John Muir: 100 years on, his "purple" prose suits the holiday on which he died.
John Muir, the man of such currency in our culture that California's quarter features him, died almost 100 years ago today, Christmas Eve, at a hospital here in Los Angeles. On his death certificate, his occupation was listed as "geologist."
Yet I would not be thinking about Muir today if his life were known to us as a geologist. We wouldn't be buying coffee with money that has his picture on it. I wouldn't have graduated from John Muir High School. There would not be the John Muir Trail, or John Muir Redwoods, or the hospitals, ships, hotels, flowers, glaciers or stars named for him. There would not be the national parks.
It is true that John Muir had great credibility as a geologist, long ago redeemed from charges by Harvard-trained state geologist Josiah D. Whitney that Muir's theory of Yosemite Valley created by glaciers was to be dismissed as that of a "college drop-out sheepherder."
But it is as writer that he is known to us today, and it was by writing that he achieved his influence, effectiveness and fame in his own life as a man for whom the story -- the glory -- of earth's mountains and valleys and trees and flowers was cause for celebration.
John Muir's purple prose, a poetry lit with epic, romantic, transcendental notes -- both light and sound -- is the cause of my thoughts of him today and what he made of his life and our world. Muir's was a life that passionately loved the tree, the stars, the lamb (but not the sheep), the morning light, the mountain -- a mind awake to our world and lo and beholding it. In John Muir's vision of the world, science -- all we can see and study and know -- is revelation.
His words of enthusiasm, enthrallment, ecstasy, exhilaration, excitement, exhalation, effusion, and effervescence, are an "e" (if not also "ex"-rated) response to the environment that transformed our national mindset about wilderness.
As I was driving down from Monterey to Pasadena on Dec. 23, partially recreating John Muir's last earthly journey from Martinez to Daggett, east of here, the day he was sent to the hospital with pneumonia, carols played on the car radio. Each reminded me of John Muir's enraptured wilderness rhetoric. The carols are lively insight into John Muir's writing that made him so inspiring and effective. In his cadences we hear poetry of Homer and myth, and Milton and Wordsworth and Shakespeare, and if we drill down in geological fashion we find a bedrock of words in the Bible. Psalms and lyric passages, hymns of praise and exaltation, joy, reverence and rejoicing wired John Muir's mind as boy memorizing the Bible by the time he was a teenager, and made his own response to being alive on earth one of wonder and awe, harking heralds and beholding.
He was criticized for his Purple Prose, his "excessive" use of enthusiastic words. At least so he claimed. He complained that he was spending the morning "slaughtering gloriouses" to get his prose more in line with expected norms for reporting what Emily Dickinson called "nature's news."
Yet I think of his story, how he is on top of a mountain with Charles Sprague Sargent, head of the U.S. National Forest, on Grandfather Mountain, N.C.:
I couldn't hold in, and began to jump about and sing and glory in it all. Then I happened to look around and catch sight of Sargent, standing there as cool as a rock, with a half-amused look on his face at me, but never saying a word. 'Why don't you let yourself out at a sight like that' I asked. 'I don't wear my heart upon my sleeve,' he retorted. 'Who cares where you wear your little heart, man,' I cried. 'There you stand in the face of all Heaven come down to earth, like a critic of the universe, as if to say, 'Come, Nature, bring on the best you have. I'm from BOSTON!'
Muir's own ecstatic scrawlings as scientist-observer-in-the-field during his study rambles and recorded in his journal at the end of the day, and worked into editorials and letters and essays, are rich with joyous exclamation as a fruitcake with raisins. These writings ended up in many hands, including college presidents and scientists and U.S. presidents and Congress and laws that would preserve millions of acres of wilderness and ultimately the National Park Service.
The enthusiastic language that broke up our ideas about the wilderness that was defined -- it still is as part of dictionary definitions of wild -- as desert, wasteland, barren, ferocious, savage (the opposite of a holy night, of a shining universe that we behold, and "gaze and gaze and wonder," i.e., the purple prose,) was deliberate. Muir may have complained that he had to edit his "gloriouses," but the truth is in the manuscript collection at the Holt-Atherton collection at the University of Pacific papers of John Muir. There, I was bemused to see above the typescript of Muir's "The Story of My Boyhood and Youth," that he ADDS the words "glorious" to his opening sentences. He adds "glorious" as a chef adds the spice that defines the dish. He "plates" his writing, ensuring that nothing goes out to the reader without sufficient gloriousness.
He wanted to give "joy to the world," to make us see our world with the amazement of the shepherd beholding a shining firmament, to be thrilled, and to be appropriately enthusiastic.
On Dec. 23 he was taken to California Hospital in Los Angeles, now California Hospital Medical Center. He had been working on a manuscript, at 76 years-old, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. He died Christmas Eve, his papers scattered at his bedside.
Knowing that his work on it was the last thing he did, I want to share the last pages' reflection on his own excitement. He has reflected on seeing "the heavens draped in rich purple auroral clouds fringed and folded in most magnificent forms.
[A]fter last night's wonderful display one's expectations might well be extravagant [see those e's] and I lay wide awake watching... I ran out in auroral excitement... I lay down on the moraine in front of the cabin and gazed and watched... But just as I was about to retire, I thought I had better take another look at the sky, to make sure that the glorious show was over... Then losing all thought of sleep, I ran back to my cabin, carried out blankets and lay down on the moraine to keep watch until daybreak, that none of the sky wonders of the glorious night within reach of my eyes might be lost.
You can read and hear more about John Muir's "e" poetry at BarbaraMossberg.com, podcast and link to the Poetry Slow Down, for Think for Yourself Radio, KRXA 540AM.