Friday, July 03, 2009

`More Richly Seen'

John Muir the man -- the naturalist and explorer -- has always seemed more compellingly substantial than Muir the writer. His prose is workmanlike and unmemorable. His need to report what he knew -- and he knew a lot -- outweighed his gift for articulating it in an artful fashion, however humbly. His best books -- The Mountains of California and The Grand Cañon of the Colorado -- are indifferent as prose but even an undistinguished stylist, Janet Lewis suggests, can furnish our imaginations. In “For John Muir, a Century and More After His Time,” she meditates on how a writer’s vision can become as vital and real as our memories of personal experience: “…all these / In memory, both mine and borrowed, doubly rich are grown, / Till I can hardly tell his treasure from my own.”

Deep readers recognize the déjà vu-like sensation. The “mind’s eye” is creative, unreliable and opportunistic, and claims the work of others as its own. During my first visit to Paris, in 1973, I recognized people and scenes from Proust none involving rats). I’ve seen Hemingway’s “Big, Two-Hearted River” in Ohio, Indiana and upstate New York. Lewis superimposes childhood memories of Wisconsin, scenes of the Sierra Nevadas in Muir’s books and her own experience of those mountains as a longtime resident of California:

“These I truly know
That I have seen with my own eyes, and yet
There merges with them an unreckoned crowd
Of things more richly seen…”

Here at Lake Chelan I see a desert-like landscape already familiar from Lewis’ poems. Her novels mingle with my memories of two visits to France. Yet another reason for reading is to experiment with immense elasticity of the imagination. How much can it hold? Of Muir (and more) Lewis writes:

“Moments of wisdom and intenser sight.
And these I owe to one
Who built his campfire on the canyon rim,
Who woke at dawn, and felt surrounding him
The mind of God in every living thing,
And things unloving.”

1 comment:

Nige said...

Yes, and I think we often see through painters' eyes too. I once posted something along those lines on the Appleyard blog.