This is the time of year and days on which I think most of John Muir, the man striding on our California quarter– not Earth Day, his birth day, which you would suppose, but when he died at a Los Angeles hospital, 99 years ago tomorrow on Christmas Eve, 1914, surrounded in his bed by manuscript pages of his book, Travels in Alaska. The pages on which he was working on this very day, I like to think, were his last pages, in which he described aurora borealis, ending his book, with his last labored breath, his last moments of sight and consciousness, with the word “beheld:” “ . . . these two silver bows in supreme, serene, supernal beauty surpassed everything auroral I ever beheld. The End.”
It was the book’s end. It was HIS end. Except it wasn’t. With a writer a word is never the end. It’s only the beginning. And his words on beholding created a stirring and furor and fervent civic passion for our human love of trees—think of how so many people celebrate Christmas with trees in our homes right now–that’s what our show is about today:
LEAPING GREENLY SPIRITS OF TREES, from e.e. cummings love sonnet to our universe, beginning, i thank You God for most this amazing day, for the leaping greenly spirits of trees, A TRIBUTE TO THE TREE-MENDOUS ROLE OF POETRY AND SONG IN THE PRESERVATION OF TREES AND THEIR HABITAT, AKA WHAT JOHN MUIR CALLED EARTH-PLANET-UNIVERSE.
I would like to think that Muir died happy, with his image of beholding light, even though many people then and since believe he really died of a broken heart over the drowning loss of Yosemite valley’s identical twin, the lovely Hetch Hetchy valley, now entombed under water as a reservoir subsidizing San Francisco’s water and power, in a national park he helped create, in a deed that took an act of Congress and President’s signing into law December 19, 1913, and the shock of which, Congress drowning part of a national treasure, from which he never recovered.
This word behold is very much on my mind right now. It is a poet’s word, historically used to characterize how we gaze with reverence, awe, wonder, and respect at some being or force that brings us to a place of humility, suspended knowing, and rapture. John Muir took the word “behold” from the Bible and Milton and Romantic poets and ran with it, or more accurately, ambled and rambled with it, in conjunction with outsized glory, super-size-me glory, majestic forces of creation, using it the way a pizza chef uses oregano. He feared paradise was indeed being “lost”—in fact, between 85% and 95% of the ancient trees of California were being logged and rotting as he wrote.
Thus even though his death certificate lists him as a geologist, it is as a poet he lived and is most remembered. He is on our California quarter because of the lyric way he beheld–all right, poetic is an understatement: he wrote about our earth in the rapturous tones of exaltation, exuberant buoyant love, Christmas carol hymns of angels on high, sweet singing o’er the plains, jubilation, glory, rejoicing, harking, silent holy nights, all is calm, O Christmas tree, joy to the world: Earth was the theater, and he was the enthusiastic audience clapping and shouting “encore!” His love for what was happening on stage earth was only enhanced by his knowledge of what has happening in production, off-stage, backstage—our dramaturg, telling us what we are seeing, what it means. Every aspect of creation from mountains to glaciers to earthquakes to lightning to creatures to plants to stars was admired by him, the geology and botany of how the players got to be on this stage, and it was not only the theatrical production he loved and shouted himself hoarse for, the glory! The glory! it was the theater itself. John Muir was a season-ticket holder to what he called “earth-planet-Universe,” calling Author! Author!
So, on this day of remembrance: 99 years ago day a man lay dying, as he lived, writing, hyper-poetically, to evoke the reasons why we should care about and try to preserve this earth.
Trees have been written about by every people on earth, from the beginning of recorded time, in our religions, our sciences, our festivals, our songs and dances, celebrations and schools—even as they are disappearing from earth. The reason they are still here, and that people still care, and are trying to save them, is the way people have written and sung about them.
For him it was a matter of life and death: he saw people “dying from what these grand old woods can give,” the news without which, William Carlos Williams says in “To Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” “men die miserably every day.”
We can see Muir’s spiritual, botanical, aesthetic response to nature in writers like Walt Whitman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, W.S. Merwin, Robert Frost, Sandra Cisneros, Alice Walker . . . Hopkins is dramatically concerned with the cutting of trees in a way we do not see yet in other writers of his period, perhaps because he has invested in trees and his concept of “inscape” the same manifestation of divinity that Muir does. In 1873, his journal records, “April 8. The ashtree growing in the corner of the garden was felled. It was lopped first: I heard the sound and looking out and seeing it maimed there came at that moment a great pang and I wished to die and not to see the inscapes of the world destroyed any more . . . “
And in turn this recalls one of the most famous passages Muir wrote in his own day, about the practice of killing trees:
“Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed,–chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones . . .Through all the wonderful eventful centuries since Christ’s time—and long before that—God has cared for these trees . . .but he cannot save them from fools,–only Uncle Sam can do that.”
Muir’s trees are conscious and reverent; spiritually vigorous; they spread their arms in blessing, and preach. They are “loving the ground while transparently conscious of heaven and joyously receptive of its blessings, reaching out its branches like sensitive tentacles, feeling the light and reveling in it.” “ . . . Hushed and thoughtful,” engaged in “worship.” Thus, when Muir describes a tree being “skinned alive,”—“This grand tree is of course dead, a ghastly ruin. Forgive them; they know not what they do.”—his readers experience a horror and see the often legal cutting of trees as a moral abomination. Trees have a pulsing heart, a Christ-like sensibility, a tenderness, “our sister or brother and they enjoy life as we do, share heaven’s blessings with us, come with us out of eternity and return into eternity.”
