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John Muir, A wind-storm in the forests

January 26, 2010
Giant Sequoia, Yosemite

Giant Sequoia, in the Sierras

Being rather partial to trees, I could not resist reading “A wind-storm in the forests” by Scottish-born American naturalist/enviromentalist John Muir (1838-1914) when it lobbed in by email today as this week’s Library of America story of the week. Anyone who has been to the stunning Yosemite – or visited the peaceful Muir Woods north of San Francisco – will have heard of John Muir.  Not only was he responsible for preserving many wilderness areas including of course Yosemite, but he founded the Sierra Club, an environmental organisation that remains today.

“A wind-storm in the forests” is more essay than story, but perhaps it is best described as a mood-piece: it uses a lot of musical imagery, not to mention sea imagery, religious imagery, and any other imagery that suits his purpose. And that purpose? To convey the grandeur and timelessness of the forests he loves and wants to protect. The story commences with a discussion of trees in the Sierra and how they variously respond to the wind, and then moves onto a description of a particular wind-storm during which he climbed a 100 ft Douglas Spruce to experience the storm first hand:

I kept my lofty perch for hours, frequently closing my eyes to enjoy the music by itself, or to feast quietly on the delicious fragrance that was streaming past.

Muir’s is a typically nineteenth century Romantic sensibility, and his prose is of the purple variety – but gorgeous for all that in its patriotic passion for the trees (“we are compelled to believe that they are the most beautiful on the face of the earth”) of the Sierras:

The waving of a forest of the giant Sequoias is indescribably impressive and sublime, but the pines seem to me to be the best interpreters of winds. They are mighty waving goldenrods, ever in tune, singing and writing wind-music all their long century lives.

AND

…the Silver Pines … wave like supple goldenrods chanting and bowing low as if in worship, while the whole mass of their long tremulous foliage was kindled into one continuous blaze of white sun-fire.

All eight pages or so are written in idolatrous prose like this. According to Wikipedia, Muir found writing hard, feeling that words were not really up to the task. Whether the problem is words or Muir himself, the prose is a little heavy-handed – and yet how wonderful it is to have the writings of such a man. We would, I think, have been the poorer without a written record of his passion.

POSTSCRIPT: Apologies to my Australian readers. I have no idea why, on Australia Day, I have chosen to write about American trees! I will, however, write one on a lovely book of Australian trees soon.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 27, 2010 3:09 pm

    I love the image of the trees as “interpreters of winds”. But yes, am highly put out by your unAustralian post 😛 I expect you to follow this up with a detailed review of Possum Magic.

    • January 27, 2010 3:16 pm

      Cheeky … who are you to cast lamingtons (or possums) given you aren’t even here in the land of your birth.

      • January 27, 2010 3:31 pm

        But that’s precisely why I have the right to be upset? If I can’t count on my own mother to remind me of my home, who can I?

  2. March 1, 2014 9:51 am

    I know both John Muir and those towering trees. The redwoods are impressive, and Muir Woods inspired me to write poetry when I visited. That said, the far west of Australia has it’s towering Karri trees, which rival the redwoods.

    I must say that Muir’s image of sitting in the tree during the storm reminded me a bit of Lt. Dan in “Forest Gump.” But it’s still lovely to read someone waxing rhapsodic over the beauty of creation. So many glorious things out there, and so few people bother looking at them.

    • March 1, 2014 10:10 am

      Thanks Waltzing. Yes, the Karri are similar as you say. We do have our tall forests here. Interestingly, there’s a stand of Californian redwoods in Beechworth in Victoria. I didn’t photograph them on our last visits as the light hasn’t been great but I will one day. It’s quit a little park and they line one of the main road boundaries. Did you see them?

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