Muir’s Yosemite

Vital Animation and the Ecstatic Body

In John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra (1911), readers are presented with a vision of nature as both garden and wilderness, simultaneously beautiful and terrifying, welcoming and dangerous, homely and strange. His is a passionate vision, but it is not a passion bred of illusion—he knows that one misstep, one careless sound, or even something so removed as a change in the weather, could be his end. And yet, for Muir, nature is not an enemy, nor a brutish creature to be tamed. Nature is a vibrant space, vast and powerfully other, which he inhabits as a guest—nomadic, transient, and fragile. Particularly in the Yosemite passages, beginning on July 15 and continuing through his ascent of Mt. Hoffman on July 26, we see a nature of which Muir is neither a part nor to which Muir is opposed, but a nature that requires the labour of participation. His rambles and sketches and writings are not the product of idle speculation or intrinsic disposition, but the culmination of exertion, of long treks and great ascents, visions afforded by strain. Through such strain, the dialogue of muscle and stone, flesh and earth, an aesthetic mood is achieved, characterized by an ecstasy and animation uniquely manifest in the sweaty, bodily sort of activity that Muir undertakes. To read Muir’s Yosemite is to encounter this ecstasy, to brush up against that animative force which so moved him over a century ago, that force peculiar to the “ungovernable wildness” (75) of which he writes.

Before delving into Muir’s text, it is necessary for us to define two technical terms that will be significant in our analysis. Firstly, I use “ecstasy” in the classical sense, defined as the “state of being ‘beside oneself,’” a mystical, frenzied, or trancelike experience, a “rapture” or “transport” (Oxford English Dictionary [OED]). By “animation” I refer to the “action or process of imparting life, vitality,” or “motion,” which stems from the Latin anima, “air, breath, life, soul, spirit,” the “principle” of vital being (OED). In her essay “Reclaiming Animism” (2012), philosopher and scientist Isabelle Stengers explores such a concept of vital motion, approaching the “question of animism” from her post-Enlightenment perspective, not as a primitive or superstitious belief, but as a valid mode of knowing in which “what is addressed must be successfully enrolled as a “partner,”” and not treated as “an object of knowledge” (2). Citing Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, animistic knowing is to “think by the milieu,” by “events” and “linkages” and “symbiosis” (3). This de-objectification of knowledge makes possible what Stengers refers to as an “achievement,” the “creation of a situation” that does not fix but rather generates meanings (2). The “situation” of knowledge practiced in milieu, as animating principle, affords a “metamorphic ... relation to the world” (4). We as students and scientists and philosophers and naturalists undergo a “transformation” through our participation in the milieu, our experiences “making us witness to what is not us” (7), actors in a field of “agency” that we do not and cannot possess (7). So, in her process of “reclaiming,” which is “resurrecting” and “reactivating” that which has been “poisoned” (6), Stengers proposes the use of “magic” once again, the “experience of an agency that does not belong to us even if it includes us, but an “us” as it is lured into feeling” (7). Magic is a “craft,” a “refrain [that] must be chanted,” “part and parcel of the practice of worship”—that activity which livens the spirit—a state of being “compromised” by the “ambivalence of the lure” (8), which is to say, by the openness of the vision which involves us in participatory exertion. This is animation.

In Muir, then, I argue that the condition of existence with which we are presented, which he enters into in the Yosemite, and throughout his travels in the Sierra, is one of ecstasy and animation, in the terms used above. Let us delineate the field at the lexical level: the milieu of the Yosemite is “noble,” “sublime,” “glorious,” “glowing,” “radiating,” “extravagant,” and “boundless” (64). There is an exuberance that emanates from the land, a “beauty that pours into our flesh and bones like heat rays from fire” (64). Muir basks in its “spiritual glow” and “shout[s] and gesticulate[s] in a wild burst of ecstasy” (64, my emphasis). The landscape is not an inert mass, not a ‘lay’ to be trampled, plundered, and raped, but a vital field in which Muir is caught up, moved to voice and dance. Muir continues on, navigating the “marvelous cliffs, marvelous in sheer dizzy depth and sculpture, types of endurance” (64). Muir’s phrasing is evocative here—the cliffs are not a tableau, but types. They are not a portrait to be examined, but a plurality of practices figuring endurance. Certainly, a cliff cannot possess endurance of a sort relevant to Muir, inanimate matter that it is. And yet, for Muir, the type of the cliff creates a situation into which he is lured. This is not naïve anthropomorphization, but a reading of the “gestures” of the land, an embrace of the “rest” and “confidence” of the wild (64), a participation that is the condition of Muir’s knowledge. The torrent of the falls resounds in his ears as “thunder tones” (63), a “chanting throng” (65), and he answers not in speech but in presence. He is called to witness, addressed by the world in a supernal tongue preaching glory.

