Wednesday, December 18, 2019

John Muir Goes A-Campin' at Hetch Hetchy

The Hetch-Hetchy Valley, California, 1870s, oil on canvas by German-American artist Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), currently at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

I'm really enjoying my $1.99 ebook, John Muir's Ultimate Collection, having recently read the essay "The Hetch Hetchy Valley." This essay chronicles his camping trip into the Hetch Hetchy in 1873, before the fight to keep the Sierra Nevada valley that is near Yosemite from being dammed and flooded for water for the San Francisco area. Muir later rewrote this essay as a plea to not destroy the valley, but the original version I read is more the early writing style of Muir: innocence, wonder, and reverence. (This original essay online here.)

Muir, circa 1860 (PBS)
Muir decides to visit Hetch Hetchy during the first week of November, so there is some danger of snow. This, of course, is before satellite weather forecasting, so in his usual inimitable manner, Muir takes three loaves of bread for his food--one for the trip up, one for the trip back, and one for emergencies. He also has his blanket and a nice cup for his "complementary coffee"--Muir, the glamper! "Thus grandly allowanced, I was ready to enjoy my ten days' journey of any kind of calm or storm." 

He decides to leave the trail and follow some grizzlies to achieve a short-cut in his route, which includes some adventure through the rough country. He's careful, of course, since he doesn't want to startle the bear on a narrow canyon path only wide enough enough for one! "At first I took [the path] to be an Indian trail, but after following it a short distance, I discovered certain hieroglyphics which suggested the possibility of its belonging to the bears," a mother and her cubs. Since the essay was written, readers, you can assume he survived that adventure. Hiking escalates to mountain climbing, all the while Muir describing the experience in his highly readable style that combines travelogue with objective, scientific observation as he adventures all day and then settles in for the night. 
"Night gathered, in most impressive repose; my blazing fire illumined the grand brown columns of my compassing cedars and a few withered briers and goldenrods that leaned forward between them, as if eager to drink the light. Stars glinted here and there through the rich plumes of my ceiling, and in front I could see a portion of the mighty caƱon walls, dark against the sky, making me feel as if at the bottom of a sea."
Muir discusses the history of the valley, its human occupation--and, yes, there is a snowstorm. Our intrepid traveler weathers it, and not alone. "I did not expect company in such unfavorable weather; nevertheless I was visited towards evening by a brown nugget of a wren."

This beautiful, descriptive narrative essay is a tribute to the beauty and glory of the natural world--and unfortunately, also a prescient eulogy to the now-inundated valley. This is Muir at his finest--the minimalist camper, the scientist and naturalist, and the priest of the forest cathedral.

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