The Life and Letters of John Muir
by William Frederic Badè
John Muir 1890
On Widening Currents
The ten months' interval of Muir's Oakland sojourn made a complete
break in his accustomed activities. It was a storm and stress period to
which he refers afterward as "the strange Oakland epoch," and we are left
to infer that the strangeness consisted chiefly in the fact that he was
housebound--by his own choice, to be sure, but nevertheless shut away from
the free life of the mountains. It is not surprising, perhaps, that this
period is marked by an almost complete stoppage of his correspondence,
though he never was more continuously busy with his pen than during these
Easily the foremost literary journal of the Pacific Coast at that time
was the "Overland Monthly." It had been founded in 1868, and Bret Harte
was the man to whom it owed both its beginning and the fame it achieved
under his editorship. The magazine, however, was not a profit-yielding
enterprise, for John H. Carmany, its owner, professed to have lost thirty
thousand dollars in his endeavor to make it pay. In a sheaf of reminiscences
written years afterward, he reveals the double reason why the magazine
proved expensive and why so many distinguished names, such as those of
Mark Twain, Joaquin Miller, Ambrose Bierce, Edward Rowland Sill, Bret Harte,
and John Muir, appear on its roll of contributors. "They have reason to
remember me," he wrote, "for never have such prices been paid for poems,
stories, and articles as I paid to the writers of the old 'Overland.'"
Bret Harte, balking at a contract designed to correct his dilatory literary
habits, left the magazine in 1871, and, after several unsatisfactory attempts
to supply his place, Benjamin P. Avery became editor of the "Overland."
In March, 1874, he wrote a letter acknowledging the first number of
Muir's notable series of "Studies in the Sierra," thereby disclosing what
the latter had been doing during the winter months. "I am delighted," he
tells Muir, "with your very original and clearly written paper on 'Mountain
Sculpture' which reveals the law beneath the beauty of mountain and rock
forms." This article, accompanied by numerous illustrative line drawings,
appeared as the leading contribution in May and was followed in monthly
succession by six others, in the order given in an earlier chapter
[Vol. I, [Chapter 9,]
Not many weeks after the receipt of this initial article, Mr. Avery
accepted an appointment as Minister to China. "Not ambition for honors,"
he wrote to Muir, "but the compulsion of broken health made me risk a foreign
appointment, and I especially regret that the opportunity to
share in the publication of your valuable papers, and to know you most
intimately, is to be lost to me." To the deep regret of his friends, Avery
died in China the following year. Mr. Carmany, despairing of the "Overland"
as a financial venture, let it come to an end in 1875, and Muir, when his
current engagements were discharged, formed new literary connections.
There can be no doubt that during the closing years of the magazine,
1874-75, Muir's articles constituted by far the most significant contribution.
It was in good measure due to Mrs. Carr that he was finally induced to
write this series of "Sierra Studies." She had even suggested suspension
of correspondence in order to enable him to accomplish the task.
"You told me I ought to abandon letter writing," he wrote to her on
Christmas day, 1872, and I see plainly enough that you are right in this,
because my correspondence has gone on increasing year by year and has become
far too bulky and miscellaneous in its character, and consumes too much
of my time. Therefore I mean to take your advice and allow broad acres
of silence to spread between my letters, however much of self-denial may
In the same letter, which a strange combination of circumstances has
just brought to light again after fifty-two years, he expresses pungently
that distaste for the mechanics of writing which undoubtedly accounts in
part for the relative smallness of his formal literary output.
Book-making frightens me [he declares], because it demands
so much artificialness and retrograding. Somehow, up here in these fountain
skies [of Yosemite] I feel like a flake of glass through which light passes,
but which, conscious of the inexhaustibleness of its sun fountain, cares
not whether its passing light coins itself into other forms or goes unchanged--neither
charcoaled nor diamonded! Moreover, I find that though I have a few thoughts
entangled in the fibres of my mind, I possess no words into which I can
shape them. You tell me that I must be patient and reach out and grope
in lexicon granaries for the words I want. But if some loquacious angel
were to touch my lips with literary fire, bestowing every word of Webster,
I would scarce thank him for the gift, because most of the words of the
English language are made of mud, for muddy purposes, while those invented
to contain spiritual matter are doubtful and unfixed in capacity and form,
as wind-ridden mist-rags.
