The Byways and Recesses of this Sublime Wilderness:
John Muir in Nevada
By Kimberly J. Roberts
It has been said by those who know it intimately that the Great Basin hides itself from view. Seen from the interstates and highways that lope restlessly across its surface, it appears as little more than a haphazard jumble of rocks, barren and uninteresting to passersby. Even John Muir felt overwhelmed by the emptiness he encountered here, writing in 1878 that “Nevada seems one vast desert, all sage and sand, hopelessly irredeemable now and forever.” However, a firm believer in the beauty of all nature, he dug past what he called its “savage nakedness” and uncovered the unique and compelling landscapes of Nevada, developing his own wilderness aesthetic in the process. He published a series of editorials in the San Francisco Evening Bulletin that show how richly he engaged not just the physical environment of the desert, but the cultures that dotted the seeming emptiness, revealing a rich and beautiful world, a place far from empty.
Perhaps the most striking feature of these essays is the unexpected bounty he discovered in the Great Basin and his knack for placing these resources into an all-inclusive context that included geological, biological, and cultural observations. He understood the complex web of interactions between the physical history of the terrain and the plants, animals, and people currently living upon it. Written before the establishment of ecology as a formal discipline, Muir was clearly studying the relationships within what would become known as ecosystems.
He observed that the Great Basin was not a singular basin but a group of many unique mountain ranges and that their seeming barrenness evaporated upon close observation, revealing a world rich with trees and flowers, snow and wetland, people and animals. He wrote eloquently about the sheer cliffs carved out by glaciers, sweeping out onto the plains and leaving a visible record of past ice ages. He noticed how the ranches were situated at the base of mountains to make use of the spring runoff that channeled down these ancient glacial valleys. He also studied the soil’s capacity for agriculture, noting its fertility and potential. Observing the pine nut harvest of the Native Americans, he wrote that this was one of the most bountiful food sources on the entire continent, and the most underappreciated as well. He surmised that were there an easier way to harvest the nuts, they would become a staple of the American diet much like wheat. Not only did they feed the human population, but provided birds, squirrels, and other animals with sustenance. He wrote in great detail about the variety of trees in Nevada, observing how the dry, scrubby pines of the lower hills gave way to coniferous forests as grand as those on the eastern seaboard, and stated that their real character could not be guessed by the inexperienced observer. While he noticed how much timber was being cut down at this time, he wrote that there were in fact so many forests in Nevada this was not yet a problem. However, his tone changed from wonderment to criticism when writing about the impact of mining on what he called “this mountain-barred wilderness.” Noting the many ghost towns that already littered the landscape, he lashed out against the destructive violence of the boom-and-bust prospecting that has marked so much of Nevada history. However, he did not condemn all mining, arguing instead for the orderly, sustained development of mines, showing he believed it was possible for mining to exist within an ecological framework.
Written before long before the defining moments of his life, such as his doomed battle against Hetch-Hetchy, these essays create a picture of a younger and more optimistic Muir, one who believed in the potential for development without destruction. They also illustrate his understanding of beauty, based not on first impressions but on the study of minute details. This is how he came out of a seemingly empty desert with an understanding that “wheresoever we may venture to go in all this good world, nature is ever found richer and more beautiful than she seems, and nowhere may you meet with more varied and delightful surprises than in the byways and recesses of this sublime wilderness.”
 These essays and other Muir writings were compiled and published under the title Steep Trails. For the full publication, see: http://www.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/writings/steep_trails/