The animative force of such a wild language is clear throughout the Yosemite passages. As he skirts the valley edge Muir cannot help but push to the brink: “under its spell one’s body seems to go where it likes with a will over which we seem to have scarce any control” (64). Nearing the waterfall, he “conclude[s] not to venture farther, but [does] nevertheless” (65). He cannot help himself. He presses on and on, a whisper from doom, but in “such places,” Muir tells us, “one’s body takes keen care for safety on its own account” (65). There is no thinking here, only “triumphant exhilaration” (65). That night, Muir’s ecstasy is followed by “dull weariness” (65) and “nervous tremor[s]” (66), his sleep broken by “dream[s] [of] rushing through the air above a glorious avalanche of water and rocks” (66). His being is wakened to the world, given an agency beyond himself, beside himself, so much so that in the imaginings of his restless, sleeping mind he can cry, “This time it is real—all must die, and where could mountaineer find a more glorious death!” (66). Death is very much a possibility in the wild, a possibility he fears (certainly he does not wish for oblivion and nothingness), yet by which his spirit is not dampened. At the brink is life; in the milieu is vibrant presence. The cliff’s edge, the torrent of the falls, transforms him, but not into a higher being. He is compromised by his experience, lured by its ambivalence (threat and wonder, terror and ecstasy, death and life), and so livened to his contingent position within the situation that he has come to inhabit.

In a storm he is awed by the power of the wild, the “thunder gloriously impressive, keen, crashing, intensely concentrated, speaking with such tremendous energy” (68). And then it passes, and it appears to him that some of the “shining throng” (69), raindrops electric with lightning, have been “locked in crystals of ice,” while others have “gone journeying on in the rivers to join the larger raindrop of the ocean” (69). All, from “form to form, beauty to beauty, ever changing, never resting, ... are speeding on with love’s enthusiasm, singing with the stars the eternal song of creation” (69). Muir is entranced by the magic, the divinity, of the world. In Stengers words, the Yosemite is “[a]lluring, suggesting, specious, inducing, capturing, mesmerizing” (8)—it is full with the spirit of the lure. For Muir, the Yosemite is “so compactly filled with God’s beauty” (71) that “no petty personal hope or experience has room to be” (71). To drink from the stream, to breathe the “living air,” is for him “pure pleasure”—“every movement of the limbs is pleasure, while the whole body seems to feel beauty when exposed to it as it feels the camp-fire or sunshine, entering not the eyes alone, but equally through all one’s flesh like radiant heat, making a passionate ecstatic pleasure-glow not explainable” (71-72). Muir’s body becomes “homogeneous throughout, sound as a crystal” (72). Muir experiences a metamorphic passion, “settling down into dumb admiration without definite hope of ever learning much, yet with the longing, unresting effort that lies at the door of hope, humbly prostrate before the vast display of God’s power, and eager to offer self-denial and renunciation with eternal toil to learn any lesson in the divine manuscript” (72). The mountains before him are “serene in massive exuberant bulk and beauty” (72), and with “every attempt to appreciate any one feature” the singular object is “beaten down by the overwhelming influence of all the others” (72). The wild cannot be reduced, dissected, or examined. The land cannot be known, and yet the toil of traversing it, of living on it, of being there, is a knowing in itself, a knowing that does not produce knowledge, but is instead a participation in meaning. At the end of the day the “ceremony of the sunset” is “printed in [Muir’s] mind as dreams,” a “terrestrial eternity,” a “gift of good God” (73).

In his “Mass on the World” (1961), Pierre Tielhard de Chardin writes, “My paten and my chalice are the depths of a soul laid widely open to all the forces which in a moment will rise up from every corner of the earth and converge upon the Spirit.” Similarly, sitting one day on the Dome, Muir writes of a grasshopper, a “jolly fellow” (76), whose dance is to him a sermon. The compromised, ecstatic body is receptive to the grasshopper’s “crisp electric spark of joy” that “enliven[s] the massy sublimity of the mountains like the laugh of a child” (77), to the “very poetry of manners and motion” (78) of the deer, to the “unsketchable and untellable” display of the clouds on the horizon (80), to the trees “bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship” (81). Indeed, for Muir, every “hidden cell is throbbing with music and life, every fibre thrilling like harp strings, while incense is ever flowing from the balsam bells and leaves” (81). Muir, like Tiehlhard, like Stengers, is laid open to the force of the milieu, the moment, that converges upon him, splits him open, that “wooingly whisper[s], “Come higher”” (82). The “hills and groves were God’s first temples” (81) and it is there, in the vastness and the closeness, the thunder and the calm, the terror and the majesty of the Yosemite, that Muir is brought—called, beckoned, lured—into worship.

Works Cited

Muir, John. My First Summer in the Sierra. 1911. Dover Publications, 2004.

Oxford English Dictionary. 2017, . Accessed 18 Feb. 2017.

Stengers, Isabelle. “Reclaiming Animism.” e-flux, no. 36, 2012.

Tielhard de Chardin, Pierre. “The Mass on the World.” Hymn of the Universe. 1961. Harper & Row. < showchapter.asp?title=1621&C=1535>. Accessed 18 Feb. 2017.

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