Saturday, January 16, 2016
ashes to ashes
Not having a long winter reading project this year has me at loose ends, bookwise and otherwise. While casting around for something good to read this month, something fresh and immediate and consoling, I lighted upon John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, edited by Linnie Marsh Wolfe (my copy is a 1981 softcover reprint from the University of Wisconsin Press), bought at a booksale earlier this year for a dollar, and languishing on my to-be-read stack ever since. Maybe reading diaries is going to be my winter project, since I burned through Muir this week and am now in the middle of The Daybooks of Edward Weston, but I'll save the latter for another day, and just mention Muir for now. So many lovely passages and notes, made on his scrambles, rambles, and journeys around the American West. My glad heart responded, as so many hearts already have, to his firsthand accounts of the glories of nature, from quiet moments to overwhelmingly magnificent spectacles. Some of my favorite passages are as hushed as the snow falling here in Maine today.
January 1869: "A sweet, bright balmy cluster of radiant January days." (p.17)
February 1873: "Jubilee of snow descending ceaselessly from the fields of light." (p.114)
Undated: "The touch of invisible things is in snow, the lightest, tenderest of all material. I have lain in the calm deeps of woods with my face to the snowflakes falling like the touch of fingertips upon my eyes." (p.439)
Muir tells us in the Journals that he had a terrible time trying to put his thoughts down and then form them into his books. But he found a way, and we are blessed with the results of his toil, both on paper and in the land he was tireless in advocating for (his story is well-known but here is a link anyway, about his life and work). He would rather have been out in the woods or up on mountaintops, rather than attempting to write:
1872: "I have a low opinion of books; they are but piles of stones set up to show coming travelers where other minds have been, or at best smoke signals to call attention.... One day's exposure to mountains is better than cartloads of books." (pp.94-94)
January 1873: "Instead of narrowing my attention to bookmaking out of material I have already eaten and drunken, I would rather stand in what all the world would call an idle manner, literally gaping with all the mouths of soul and body, demanding nothing, fearing nothing, but hoping and enjoying enormously. So-called sentimental, transcendental dreaming seems the only sensible and substantial business that one can engage in." (pp.102-103)
1895: "Busy reading. This I can do always from morn till night and never weary. But composition - the devil seems to keep me from it, though I feel that my day of life is fast speeding away and that I must tell my story to the world." (p.338)
Well, I know how he feels. That swiftly-moving river of time is relentless. The death of my biological father was profoundly unsettling, and I've just been getting my feet under me again and even feeling a measure of peace. And then... my grandfather died, last Sunday. My stepfather's father. I've known him for over forty years now. He lived a beautiful life, full of so many of the best experiences and things that this world has to offer, and died at age 95. He had recently finished a new sculpture and was planning on having it cast.
All of our plans, for our lives. To what do they amount? A few books, here and there, some paintings. One volume of Complete Poems, perhaps. I'm having more trouble than usual with this idea, this week, and experiencing cognitive dissonance, if I'm thinking of the right term. Everything matters. Nothing matters. Both feel true. This makes my my brain hurt, not to mention my heart.
Books are a refuge, as always. Muir's Journals were a joy to read. I feel like I could make paintings from the word-pictures he writes, about clouds, mountains, waterfalls, glaciers, trees, creatures. He paints with words the way painters do with paint - using facts and specifics as starting points, then quickly moving to some other place that incorporates all of those and yet reaches beyond, toward transcendence. After finishing the Journals, I cast around once again. Now, I would have sworn I had no other John Muir books in this house. But. I remembered having a Galen Rowell photography book about Yosemite - which Muir wrote about so feelingly - so I went in search of that, to see if I could match up some images with what I'd been reading (I have six or seven Galen Rowell books, some of his work is simply sublime, and takes me to places I might never experience otherwise). I found the book in question, pulled it off the shelf, and... saw that it is in fact a reprint by the Sierra Club of John Muir's book The Yosemite, with new photographs and commentary thereon by Galen Rowell (Sierra Club Books 1989). So I sat down and read, and gazed, and read some more. All the wildness, the polar opposite of the Letters of Horace Walpole, I can't even say. I mean, talk about cognitive dissonance - all the ways in which a life might be successfully lived! I think I've postponed finishing the Walpole Letters because I don't want to read about his death, after having spent so much time in his company. (And, in a different vein, but not really, don't even get me started about David Bowie - ashes to ashes - goodbye, to one of my first loves.) Muir's Journals don't spare me from that, although his take on the finale of life is not a harsh one. In fact he writes in a singularly beautiful manner about death in all its forms.
About a heart-friend:
"Him I regard as one of the noblest, most devoutly revered enrichments of my life, on which distance, and even death, makes no difference." (p.432)
About everything in nature:
"...all alike pass on and away under the law of death and love." (p.440)
Again, about all of us:
"Myriads of rejoicing living creatures, daily, hourly, perhaps every moment sink into death's arms, dust to dust, spirit to spirit - waited on, watched over, noticed only by their Maker, each arriving at its own heaven-dealt destiny." (ibid)
He did not have a dark view of our denouement. Quite the contrary. Because he knew otherwise, from direct observation:
"Every dark and terrible abyss in nature is lighted with a like circle of love...." (p.125)
Surely that includes us, and our lives. After all, we're nature too.