Mark Liebenow
essayist, poet, blogger


Mountains of Light: Seasons of Reflection in Yosemite
University of Nebraska Press, March 2012
Buy this book

Click on the hiking map for an enlarged view.

We feel estranged from nature. We love to be outside yet feel afraid when left alone in the forest. Our children play video games instead of going outdoors. I explore nature’s spirituality by camping in Yosemite through the seasons and learn how to pay attention. I weave in geology, botany, the stories of Native Americans and pioneers who once lived there, and the words of John Muir. Each year four million visitors come to Yosemite, and I describe my hikes so that they can walk those trails and have their own experiences. I also write about the rock climbers I camped with, their daring, and how they challenged me to take my own risks and experience life directly. I want readers, wherever they are, to go outside after reading my book and see nature as they’ve never seen it before.

Reader’s Guide: Mountains of Light, by Mark Liebenow


from Elaine Mansfield’s review, 2015
“In Mountains of Light, Mark Liebenow seeks comfort and healing through solitary explorations and daring hikes in Yosemite Valley. He leaves the world of time, achievement, and expectations behind and reflects on the outer beauty of the valley and the inner darkness of his personal loss. We learn about his wife’s recent and sudden death at an early age, although he doesn't dwell there. “I fear that if I do not face grief directly, it will tear me apart inside,” Liebenow writes. Yosemite is his guide and healer.”

from James Ballowe’s review, North Dakota Quarterly, published Nov. 2012
“The practical lessons that complement the personal story will make Mountains of Life a useful companion for the solitary camper and hiker in Yosemite. But above all, Liebenow’s record of the lore, natural history, and lessons to be learned from Yosemite will be of interest even to the reader who may never have the chance to experience its grandeur in person.”

from Sue Fagalde Lick’s review, Oregon
“The book takes us through the seasons, from snow through spring, summer, fall and back to snow, in a narrative style that is at once meditation, poetry, and prayer. It resembles and draws from the writing of 19th century naturalist John Muir. As Mark hikes the many trails to landmarks like Half Dome and El Capitan and sometimes just sits for hours in the midst of nature, we learn about Native American and American history, geology, flora and fauna. This book is beautifully written. Like a fine wine, it needs to be sipped slowly, to be savored. You won’t be reading this one in one night.”

Amy Lou Jenkins, Sierra Club
Mark Liebenow channels the John Muir sensibility that lies within the green-living philosophy: “going out is really going in.”

to read more: Amy Lou Jenkins review

Kirkus Reviews
“An elegant portrayal of retreat, renewal and return to life with an increased respect for one of the nation’s most revered natural sites.”

to read more: Kirkus Reviews

Blogcritics review
Mountains of Light is a stunning book. I keep wanting to call it a "future" classic. It deserves to stand with the great books of the iconic authors of this genre — John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Sig Olson, Terry and Renny Russell. This is a book that cries out for wide availability. It is a book to be read and re-read. I want to study it for what I expect are many deep connections Mark Liebenow has made as he wrote and re-wrote and edited it. This is a book of uncommon humility, honesty, great insight, and finally, ending again in winter, a book of eternal hope.”

to read more: Blogcritics review

It is lovely to discover a newborn classic, especially when sent as a gift unlooked-for, out of nowhere, with no prior contact with the author or story. In the narrative tradition of John Muir, but suggestive of the more explicitly metaphorical images of the Robert Frost or Annie Dillard, Liebenow's poetics and meaning match in a way that includes the reader in an experience of congruence, rather than offering a passing nostalgia. The simple ritual of reading Mountains of Light brings the reader into the experience of parallel journeys, often divided into "inner" and "outer" life, such that the usual practice of estranging the two becomes less and less possible. Faithful to the best of nature writing, Liebenow writes naturally, "dissolving the boundaries" so that the organic mutuality of being a creature and alive warms the everyday while opening a door to an understanding of what hurts most, uplifts, challenges, and opens the eyes of the heart to see that "Grace collects on the mountain peaks in the high country and flows down the Merced Canyon into the valley as fog..." This kind of reading experience is not just recommended, it is essential.

