“Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.”
~ John Muir
It was conservationist John Muir‘s birthday over the weekend and yesterday was Earth Day. A few years ago, I had the great pleasure of editing a reissue (not the one pictured above) of his My First Summer in the Sierra and writing the flap copy, and I quickly became absorbed in the poetic language he used to described the beauty of the earth. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you might have caught on that even though I absolutely love the glittering sidewalks and Art Deco skyscrapers of New York City, I am just as comfortable out in nature. (It’s the suburbs I can’t stand!)
Muir was an early advocate of nature preservation and founded the Sierra Club. He used to hang out with Teddy Roosevelt, whom I’ve also written about, and they’d go off exploring Yosemite. Can you imagine any of our recent presidents going off into the woods with someone we’d today probably label a hippie? It was this very friendship between Roosevelt and Muir that led to America’s natural beauty being preserved. Interestingly enough, Muir and Roosevelt were both rather talented writers, and their works are travelogues through nature.
Jack Kerouac referenced John Muir in The Dharma Bums, a novel that makes you want to drop everything and go sit in the woods for a great long while. He also wrote about Muir in an essay entitled “The Vanishing American Hobo“:
John Muir was a hobo who went off into the mountains with a pocketful of dried bread, which he soaked in creeks.
Kerouac was incredibly well read and would often read history books about America before or during his road trips. As “The Vanishing American Hobo” indicates, Kerouac saw the landscape and economy of America changing before his eyes as he traveled. The era he lived in was the beginning of the great highway system, and he saw why Muir’s conservation efforts were so important.
We tend to associate road tripper Jack Kerouac with cars and bars, but he actually loved nature. On the Road is essentially a glowing account of America’s landscape, the melon patches, the sun-drenched sky, the ragged mountains. In Big Sur, we see him sit out and just stare at the ocean, absorbed in nature. His obsession with animals gives us a poignant insight into his psyche.
We often put labels on people, and to see literature through critics’ lenses. What if we read John Muir’s work as literature instead of viewing it as nature writing? What if we read Jack Kerouac’s work as nature writing instead of counter-cultural novel?
What if we saw a story in a blade of grass? What if we listened really hard to the call of a bird?
You might also be interested in this article I wrote a few years about John Muir for Burnside Writers Collective:
And in this clip of me reading from Burning Furiously Beautiful about Jack Kerouac’s empathy toward animals.