“The Sierra Nevada is one mountain range, 430 miles long and 40 to 80 miles wide ... a 25,000-square mile construction with granite cliffs as walls, wildflowers as carpet, and a star-studded sky as the ceiling.”
So write longtime Sierra denizens Gary Noy and Rick Heide, editors of this collection of writings, destined to be a standard resource. Like many of the authors they've assembled, they have themselves been moved to some type of rapture by what John Muir dubbed the “Range of Light.” Yet their book is not only an homage to natural beauty, but even more a chronicle of human exploration, conquest and stewardship, both successful and tragic.
As they note, the perspectives are diverse: “Reports requiring copious scientific detail stand beside gentle poetic lyricism, and the voices of men, women, the young, the old, the outsider, the native, the victim, and the victimizer are all heard.”
It's been said that history is only written by the winners, but not herein. The evidence provided by this chronological march of authors make it clear that the Sierra did not yield easily to human habitation. An estimated 100,000 American Indians lived there before the Gold Rush, and one of them, Chief Winnemucca, dreamed that “I saw the greatest emigration that has yet been through our country. … I heard a great weeping. … They were killing my people with something that made a great noise like thunder and lightning. … You may all think it is just a dream — nevertheless, I feel that it will come to pass.”
When famed explorer John Fremont arrived in 1842, his writing about crossing the Sierra set a style for decades, mixing adventure with hardship. His group's travails were so severe that by the end of the excerpt here, “Many of the men looked badly, and some this evening were giving out.”
The 1846 Donner Party fiasco — represented here in James D. Houston's striking fictionalization — epitomized such disaster, but not far away that same year, a visitor like Edwin Bryant rhapsodized at Donner Lake that “It is quite impossible to convey by language an adequate conception of the symmetrical beauty and stateliness of the forest trees surrounding the lake.”
And so it goes, from the “Golden Misty Dawn” of pre-1840 to present, with more than 70 authors, famed and unknown, telling of “inner turmoil and grandiose claims, of personal doubt and cultural exultation, of heartfelt rejoicing and bewildered resignation, of the struggle to survive and the will to understand, and of wonderment and worry.”
Besides the obligatory passages from Muir, Twain, London, Harte, Brower, Stegner, Kerouac, Snyder and more, there are selections from other famed authors not often associated with the Sierra. Henry David Thoreau saw the Gold Rush as “the greatest disgrace on mankind,” and added that “Going to California. It is only three thousand miles nearer to hell.”
For some, it was hellish. Authors here describe stark racism, violence and murder among early settlers, right up to the World War II Japanese American internment at Manzanar. On a somewhat more positive note, historian Kevin Starr lays out the evolution of conservation efforts, made more essential by the onset of the automobile and modern recreation and tourism. Struggles over land use and water rights continue fairly unabated today, fueled by unrelenting population pressure.
The word “classic” is as worn as a Yosemite granite cliff face, but it applies to this book nonetheless. Lacking only photos and maps, it's a work anyone visiting the wondrous region should consider bringing along — maybe not in a backpack, as it is a bit heavy for that, but maybe even so. Through it all the mountains, canyons, rivers and troubled human history of the Sierra are indeed illuminated. ¥¥
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(The Illuminated Landscape: A Sierra Nevada Anthology. Edited by Gary Noy and Rick Heide. Heyday Books; 352 pages; $19.95 paperback.)