Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 140: John Muir, A Wind-Storm in the Forests (#4)

John Muir, "A Wind-Storm in the Forests" (1911) from American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau:

Before I read this piece, I used to think of John Muir and imagine grand forests and stately parks. Now I'm imagining those same grand forests being attacked by wind that teeters on the edge of being a Cthulhu-ish horror. Of course, that very last part is all me: even in a wind-storm, John Muir wants to remind us that nature is all-encompassing, sublime, and beautiful--which is only two-thirds a good description of Cthulhu.

Here, in all seriousness, is the thumbnail description of this piece: John Muir enjoys the woods even during a wind-storm. To get a better view of that wind-storm, he even climbs a tree so that he can see the wind rippling through the treetops. If you ever doubted, here's your wake-up call: John Muir is hardcore.

On a craft level, so many of the sentences here are long, multi-clausal, semi-colon-littered, Whitmanesque catalogs of nature. Which makes sense, since, as Muir noted in his My First Summer in the Sierra (1911),
When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.
This is perhaps doubly true of the wind, which is both universal and barely visible by itself. And so if the wind can go anywhere, well, then, by golly, so can Muir's sentences:
But the winds go to every tree, fingering every leaf and branch and furrowed bole; not one is forgotten; the Mountain Pine towering with outstretched arms on the rugged buttresses of the icy peaks, the lowliest and most retiring tenant of the dells; they seek and find them all, caressing them tenderly, bending them in lusty exercise, stimulating their growth, plucking off a leaf or limb as required, or removing an entire tree or grove, now whispering and cooing through the branches like a sleepy child, now roaring like the ocean; the winds blessing the forests, the forests the winds, with ineffable beauty and harmony as the sure result.
Note also that the wind here, which can destroy things pretty thoroughly, gets described almost as a helping hand or an attentive nurse: the wind forgets nothing, it caresses and stimulates, it pulls off pieces of trees when that is what is required, and at the end of the day, it leaves "ineffable beauty and harmony." Man, Muir makes the wind sound like a pretty good parent.

(Which is awfully funny to me since the LoA page makes note of how harsh Muir's real parents were. The Freudian reading here may not be far off the mark: traumatized at home, Muir plays the game of imagining his true parents as more powerful and sheltering. A guy who rushes out into a storm because a house is not real protection either needs to think about what a house symbolizes to him or needs a better contractor to build a better house.)

Muir keeps up with this idea that nature is not just powerful but morally good.
We hear much nowadays concerning the universal struggle for existence, but no struggle in the common meaning of the word was manifest here; no recognition of danger by any tree; no deprecation; but rather an invincible gladness as remote from exultation as from fear.
Today, we might go on about the Zen feeling of harmony, the idea of a contentment that isn't manic happiness or depressive mania. You can see that, even though he mixes in some ecological observation, Muir's idea of nature is heavily colored by certain spiritual ideas: the book of nature can be read (see all the times he mentions the careful observation of the wind's signs, since the wind itself cannot be seen), and though it may not lead us to God, it can lead us to something like redemption.

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