The planet is putting on its most spectacular show right now in Yosemite. Over an ancient sun-soaked cliff, a river that moments ago was as staid and obedient as you and me is hurling itself over the edge like a runaway roller coaster, turning into a hundred-headed shower of white downward-streaking comets, twisting and turning and dissolving and embracing and vanishing and reappearing, falling 500, a thousand, 1,500 feet before it collides with the rocks and disappears into a maelstrom of foam and mist. And that's only the top half of the springtime epic that is Yosemite Falls, a no-two-shows-alike performance that ends another thousand feet lower in a seething whirlpool at the base of the north face, where we little humans sit and look and are baptized in the mist and try to remember the mystery of this world.
I have been to Yosemite, and deeper into the majestic mountain range that John Muir called the Range of Light, many times over the last 35 years. The wilderness draws me for lots of different reasons, but the one continuous thread is a desire to find bedrock -- something enduring, something quieter and stronger than the everlasting din of my own mind, or the misshapen life of Bush's America. The Sierras are for me what the sea was for Melville's Ishmael. "Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul ... then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can," Melville wrote at the opening of "Moby-Dick." Call me Ishmael. I've been much too grim about the mouth. I needed to follow the prescription of the good Dr. Muir, who wrote, "Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves."
The great Scottish naturalist and visionary, as he looked back upon the ecstatic waterfall of his first summer in the Sierra Nevada from the tranquil downstream river of his old age, cried out, "Beauty beyond thought everywhere, beneath, above, made and being made forever." Muir was stunned into permanent happiness by his discovery of this planetary garden spot: The stars seem to have been happily aligned in his soul in such a rare way that nature's magnificence instantly filled him up, brimming over into prose that seems scarcely able to restrain itself from being just one endless shout of joy.
When Muir arrived in San Francisco, he asked a carpenter he met on the street "the nearest way out of town to the wild part of the state." The astonished man asked, "Where do you wish to go?" Muir replied, "Anywhere that's wild." He went there, and he was never the same.
When Muir first walked to the edge of the vast Sierra coniferous forest, in the gold country above Coulterville at 2,500 feet, he wrote, "We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us. Our flesh-and-bone tabernacle seems transparent as glass to the beauty about us, as if truly an inseparable part of it, thrilling with the air and trees, streams and rocks, in the waves of the sun, -- a part of all nature, neither old nor young, sick nor well, but immortal. Just now I can scarcely conceive of any bodily condition dependent on food or breath any more than the ground or the sky. How glorious a conversion, so complete and wholesome it is, scarce memory enough of old bondage days left as a standpoint to view it from! In this newness of life we seem to have been so always."
Few people have souls as shaken up and fizzy as John Muir's, and I am far from being an exception. His nonstop cork-popping can be intimidating, baffling, even exasperating, to those of us normal types who grow old and wear the bottoms of our trousers rolled. How could this guy have been filled with constant joy? Didn't he ever take a break, for chrissake? Muir's glorious conversion may have been so complete that he could scarce remember "old bondage days," but for most of us, it's the old bondage that comes up with the sun every day, and the thrilling newness that's occasional and hard to remember. As the years pass, I am forced to admit the muttony truth that I resemble Muir far less than I do the brainless sheep that he watched over that first summer in 1869. Of these creatures he wrote, "Having escaped restraint, they were, like some people we know, afraid of their freedom, did not know what to do with it, and seemed glad to get back into the old familiar bondage." To which I can only reply, "Baaa, humbug."
But not even a Prufrockian sheep can escape the spell of Yosemite on the first day of spring. I spent two nights and a day there last week with my mother. The old May magic was afoot. The dogwoods were in full bloom, the aspens rustling, the Merced flowing like snowmelt champagne, and always there loomed those incredible cliffs, as blazoned and enigmatic as dreams. It is a place so theatrically primordial it looks like the forge in which the gods started to make a bigger, brighter world before they got distracted and fell back into old bondage. And as always after seeing it, I feel a little bigger and brighter too.
The great national parks like Yosemite, or Yellowstone, or the Grand Canyon, or the Grand Tetons, are strange and self-contradictory places. They are shrines to nature at its most extravagant. The biggest waterfalls, the most massive rocks, the deepest gorges, the biggest trees, the highest geysers. They smash us over the head with their mind-blowing excess. We stand with our mouths open and our shutters clicking, and when our regular life programming resumes, when we return to our stop signs and mental graffiti, we cling to the afterimages like mental Ansel Adams postcards inscribed "wish you were here." But the very grandiloquence of nature in such places can cancel itself out, can mislead us into seeing the wild world as a kind of Wagnerian performance, a gigantic spectacle utterly unconnected to our normal lives.
And this nature-as-CinemaScope-thriller impression is only heightened by its inevitable accompaniment, the vast infrastructure that makes it possible to deliver sublimity to hundreds of thousands of people, the campgrounds and pizza parlors and shuttle buses and gift shops and parking lots and grocery stores. It's all necessary, of course, and the atmosphere it creates has its own unique nostalgia, a kind of deep-dish Americana, a whiff of Playland at the Beach and Whispering Pines motels out of Nabokov, the sweaty cotton-candy democracy of bicycles and smoky campfires and kids with flashlights. But just past the ice-cream truck waits the inscrutable fragrant silence of the world, and it's sometimes hard to hear it.
