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The Yosemite

by John Muir, photographs by Galen Rowell

reviewed by Harold W. Wood, Jr.

The Yosemite by John Muir with Photographs by Galen Rowell Book Cover

The Yosemite
The original John Muir text illustrated with photographs by Galen Rowell
Sierra Club Books, San Francisco
224 pages, 101 color photographs
ISBN: 0-87156-587-0

Reviewed by Harold W. Wood, Jr.

This luminous coffee-table photographic extravaganza celebrating the most famous national park in California was published in 1989 - just in time for the Centennial of Yosemite National Park (1990). The Sierra Club has had an intimate relationship with Yosemite since John Muir and Robert Underwood Johnson worked to establish it over 100 years ago. Although the Sierra Club itself was not yet born when the Park was established in 1890, the Club's formation in 1892 was largely to protect the infant National Park from the loggers, sheep herders, and mining interests who challenged the new restrictions imposed by the Park's existence. Later, the Sierra Club was involved in the successful campaign to return Yosemite Valley from state ownership to federal ownership in the National Park, and the unsuccessful campaign to prevent the drowning of Hetch Hetchy Valley.

This book is a celebration, not a polemic. The photographer, as he notes in the introduction, considered whether to include images of the modern problems of overcrowding and pollution in the park, but decided instead to concentrate on the single theme of "the flavor of wildness that still exists in Yosemite one hundred yards from every park road... I want to show that only a small part of the park in negatively affected. Thanks to the foresight of Muir and others, most of John Muir.s Yosemite is gloriously intact." The photographer's goal was "to celebrate Muir's legacy, which includes all the wild places he wrote about as well as past and present methods of wilderness travel to reach them."

John Muir's text of The Yosemite was originally intended as a sort of travel guide, a description of the park for visitors, and a call for its defense. The text, published originally in 1912, still manages to achieve this goal. It contains chapters on "Winter Storms and Spring Floods," "Snow Storms," "The Trees of the Valley," "The Big Trees," "The Flowers," "The Birds," etc. The book even contains a chapter on "How Best to Spend one's Yosemite Time," which involves descriptions of one day excursions where the tourist is urged to arise at 3:00 a.m. in midsummer!

With our current awareness of the 1989 California earthquakes you will not want to miss Muir's assuredly non-pedestrian experience of an earthquake in Yosemite Valley:

At half-past two o'clock of a moonlit morning in March, I was awakened by a tremendous earthquake, and though I had never before enjoyed a storm of this sort, the strange thrilling motion could not be mistaken, and I ran out of my cabin, both glad and frightened, shouting, 'A noble earthquake! A noble earthquake!' feeling sure I was going to learn something.

This book is distinctive in offering much more than Muir's Yosemite text. Each of the 101 photographs in this book is accompanied by two captions. One is from Muir, drawn from the full range of his books and articles, including many of his most poetic passages. The second is an annotation by Galen Rowell, describing what drew him to the subject matter and providing a modern perspective which may aid the rest of us in seeking either fine photographer fine experiences. The combination is not a coincidental one, for Rowell writes in the introduction, "I have come to appreciate that my modern experiences in Yosemite are not a given, but rather a direct consequence of John Muir's life."

The photographs -- and it is trite to say this when speaking of Galen Rowell's work -- are simply superb. Rowell, of course, achieves some of his unique vision by reaching places that most of us never can -- dangling from ropes on vertical cliff faces, or swimming the roaring watercourse of Muir Gorge on the Tuolumne River, for example. But much of his achievement rests upon a sensitivity to light and storm and time which can inspire the rest of us to really see next time we go looking. You can also see many of the 101 photographs from this book in the Yosemite Post Card Collection published by the Sierra Club, but you will need to get this book to really enjoy the stories behind the pictures.

This book was not only a most fitting tribute to the Centennial of Yosemite National Park, but will make a fine gift for decades into the future!

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