Summer Reading in the Redwoods

Get outside - and don’t forget to bring a book! Image by backpackphotography, Flickr Creative Commons
Get outside – and don’t forget to bring a book! Image by backpackphotography, Flickr Creative Commons

I’m preparing for a backpacking trip in Yosemite next weekend. It will be my first visit to the park, and it includes homework! I’m going with a friend who suggested that we both read John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra before we depart. It was a fantastic idea. Muir’s observations, penned over a century ago, are enthralling, and his enthusiasm and wonder are charming. In the Sierra, Muir finds “beauty beyond thought everywhere, beneath, above, made and being made forever.”

Of course, after falling in love with Yosemite during the summer of 1869, Muir would go on to champion and protect much of that land in the years to come. It is thrilling to read his eloquent first impressions of this special place just before I’ll be seeing it for the very first time myself.

I love the idea of reading as inspiration or preparation for time spent in nature. Half a century before Muir’s narrative was published, Thoreau’s iconic Walden inspired his contemporaries to seek out experiences in nature at a time when leaving civilization behind seemed a rather silly, or even a flat-out crazy, thing to do.

Now outdoor recreation is wildly popular (pun intended), and a plethora of reading materials cover all kinds of forays into the wild… such as, well, Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer’s bestselling nonfiction account of Christopher McCandless’ solo journey into the Alaskan wilderness, from which he tragically did not return (there’s also a film version).

One of my favorite books in this genre is Wild, by the smart and funny Cheryl Strayed, about her harrowing experiences leading up to and during her trek on the Pacific Crest Trail (in boots one size too small, no less). Another favorite is A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, the hilarious and well-researched story of the author’s attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail.

I think it enriches our outdoors experiences to read the work of talented writers who can articulate what many of us feel about nature, but can’t quite express. But no matter how well-written, literature can’t replace actual time spent in nature, especially among the magnificent redwoods. These books make me want to get out into the forest, and when I can’t do that, they at least make me feel a little bit like I’m there.

What are your favorite reads for a real or simulated escape into nature? Please share them here!

About the author

Kelsey Piras is a writer and editor based in Southern California. Her Northern California roots and time among the redwoods are endless sources of inspiration and awe.

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One Response to “Summer Reading in the Redwoods”

  1. sak

    This genre of literature holds a special place in my heart. The pages written by Muir, Krakauer, Bryson, Strayed, Thoreau, Walden, Abbey etc are in many ways almost as beautiful as the lands they describe – I couldn’t imagine trying to capture the beauty of nature in written language, what a task that must be! And yet, they succeed in doing so.
    In My First Summer, Muir writes,
    “In open spots many of the lowland compositæ are still to be found, and some of the Mariposa tulips and other conspicuous members of the lily family; but the characteristic blue oak of the foothills is left below, and its place is taken by a fine large species (Quercus Californica) with deeply lobed deciduous leaves, picturesquely divided trunk, and broad, massy, finely lobed and modeled head. Here also at a height of about twenty-five hundred feet we come to the edge of the great coniferous forest, made up mostly of yellow pine with just a few sugar pines. We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us. Our flesh-and-bone tabernacle seems transparent as glass to the beauty about us, as if truly an inseparable part of it, thrilling with the air and trees, streams and rocks, in the waves of the sun,— a part of all nature, neither old nor young, sick nor well, but immortal. Just now I can hardly conceive of any bodily condition dependent on food or breath any more than the ground or the sky. How glorious a conversion, so complete and wholesome it is, scarce memory enough of old bondage days left as a standpoint to view it from! In this newness of life we seem to have been so always.”

    Is it the same as being out there? No, but as someone who spends the majority of his time in society, when I’m outdoors I often find my breath taken away, unable to put words to what my eyes can see, as my brain tries to write down every piece of visual information possible so as to full relive it later. These books do however offer a beautiful reminder when I cannot make the time to be off in the mountains and a beautiful source of inspiration to get more people out there!

    Of course these writers, having seen what society has done with Nature, can relay messages that Nature could not herself. What strikes me is that so many of these writers, despite effectively living without society in complete joy still come back with social messages. It’s as if despite their general indignation for society, Nature inspires them to return and speak on her behalf. Muir also writes,
    “A few minutes ago every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship. But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease. Every hidden cell is throbbing with music and life, every fiber thrilling like harp strings, while incense is ever flowing from the balsam bells and leaves. No wonder the hills and groves were God’s first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn into cathedrals and churches, the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord himself.”

    I perhaps enjoy Ed Abbey’s cynicism a bit too much, perhaps because it strikes a cord with me. In Desert Solitaire he writes,
    “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.”

    some of his youtube videos are priceless:

    happy adventuring,


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