer the society of squirrels and woodchucks to that of our own species must surely be unnatural.
The “dismal circle” of begging Indians shows how begging is sometimes akin to robbing. Nietzsche says that we give to beggars from cowardice as often as from pity.
If we were following Muir’s route today, we’d be taking pictures, but Muir doesn’t have a camera, so he sketches; some of his sketches are included in the book. On August 2, Muir writes,
|Sketching all day on the North Dome until four or five o’clock in the afternoon, when, as I was busily employed thinking only of the glorious Yosemite landscape, trying to draw every tree and every line and feature of the rocks, I was suddenly, and without warning, possessed with the notion that my friend, Professor J. D. Butler, of the State University of Wisconsin, was below me in the valley, and I jumped up full of the idea of meeting him, with almost as much startling excitement as if he had suddenly touched me to make me look up.|
The next day, Muir writes,
|Had a wonderful day. Found Professor Butler as the compass-needle finds the pole. So last evening’s telepathy, transcendental revelation, or whatever else it may be called, was true; for, strange to say, he had just entered the valley by way of the Coulterville Trail and was coming up the valley past El Capitan when his presence struck me. Had he then looked toward the North Dome with a good glass when it first came in sight, he might have seen me jump up from my work and run toward him. This seems the one well-defined marvel of my life of the kind called supernatural.|
At first, Butler doesn’t recognize Muir, not expecting to meet an old friend in the wilderness. Finally Butler recognizes him.
|“John Muir, John Muir, where have you come from?” Then I told him the story of my feeling his presence when he entered the valley last evening, when he was four or five miles distant, as I sat sketching on the North Dome. This, of course, only made him wonder the more.|
Later Butler introduces Muir to his friend, General Alvord.
|When I was introduced he seemed yet more astonished than the Professor at my descent from cloudland and going straight to my friend without knowing in any ordinary way that he was even in California.... As we sat at dinner, the General leaned back in his chair, and looking down the table, thus introduced me to the dozen guests or so...: “This man, you know, came down out of these huge, trackless mountains, you know, to find his friend Professor Butler here, the very day he arrived; and how did he know he was here? He just felt him, he says. This is the queerest case of Scotch farsightedness I ever heard of,” etc., etc. While my friend quoted Shakespeare: “More things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” “As the sun, ere he has risen, sometimes paints his image in the firmament, e’en so the shadows of events precede the events, and in today already walks tomorrow.”1|
In an earlier issue, I wrote, “Death casts a kind of shadow before it; death is a visitor who rarely drops in unannounced.” Notice Alvord’s phrase “Scotch farsightedness.” This refers to Muir’s Scotch heritage, and to a tradition that the Scotch are “farsighted.” We use the word “farsighted” to mean “thinking of the future, preparing for the future.” But Alvord is using the word in a different sense, he’s using it to mean “seeing events that are taking place far away.” In an earlier issue, I wrote,
|Primitive people seem to have a sixth sense. [The explorer Hubert Wilkins] grew up among Australian aborigines, and noticed that they were capable “of knowing of some event which was taking place miles beyond their range of sight and hearing.” One is reminded of Swedenborg, who sensed that Stockholm was burning, though he was far away.|
It seems that primitive man is more farsighted, has more occult powers, than civilized man (though there are some exceptions, such as Swedenborg). Civilization seems to have blocked our sixth sense, blinded our farsightedness. Perhaps if we develop a new respect for the occult, we can regain these powers. Or perhaps our penchant for rational thinking makes it difficult for us to hear the whisper of intuition.
Before Muir went into the mountains, a friend asked him to take his dog into the high country, so it wouldn’t suffer from the summer heat of the valley. The dog is a St. Bernard named Carlo. On August 22, Muir writes,
|Carlo is missing; have been seeking him all day. In the thick woods between camp and the river, among tall grass and fallen pines, I discovered a baby fawn.... I am distressed about Carlo. There are several other camps and dogs not many miles from here, and I still hope to find him. He never left me before. Panthers are very rare here, and I don’t think any of these cats would dare touch him. He knows bears too well to be caught by them, and as for Indians, they don’t want him.|
The next day, Muir writes,
|Mr. Delaney has gone to the Smith Ranch... thirty-five or forty miles from here, so I’ll be alone for a week or more — not really alone, for Carlo has come back. He was at a camp a few miles to the northwestward. He looked sheepish and ashamed when I asked him where he had been and why he had gone away without leave. He is now trying to get me to caress him and show signs of forgiveness. A wondrous wise dog. A great load is off my mind. I could not have left the mountains without him. He seems very glad to get back to me.|
As this passage shows, Muir can empathize with dogs. Indeed, he can empathize with nature in general, and this is one of his great virtues as a writer. He can forget himself, and appreciate nature; his book is a celebration of nature. He’s equally interested in animals, plants, mountains, clouds, rivers, etc. He’s interested in the science of nature, and also the poetry of nature. His response to nature is so rapturous that one might call it religious.
