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J o h n M u ir a n d Y o s e m it e ’s “C a s t a w a y B o o k ”: T h e T r o u b l in g G e o l o g y o f N a t iv e A m e r ic a A n n L u n d b e r g John Muir’s The Mountains of California arrived in bookstores in 1894 at a critical moment in the conservation movement. Long-held opinions about human relation to and use of the natural world were changing.1 The Indians, the buffalo, and the wide open spaces were a thing of the past. The geological and biological sciences had redefined the place of man in a universe driven by evolution. Within ten years, the nation’s first environmental president, Theodore Roosevelt, would be in office, designating national monuments by the score in order to preserve what was left of America’s vanishing natural and cultural her­ itage. Within this context, The Mountains of California was a landmark in the development of American appreciation and preservation of wilderness. However, the period surrounding the turn of the century was also a particularly anxious time when the nation was obsessed with questions Constance F. Gordon Cumming. INDIAN LIFE AT MIRROR LAKE. 1878. Watercolor. 29 1/2" x 19 1/4". WAL 3 6 .1 SPRING 2 0 0 1 of identity and disturbed by the changes believed to be taking place in American culture. Racism, backed by “scientific evidence,” was rampant, as was the fear that modem man had reached the apex of human evo­ lution and was beginning to degenerate as the result of overcivilization. The fact that Muir’s writings were also a product of this anxious time becomes apparent when we examine the geologic foundations of the essay “A Near View of the High Sierra,” which forms the book’s struc­ tural climax. In this essay, Muir uses the authority of geological science and evolutionary theory to frame his experience of Mount Ritter. In the process, he constructs a model of wilderness experience by which modem man can recover the original, or “wild,” strength he has lost in the process of becoming “civilized.” Muir’s near-death experience while climbing Mount Ritter is gen­ erally regarded as the formative moment of his wilderness philosophy, a philosophy which confirms the unity of self, spirit, and natural world. In “A Near View,” Muir writes, “I was suddenly brought to a dead stop, with arms outspread, clinging close to the face of the rock, unable to move hand or foot either up or down. My doom appeared fixed. I must fall” (51-52). Fortunately, “life blazed forth again with preternatural clearness. I seemed suddenly to become possessed of a new sense. The other self, bygone experiences, Instinct, or Guardian Angel— call it what you will— came forward and assumed control” (52). In the process, Muir seems to have climbed to a new level of understanding, one which Michael Cohen, in his landmark work The Pathless Way: John Muir and the American Wilderness, has identified with the Buddhist experi­ ence of satori, ‘“the unfolding of a new world hitherto unperceived in the confusion of the dualistically-trained mind,”’ a complete loss of selfinterest combined with the realization that “there was no ‘myself’ different from the rest of the cosmos” (69, 71).2 As such, Muir’s Mount Ritter experience becomes paradigmatic of the “pathless way,” the road never traveled before, that Cohen believes Muir sought and found in the Sierra wilderness. In a similar vein, critics have tended to reemphasize Muir’s individualism, praising him for abandoning his father’s oppressive, literalist Christianity, for breaking with American industrialism and its work ethic, and for developing an ecological perspective in advance of his time. Our vision is limited, however, if we read Muir only according to the evidence of his own experience. A s historian Joan Scott suggests, our experience of the actual is never in fact as transparent as it seems but rather is encoded by previous experiences and understandings, by the very system...


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