A monument to John Muir. Limited edition captures the spirit of the naturalist's Sierra

My First Summer in the Sierra, by John Muir. Covelo, Calif.: The Yolla Bolly Press. 162 pp. $785. The spirit of John Muir lives on in many forms. Son of a hard-minded Scots farmer, Muir turned his back on the Protestant work ethic and discovered, in the summer of 1869, something that returned the reverence to the syllable ``God.'' He discovered the Sierra.

Whether consciously or not, many have followed him. The conservation movement he helped organize in 1892 under the name Sierra Club has become worldwide. The club maintains its presence in Washington, D.C., as a powerful lobby and its financial footing by a seemingly endless flow of photograph albums and calendars and cards.

I discovered Muir for myself when I myself discovered the Sierra. Like many other boys, I spent much of my youthful energy in the mountains. Somehow I learned a lesson Muir learned. The way to get at the sometimes overwhelming mystery of the Sierra is to start with the small and build outward. Otherwise, your own spirit, pitifully small by comparison, will be crushed.

I cataloged grasses, grouped flora by habitat and edibility, and learned to identify birds - hidden in the lodgepole pine and white and red fir - by note and song. I learned to anticipate changes in the mix of plants and animals according to elevation; I became respectful of the massive granite just below the surface, the blinding granite above timberline just ahead on the trail.

I learned scale.

I was young. Muir was 30 when he discovered the Sierra. It hit him with all the force of a revelation. His biographer Frederick Turner calls it a conversion experience.

Monumentally important in its results for Muir and by extension for millions of others, Muir's first experience of the Sierra was recorded in a notebook he kept on a thong tied to his belt. It was published only three years before his death. It and its aftermath have sustained many in the frightening new world of wars that began that year, 1914.

Now, 150 years after Muir's birth in Dunbar, Scotland, a fine press in California has produced a monumental edition of ``My First Summer in the Sierra.'' The book strangely embodies the values that can be abstracted from Muir's life and writings. It's a large (10-by-14-inch) folio of 172 pages bound in handwoven linen (a small number of leatherbound copies are available for another $365!). Included are 12 wood engravings by Michael McCurdy, who in July 1987 followed Muir's footsteps into Yosemite to gather images to work with. The high Sierra is a land of contrasts, of deep cold shadows and hot bright stony surfaces that swim in the eye: McCurdy has captured this.

Turner's foreword is an eloquent explication not of the text, but of the experience behind it. ``The state of grace Muir attained in the Sierra was the knowledge that everything - rocks, bears, stars, raindrops, he himself - was all one, that separations and boundary lines were illusions; and that there could never truly be such a situation as observer and observed: the observer was the observed.''

The text makes surprisingly good reading. Muir hardly changed a word of the original notes. It's really a diary by which we follow the trail of the sheep Muir was helping to herd to greener pastures in the Yosemite when he himself, to the amusement and disbelief of the others, discovered something like paradise.

The book is full of discoveries. Muir constantly sketched what he saw. He loved cloud shapes as much as the black-tailed deer that went bounding past his camp on July 22. ``A buck with wide spread of antlers, showing admirable vigor and grace.''

It's been said, and truly, that for a naturalist, Muir uses too many words. He's constantly moralizing. But then he's not simply a naturalist.

John Muir is for many today what St. Francis was for the Italian Renaissance: the Other Man, the Alternative. Both chose not to follow custom - St. Francis gave away his property and kissed the lepers, Muir turned his back on the Protestant ethic (ingrained in him by his Scottish father on their Midwestern farm) and explored the Sierra.

Both St. Francis and Muir exulted in the great creation. The saint composed a song that thanks God for Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Wind, Sister Water, Brother Fire, Mother Earth, and Sister Bodily Death; John Muir turned his notebooks into books that still have the power of conversion. And, paradoxically, both these great individualists left behind them organizations that contain and feed the sometimes revolutionary force of their respective examples.

Muir was a pantheist; he thanked God ``for this glorious Yosemite barbarism.'' ``My First Summer in the Sierra'' expresses the best of this great, this particular man. By his own admission, Muir was still, at age 30, a boy; his discovery of the mountains led to more specific ones, like the contribution of glaciers to the formation of the Yosemite Valley.

But it's Muir's radical spirit that has meant the most to most people. That questing spirit has found an unexpected answer in the big, thick, creamy, ragged-edged pages of the Yolla Bolly edition. Here the ratios among material, craft (the type was set by hand in California and the endsheets of bark paper were handmade in Mexico), design (the bright, spacious text fits, not floats; each page has the solidity of sculpture), and text, all make for a fine work of the printer's art and a monument to Muir. For such a large book, it's easy to hold - handy, not heavy; it fills the lap as well as the mind. Muir would have liked the feel of the linen binding against his hard hands.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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