Strange Music in the Blue Shadow’d Hills

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‘There was an audible stir breaking upon the silence of the solemn woods, the leaves were rustling together, and drops of moisture began to patter down…the clouds were falling apart, the mist had broken into thousands of fleecy white wreaths, clinging to the fantastically tinted foliage, and the sunlight was striking deep into the valley.’  Charles Egbert Craddock

The rains abated, so out the door we went. Our destination? The Columbia River Gorge, for color gawking, wine tasting, cider sipping, apple sampling, geese-spotting, and even to walk a bit in the moccasin-ed tracks of Lewis and Clark, laid down around 1805. A tall order for one day….

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Literary destination for this trip? Charles Egbert Craddock. It’s not a name that rings with magic, certainly, but for the owner of this vigorously masculine nom de plume, it was deliberate; chosen to mask the fact that the author was actually a frail, crippled young woman.

There was nothing frail about the incisive mind of Mary Noailles Murfree. I’ve written about her before, in Virile Strokes of Ink. She is a subject I will return to now and again, as I do with other favorite authors. But for now…the poetic richness of a fine autumn day and clear vistas down the gorge had me longing for just a bit of what I call impassioned ‘Murfree-prose’.

 

‘High up, the mountain, shielded by the shadow of its own crags from this reflection of the west, showed a dark green shade of an indescribable depth and richness of tone, never merging into dusky indefiniteness. Through a gap in the range to the east were visible the infinite blue distances of the Great Smoky peaks, their color here and there idealized by the far-away glamours of sunset to an exquisite roseate hue, or a crystalline and perfect amethyst against the amber horizon. Down the clifty gorge—its walls of solid sandstone, cloven to the bare heart of the range by the fierce momentum of the waters—the bounding river came. One mad leap presented the glittering splendors of a glassy-green cataract, and in its elastic spray an elusive rainbow lurked.’ Charles Egbert Craddock [Murfree]: In the Stranger People’s Country.

Since my recent post focused on John Muir, and his tireless treks through wilderness regions, I have been thinking about the contrast offered by Mary Noailles Murfree.

Like Muir, she wrote passionately of the mountains she loved—though ‘her’ mountains were the Cumberlands of Tennessee and the distant blue ridges of the Great Smoky Mountains. She was a novelist, not a nature writer or activist. But in an ironic contrast to John Muir, Murfree’s delicate health and partial paralysis kept her from being able to ramble about freely in her beloved mountains. She rarely left the small sphere of her family life, and the close confines of four protective walls.

The second home of Mary N. Murfree was in Beersheba Springs of east/central Tennessee. Here was a source of natural hot springs that likely offered Murfree much needed relief from her muscular pain, and perhaps a pathetic hope of a cure for her paralysis. It is in Beersheba Springs, in the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee, where Murfree ‘observed’ the life of the Tennessee mountaineers, and then wrote of it with an air of authentic experience.

Her clever ear picked up the nuances of their curious speech, and she attempted to render it faithfully. It is this generous helping of ‘local color’ dialogue that can make her novels, at times, slow going. But it is also part of what makes the stories linger, as though a strange, insistent music keeps playing in the mind, long after the book has been put down.

Fitz doesn't like it if I get too far ahead...then again, he may have just spotted a squirrel.

Fitz doesn’t like it if I get too far ahead…then again, he may have just spotted a squirrel.

Readers of the time—no doubt slightly beguiled by the vigorous moniker of Charles Egbert Craddock— thought this new author strode in the same paths as the sturdy mountaineers they thrilled to discover; or that the fearless author had scrambled down the steep ravines of Lost Creek Valley as did wispy-haired, heroic Clarsie Giles in her thin homespun gown, on a night when ‘Pine Mountain stood solemn, majestic, mysterious, masked by its impenetrable growth.’

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It is rather amusing, that, based on a reading of Murfree’s first published work In The Tennessee Mountains, (published 1884) she is praised by one starstruck reviewer as:

‘an active, fearless man accustomed to every phase of a wild, out-of-door life.’

Obviously this reviewer had a sort of John Muir character pictured in his mind. Or perhaps a Bret Harte. This well illustrates how none of Murfree’s physical frailties were hinted at in the vigor of her writing. For many years no one even suspected she was a woman. The reading public was enthralled by the word pictures she drew of a rugged, mystical landscape, and the world she now brought into popular view of an enigmatic society—that of the Tennessee mountaineers.

We’ll return to Murfree’s story—and stories she created—in the winter. Then I’ll be less distracted by pure pine essence wafting up from ‘the clifty gorge‘, or left with no opportunities to explore the abandoned orchards by the water’s edge, where the air is perfumed with the fragrance of apples and mint.

‘Overhead she heard the faint, weird cry of wild geese winging southward.’ Craddock

 

Beautiful Fragments: A Walk With John Muir

‘Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another.’ 
John Muir

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Today I went on a wilderness walk and took John Muir –– in the form of his Wilderness Essays –– with me. As I couldn’t travel in his exact footsteps of a hundred (plus) years ago, scrambling up and down the lofty peaks of the Sierra Madre mountains like a nimble mountain goat, I hoped he wouldn’t mind traveling in mine. IMG_7776

One could dream of possessing the wild and ardent heart of an explorer like Muir, but not everyone has his sturdy limbs and vigorous constitution.

