This is an old book (1983) but nowhere near as old as its subject. Robert Leonard Reid”s sterling collection of articles and essays and stories and poems about the history and nature of California’s Sierra Nevada comes as close as mere words can to fill the reader with an awe akin to visiting the majestic peaks themselves. Like the picture above, Yosemite is the centerpiece of the book, but Reid wanders up and down the mountain range from north to south, east to west and deep into the heart of what makes it all so very special.
He delves into the before-the-white-man history of the place with a merciless eye on the depredations native Americans visited on one another. The Ahwanee vs. the Yosemite, being the main actors in that drama. However, those skirmishes were as nothing compared to the all-too-familiar horrors the incoming Europeans and their ilk visited upon the natives. The whole kit and kaboodle, as far as these rapacious invaders were concerned, belonged to them, and death to him who first cried “hold, enough.”
Actually it didn’t matter what they cried. They were done for. Herded off to reservations to clear the way for. . .
To begin with, it was for cattle and sheep to trample and graze the glorious landscape to death. Thanks to the intervention of Teddy Roosevelt and other minions of the federal government (remember them?) the place was preserved as a park. Of course, it continued to be assaulted by timber kings, miners, and eventually, most of all, it turned out, by tourists.
Through his wisely-chosen compendium of writings, Reid manages to spotlight all these conflicts yet preserve the eloquent an poetic musings of writers ranging from John Muir to poets as diverse as Walt Whitman and Gary Snyder. amid all that fine poetry and prose we encounter the explorers and mountaineers. The ones who dared to clamber to impossible heights and over the highest elevations on the continent and who invented techniques and devices to help them up and over so that future generations could follow in their footsteps.
John Muir writes poetic lines about a night he spent weathering a tumultuous storm amid the boughs of a swaying pine. Virginia Reed recalls the horror of her family when–she but a young girl– they suffered through the wretched and fatal trials as part of what we now call the Donner Party. Brett Harte adds a gruesome short story about “The Outcasts of Poker Flat.” Yet, David Brower, one of the founders of The Sierra Club, calls these mountains “a gentle wilderness.” “Neither California nor the rest of America,” he writes, “is rich enough to lose any more of the Gentle Wilderness or poor enough to need to.”
I conclude with these lines of wonder, begging you to ignore for the moment, the historical inaccuracies of Walt Whitman’s call to the now-widely-despised Christopher Columbus:
(Ah Genoese thy dream! thy dream!
Centuries after thou art laid in thy grave.
The shore thou foundest verifies thy dream)
And so would say, I feel confident, John Muir himself.