by Sam Juliano
I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure. -Eric Liddell, Chariots of Fire
Environmental philosopher and activist John Muir dedicated much of his life toward the preservation of the western forests, and today is referred to as the “Father of the National Parks.” From both a political and recreational sphere of interest this master of many pursuits has also been dubbed “one of the patron saints of twentieth century American environmental activity.” Such a rich and diverse life would no doubt yield some specific events that in and of themselves would yield the basis for promising books. John Muir Wrestles a Waterfall by Julie Danneberg and Jamie Hogan is the outgrowth of a very close brush Muir had with death during his acute immersion with nature during the time he spent at Yosemite Valley. Certainly this is not the kind of defining life event that is brought up when the author and naturalist’s name is broached as it would be in the life of Civil War politician Charles Sumner, who was nearly caned to death in the congressional chambers by a furious southerner, but ironically enough the Sumner incident was condemned by famed transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson who visited with Muir at Yosemite, and was deeply impressed with his oneness with nature that he tried to convinced him to travel east. Muir declined but twenty years later, he met Emerson in Concord, Massachusetts.
John Muir Wrestles a Waterfall employs the same kind of two prorogued narrative presentation as last year’s Winter Bees. Muir’s activity is chronicled in free-spirited prose, while on at the bottom of each right side panel the historical and biographical context enriches one’s understanding of Muir and his daily wilderness investigations. Muir was ravished by Yosemite’s expansive soulful sublimity, and the only surefire way to become immersed in the nature experience, to take it in by experiencing it and living in a simple solitary cabin with equipped with observational capacities. The central object of his fascination and appreciation was a springtime waterfall, where as described by Danneberg it “cascaded, crashed and careened over the side of the mountain.” In the hang-nest room at the sawmill he maintained journals, sketches and books, and saw the heavens and Yosemite Falls through window roofs.
Inevitably, like in any observational capacity one is lured into up front inspection. For Muir to appreciate the beauty and to develop a kind of spiritual connection to the waterfall he needed to venture out. The author relates that a brief hike during an April evening, which allows for a sight and sound show, while positioned in the shadow of the peak, is parlayed into a much closer and as it subsequently established a much more dangerous vantage point. Danneburg relates that Muir’s mission was not only one of sensory immersion, but also to explore and learn. In the Caldecott Medal winning Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs and Mary Azarian, the same arc of passionate obsession and a complete understanding and documentation for the benefit of others was explored. Muir secured plant specimens for his studies.
John Muir Wrestles a Waterfall, initially peaceful and introspective, then ripens into a hair-raising adventure story at the point where Muir climbs through dark woods en route to Fern Ledge, where is precariously close to the waterfall. Danneburg’s prose here is exhilarating:
He is so close to the waterfall that the mist brushes his face, the noise pounds in his chest, and the night feels alive with the energy of the twisting, misting, roaring water.
But few in that position would be able to resist wanting to up the ante, especially not Muir, who according to the author would think nothing of embarking on long, arduous hikes with few provisions, a kind of real-life Jeremiah Johnson. This undaunted man of unlimited interests and abilities then entered Indiana Jones territory in an inch by inch progression on a steep ledge, where he eventually is able to feel the rush of water. But then a strong wind forces him to relocate (Danneberg gives splendid animated word description of of the falls’ progress) where is then ideally poised to become one with this soaring, indescribable excitement engendered by a collaboration of the water with all that is around him. At this juncture Danneburg dispenses with the informational text to concentrate on the danger that nearly dooms Muir, when he is pinned up against the granite after the cessation of wind causes complications. Muir is regaled by smashing water, that could easily upend his tenuous position on the ledge, and he is nearly overcome by fear. Then a waiting game ensues, comparable to someone hiding in the woods from a wild animal unaware of the human presence. A shift of wind allows Muir to take tiny steps and depart this prospective abyss to the safety of the trail. He returns to the comfort of the cabin and admits in a dated diary entry that this insistence on the full nature experience nearly cost him his life.
Only in a subsequent author’s afterward titled “John Muir’s Yosemite” do readers finally learn the extent of Muir’s risk. To be sure it wasn’t in a category with the man who walked on a tighrope between the Twin Towers -after all that man was a professional- but Muir was standing within inches of a drop that measured two times the length of the Empire State Building. It is fascinating too that the trails leading there are still operational, if exceedingly dangerous.
Hogan’s prismacolor and pastel pencil on canson is a bold artistic choice, and it works marvelously throughout. The artist was going for a rustic feel, while saturated textures were employed when the narrative’s arc grew threatening. The impressionistic design of the opening panels are meant to bring the readers into nature’s realm. Some of the early double spreads like the scenic one where Muir is outside his cabin leaning against a tree is exquisitely rendered; the turn of the page pictures Muir heading to the waterfall is lovingly framed with orange-tinted flowers and fir trees. The series of paintings documenting the naturalist’s unbridled but nearly foolhardy determination, offer up Hogan’s finest tapestries in the book. The full frontal depiction of a happy camper behind a white cascade contrasts with the later one where Muir hangs on for dear life while the elements appear to be conspiring against him. The illustrator never loses sight of the idea that Muir always feel like he’s part of the landscape, and Muir looks more like a specter, than a flush and blood person. The interior art inside the cabin is attractively sketched and colored, and the books cover, depicting the long waterfall snaking its way through the opening in rocks to thrilling white torrent with an onrush of an amusement park cyclone roller coaster. Hogan’s mastery of white in the book really elevates it further.
In the grand tradition of the renowned picture book naturalist Wendell Minor, Hogan understands the application of saturation in an unforgiving wilderness. John Muir Westles a Waterfall is a splendid homage to one of America’s seminal environmental figures. To be sure a very complex figure. Author Danneberg and illustrator Hogan have successfully transported the reader to the ledge of Yosemite Falls, a place the naturalist though was a worthwhile investment. Acquiring this book is a good one as well.