These mountain fires that glow in one's blood are free to all, but I
cannot find the chemistry that may press them unimpaired into booksellers'
bricks. True, with that august instrument, the English language, in the
manufacture of which so many brains have been broken, I can proclaim to
you that moonshine shine is glorious, and sunshine more glorious, that
winds rage, and waters roar, and that in 'terrible times' glaciers guttered
the mountains with their hard cold snouts. This is about the limit of what
I feel capable of doing for the public--the moiling, squirming, fog-breathing
public. But for my few friends I can do more because they already know
the mountain harmonies and can catch the tones I gather for them, though
written in a few harsh and gravelly sentences.
There was another aspect of writing that Muir found irksome and that was
its solitariness. Being a fluent and vivid conversationalist, accustomed
to the excitation of eager hearers, he missed the give-and-take of conservation
when he sat down with no company but that of his pen. Even the writing
of a letter to a friend had something of the conversational about it. But
to write between four walls for the "Babylonish mobs" that hived past his
window was another matter. Fresh from Cassiope, the heather of the High
Sierra, aglow with enthusiasm for the beauty that had burned itself into
his soul, he could but wonder and grow indignant at the stolid self-sufficiency
of "the metallic, money-clinking crowds," among whom he felt himself as
alien as any Hebrew psalmist or prophet by the waters of Babylon.
It is not to be wondered at, therefore, that this first sojourn in the
San Francisco Bay region was for Muir a kind of exile under which he evidently
chafed a good deal. His human environment was so unblushingly materialistic
that, in spite of a few sympathetic friends, it seemed to him well-nigh
impossible to obtain a hearing on behalf of Nature from any other standpoint
than that of commercial utility. On this point he differed trenchantly
with his contemporaries and doubtless engaged in a good many arguments,
for his frankness and downright sincerity did not permit him to compromise
the supremacy of values which by his own standard far exceeded those of
commercialism. It is by reference to such verbal passages of arms that
we must explain his allusion, in the following letter, to "all the morbidness
that has been hooted at me."
The issue was one which, in his own mind, he had settled fundamentally
on his thousand-mile walk to the Gulf, but which challenged him again
at every street corner in Oakland, and he was not the man to retire from
combat in such a cause. He was, in fact, an eager and formidable opponent.
"No one who did not know Muir in those days," remarked one of his old friends
to me, "can have any conception of Muir's brilliance as a conversational
antagonist in an argument." The world made especially for the uses of man?
"Certainly not," said Muir. "No dogma taught by the present civilization
forms so insuperable an obstacle to a right understanding of the relations
which human culture sustains to wildness. Every animal, plant, and crystal
controverts it in the plainest terms. Yet it is taught from century to
century as something ever new and precious, and in the resulting darkness
the enormous conceit is allowed to go unchallenged!"
Though grilling in his very blood over this huckster appraisement of
Nature, Muir labored hard and continuously with his pen throughout the
winter and the following spring and summer. When autumn came he had completed
not only his seven "Studies in the Sierra," but had also written a paper
entitled "Studies in the Formation of Mountains in the Sierra Nevada" for
the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and articles
on "Wild Sheep of California" and "Byways of Yosemite Travel." About this
time his health had begun to suffer from excessive confinement and irregular
regular diet at restaurants, so, yielding with sudden resolution to an
overpowering longing for the mountains, he set out again for Yosemite.
The following letter in which his correspondence with Mrs. Carr reaches
its highest level and, in a sense, its conclusion, celebrates his escape
from an uncongenial environment.
To Mrs. Ezra S. Carr
Yosemite Valley, [September, 1874]
Dear Mrs. Carr:
Here again are pine trees, and the wind, and living rock and water!
I've met two of my ouzels on one of the pebble ripples of the river where
I used to be with them. Most of the meadow gardens are disenchanted and
dead, yet I found a few mint spikes and asters and brave, sunful goldenrods
and a patch of the tiny Mimulus that has two spots on each lip. The fragrance
and the color and the form, and the whole spiritual expression of goldenrods
are hopeful and strength-giving beyond any other flowers that I know. A
single spike is sufficient to heal unbelief and melancholy.
On leaving Oakland I was so excited over my escape that, of course,
I forgot and left all the accounts I was to collect. No wonder, and no
matter. I'm beneath that grand old pine that I have heard so often in storms
both at night and in the day. It sings grandly now, every needle sun-thrilled
and shining and responding tunefully to the azure wind.
