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Summary of "My First Summer in the Sierra" by John Muir

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In the summer of 1869, John Muir, a young Scottish immigrant, joined a crew of shepherds in the foothills of California's Sierra Nevada Mountains. The diary he kept while tending sheep formed the heart of this book and eventually lured thousands of Americans to visit Yosemite country. First published in 1911, My First Summer in the Sierra incorporates the lyrical accounts and sketches he produced during his four-month stay in the Yosemite River Valley and the High Sierra. His record tracks that memorable experience, describing in picturesque terms the majestic vistas, flora and fauna, and other breathtaking natural wonders of the area.

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Though John Muir was an early scout in the national park movement, touching many landscapes that now are parks, he's best connected with Yosemite National Park and the surrounding High Sierra. So taken with this landscape was he that he wrote a book, My First Summer in the Sierra, in 1911. A century later this book has been revisited in a special 100th anniversary edition, one with striking photography. Reading the naturalist's essays, it's easy to understand his love for this high country. Few aspects of his travels seemed to escape his eye, as the following excerpt, written as he prepared to head up into the high country with a sheep herder, demonstrates. June 3, 1869. This morning provisions, camp-kettles, blankets, plant-press, etc., were packed on two horses, the flock headed for the tawny foothills, and away we sauntered in a cloud of dust: Mr. Delaney, bony and tall, with sharply hacked profile like Don Quixote, leading the pack-horses, Billy, the proud shepherd, a Chinaman and a Digger Indian to assist in driving for the first few days in the brushy foothills, and myself with notebook tied to my belt. During that summer Mr. Muir's eyes seemed to flit everywhere, pulling into focus everything in the landscape before him. He wrote of Douglas squirrels -- "the little Douglas is fiery, peppery, full of brag and fight and show, with movements so quick and keen they almost sting the onlooker, and the harlequin gyrating show he makes of himself turns one giddy to see." -- and clouds, of trees and birds, and, of course mountains. Reading his passages, it's easy to feel Mr. Muir's passion for this landscape and that which it catches from horizon to horizon

And it's easy to understand how the experience drove him to devote his life to seeing this setting preserved. Adding even more depth to the imagery of his words are the photographs of Scot Miller, who carefully framed his shots to complement Mr. Muir's words. Among the 72 photographs interspersed through the 204 pages are those that capture purple blooms of lupines, South Dome under morning's fresh light, panoramas of the Merced River Basin dominated by Half Dome, and the soft light of sunset splashed across Tuolumne meadows. Just as wonderful are sketches Mr. Muir made while in the mountains, and sections of his handwritten manuscript in his flowing penmanship. The import of that summer in the Sierra to the national parks movement was highlighted in a foreword to the book written by Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan.

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In the end, this vivid travelogue conveys John Muir's life-changing adventure in the Sierra Nevada. Penniless but itching to travel, Muir took a job relocating Pat Delaney's sheep from California's Central Valley to the Yosemite region. When he set out in the summer of 1869, Muir, whose closest previous experience was walking a thousand miles from Indiana to Florida, wasn't sure that "the silly sheep" would make it through the wilds of the mountains. He was reassured that the accompanying shepherd would do the actual herding, and that he'd be left to study nature. Silver firs, waterfalls, fertile valleys, and snowcapped peaks bejeweled the landscape, imbuing Muir with a profound reverence for the natural world. His passionate journal entries detail the beautiful surroundings Muir encountered and the colorful characters he met along the way.

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