The last book I read was ‘My first summer in the Sierra’ by John Muir. The book follows John’s daily life as he follows a herd of sheep for a summer to the mountains (where it is cooler and has grass for the sheep) and back again. John uses his time in the Sierra to explore the local wildlife and trees and, by doing so, rejoice in his place in the world.
‘My first summer in the Sierra’ is in my view a masterpiece of writing, but it is not for everyone's tastes by a long shot. John’s detailed and inspired descriptions of his surroundings in the Yosemite Valley may come across as overwritten, overly indulgent and too sentimental to be believable by some. There are also many direct and indirect of references to God and potential ‘enlightenment’ throughout the book which, depending on your religious preference, you can either take or leave. However, I personally liked the book for the reason that John’s descriptions of nature around him in the Yosemite Valley were so enthusiastic, innocent and childlike that they jolted me from my every day thoughts. He delighted in every little aspect of nature, which, in turn, makes you notice the often overlooked aspects too. His love for nature, perhaps made it hard for him to fit into everyday life, but I enjoyed the book precisely because his voice was not one you hear in everyday life. His enthusiasm, along with his use of exclamation marks, is infectious!
I have worked with sheep in the past, so was expecting more reference to his time working with the sheep, but John's opinion of sheep is scathing. He refers to sheep as ‘hardly an animal’ compared to the ‘cleaness’ of a deer or other mountain creature he describes, despairs at their want to easily die and calls ‘sheep days’ an ‘interruption to his studies’.
For me, one of the most interesting anecdotes of the book is where John is awoken by a strong feeling that he should go and meet his friend J.D Butler. In doing so, he left his work and scrambled down the mountain top as if ‘drawn irresistibly’. He then soon reasons himself out of going that evening, but tells himself he will go first thing the next morning. So – the next morning he sets out to do just this. His diary entry for that day is as follows: ‘had a wonderful day. Found Professor Butler as the compass needle finds the pole’. I wondered at this aspect of the story as John ‘felt the presence’ of his friend from miles away, yet his friend did not recognise John immediately even when John was standing in front of him. It suggests something spiritual or unexplained in John’s sense of connectedness to everything in the world which I found intriguing- almost like our inbuilt ‘spidey sense’ that tells us if something is absolutely 100% right for us or amiss but was obviously more developed in John.
I felt such admiration for John as he knew he saw the world differently to others and had the courage to not try and mould himself to fit into the material world- he was as he was, there was no compromise. For example, John forgoes material pleasures for natural ones, turning down wine because it tastes ‘dull, muddy and stupid’ compared to natural spring water and preferring to sleep out under the stars rather than in a ‘paltry’ hotel room. John occasionally mentioned feeling lonely and I felt a great deal of empathy for him and longed for him to find a kindred spirit to go off on adventures with.
Overall I enjoyed the book and would recommend to someone who has an interest in nature and/or spirituality in whatever form. I am keen now to read another of John’s books ‘Thousand mile walk to the Gulf’- watch this space!