I never read a book that was so filled with high spirits, so ecstatic. Muir often comments on the fine weather in California. He concludes his book thus: “Here ends my forever memorable first High Sierra excursion. I have crossed the Range of Light, surely the brightest and best of all the Lord has built; and rejoicing in its glory, I gladly, gratefully, hopefully pray I may see it again.”
If you want to buy My First Summer, there are many versions to choose from. I chose the Muir anthology that’s in the Library of America. This anthology is edited by William Cronon, who appears in the great documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (2009), a documentary that discusses Muir at length. This anthology contains an excellent timeline of Muir’s life. Here are some facts that I gleaned from this timeline:
I discussed Muir in an earlier issue.
I discovered a modern German writer named Ernst Junger. He first became famous for his WorldWarOne memoir, Storm of Steel. He was a highly-decorated officer, wounded seven times. He was also a respected entomologist, and collected beetles during lulls in the fighting.
During the 1920s, Junger “criticized the fragile and unstable democracy of the Weimar Republic, stating that he ‘hated democracy like the plague.’”3 He had a nationalist bent, and he viewed war as a heroic endeavor, a “mystical experience.” In his essay On Pain (1934), “Jünger rejects the liberal values of liberty, security, ease, and comfort, and seeks instead the measure of man in the capacity to withstand pain and sacrifice.” The Nazis liked him, but he didn’t like them; they offered Junger various positions, but he kept a distance from them. One might compare Junger to Nietzsche; Junger and Nietzsche emphasize culture, while the Nazis emphasize race.
During World War II, Junger worked as an intelligence officer in Paris, and saved some Jews from transportation to concentration camps. He socialized with artists like Picasso, and frequented salons. He wrote a memoir, Gardens and Streets, about this Paris period.
Junger was friendly with some of the German officers who attempted to assassinate Hitler. He wrote a 30-page peace plan that was discussed by these officers, a plan for ending the war and uniting Europe. He wasn’t directly involved in the assassination attempt, hence he wasn’t executed after the attempt failed. Perhaps this assassination attempt was an expression of the aristocracy’s rejection of Hitler.
In addition to memoirs and diaries, Junger published numerous novels. He was “immensely popular in France, where at one time 48 of his translated books were in print.” He was friends with the philosopher Heidegger, and his correspondence with Heidegger was published.
Junger died in 1998 at age 102.
Yogananda was a guru, a spiritual teacher, a teacher of meditation and yoga. Born in India in 1893, he spent most of his adult life in the U.S. He’s known for his book Autobiography of a Yogi (1946), which has sold over four million copies. (Fans of this book, such as Steve Jobs and George Harrison, were known to give away copies of it.) Yogananda is also known for the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF), an organization for spiritual teaching and practice, an organization that’s based in Los Angeles and has branches throughout the world.
Yogananda created a sensation in the U.S. in the 1920s, drawing large crowds to his talks, and even meeting President Coolidge at the White House.
I recently watched a documentary called Awake: The Life of Yogananda (2014). It describes Yogananda’s relationship with his guru, Yukteswar. It also describes Yogananda’s relationship with his friend/colleague, Dhirananda, who helped Yogananda to manage his school, then later quarreled with him and sued him.
And the documentary describes Yogananda’s dramatic death. One might say that his death was planned, willed. “In the days leading up to his death, Yogananda began hinting to his disciples that it was time for him to leave the world.”4 He not only foresaw that he would die soon, he also foresaw that he would die while speaking.
At a dinner for the Indian ambassador, Yogananda read from his poem “My India,” concluding with the words “Where Ganges, woods, Himalayan caves, and men dream God — I am hallowed; my body touched that sod.” Then he fell dead. He was 59.