When I left I was in a dreamy exhausted daze. Yet from mere habit or
instinct I tried to observe and study. From the car window I watched the
gradual transitions from muddy water, spongy tule, marsh and level field
as we shot up the San Jose Valley, and marked as best I could the forms
of the stream cañons as they opened to the plain and the outlines
of the undulating hillocks and headlands between. Interest increased at
every mile, until it seemed unbearable to be thrust so flyingly onward
even towards the blessed Sierras. I will study them yet, free from time
and wheels. When we turned suddenly and dashed into the narrow mouth of
the Livermore pass I was looking out of the right side of the car. The
window was closed on account of the cinders and smoke from the locomotive.
All at once my eyes clasped a big hard rock not a hundred yards away, every
line of which is as strictly and outspokenly glacial as any of the most
alphabetic of the high and young Sierra. That one sure glacial word thrilled
and overjoyed me more than you will ever believe. Town smokes and shadows
had not dimmed my vision, for I had passed this glacial rock twice before
without reading its meaning,
As we proceeded, the general glacialness of the range became more and
more apparent, until we reached Pleasanton where once there was a grand
Here the red sun went down in a cloudless glow and I leaned
back, happy and weary and possessed with a lifeful of noble problems.
At Lathrop we suppered and changed cars. The last of the daylight had
long faded and I sauntered away from the din while the baggage was being
transferred. The young moon hung like a sickle above the shorn wheat fields,
Ursa Major pictured the northern sky, the Milky Way curved sublimely through
the broadcast stars like some grand celestial moraine with planets for
boulders, and the whole night shone resplendent, adorned with that calm
imperishable beauty which it has worn unchanged from the beginning.
I slept at Turlock and next morning faced the Sierra and set out through
the sand afoot. The freedom I felt was exhilarating, and the burning heat
and thirst and faintness could not make it less. Before I had walked ten
miles I was wearied and footsore, but it was real earnest work and I liked
it. Any kind of simple natural destruction is preferable to the numb, dumb,
apathetic deaths of a town.
Before I was out of sight of Turlock I found a handful of the glorious
virgata and a few of the patient, steadfast eriogonums that I learned
to love around the slopes of Twenty-Hill Hollow. While I stood with these
old dear friends we were joined by a lark, and in a few seconds more Harry
[For the meaning of this allusion see vol. I,
came flapping by with spotted wings. Just think of the completeness
of that reunion!--Twenty-Hill Hollow, low, Hemizonia, Eriogonum, Lark,
Butterfly, and I, and lavish outflows of genuine Twenty-Hill Hill Hollow
sun gold. I threw down my coat and one shirt in the sand, forgetting Hopeton
and heedless that the sun was becoming hotter every minute. I was wild
once more and let my watch warn and point as it pleased.
Heavy wagon loads of wheat had been hauled along the road and the wheels
had sunk deep and left smooth beveled furrows in the sand. Upon the smooth
slopes of these sand furrows I soon observed a most beautiful and varied
embroidery, evidently tracks of some kind. At first I thought of mice,
but soon saw they were too light and delicate for mice. Then a tiny lizard
darted into the stubble ahead of me, and I carefully examined the track
he made, but it was entirely unlike the fine print embroidery I was studying.
However I knew that he might make very different tracks if walking leisurely.
Therefore I determined to catch one and experiment. I found out in Florida
that lizards, however swift, are short-winded, so I gave chase and soon
captured a tiny gray fellow and carried him to a smooth sand-bed where
he could embroider without getting away into grass tufts or holes. He was
so wearied that he couldn't skim and was compelled to walk, and I was excited
with delight in seeing an exquisitely beautiful strip of embroidery about
five-eighths of an inch wide, drawn out in flowing curves behind him as
from a loom. The riddle was solved. I knew that mountain boulders moved
in music; so also do lizards, and their written music, printed by their
feet, moved so swiftly as to be invisible, covers the hot sands with beauty
wherever they go.
But my sand embroidery lesson was by no means done. I speedily discovered
a yet more delicate pattern on the sands, woven into that of the lizard.
