Helen Pinkerton described a visit she and Janet Lewis paid to Yosemite during the national park’s centennial celebration in 1990. Lewis had been invited to read her poem “For John Muir, a Century and More After His Time.” Helen writes:
“We also walked around, viewed the falls, as ever, and the trees and the Tuoluome River. That was long ago, but was one of the best of my many visits to Yosemite. You should see sometime, if you haven't already, the magnificent ponderosas on the Valley floor.”
I’ve never visited Yosemite and know it only from Ansel Adams’ photographs and Muir’s The Yosemite and some of his other writings. I’ve always resisted fetishizing certified “scenic splendor,” and have never visited Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and most of the rest of the American West. Partly, this is pig-headedness, I know, but it’s also the conviction that much of what is most beautiful is already there in front of my face. No ponderosas stand in the back yard but I like my Douglas fir and big-leaf maple. If I were hiking Yosemite, I’d feel the same way. Helen goes on:
“I don't subscribe to what I call the `religion of John Muir,’ which, by the way, is a prevalent religion in California, but I do understand its sources in the physical beauty of the Sierra Nevada landscape And I do admire Muir's prose.”
What Helen is describing, I think, is the secular religion of nature worship, nature mysticism, neo-paganism, pantheistic ecstasies, call it what you will. It blurs into the Church of the Environment and other sentimentalities. It amounts to a militant remnant of Romanticism, often tinged with contempt for one’s own species. To say you “love nature” is a statement without content. It means nothing and is uttered to assure one’s place among the faithful.
In “Spring in Berkeley,” collected in An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, edited by Cynthia Haven, the Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova writes:
“Trees were a permanent motif in Milosz’s poetry [as in Lewis’ and the poems of her husband, Yvor Winters] and conversation. He had an instinct of a botanist, naturalist, or hunter—no doubt also inherited from traditional Lithuania. Once, he asked me as we were walking across the university campus, overgrown with subtropical verdure, `Do you know about plants?’ From his intonation, it was clear that he couldn’t imagine a poet who did not.”
I too expect poets, from Chaucer onward, to know about trees and flowers. It’s part of the job description, like knowing meter and rhyme. That’s very different from the “religion of John Muir” and its empty pieties. In “The Empty Hills,” subtitled “Flintridge, Pasadena,” a poem from the nineteen-thirties, Winters writes:
“Here is no music, where the air
Drives slowly through the airy leaves.
Meaning is aimless motion where
The sinking humming bird conceives.”