The director of the cemetery where Yogananda was buried wrote,
|No physical disintegration was visible in his body even twenty days after death... This state of perfect preservation of a body is, so far as we know from mortuary annals, an unparalleled one... No odor of decay emanated from his body at any time.... The physical appearance of Paramhansa Yogananda on March 27th just before the bronze cover for the casket was put into position, was the same as it was on March 7th.|
This seems to be an example of mind over matter, which is one of the basic principles of the occult.
Awake is a good documentary, but not quite a great documentary. It doesn’t capture the yoga frame of mind, it doesn’t capture the peace, the ecstasy. So I still think that the best spiritual documentary is Into Great Silence.
|1.||I haven’t been able to find the source of this interesting quote. I’m beginning to doubt that it’s from Shakespeare.
As I was trying to trace the quote, I found a striking example of synchronicity:
|2.||Muir was about twenty years younger than Whitney. It’s easier for a young person to embrace a revolutionary theory, such as the theory of IceAges/glaciers. An older person’s views become fixed, hardened. Even Alexander von Humboldt was wary of the IceAge theory, which was propounded chiefly by his former student, Louis Agassiz; Humboldt advised Agassiz to forget about ice, and go back to studying fossils. And Agassiz’s own views eventually hardened; he couldn’t accept Darwin’s theory.
I also read Muir’s first published essay, “Yosemite Glaciers.” It isn’t as good as My First Summer, partly because it requires an intimate knowledge of Yosemite; it may even require that one walk through the park, reading as one goes, or at least read with a map illustrating Muir’s text. Consider, for example, the following sentence: “In the afternoon I followed down the bed of the tributary to its junction with the main glacier; then, turning to the right, crossed the mouths of the first two tributaries which I had passed in the morning; then, bearing east, examined a cross section of the main trunk, and reached camp by following up the north bank of the tributary.” How can the average reader follow this?
Muir describes Yosemite as if the glaciers had only recently departed, as if the lakes and mountains had only recently been formed. He speaks of lakes that “have as yet accumulated but narrow rings of border meadow, because their feeding streams have had but little time to carry the sand of which they are made.” One of the most fundamental facts about glaciers is that, relatively speaking, they’re a recent phenomenon. back
|3.||Wikipedia. For more on Junger, see an essay by Michael Lewis in Commentary. (In an earlier issue, I praised Lewis’ essay on modern art, which was also published in Commentary.)
I have mixed feelings about Lewis’ essay on Junger. Lewis throws light on the political situation, as when he says, “Junger became ever more convinced of Hitler’s essentially Satanic character — in the literal biblical sense.” And Lewis appreciates the merits of Junger’s journal, calling it “a miracle of the diarist’s art, a diary as eventful and consequential as those of Samuel Pepys or James Boswell, but with an inner life.”
But Lewis ignores Junger’s fictional works, which make up the bulk of his oeuvre, so you don’t get a comprehensive picture of Junger as a writer. As for Junger’s moral qualities, Lewis doesn’t give him credit for the courage that he showed in World War I. Instead, Lewis faults Junger for “taking refuge in a self-indulgent aestheticism,” and for having “fled the moral choices imposed [by World War II].” But it seems to me that Junger showed the same courage in World War II that he showed in World War I. Junger alerted Jews to the danger of arrest, thus saving their lives; he condemned Germans who committed war crimes, calling them “butchers”; and he dared to criticize the Nazi regime in a diary that could have been read by the Gestapo.
Lewis speaks of, “the great question hanging over the diary, which is why Junger, who was intimately associated with many of the July 20 conspirators against Hitler, did not join the coup.” I don’t see this as a “great question.” Junger’s intuition may have told him that the conspiracy would fail, or he may have thought that he couldn’t contribute much to it. Why should he throw away his life in a quixotic attempt to destroy the regime? How can we criticize him for not trying to destroy the regime?
Lewis is too quick to make moral judgements. Isn’t this the attitude that pulls down statues of Robert E. Lee? Soon we’ll be pulling down statues of Jefferson, then Washington. And doubtless we can find moral flaws in Shakespeare and Proust — let’s pull down their statues, too. And what will be left? Only rubble. Political Correctness and moral judgement can demolish Western civilization, can make us view our cultural heritage in terms of race, gender, politics. back