PImagine a lonely person He walks across the rocky expanse of a planet while talking to himself – a lonely human watching for signs that this is one planetary surface, to “the speed,” as he puts it, “of the planet rolling beneath your feet.” That’s science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson somewhere high in the southern Sierra Nevada – “the heart of the mountain” – at almost any time for the past 49 years. He could be a sunwalker from his novel 2312but the planet is Earth, not Mercury, and the California sun will not burn it.
Robinson hikes off the beaten track and, as he writes in his new book: The High Sierra: A Love Story—his easy walk is a way of being: “pedestrian and prosy”. He might be paying attention to everything or nothing: his plantar fasciitis, a few slivers of obsidian at a Native American quarry, the way the mountains “seem to glow from within, pulsing with an inner light, under a sky just as dark and solid as.” Email.” Or he might “console himself with my usual sci-fi exercise,” imagining a scene from another time and working it through in his head until he can say, yes, “it was like that.”
If you know Robinson’s highly regarded novels –The Ministry for the Future or the Mars Trilogy, for example – you know the sound of his clear, impersonal omniscience. But in The High Sierrait’s as if a sheet of carbon fiber had been slid open in the wall of one of his novels and stepped out il miglior fabbro Himself, a fit 70-year-old from Davis, California, with a pair of hiking poles and a whisper-light backpack, looks forward to some sunset scotch, chilled if possible by a sliver of a remaining glacier in a world he didn’t have to invent. The Robinson liquid is here: the compact, agile sets; the narrative ease; the technical details. Prosy maybe – he’s addressing you directly – but only literally prosaically.
Its subject in The High Sierra is the landscape of “the best mountain range on earth” and its effect on the human spirit. psychogeology is Robinson’s term for it: the feelings and perceptions evoked by the exposed rock, the light, the thinner air at altitude – “hippie poet” stuff, then. John Muir, he writes, was an early “psychogeologist”. So did Robinson’s friend Gary Snyder and – from an earlier generation – the San Francisco poet Kenneth Rexroth, who like Robinson “took a youthful journey into the High Sierra and fell in love with the place and went back there for the rest of his life, so often.” he could.” But being a psychogeologist—even a hippie poet—in Robinson’s mind requires a way of staying real with the mountains, of finding a perceptual precision up in the Sierras, rather than succumbing to the whims of so many descriptions of nature to lose.
The High Sierra is exoteric-attentive to the general reader, instructive, open character. But it’s also very esoteric, best read with constant reference to a good set of topographic maps (or an app like CalTopo). Unless you know the Sierra as well as Robinson does – and not many people do – you will feel geographically lost. (I don’t know how many Sierra place names there are above 10,000 feet between Hetch Hetchy in the north and Mount Whitney in the south, but I’m pretty sure Robinson uses them all.) And yet, somehow, being lost does no matter. Will The High Sierra mean more to readers who have seen Tehipite Dome from below or camped on “the Crab Claw Peninsula that juts into Cirque Lake”? Of course, it will also mean more to those who have read Emerson and Thoreau than to those who have not.
A mountain hiker, Robinson is who he is because the Sierras let him be. The range is unusual. It is a west-sloping batholith, 450 miles long, 60 miles wide, and defined by prominent basins, “the empty rock receptacles of the upper ends of glaciers that are now gone.” Pool floors are typically bare rock – “friendly” granite – good for walking, good for ponds and lakes and running water:
“The Sierra Nevada basins are their defining aspect, their distinguishing feature. This is to move from geology to psychogeology because what I mean here is that as a hiker and camper you want to be in basins. They are the golden zone.”
The pools are also why you can hike cross-country in the Sierra, unlike other mountain ranges “where getting off the trail is often a recipe for disaster.” Robinson’s advice? “Don’t go where the ice didn’t go!” Up where the ice was once things get psychogeological where time cracks and you realize that “the rocks will be here for millions of years” but the moment you are experiencing won’t.
