A Pleasure All Its Own

As a college student, and even as a grad student, I could read several books at a timeand this by choice, not necessity. I once read, with enjoyment and understanding, mind you, Spinoza’s Ethics, Rousseau’s Origin of Inequality, Hamlet, and Cather’s O Pioneers! I can no more do that now than I can run a five-minute mile or wolf down a pair of Reese’s with a chocolate milk chaser. Ah, the glories of youth! We grow increasingly less flexible with age. Our skin, our arteries, our veins, our organs and bones, our bowels (sorry, ’tis true), our habits, our thoughts and feelings, and, sorrow of sorrows, our readerly libidinal urges. Which become crisp, vitreous things like friable deer droppings. Am I a minority of one here? Is there a drug for read-ectile dysfunction? Well, I may no longer whore around with multiple books, but I often do read two books at a timeone during the day, which gets the very best of what I got, and the other at night, typically a re-read, as I drowse in bed and drift toward sleep. A wonderful pleasure all its own, a good re-read is. You don’t interrogate it, you don’t deconstruct it, you don’t take an axe or a spade or a miner’s pan to it. You simply enjoy it. Like listening to Bach’s Cello Suites (Pablo Casals’ version!), or James Scott Skinner’s “Hector the Hero,” or Gillian Welch’s “By the Mark,” or Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights” (come on! if this rock classic doesn’t get your fists pumping, you’re damaged deep on the inside). Anyhow, last night I trekked through the High Sierras with John Muir as my guide, my Virgil. We bagged a glacier-capped peak atop the majestic mass of Mount Ritter and beheld the headwaters of the Tuolumne and Merced rivers, as well as countless lakes gleaming like mirrors. Our return to camp was tough going, but we arrived no worse for wear. Here’s how Muir describes our homecoming — and don’t let his use of the first person singular fool you. I was there too…

…I discovered the little pine thicket in which my nest was, and then I had a rest such as only a tired moutaineer may enjoy. After lying loose and lost for a while, I made a sunrise fire, went down to the lake, dashed water on my head, and dipped a cupful for tea. The revival brought about by bread and tea was as complete as the exhaustion from excessive enjoyment and toil. Then a crept beneath the pine-tassels to bed. —The Mountains of California 

No Black Diamond First Light. No tarp or bivvy. Not even a durable canvas tent. Just a “little pine thicket,” a nature “nest,” into which we “crept” like mice, returning from a long day at play in the fields of the lord. Muir is a damn fine prose stylist. And the reference to the lord isn’t incidental. For those of you familiar with Muir’s writings, you know that he grafts a Christian rhetorical tradition onto his particular stock of nature worship. Which is why he encourages us to find “salvation in wild places” by hearing the “sermons in stone” and reading the “manuscripts of nature.” Muir puts cosmic mama right where she belongs, in the hubbub of nature, not outside of it. A weighty thought, for sure, but Muir, a mountain prophet with an eye for brilliantly observed descriptions, carries it off in grand fashion—and camoflouges a heterodox yet entirely more wholesome theology. Bless him. 

Postscript. A word about the picture. Muir called Banner Peak his church, and with Garnet Lake kneeling at its base and its steeple awash in light, it’s an apt description. I snapped this shot two years ago on an unsuccessful bid to solo hike the 210-mile John Muir Trail, which starts in Yosemite Valley and ends atop Mount Whitney. The solitude crushed me. I’m a pansy like Thoreau. Go ahead: click on the picture. Take a close look, let your eyes relax, your focus skew and cross a bit. And you just might see Muir ascending that massive, granite crag without the benefit of rope, crampons, or ice pick.

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7 Responses to A Pleasure All Its Own

  1. Anthony says:

    Thanks for that post, Kevin. Very evocative.

    It sounds like I would enjoy John Muir’s books. I’ve found an omnibus edition of his work that looks interesting.

    • Kevin Neilson says:

      Hi Anthony, thanks for dropping by. Let me know if you give Muir a gander and what you read of his. I developed a new appreciation for him as an activist after watching Ken Burns’ magesterial National Park series. Cheers, K

  2. Lovely post … I recently reviewed a short Muir essay about a windstorm in the Sierras. Evocative writing as you say. But the Sierras can do that to you – even if you are from down under!

    And I love your description of readerly aging. I too suffer from these problems. I like your idea of re-reading being the bedtime book. I think I might do that as I am realising to my surprise how much re-reading I do.

    • Kevin Neilson says:

      Hi Whisper, thank you. Question: besides Patrick White, who are 2-3 Australian novelists I should shortlist? Thank you. Cheers, K

      • Oh, that depends a bit on what you like. Our top male writers at the moment would include David Malouf, Tim Winton, Peter Carey (now resident in the USA). The women include Helen Garner and Kate Grenville – and two who died in recent years whom I I love are Thea Astley and Elizabeth Jolley. Christina Stead is another (no longer living either). Have you heard of or read any of these?

        I wrote a post a couple of months ago on a recent poll held to find our favourite Australian novel, so you might like to look at that: http://whisperinggums.wordpress.com/2010/02/01/abrs-favourite-australian-novel-poll/

  3. Kevin Neilson says:

    Fantastic list!

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