- Brandon D. Williamscraig, California

The sudden death of his wife of 18 years due to to an undiagnosed heart condition led R. Mark Liebenow to return to the wilderness. But Mountains of Light: Seasons of Reflection in Yosemite isn't the story of marriage and devastating loss. Rather, it's a story of recovering from grief and becoming fully alive through encounters with nature, spirit, and the inner self. "Her death devastated me," Liebenow writes. "So I have come to listen for nature's wisdom. In the past, the valley has helped me face my problems, see more clearly what was going on and what needed to be done. . . . I fear that if I do not face grief directly, it will tear me apart inside."

Through the seasons, Liebenow takes a series of hiking and camping trips in Yosemite National Park, the park that writer and naturalist John Muir help found in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Liebenow shows the reader the physical demands of the place (dangerous trails, raging storms, the near presence of bears, camping in cold weather, and getting lost), the stunning beauty of Half Dome, Mirror Lake, milkweeds, owls, and coyotes, and the sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic workings of the ecosystem. At the same time, he reveals the history of the valley through the shaping effect of glaciers, the stories of the Ahwahnechees, the courage of the rock climbers he camped with, and the words of such Euro-American visitors as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Teddy Roosevelt, Gary Snyder, Ansel Adams, and of course, John Muir.

But more importantly, Liebenow takes the reader on an interior voyage. To be fully present to Yosemite's wonders, Liebenow had to learn to slow down, give up thoughts of deadlines at work and his desire to control, plan, and even to impose meaning on what he encountered in order to experience "the whole of life, the holy now, with all of its tasty side dishes." With his keen observations, lyricism, candor, and delight at discovery, Liebenow makes a provocative, companionable travel guide over this remarkable landscape.

- Lisa Knopp, Nebraska, author, What the River Carries: Encounters with
the Mississippi, Missouri, and Platte
(University of Missouri Press, 2012)

"I've just finished reading Mountains of Light: Seasons of Reflection in Yosemite. Read it. Buy it for a friend (which I'm about to do). Read it in your book group. Devote a church study group to it. I think this review from the book cover says it best: "This is a book of a hero's journey--of a journey deep into the wilderness of our hearts among the wild flowing rivers we try to navigate in the face of pain, the glacial movement of recovering from tragic loss. It's about how when we listen to the gifts of nature we can find deep spiritual power; we can find grace. This is a beautiful book." It is indeed beautiful."

- Marty Olney, California

Shelf Awareness review
“Part travelogue, part natural study and part memoir of grief, Mountains of Light is meditative, lovely, thought-provoking and, yes, sad--but worth it for the appreciation of this natural gem and the redemption it brings.”

to read more: Shelf Awareness review

With his poet's eye and poet's sensibilities, Mark Liebenow leads us through one of the great American wild lands, Yosemite National Park. He also marks out a trail through an even wilder landscape, that of grief in the human heart. This is a journey of attentiveness and awareness to nature, both internal and external, led by a writer "baptized by rain water and hands of wild grass." The terrain he explores is rough and dramatic, exuberant and awe-inspiring, but in this "loud clashing of nature's forces," Liebenow finds, "Here is unbridled joy! Here is true celebration!"

- Kelsea Habecker, author of Hollow Out

This is not just a book about a trip into the wilderness, into one of the most beautiful places on earth. No, this is a book of a hero’s journey—of a journey deep into the wilderness of our hearts among the wild flowing rivers we try to navigate in the face of pain, the glacial movement of recovering from tragic loss. More, it’s about how when we listen to the gifts of nature and try to connect with the songs among us we can find deep spiritual power; we can find grace.

Mark Liebenow wanted to find what drew John Muir from his own homeland to Yosemite National Park. And along Liebenow’s journey he not only found why Muir could never let go of Yosemite, Liebenow found so much more—how we become more human than ever when we become vulnerable in nature’s beauty and danger.

This is a beautiful book.  I was just swept wildly away by the underlying love story and hero's journey.

- Jeff Knorr, author of Keeper and The Third Body

Reading Mountains of Light is like discovering a Bierstadt landscape or a bundle of letters from John Muir in your own attic. It is a mural painted in words set against the terrible beauty of Yosemite … a journey from darkness into light.

