To my mind, John Muir is a poet of the wilderness in the most divine literary sense — his praise and gratitude for the natural world is a song as sublime, inspirational, and wise as any sung by Homer or Whitman; in his hands, a journal entry seems the work of angels, here to recall man from the nightmare of his blind, narrow self. Muir is explorer, artist, scientist, dreamer, worker, and visionary. And he is no one’s fool. He cannot be bought or sold.
While reading My First Summer in the Sierra, 1869. With original sketches.
The Poet Tree
In the high Sierra east of the central San Joaquin Valley, up past the tiny sky-mirror lakes Heather, Aster, and Pear, the pines give way to an undulating sea of granite. My wife’s brother and I hiked there several times. Once in October, at about 10,000 feet, we were caught in a snowstorm that within moments numbed our fingers and obliterated the trail, first with soft-thudding pellets, then silent flakes that filled the palms of our hands. As we made our way down to safety, we met lone hikers on their way up, prepared to spend the night. They were rewarded with solitude under pristine skies, for the storm was not really a storm, but a local cloud-blessing that quickly moved on.
Somewhere below 8,000 feet, in a silent forest scene amid slowly falling flakes, we saw a large doe not far from the trail, watching us without fear, wise in soundless greeting.
A few weeks ago, while on a seven-mile hike here in Oregon, a friend told us of an experience her daughter had while student-teaching. The assignment was poetry. What is poetry? Because of the way the word sounds, one little girl thought “poet-tree.” A poem is a tree. And I said, “She was right. That is one of the best definitions of a poem.” The proof was all around us, trees that were 300 or more years old.
Above the lakes Heather, Aster, and Pear, we met a solitary pine that had defied the odds. Anchored in granite with no brothers and sisters for company, it had stood through lightning, wind, and snow for silent unspoken centuries. The bark on this tree was colorful and tightly woven, much like the skin of a snake. We listened to it with our hands.
Songs and Letters, September 8, 2005
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