I examined the strange combination of bars and dots. No five-toed lizard
had printed that music, I watched narrowly down on my knees, following
the strange and beautiful pattern along the wheel furrows and out into
the stubble. Occasionally the pattern would suddenly end in a shallow
pit half an inch across and an eighth of an inch deep. I was fairly puzzled,
picked up my bundle, and trudged discontentedly away, but my eyes were
hungrily awake and I watched all the ground. At length a gray grasshopper
rattled and flew up, and the truth flashed upon me that he was the complementary
embroiderer of the lizard. Then followed long careful observation, but
I never could see the grasshopper until he jumped, and after he alighted
he invariably stood watching me with his legs set ready for another jump
in case of danger. Nevertheless I soon, made sure that he was my man, for
I found that in jumping he made the shallow pits I had observed at the
termination of the pattern I was studying. But no matter how patiently
I waited he wouldn't walk while I was sufficiently near to observe. They
are so nearly the color of the sand. I therefore caught one and lifted
his wing covers and cut off about half of each wing with my penknife, and
carried him to a favorable place on the sand. At first he did nothing but
jump and make dimples, but soon became weary and walked in common
rhythm with all his six legs, and my interest you may guess while I watched
the embroidery--the written music laid down in a beautiful ribbon-like
strip behind. I glowed with wild joy as if I had found a new glacier--copied
specimens of the precious fabric into my notebook, and strode away with
my own feet sinking with a dull craunch, craunch, craunch in the hot gray
sand, glad to believe that the dark and cloudy vicissitudes of the Oakland
period had not dimmed my vision in the least. Surely Mother Nature pitied
the poor boy and showed him pictures.
Happen what would , fever, thirst, or sunstroke, stroke, my joy for
that day was complete, Yet I was to receive still more. A train of curving
tracks with a line in the middle next fixed my attention, and almost before
I had time to make a guess concerning their author, a small hawk came shooting
down vertically out of the sky a few steps ahead of me and picked up something
in his talons. After rising thirty or forty feet overhead, he dropped it
by the roadside as if to show me what it was. I ran forward and found a
little bunchy field mouse and at once suspected him of being embroiderer
number three. After an exciting chase through stubble heaps and weed thickets
I wearied and captured him without being bitten and turned him free to
make his mark in a favorable sand bed. He also embroidered better than
he knew, and at once claimed the authorship of the new track work.
I soon learned to distinguish the pretty sparrow track from that of
the magpie and lark with their three delicate branches and the straight
scratch behind made by the backcurving curving claw, dragged loosely like
a spur of a Mexican vaquero. The cushioned elastic feet of the hare frequently
were seen mixed with the pattering scratchy prints of the squirrels. I
was now wholly trackful. I fancied I could see the air whirling in dimpled
eddies from sparrow and lark wings. Earthquake boulders descending in a
song of curves, snowflakes glinting songfully hither and thither." The
water in music the oar forsakes." The air in music the oar forsakes. All
things move in music and write it. The mouse, lizard, and grasshopper sing
together on the Turlock sands, sing with the morning stars.
Scarce had I begun to catch the eternal harmonies of Nature when I heard
the hearty god-damning din of the mule driver, dust whirled in the
sun gold, and I could see the sweltering mules leaning forward, dragging
the heavily piled wheat wagons, deep sunk in the sand. My embroidery perished
by the mile, but grasshoppers never wearied nor the gray lizards nor the
larks, and the coarse confusion of man was speedily healed.
About noon I found a family of grangers feeding, and remembering your
admonitions anent my health requested leave to join them. My head ached
with fever and sunshine, and I couldn't dare the ancient brown bacon, nor
the beans and cakes, but water and splendid buttermilk came in perfect
affinity, and made me strong.
Towards evening, after passing through miles of blooming Hemizonia,
I reached Hopeton on the edge of the oak fringe of the Merced. Here
all were yellow and woebegone with malarious fever. I rested one day, spending
the time in examining the remarkably flat water eroded valley of the Merced
and the geological sections which it offers. In going across to the river
I had a suggestive time breaking my way through tangles of blackberry and
brier-rose and willow. I admire delicate plants that are well prickled
and therefore took my scratched face and hands patiently. I bathed in the
sacred stream, seeming to catch all its mountain tones while it softly
mumbled and rippled over the shallows of brown pebbles. The whole river
back to its icy sources seemed to rise in clear vision, with its countless
cascades and falls and blooming meadows and gardens. Its pine groves, too,
and the winds that play them, all appeared and sounded.