I think it's the chance to experience that friendly silence, what Camus called "the benign indifference of the universe," that draws us to wild places. Whenever I go backpacking, it's the vast alive silence of the night that I wait to hear in my sleeping bag, and it usually takes a day or two for my mind to slow down enough to hear it. For the blessed John Muir -- unless in his old age he was exaggerating his ecstasy, as writers are prone to do -- the world's gaze was not just friendly, but positively erotic. If nuns are the brides of Christ, he was the bridegroom of the living earth. Few of us who are not under the influence of mushrooms have experienced what he did. But just to be aware of that living silence, a silence in which the world and its million good and knowable mysteries walks next to you and puts its hand on your shoulder -- that's something.
We felt it. We walked along, a 77-year-old woman and her middle-aged son, through a hidden meadow in the bend of the Merced, fringed by the familiar trees of this welcoming elevation, cedar and yellow pine and white fir, with the inconceivable mass of Sentinel Rock rising up across the valley to the south. West of Sentinel Rock, a distant waterfall, little celebrated but one of the wonders of the world, leaped and cascaded 2,000 feet, and every rivulet and torrent told an engrossing story. It was nothing dramatic, just an amble, but we strolled out of old bondage. The world had put on its Sunday best, and we did too. It's nice that you can meet it halfway.
"Listen!" shouted the jazz prophet Rahsaan Roland Kirk at the beginning of one of his tunes. In all of his work, all John Muir was really saying was "Look!"
But what are we really seeing when we look at nature? And what kind of story does it really tell, anyway? For John Muir, it was a cosmic comedy, one that has a happy ending throughout all eternity. "One seems to be in a majestic domed pavilion in which a grand play is being acted with scenery and music and incense -- all the furniture and action so interesting that we are in no danger of being called on to endure one dull moment," he wrote. "God himself seems to be always doing his best here, working like a man in a glow of enthusiasm." In a similar sanguine mood, Shakespeare wrote in "As You Like It," "And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything."
But not everyone sees nature this way. Shakespeare himself was far from a cheerleader for nature: One of his vilest villains, "King Lear's" Edmund, declaimed, "Thou, nature, art my goddess," in a speech in which he coldly cited nature as justification for his Machiavellian and amoral deeds. Nature's power can be seen as terrifying, not just sublime: Its grandest spectacles stir thoughts of an unknown, inhuman force that may be indifferent, but is not necessarily benign.
The English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, in a state of complex exaltation after viewing Mont Blanc, wrote in the eponymously named poem, "The Wilderness has a mysterious tongue/ Which teaches awful doubt, or faith so mild." For Muir, nature inspired such faith. Shelley did not disagree, but he also sensed something darker. "Yet not a city, but a flood of ruin/ Is there, that from the boundaries of the sky/ Rolls its perpetual stream," he wrote. "...the rocks, drawn down/ From yon remotest waste, have overthrown/ The limits of the dead and living world,/ Never to be reclaimed ... The race/ Of man flies far in dread."
Like Muir, Shelley stood in awe before nature's might, but his awe is not the same as Muir's ecstatic feeling of being in perfect harmony with it. "Mont Blanc yet gleams on high: -- the power is there,/ The still and solemn power of many sights,/ And many sounds, and much of life and death." There is a hint, in Shelley, that man may not be big enough to grasp the world's power: What he called the "secret Strength of things which governs thought" is a far more equivocal force for him than it is for Muir.
I don't believe in Muir's God, or even his gods; his pantheistic worship of nature is beyond my grasp. Yet -- and maybe this is the native Californian in me, the believer in the frontier and the unknown -- I cling to the belief that Muir's way of seeing nature, childish and naive and monotonous as it sometimes appears, is deeper and more whole than Shelley's. I live out Shelley's ambiguities, share his sometime fears, but it's Muir's radiant certainty to which I aspire.
The word "wilderness" makes us think of things that are chaotic, out of control, inhuman. But there is a profound order in true wilderness. A mad, sad, tangled human soul is more shapeless and terrifying than the wildest river, bleakest mountain, most powerful predator. Man can be ugly, the world can never be: This is the faith, or belief, or knowledge, that can sustain one over the highest passes or through the darkest forests. It is a faith in what the Oglala Sioux holy man Black Elk called "the goodness and beauty and strangeness of the greening earth, the only mother." And one need not believe in God, as that word is commonly understood, to hold it.
Whether you call this faith or knowledge doesn't matter. What matters is to look around and see. What matters is to be kind to ourselves, to approach ourselves with the same respect and dignity we grant the glorious things of the world, because we are not apart from them. What matters is to save those threatened things -- for us, for those who come after us, and for the earth that is our home. And even though we may not be able to live an entire life of celebration like John Muir, what also matters is to celebrate this world, in ways large and small. Because right now, that waterfall is falling through the air. And we don't want to be left behind.