Exactly what kind of book is this The High Sierra? I would call it fractal encyclopedic, in reference to a phrase – “think fractal” – that Robinson uses to describe John Muir’s work in his articles and books, such as: My first summer in the Sierra (1911) and The Yosemite (1912). What Robinson means is that Muir was always changing the scale – comparing big to small, using Yosemitefor example, to denote both a massive and an intimate landform, and even to refer to California’s Central Valley as a “double Yosemite.”
in the The High Sierra, Robinson is also constantly changing the scale—changing the scale, the subject, the angle, even the genre. In a moment the book is memoirs. The next is Trail Guide. Then it’s bibliography, history, ecological meditation, and a discourse on renaming peaks and passes that have culturally unacceptable names. Robinson lets his mind wander and then tracks them down wherever they are, much like a Sierra herdsman and his flock in the late 19th century. The High Sierra could be subtitled: A mixture– although it’s a word we don’t use much anymore. Robinson recognizes that the human mind is multifaceted and invites us to accept this fact.
AMong Robinson’s literature history for The High Sierra is an unpublished manual written by Kenneth Rexroth for the Works Progress Administration, or WPA, circa 1939 Camping in the western mountains. As The High Sierra, camping in the western mountains is a peculiar book. In a section titled “The Trail,” Rexroth lists “the three finest manuals for camping and woodwork ever written”: Izaak Waltons The Complete Angler (1653), Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne (1789) and John Bunyans The Pilgrim Way (1678). Walton, writes Rexroth, was “full of misinformation about Pisces”, White was “primitive by modern standards” and Bunyan “travelled only in his own soul”. That means these aren’t even remotely camping and woodcrafting manuals. And yet there they are, three antique Englishmen, a few inches from that clearly spoken sentence: “Never wear anything on your belt except a cup or anything slung over a shoulder.” Like Robinson, Rexroth has an easy mind.
This loose quality is what makes it so special The High Sierra so appealing. But it is also something more. Robinson clearly accepts the limits of what nature writing can do, at least in his hands. After a breathtaking solo hike, he tries to describe it to a friend. But he discovers that “such a day cannot be divided; that is why they must not be.” To him, this is a puzzle because he believes that “every human experience should be readable”—a novelist’s premise and guiding principle throughout The High Sierra.
Robinson is no stranger to Epiphany; Many of his earliest Sierra excursions included an LSD trip along the way. But he never tries to lead us into the experience of the epiphany, however it manifests itself. He is alert to his own emotions, but willing to stay away from them a little, not to tone them down but to understand how they complement his humble, pervasive rationality. “When I’m in the Sierra,” writes Robinson, “I feel different and good. It’s physical and mental. That sense of elevation, of standing up… gives me an underlying calm that hums like a continuo beneath my thoughts.” The point of The High Sierra is not to show us the author’s moments of transcendence. It is meant to remind us that we can find our own transcendence just as Robinson did – “following sandy paths that weave through pine needles and broken rock, higher and higher, between tall, coarse-barked trees that grew smaller and more scattered, until we got to the top an open huge space unlike anything in my life below.”
rationality is a word with a dry, austere feel. Maybe appropriateness comes a little closer to the animating spirit The High Sierra. That sounds strange, I know, for a book whose purpose is to analyze Robinson’s “crazy love” for the mountains. But it’s a way to capture the wholeness of his complex approach to the natural world: curious and emotional, thoughtful and immediate, long and short term, embracing all the variables of the human mind.
There’s no Sinai in there The High Sierra and no mountain to preach from. There is only reflection and common sense, an openness to the experiences of others, and “the usual science fiction movement of looking at our time as future generations will see us”. The animals that Muir called “our horizontal brothers and sisters” have lived in the Sierra for thousands of years, as have humans — a few, and mostly in the summer. Its landscape is now well known, its main hiking trails are crowded with hikers, and if anything, writes Robinson, “the range is a little too well described. Of course I’m contributing to this process here.” But what Robinson also brings is a generous and liberating spirit of engagement with nature. “If it’s new to you, you’ll discover it.”