To begin to think about trees is to realize the extent to which trees in fact dominate poetry and literature since recorded history. Gilgamesh, for example, etched in about 2700 BC, is a critique of a king who, for his own aggrandizement, wanted to build city walls 300 feet high and 30 feet thick (the 5th king of Uruk in Iraq) and thus, went in to neighboring communities to demand and steal their trees, and finally to the wilderness forest, killing the Guardian of the Forest, Humbabba—he then “cut down all the trees by their roots, all the way to the Euphrates” and was cursed and punished by the gods, losing his chances of immortality. Shakespeare deals with the cutting of trees. In the 19th century, we see Chekov mourning the loss of a cherry orchard and what that says about the tragically self-destructive way modern society is going.
But people who write about trees, and it could be you, and me, and your partner, and mom, and daughter, your boss, scratch the surface, there’s a love of trees, and probably one special tree, in everyone, young and old, women and men, spiritual and political leaders—can save the day. We’ll hear words from Gandhi, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, various Roosevelts, a Bush, Wangari Matthai, and grass-roots efforts, so to speak, to save trees with song and poetry, from Chicago’s Neighborspace and Oregon’s Archangel Project and LA’s Million Trees project, to my own efforts to save a willow, and a vision of Hetch Hetchy restored, in my poem “If A Song Could Right A Wrong,” put to music and sung by Shannon Foster Sullivan, which you can listen to right here!
And more! My willow poem did not save the willow . . . in spite of taking a page from John Muir’s playbook and using my words . . . for the case for letting the tree live.
Good Poetry Slow Down listener , would YOU cut down this tree if you saw this on a sign framed in weatherproofed material encircled by a chain, belting the tree like goddess wear? What law or words could protect a tree? How could words make us see a living being in such a way as not to slay it? As being worth more than a flat lawn or tree-less view? What words could ground a law to behold—to hold such tree in reverence? My father and I threw every rationale in the Book into this poem, beginning with the way since Biblical times and through romantic poets like Wordsworth and botanists like John Muir have called us to gaze with reverence and awe . . . this was our bald-faced strategy to save this tree when I sold our house in Vermont, and left it in the hands of fellow human beings. Every line was a call to see one’s way to preserve the life of this tree. These words did not serve. What did we leave out?
Perhaps that was the question John Muir felt this week 99 years ago when the Raker Act in 1913 was signed into law on December 19 by President Woodrow Wilson. Perhaps on the year’s anniversary of this defeat the following December 19, Muir was discouraged. Perhaps he collapsed symbolically on the anniversary of the Act drowning Hetch Hetchy. As the undauntable mountain climber entered the California Hospital bent and gasping with symbolically drowning lungs, he carried his manuscript. What could he have said, to have saved a valley, a watershed? How could he now protect Alaskan paradise? And there he was, writing, editing, pondering “this whole Experiment in Green” like Emily Dickinson’s divine clown, in his mind’s eye, with his last labored breath. Did it matter? I attended John Muir High School. Muir’s name is on trails and ships, hotels and hospitals, beaches and forests, glaciers and flowers, museum walls, from the Smithsonian Gallery of American Art to Disneyland. National parks which he helped found are celebrated as intrinsic to our culture. Muir’s beholding mattered. Visitors to LeConte Memorial Lodge in Yosemite National Park, the Sierra Club’s park headquarters, hear about the role of Muir and Joseph LeConte and the original Sierra Club founders and the words they used to garner support for a wilderness park for the express purpose of beholding trees and this tree-mendous scene, a whole experiment in green. As I gaze today on oranges in December, so improbable, I behold our trees, and will not give up trying to think of ways to talk about our earth in a way that will serve. I will remember that however improbable was Muir’s vision of paradise lost-but-possible-to-save, however discouraging the Raker Act signed into law these days 99 years ago, we still can do what we tell our kindergartners: to use our words, and not give up. As many people rock and gather around the Christmas tree, decorate it with ornaments like fruits and flowers and birds and stars, as we think about the Tree of Life, as people climb trees to save their lives, as we plant clones of ancient trees in new groves to restore earth’s climate, and plant trees in urban parks to reduce crime and foster community, let us raise a toast to the poets, for using their words, for beholding trees, and to you, gathered here round this campfire, blessings in these woods, these aspen dears, these loveliest of trees. It has been glorious to be with you. You are my sunshine! Thank you KRXA 540AM Think for Yourself Radio Hal Ginsberg and Sara Hughes, producer, and producer of our podcast at BarbaraMossberg.com, thank YOU, Poetry Slow Down dears, loveliest of EARS, this is Professor Barbara Mossberg, waving to you, using our words.
And readers of this podcast, thank you for listening and being part of this air-wave community of ears, dear listeners. Thank you for writing me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and going to our facebook page The Poetry Slow Down.
© Barbara Mossberg 2012