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Book Review: My First Summer in the Sierra by John Muir

Reviewed by Marion Randall Parsons

More than forty years ago [this was written in 1912] a young Scotchman, but recently recovered from an accident that had threatened his eyesight, came to California hoping to make his way into the mountain regions, whose beauty, he had feared in his hours of darkness, might forever be hidden from him. The story of his "First Summer in the Sierra," now for the first time published, is a journal written in the solitude of the great forests, on the summits of lonely domes and peaks, or by the camp-fire with "Billy," the shepherd, and the Indian asleep near by and the dull,dingy,unpastoral flock, for whose care he was responsible, looking "like a big gray blanket in the star light." The beauty and freshness of the mountains is wonderfully reflected in this book, which seems to hold within its pages all the brightness and sunny geniality of a Sierra morning warming towards noon.

Aside from the enthusiasm for the new world opening before him which is perhaps the dominant note of the book, one is struck chiefly by Mr. Muir's strong sense of the harmony and unity of Nature. In him the wide vision of the scientist is allied with a reverent spirit that traces even from the ravages of destructive forces an ultimate working out for good, and sees in apparent death the creative power of the Lord. "One is constantly reminded of the infinite lavishness and fertility of Nature, - inexhaustible abundance amid what seems enormous waste. And yet when we look into any of her operations that lie within reach of our minds, we learn that no particle of her material is wasted or worn out. It is eternally flowing from use to use, beauty to yet higher beauty; and we soon cease to lament waste and death, and rather rejoice in the imperishable, unspendable wealth of the universe, and faithfully watch and wait the reappearance of everything that melts and fades and dies about us, feeling sure that its next appearance will be better and more beautiful than the last."

Mr. Muir's intense feeling of fellowship and kinship with them mountain world is constantly manifest. "One fancies a heart like our own must be beating in every crystal and cell, and we feel like stopping to speak to the plants and animals as friendly mountaineers." A friend that he especially loves to hold communion with is the Douglas squirrel. "How he scolds, and what faces he makes; all eyes, teeth,and whiskers! If he were not so comically small he would indeed be a dreadful fellow."

An unusual insight into the beauties of the common things of the wayside is not the least of the book's charm. The tracery of leaf shadows on rock surfaces, the "sun-sifted arches" of the trees, the flow of clear streams, the firelight glow on forest walls, above all the unending wonder of the cloud scenery, those "mountains of the sky" whose daily gathering and dispersal he never fails to mark, - all these are noted with as true a perception of their beauty and significance as are the rarer glories of the summit peaks.

Forty years have wrought no change in Mr. Muir's enthusiasm for the Sierra. To those of us who have been privileged to journey with him through his best-loved mountains the story of his "first summer" will bring back many a radiant day of those later summers he has shared with us, days whose wonders he has helped us read, - "days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God."

Source: Sierra Club Bulletin, Vol. VIII. No. 3, January, 1912.

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