As a college student, and even as a grad student, I could read several books at a time—and 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 time—one 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.