John Muir’s “The Yosemite” (1912) is a feat of natural description for which it is hard to conceive it even being possible any more. Here he describes the Western Sierra Nevada mountain valley in central California valley which forms Yosemite National Park:
It is about seven miles long, half a mile to a mile wide, and nearly a mile deep in the solid granite flank of the range. The walls are made up of rocks, mountains in size, partly separated from each other by side cañons, and they are so sheer in front, and so compactly and harmoniously arranged on a level floor, that the Valley, comprehensively seen, looks like an immense hall or temple lighted from above.
But no temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite. Every rock in its walls seems to glow with life. Some lean back in majestic repose; others, absolutely sheer or nearly so for thousands of feet, advance beyond their companions in thoughtful attitudes, giving welcome to storms and calms alike, seemingly aware, yet heedless, of everything going on about them. Awful in stern, immovable majesty, how softly these rocks are adorned, and how fine and reassuring the company they keep: their feet among beautiful groves and meadows, their brows in the sky, a thousand flowers leaning confidingly against their feet, bathed in floods of water, floods of light, while the snow and waterfalls, the winds and avalanches and clouds shine and sing and wreathe about them as the years go by, and myriads of small winged creatures birds, bees, butterflies–give glad animation and help to make all the air into music. Down through the middle of the Valley flows the crystal Merced, River of Mercy, peacefully quiet, reflecting lilies and trees and the onlooking rocks; things frail and fleeting and types of endurance meeting here and blending in countless forms, as if into this one mountain mansion Nature had gathered her choicest treasures, to draw her lovers into close and confiding communion with her.
Such is the Sublime, back when glory and astonishment in solitary wilderness was once possible. And there was no greater rapturist in America than John Muir. The naturalist, environmental philosopher and advocate of wilderness preservation wrote letters, essays and book describing his adventures in nature, and his activism helped preserve the Yosemite Valley and Sequoia National Park. He is considered the patron saint of the environmental movement and may be the one person who achieved the most in saving modernity from its materialism.
Muir’s celebration of the sublime was religious in its fervor, taking up the transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau and the poetic exclamations of Wordsworth. To be alone in the wild and surrounded by majesty — “in close and confiding communion” with nature — was find heaven on earth two weeks out of the year. For those so inclined for these encounters, it was the briefest of socialist utopias, so worthy that it led to the creation of the Sierra Club and the eventual passage of the Organic Act in 1916 forming a National Park Service “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
Today there are 63 national parks across the United States and they are busier than ever, packed with the pandemic-fatigued. Trails are jammed with visitors eager for that selfie with Yellowstone, creating Instagram scrolls of sublime imagery. The vacation escape from one’s drab postindustrial suburban high-tech existence into these wilderness areas sets up a privileging of the sublime over the everyday and whatever natural space we might still be able to find around us.
Yet by saying that only those rare distant places are charged with sufficient nature to restore the soul, the ruptured places in which we live are profaned even more so, devoid of all possibility of greater communion and harmony.
For Muir and his Sierra Club allies, the founding vision of the sublime in America comes from Walden Pond and its natural mystic Thoreau. Their Thoreau had an aesthetic vision which saw nature unspoiled and whole. In After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene, Jedidiah Purdy suggests another reading of Thoreau is possible and increasingly necessary in the Anthropocene, where no natural space is not encroached upon by human change. The National Parks have been witness to this with the melting of Glacier National Park, wildfires in Yosemite, doubling of tree mortality in Sequoia National Park and the loss of bird species in Death Valley. Sea level rise by 2100 will drown half of Everglades National Park.
In the Anthropocene, Purdy writes, it is vital that we relocate the sublime from occasional, passive encounters with wilderness to more integral, daily celebration of local communion and grace:
Walden takes place, quite self-consciously, as a landscape transformed by long and intensive habitation. Thoreau tells that the woods around the pond have been cleared, that boats have sunk to its bottom, that it is regularly harvested for ice. His Concord is full of the artifacts of old and new settlements, down to the soil itself, seeded with stone tools and potsherd that tinkle against the hoe as he works in his bean-field. There is nothing pristine in this place, no basis for a fantasy of original and permanent nature. There is only a choice among relationships and attitudes toward ever-changed places. These do not just accommodate the damage and rupture of the landscape they begin from and depend on them. It may be that even to think of nature, let alone act on it, is to make a joint product of human and natural activity, so that to come to the pond is already to profane it. But profanation is simply a condition of the world, which is redeemed, if at all, by our deeper apprehension of that condition. (151)
We must leave behind the Instagram fantasy of the perfect natural vignette for the reality of what is. As the prostitute Crazy Jane says to the Bishop in W.B. Yeats’ poem,
…. A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.
