I recently visited Yosemite and perhaps I’ve watched too many National Park documentaries or accidentally absorbed what my transcendentalist obsessed high school English teacher was telling me, but Yosemite and John Muir are inseparably linked in my mind. So in celebration of my arrival at the scenic, yet tourist overrun park that would make old John cry himself to sleep at night if he knew one has to fight through Disneyland sized crowds to see a simple waterfall, I decided to buy and read a book by John Muir. “My First Summer in the Sierra” was the one I happened to pick up.
John Muir, for the uninitiated, was an American naturalist who spent years frolicking in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, and other wild places, chronicling his experiences. His accounts and enthusiasm led to his founding of the Sierra Club in 1892 and also proved instrumental in the creation of the National Park Service. As someone who generally greatly enjoys national parks I figured I should give Muir a try even though his writings aren’t the type that would generally appeal to me.
Now I realize I just provided two different reasons for why I read this book, which may seem superfluous (and probably is) but I would argue that you really need some sort of strong conviction to make it through Muir’s account. That’s not to say Muir’s book is bad because it absolutely isn’t. There’s a lot to love about it actually. His writing manages to be accessible without sacrificing his beautiful prose and his enthusiasm is infectious, though he uses a few too many exclamation marks for my cynical tastes. The difficulty with “My First Summer in the Sierras” is it’s basically 350 pages of description. There is a small amount of narrative since this is the 1869 diary of the summer Muir spent as a member of a sheep herding expedition, but it appears Muir did very little in his actual job so the account is almost entirely description ranging from the poetic to the scientific.
If anyone is thinking of reading a book by Muir I urge you to ask yourself why you want to read it. If you want beautiful passages about nature I would recommend getting a book of collected quotes from Muir because his descriptions are much more meaningful and palatable in small doses, but if you want a taste of who Muir the man was go ahead and try one of his full books. The side of Muir that is often disregarded in his public profile comes out. Don’t misunderstand, Muir is not some monster in disguise with a dark history, but reading Muir’s mixed opinions on the Native Americans and even a veiled reference to the recent end of slavery in the nation is fascinating. My favorite parts are when the usually overjoyed Muir breaks the character history has set for him and starts complaining about something. The naturalist’s hatred for small black ants and sheep seems to only be surpassed by the disgust he shows towards shepherds. An account from the unfortunate shepherd who spent most of his summer with Muir has the potential to absolutely hilarious.
“My First Summer in the Sierras” is well written, insightful and an important piece of work. Despite these positives it’s not a book that will appeal to many people and unless you’re fascinated with how Muir presents himself in an unfiltered form or think works by Emerson and Thoreau make for riveting reads, I would skip it.