Posts Tagged ‘John Muir’

On the United States of America

November 9, 2016

I have never been to the United States, and I can’t see that I ever will: partly because I don’t fly, and partly because I don’t really wish to cope with seeing people carrying weapons in the street. I’ve read lots about the US in my exploration of all sorts of travel writing, from the very earliest days in the explorations of William Bartram, to the later expeditions of Lewis and Clark, and the twentieth century wanderings of others. There are certainly places I’d like to see: Isabella Bird’s descriptions of the Rocky Mountains and Estes Park in particular have fascinated me, and John Muir’s descriptions of the National Parks are wonderful; of course I’d like to see the Grand Canyon and lots of other places I’ve read about, too.

I was fascinated at school when we got to study US history as half of the course for our O-Level, and I’ve read a lot of American literature, too: the American Literature unit in my second year at university was one of my favourite courses. I wrestled with, and enjoyed Walt Whitman’s poetry, and came to read widely in Mark Twain’s novels, essays and travelogues, all of which I really enjoyed and come back to from time to time. And then there were all the writers of the Beat Generation that I came to know during my master’s degree studies. And Catch-22

I grew up during the Cold War; I can vaguely remember hearing news bulletins at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. I came early to realise that what the US was doing across the world was as evil as what the USSR was up to; what was different was that the US was much better at PR and propaganda and held all the pretty cards. They presented themselves very effectively as the good guys, offering the sweet taste of freedom. However, there is freedom to and freedom from, and when you start looking more closely, the cards are dealt rather differently. The US was very good at suggesting it had a dream, that it was a noble enterprise, a moral force for good in the world, and many people swallowed that.

I know relatively few Americans. Those that I have met, as colleagues or a students, I have really liked, have enjoyed talking with: they have seemed just like any other people I have met and got to know from many different lands. I’ve always enjoyed diversity and learning about other nations, people and places, and regular readers will probably have me down as a curious person.

And so I am dumbfounded today. I’ve often thought that many Americans – the ones I haven’t met, but read about – come from a different planet. Make all the allowances and excuses you like for the US political establishment or the Democratic party being out of touch with ordinary people – and I agree with those sentiments – I cannot see how anyone can think that it’s acceptable to vote for a serial liar who boasts about assaulting women; I’m utterly gob-smacked that any self-respecting woman could go into a booth thinking ‘I will vote for this man to run my country’. I’ve read a lot about the 1920s and 1930s (see my previous post) and I’m getting an awful dense of deja-vu, even though I wasn’t alive then…

Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.

John Muir: Steep Trails (Librivox)

July 24, 2015

John Muir was a Scotsman who moved to the United States and spent the rest of his life there; he was a naturalist and an explorer, when there were still unexplored parts of the US, particularly in the west. Here he writes about California, Washington state, Nevada, Oregon and Utah (with the apparently obligatory disquisition, for a ninteenth-century writer, on the Mormons and their habits – and he is quite balanced and fair), about their wildernesses and their landscapes and their astonishing natural beauty.

He was often a solitary traveller and explorer, and to us appears to take some astonishing risks, setting off into unexplored mountainous areas with little food or equipment, and often in wintry seasons. However, it’s clear he possessed a great deal of commonsense, as well as the ability to read the signs wherever he was, and so managed not to come to any mischief, although there were clearly some tricky moments…

It’s always evident how much he loved the natural world, and to be surrounded by it, alone in its beauty; he was one of the prime movers in the setting up of the US National Parks system, so that so much that is spectacular was preserved for the nation’s posterity. He wrote a number of books about different parts of the US, all of which are worth a read.

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