The state of Florida where I live is in so many ways such a shitty place, sensitive environment routed for housing development, tourist theme parks and endless retail diversions. Red tide is an annual threat to coastal sea-life, spawned by overwhelmed sewage systems and agricultural runoff from sugar plantations. The state’s Republican legislature and governor is adamantly pro-business and has passed laws prohibiting localities from passing mask mandates, gun control measures or environmental protections. Tourists throng to be beaches and luxury resorts to savor their tropic fantasies while the gap between sweltering trailer parks and Palm Beach mansionry is as deep and wide as the Marianna trench. What’s to love here? Hunkering down in air conditioned gated communities of pool houses might allow a certain boozy indifference, but nature is widely in retreat here, and coastal areas are vanishing.
Much of the wasteland is ours here, yet still gardens thrive and there are many ways to be out in the local richness. I walk every morning for an hour from our house down to the lake and back. At 6am the human world is vastly still asleep and the Florida night still in abundance. Down at the lake human boating traffic hasn’t yet begun and alligators troll the waters while egrets and vultures fly overhead. A richness is here, but you have to work harder to find it and accept that its hues are much striated by human presence.
Purdy outlines four evolutions in ecological imagination in American history: first the providential vision where the world exists for human nurture and development; the romantic vision of John Muir, finding aesthetic and spiritual inspiration in mountain peaks; the utilitarian vision of resource management; and now the ecological view where humanity is part of a complex biosphere of interpenetrating systems, all greatly affected by climate change. You’ll find each of these visions in the present moment, all competing for political solutions. Purdy:
Everyone living today is involved, intentionally or inadvertently, in deciding what to do with a complicated legacy of environmental imagination and practice, now that all simple ideas of nature are irretrievably gone. Losing nature need not mean losing the value of the living world, but it will mean engaging it differently. It may mean learning to find beauty in ordinary places, not just wonder in wild ones. It may mean treasuring places that are irremediably damaged, learning to prize what is neither pure nor natural burt just is – the always imperfect joint product of human powers and the natural world. All of this will require a vocabulary, and ethics, an aesthetics, and a politics, for a time when the meaning of nature is ultimately a human questions. And since it is a question we must answer together, it should – but not necessarily will — receive a democratic answer. (9-10)
After Nature was published in 2015, the past six years has only sharpened the debate on whether a democratic answer for this can be found. At one extreme is the radical right’s hunkering down into anti-democratic rule that refuses to account for humanity’s role in climate change; at its other, for the past year we’ve had a democratic president earnestly looking into ways to address the climate crisis. As the I Ching says, to and fro goes the way.
Regardless of whether political solutions will be better or worse for the Earth, here at earthweal we can work on the vocabulary and aesthetics of the issue. As you have repeatedly demonstrated here, the sublime is alive and well-ish in this charged, changing moment.
A poem that I think can get us started is Patricia Clark’s “Out with the Monarch, the Vole, and the Toad, from her 2005 collection My Father On A Bicycle and included in The Ecopoetry Anthology (2020 edition):
To live as they do, vulnerably, in the air,
the wing-assaulting wind, to breathe
the wind, the cool September air, and watch
the Sweet Autumn clematis twine and climb.
To live with the scruff and smatter of leaves
at the burrow hole, the dying fall of the pink
geranium petal, the tomato stalk blackening from last
night’s chill. To live with the thought, the weight — the dead
branch pitching down to shatter in the yard,
the hawk’s shadow, the days ahead
without sun. A full moon spills its cream
over Dean Lake and boys at midnight
putter on their scow. An exhalation from the lake
rises to surround them, safe with a light,
though far from shore. To live with water’s depth
and dark, some force that wants to pull things
in and down. To live hidden, hurrying, hurt.
The toad finds the upturned pot and crouches there,
but the snake crawls across the flagstones warmth
and surprises it. To live the death, the thrash
in red, the awful struggle, to let breath go.
To hunker down and yet be lifted up, skin tingling,
synapses firing, the heart a-beat, awash, eyes
wide, nose lifted to what is perceptibly near.
For this challenge, describe the Anthropocene sublime as you find it in your locale. How is that experience similar to the Romantic moment of Wordsworth or Thoreau or Muir, and how has it changed? Can enchantment and spiritual renewal be found in the everyday, even in ruined places?
Alive and beautiful but not pure. We must become singers of a diminished glory, of a faltering majesty. That is what is left to us, to find rapture in a weal no longer whole.
Your essay this week corresponds with my mood. To add to the coincidence I purchased a second hand copy of ‘Walden’ yesterday afternoon following the experience I describe in my poem. I’ve read about this book so often but have never actually read it.
Thank you for a beautifully written and thought-provoking essay Brendan, as ever! I have lived in many tourist traps and seen the behind-the-scenes desecration. It provides a new perspective.
“We must become singers of a vanished glory.” A statement both sad and true. I am luckier than many, given my locale, but even here, skinny bears and wolves prowl on the edges, hungry, one bear with an injured hind leg, hit by a car, and struggling, until wildlife intervenes. Sigh. Oh, struggling animals, of thee I sing! A wonderful essay, Brendan.