Nature and the Human Spirit: The Transformation of Henry Loomis
by Ronald H. Limbaugh
(Reprinted from the
John Muir Newsletter
Vol. 2, No. 4, Fall 1992)
A few years ago, while working on a research project at Yale's
Sterling Memorial Library, I ran across a 90-page handwritten
journal written by Henry Bradford Loomis, son of a prominent Yale
mathematician and astronomer, an irresolute companion of John
Muir during a three-month trip to Alaska in 1890. In labored but
legible longhand, Loomis chronicled the expedition
. It is a
fascinating record. Not only does it provide a starkly
contrasting view to Muir's glowing nature prose in Travels in
, it also documents a transformation in the mind of its
author. It is a demonstrable example of what environmental
advocates have often described as the "healing power of nature"
Loomis was a young Seattle attorney whom Muir had met during
the California Scot's trip north in 1888 to climb Mount Rainier.
They agreed to meet again two years later for a joint Alaska
. Rendezvousing at Port Townsend on June 17, they
traveled by steamship to Fort Wrangel, then on to Glacier Bay,
which they reached the morning of June 23. As soon as they
unloaded their gear, Muir took a jaunt alone while Loomis stayed
in camp, trying to keep warm without a fire. The contrast
between the ship's creature comforts and the icy blast of an
Arctic storm quickly drained the lawyer's enthusiasm. He began
to have second thoughts which must have increased as he watched
the steamer sail out of the Bay, leaving him stranded for a week.
Muir returned late that afternoon, determined to camp near the
glacier, but Loomis complained about the lack of a good campsite,
with no trees or timber in sight, a "chilling wind," and "no wood
worth mentioning." "It is a wilderness of ice & rocks, and a cold,
barren & dreary place to camp - even for one interested in
science." They made a crude shelter for their provisions and
ptched a tent, but Loomis continued to grumble.
His foul mood matched the weather for the next two days.
Following breakfast the morning after they landed, they ventured
out along the glacier face--"a dangerous place," wrote Loomis.
Bad weather limited their visibility, and even Muir thought it
best to stay in camp the following day. All day they fought a
gale-force wind that nearly blew away their tent and forced them
to go to bed to keep warm. The gale slackened a bit by June 26,
and Muir was anxious to travel.
Loomis reluctantly followed but was miserable all day: "We
took a walk in drizzling rain about 1 1/2 miles up to glacier,"
he wrote. "It was dismal tramp over ice & rocks & glacial mud.
No one but an enthusiast would have taken such a walk at such a
time. Mr Muir is very deeply interested in t. subject of
glaciers -(some would say a crank) ..." After another 2-mile
walk in similar conditions they sat down to rest. Loomis" mood
was as dark as the low clouds overhead: "to me it seemed dreary &
dismal," he wrote, "But Mr. Muir evidently was not thinking of t.
rain & mud--for he said to me "Isn't this lovely"? I replied
'Well, I have seen things more lovely.'"
On July 1 the steamer returned, to Loomis' great relief.
After warming up aboard and savoring a hearty meal for lunch, his
spirits revived. On board were four more eager explorers,
including Professor Harry Fielding Reid of the Case School of
Applied Science in Cleveland. They invited Muir and Loomis to
join them for the next two weeks trekking around Glacier Bay.
Muir was delighted, and how could Loomis refuse another test of
Two more weeks ashore tempered Loomis' outlook. His journal
records not only the passage of time but also the change of mood.
By July 13 he found, to his own amazement, that the bad weather
had had no ill effects--indeed, had actually improved his health,
as Muir assured him it would:
It is remarkable that we have not caught cold--sleeping as we
have exposed in the open air, or in an airy tent, where t. wind
blows continually hard & cold--especially sence [sic] our feet
have been frequently & (for long times) wet & cold-all day and a
number of times we have been so cold that we were obliged to go
to bed to get warm. I have not had a cold since I started fr.
home (two months ago] and not a touch of catarrh - and Mr. Muir
has recovered entirely fr. a severe cold wh. he had on his lungs
when he arrived here and wh. he contracted before he left his
home in California.
Muir parted company with Loomis and the rest of the
expedition on July 21, sledding for eleven days on a hazardous
solo trek. He rejoined the party the first week of August,
resiliant and filled with adventures that Loomis enthusiastically
described in his journal
Thereafter Loomis' journal notes show a remarkable
metamorphosis. He begins to sing the glacier song. His earlier
gloom-and-doom notations give way to a Muirlike rhapsodizing.
With a box camera he returned to Muir glacier on August 5,
observing "many beautiful ice formations" and stopping to admire
the "beautiful little points of crystal ice arranged like gems along
t. edges of streams, rivulets & pools of water. They glistened
in t. sunshine like diamonds, these little ice crystals &
twinkled like stars. They assume infinite variety of fantastic
Standing in the middle of Muir Glacier Loomis saw not dreary
ice but "a glorious sight," with "a great ice-sea" surrounding
him on all sides, and with peaks "completely encircling [the]
great glacier like an amphitheatre...." In the depths below he
noticed the "solemn grinding sound of t. moulins - in contrast w.
t. sweet-toned, gentle, sound of t. little brooks flowing on t.
ice...." His final journal entry shows how completely he had
been transformed after six weeks at Glacier Bay. It concludes
with an opinion his Scottish companion would surely have seconded:
"Here is a magnificent picture of nature"s wondrous power &
Henry B. Loomis,
Alaska Journal, 1890.
HMS, 90 p.
Elias Loomis Papers, Yale University Library.
All journal quotes hereafter are from this item.
account of the same trip, see
Travels in Alaska
(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, c1915), pp. 273-293.
John of the Mountains
Edited by Linnie Marsh Wolfe
(Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979, c1938), 234.
See also Robert Marshall, "Wilderness," 163, and Roderick Nash,
"Wilderness Advocacy," 265, in
, 3rd edition,
edited by Roderick Nash (New York: McGraw-Hill, c1990).
Alaska Notes Summer of 1890, AMS (notebook) ,
pp. 18-19, in John Muir Papers, Microfilm edition, Reel 33 at 01404.
of Muir's 1890 sled trip, see
Travels in Alaska