We begin with incalculable loss and, in a sense, turn to Melville – who advises us that when a damp, drizzly November surrounds our soul – we might go to the sea. However, some go to Yosemite, and this journey is one worth taking. It will lift you.

- Lynn and Julie Carl, Peoria book club

Even after forty years of going to Yosemite, tears still come to my eyes when I stand at Glacier Point and look out over the majesty of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. My memories range from slipping out of high school in the early 1960s to travel to Yosemite and climb El Capitan, Half Dome, and the valley’s other granite monuments when everyone was stuffing odd bits of metal into the walls in order to provide some measure of safety, to hiking the many miles of valley trails and camping in the ethereal reaches of the high country.

Although I'm a wildlife biologist with field experience in the Arctic and Antarctic, I'm always drawn back to Yosemite as a special place. Reading Mark’s book has reminded me of how many ways Yosemite has affected the direction of my life, and of the spirituality I've found on my journeys into nature. His words encourage me to move deeper still.

- John Westlake, Ph.D., wildlife biologist, Yosemite rock climber

The judge’s comments about the Yosemite essay that won the Chautauqua Nonfiction Prize:

This is a beautifully written reflective essay. The author transports the reader to Yosemite and takes us on his journey “to experience the whole of life, the holy now, with all of its tasty side dishes.” As mere spectators, we are forced to watch as the scenes within nature move into the author’s heart “like the corner of a piece of paper put to a pool of ink, drawing the feared darkness of the wilderness into the light where its mystery adds richness to life.” If the object of this piece is to make us jealous of his hike over the edge, it worked. I don’t believe any of the other stories matched the quality of writing in this piece, which relied so heavily on background information, observation, reflection, human senses interacting with nature, and on a more subtle level, the similarities between nature and society.

Opening paragraph—“…and all the books written by people who have lived in Yosemite over the centuries are like dried raisins and nuts. They’re interesting to chew as trail food, but I can’t use their experiences to get close to nature. I have to use my own eyes and feet. It’s the beginning steps of my journey moving beyond the facts I’ve read and experiencing the wild unknown.” Don’t all humans, at one time in their lives, want to experience the wild unknown? He is touching on a universal theme here. “I seek the mystery beneath the surface of the unkempt wilderness because I need to know that the chaos of my life is rooted in something solid underneath.”

I want to quote the first paragraph on the seventh page – all of it. “Along these banks there’s a deep sense of peace, yet it co-exists with terror. No matter how sedate the river may appear, it’s as wild as the other creatures in the valley. Strong currents run underneath the surface. If I were to jump in, its snowmelt cold would induce hypothermia within minutes and, with a little more volume, this calm-looking river would sweep me to my death. People have drowned when it’s looked quiet like this, trying to wade across. Someone did last year, and Sadie Schaeffer, who’s buried in the pioneer cemetery, died doing that more than a hundred years ago just a shorts ways downriver towards El Capitan. Nature doesn’t stop and make exceptions for people who get in its way.” Wow!

One more paragraph—on page 12—“As evening settles over the mountains, climbers and hikers return home from their adventures, light fires in their campsites around the valley like votives in a sanctuary, and offer thanks for what today has been. Sometimes I long for night to come because then I have to stop hiking. During the day, the continual discovery of new sights and sounds impels me to keep moving and squeeze in another short hike so that I won’t miss any stunning scenery or pivotal encounters with nature, even though blisters develop on my feet and my city legs cramp, not used to walking up and down mountains all day. Without darkness I’d probably keep hiking until I fell asleep on the trail, waking up to find a coyote sitting next to me, watching with curiosity. Tonight’s no different as I stiffly get up from my tree, and with a slight limp, join the line of weary, happy people trudging back across the meadow to camp.”

And I could very well type the last paragraph but I won’t. It’s amazing.

The writing is rich and lush, reflecting the author’s depth as a writer and his ability to convey in detail what he relishes most--nature.

- Kirsten Holmstedt


Mark’s nature blog: mountainsoflight.blogspot.com


© Copyright 2011-23 by Mark Liebenow. All rights reserved.