Or, for that matter, his taste for epic perambulations.

Remember, this is the man who walked from Indiana to Florida in 1867; a journey that he chronicled in his book A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf:

‘My plan was simply to push on in a general southward direction, by the wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way I could find.’

As I prefer an even simpler plan— to find the ‘leafiest’ route by slightly more trodden paths and shorter distances—this walk with John Muir is more of a meander through the curated specimens and well delineated paths of my favorite arboretum and botanical garden.

Still, those curated specimens are magnificent; the ground, though slightly more cultivated than Muir’s wild travels, is still dank and rich with the exquisite perfumes of decay.

Even as the old year passes on, the signs of renewal are everywhere.

‘Every leaf seems to speak.’

Because of the seeds, and only because of the seeds—such fascinating art forms—can we take pleasure in these broken, decaying, crumbling fragments of beauty in nature. No other season offers us this thrilling dichotomy of experience; the mix of keenest pleasure tinged with melancholy.

‘How little note is taken of the deeds of Nature! What paper publishes her reports? …. Who publishes the sheet-music of the winds, or the written music of water written in river-lines? Who reports the works and ways of the clouds, those wondrous creations coming into being every day like freshly upheaved mountains? And what record is kept of Nature’s colors – – the clothes she wears – of her birds, her beasts – her live-stock?’

[– John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, (1938)]

Musically, I find this dichotomy is best expressed in the lush harmonies of the Russian composers. Rimsky-Korsakov is particularly exciting… His Scheherazade suite is music composed to story; it is completely, utterly dramatic in scope. The folk tales he drew from are likely well known by most, but at its heart the suite also tells the story of autumn: exotic color, drama, tireless but brilliantly cunning artistry, and finally, after the frenetic winds of sturm und drang, a long, peaceful night where beauty can at last sleep. Survival assured.

It is difficult—no, impossible—to imagine John Muir wandering his philosophical pathways attached to any sort of earbuds or mp3 players, as he would certainly want to be tuned in to the rhythms of the forest, the reverberant songs of birds in lofty branches, and the delicately nuanced rustles from the undergrowth. Therefore, I kept Rimsky at home on this trip.

“Not blind opposition to progress, but opposition to blind progress.” 

As a Pacific Northwest native, when I think of John Muir, I think of the west coast, and his efforts to conserve the natural beauty of our rugged wilderness areas. Names like the Sierra Club, John Muir Trail, Muir Woods National Monument, Muir Beach, John Muir College, Mount Muir, Camp Muir and Muir Glacier; all suggest the story of his many successes.

But John Muir’s youth had been spent on a farm in Wisconsin, now a historic landmark. Through the visionary camera lens of Charley Makray-Rice, on her blog The Road Less Paved, I was recently reminded of this earlier, and very important, legacy of John Muir in Wisconsin. I hope you can visit her lovely blog and enjoy her photos, as well as the Sierra Club link to more information that describes Muir’s boyhood home, and the early influences that helped to shape his passionate love of nature.

John Muir could linger in the mountains for days, weeks, even months, and often packed no more food than a few chunks of bread. He knew how to survive on little, and where that little was to be found. Therefore it is interesting to note what precious articles he did pack along with him, if it was not to be food. On his ‘thousand mile walk to the Gulf of Mexico’, Muir carried in his pack small volumes of the poems of Robert Burns, Milton’s Paradise Lost, the New Testament, and a blank journal for recording his own thoughts. (Oh, and a plant press.) This was certainly not traveling light in the literary sense. Muir would find that, in the resonant chambers of the deep woods, one is better able to listen for the deep soundings of thinkers through time. Later he would write of his discovery that

the poetry of the Bible, Shakespeare, and Milton was a source of inspiring, exhilarating, uplifting pleasure.’

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He was also an enthusiastic reader of Emerson and Thoreau, and was keenly in heart harmony with Thoreau when the latter wrote….“Sympathy with the fluttering alder and poplar leaves almost takes away my breath.”

When John Muir wrote of ‘beautiful fragments’ that he encountered in his nature wanderings he waxed particularly enthusiastic about the majestic evergreens and conifers. It was something he wrote about Pinus lambertiana that got my full attention:

‘No lover of trees will ever forget his first meeting with a sugar pine.’

That, my friends, struck me as a call to action. I love trees. I have been raised in the deeply wooded Pacific Northwest, yet cannot remember if I have ever ‘met’ a sugar pine. Certainly not in the way Muir did. If I had, how could I have forgotten it? Not to mention that, when it comes to seed pods, sugar pines produce the longest cones of any pine. Their native habitat is also higher, quite a bit higher, than my usual route encompasses.

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Clearly, my seed pod journey must continue. I’ll just have to pack a few slices of bread, a plant press, and a little light reading.