Artifacts VI: The Sierra Nevadas

A short book review written for a geographical journal called Terrae Incognitae: The Journal for the Society of the History of the Discoveries. It is important to note that I have no idea if they ever actually published this review. The email account used for communicating with the editor is defunct and the edition of the journal in which my review would probably be included cannot be accessed electronically without a subscription. But I did write it, thats something at least.

Browning, Peter, ed. Splendid Mountains: Early Exploration in the Sierra Nevada. Lafayette, CA: Great West Books, 2007. 272 pp., ISBN0-944220-22-3

“It is a lovely and terrible wilderness,” wrote Wallace Stegner of Wayne County, Utah, “such as wilderness Christ and the profits went out into; harshly and beautifully colored, broken and worn until its bones are exposed…and in hidden corners and pockets under its cliffs the sudden poetry of springs.”[1] Taken from Stegner’s Wilderness Letter, published in 1960, this line was penned nearly a century after George Perkins Marsh, a pioneer in the study of natural systems, finished his remarkably prescient book, Man and Nature, which explored the consequences of environmental degradation. Yet, despite Marsh’s fondness for cultivated landscapes and the gulf of time and national development spread between their lives, both authors adopt the vocabulary of a romantic, theistic discursive tradition in their writing. Adapted from the religious imagery and idealized primitivism of Enlightenment thought, this tradition has become a hallmark of American environmentalist and naturalist writing, not just for pioneers like Marsh or modern-day advocates like Stegner, but from Henry David Thoreau, to John Muir and Aldo Leopold, to Marjorie Stoneman Douglas and Edward Abbey. While these luminaries have enjoyed a broad readership, authors outside the traditional canon have received less attention from historians or the general public; but, as the twin pressures of growing enthusiasm for wilderness activities and escalating concern over global climate change during recent decades continue, the writings of less prominent explorers are being liberated from obscurity.

Splendid Mountains: Early Exploration in the Sierra Nevada, compiled and edited by Peter Browning, gives voice to early adventurers whose names adorn many of the peaks, streams, valleys, and passes of a mountain range associated by most with men like John Muir, Kit Carson, Josiah Whitney, John C. Fremont, or  Joseph N. LeConte. Browning draws from the historical archives of the Sierra Club, bringing together accounts from nineteen different excursions published between 1872 and 1921. The edited collection will make a valuable addition to shelves of those interested in the history of exploration in the Sierra Nevadas, mountains referred to by Muir as the ‘Range of Light’. Outdoor enthusiasts will likewise enjoy the vivid, and sometimes harrowing, tales of backcountry exploration that pioneered many of the routes taken by modern day hikers and climbers. In an ironic twist, Browning’s ensemble of persona obscura wilderness travelers, confined as their exploits have been to the margins of popular thought, are immortalized by the mountains, lakes, passes, and creeks now bearing their names. Each year thousands of visitors trek past Dusy Creek, LeConte Point, and Mount Bradley, all named for adventurers seldom known to throngs of contemporary visitors. Splendid Mountains restores to the national and regional past narratives of discovery written when the Frontier, a complex synthesis of idyllic national mythology, legislative jargon, and statistical geography, would be deemed officially closed, when American attention began shifting from the wounds of a destructive civil war to an expanding overseas empire.

Although the book offers no analysis, operating primarily as an exhibition of unsung exploration accounts, the reverence for undisturbed natural beauty proclaimed it captures create a feeling that these pioneers were the vestige of an era halted by settlement and exploitation, but also the vanguard of an emerging culture steeped in environmental consciousness and a love for all things wild. It may well be that the recantations of first summits and trail blazing expeditions unearthed by Brown have lost their popular appeal as the decades passed, but these stories helped lay the foundations of modern conservationism by sharing with a wider audience the thrills and rugged splendor of an American wilderness few had seen.

To an audience unfamiliar with the region and backcountry recreation more generally, the book may seem repetitious and at times burdensome with detailed supply inventories, meticulous observations, and trail jargon; and its limited geographic scope, engaging primarily a region just northeast of Paradise Valley, may frustrate some readers as the frequent reoccurrence of prominent locations can produce a sense of spatial and temporal dislocation. Many of the landmarks described have been renamed, necessitating the collaborative use of historical and current USGS topographical maps to accurately retrace the routes. Of note is the near total absence of American Indians from the book. While most natives had been forced onto reservations and, under the Dawes Act of 1887, onto individually owned parcels of land, their absence from the Sierra Nevada range is essential to the history of exploration in the area and deserves commentary. The compilation would benefit from an expanded introduction as well as the inclusion of modern topographical maps juxtaposed against their historical predecessors.

Weaknesses like these are most likely a product of the book’s nature; it is not an analytical history of the political atmosphere or underlying cultural structures in America at the turn of the century. It is, instead, an exhumation of discoveries long forgotten by a society still, arguably, enthralled with the idea of venturing into uncharted territory. Scholars and enthusiasts of California’s past, those interested in the legacies of discovery, and wilderness advocates will all find great value in Browning’s collection. For those who have languished under the eaves of tents while escaping rain or trudged determinedly up the unapologetic switchbacks of alpine trails, emerged with startled exhilaration onto a sun soaked promontory or, faced with a long hike out, stared forlornly at bags once full of granola and dried fruit Splendid Mountains will resonate most deeply. A familiar pull begins, a compulsion to be out among pine stands and ash thickets, scree and haphazard boulders, to climb and hike and ponder on a twenty-first century pilgrimage to monuments of natural beauty named in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for the discoverers on whose paths people continue exploring.

Devin Howard

The University of North Carolina, Greensboro

[1]“Wilderness Letter,” Wallace Stegner to David E. Pesonen, December 3, 1960


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