In the cool of the evening I caught Browny and cantered across to the
Tuolumne, the whole way being fragrant and golden with Hemizonia. A breeze
swept in from your Golden Gate regions over the passes and across the plains,
fanning the hot ground and drooping plants and refreshing every beast and
tired and weary, plodding man.
It was dark ere I reached my old friend Delaney, but was instantly recognized
by my voice, and welcomed in the old good uncivilized way, not to be misunderstood.
All the region adjacent to the Tuolumne River where it sweeps out into
the plain after its long eventful journey in the mountains,
is exceedingly picturesque.
Round terraced hills, brown and yellow with grasses and compositae
and adorned with open groves of darkly foilaged live oak are grouped in
a most open tranquil manner and laid upon a smooth level base of purple
plain, while the river bank is lined with nooks of great beauty and variety
in which the river has swept and curled, shifting from side to side, retreating
and returning as determined by floods and the gradual erosion and removal
of drift beds formerly laid down. A few miles above here at the village
of La Grange the wild river has made some astonishing deposits in its young
days, through which it now flows with the manners of stately old age, apparently
disclaiming claiming all knowledge of them. But a thousand, thousand boulders
gathered from many a moraine, smashed and ground in pot-holes, record their
history and tell of white floods of a grandeur not easily conceived. Noble
sections nearly a hundred feet deep are laid bare, like a book, by the
mining company. Water is drawn from the river several miles above and conducted
by ditches and pipes and made to play upon these deposits for the gold
they contain. Thus the Tuolumne of to-day is compelled to unravel and lay
bare its own ancient history which is a thousandfold more important than
the handfuls of gold sand it chances to contain.
I mean to return to these magnificent records in a week or two and turn
the gold disease of the La Grangers to account in learning the grand old
story of the Sierra flood period. If these hundred laborious hydraulickers
were under my employ they could not do me better service, and all along
the Sierra flank thousands of strong arms are working for me, incited by
the small golden bait. Who shall say that I am not rich?
Up through the purple foothills to Coulterville, where I met many hearty,
shaggy mountaineers glad to see me. Strange to say the "Overland" studies
have been read and discussed in the most unlikely places. Some numbers
have found their way through the Bloody Cañon pass to Mono.
In the evening Black and I rode together up into the sugar pine forests
and on to his old ranch in the moonlight. The grand priest-like pines held
their arms above us in blessing. The wind sang songs of welcome. The cool
glaciers and the running crystal fountains were in it. I was no longer
but in the mountains--home again, and my pulses were filled. On
and on in white moonlight-spangles on the streams, shadows in rock hollows
and briery ravines, tree architecture on the sky more divine than ever
stars in their spires, leafy mosaic in meadow and bank. Never had the Sierra
seemed so inexhaustible--mile on mile onward in the forest through
groves old and young, pine tassels overarching and brushing both cheeks
at once. The chirping of crickets only deepened the stillness.
About eight o'clock a strange mass of tones came surging and waving
through the pines. "That's the death song," said Black, as he reined up
his horse to listen. "Some Indian is dead." Soon two glaring watch-fires
shone red through the forest, marking the place of congregation. The fire
glare and the wild wailing came with indescribable impressiveness through
the still dark woods. I listened eagerly as the weird curves of woe swelled
and cadenced, now rising steep like glacial precipices, now swooping low
in polished slopes. Falling boulders and rushing streams and wind tones
caught from rock and tree were in it. As we at length rode away and the
heaviest notes were lost in distance, I wondered that so much of mountain
nature should well out from such a source. Miles away we met Indian groups
slipping through the shadows on their way to join the death wail.
Farther on, a harsh grunting and growling seemed to come from the opposite
bank of a hazelly brook along which we rode. "What? Hush! That's a bear,"
ejaculated Black in a gruff bearish undertone. "Yes," said [I], "some rough
old bruin is sauntering this fine night, seeking some wayside sheep lost
from migrating flocks." Of course all nightsounds otherwise unaccountable
are accredited to bears. On ascending a sloping hillock less than a mile
from the first we heard another grunting bear, but whether or no daylight
would trans. form our bears to pigs may well be counted into the story.
Past Bower Cave and along a narrow winding trail in deep shadow--so
dark, had to throw the reins on Browny's neck and trust to his skill, for
I could not see the ground and the hillside was steep. A fine, bright tributary
of the Merced sang far beneath us as we climbed higher, higher through
the hazels and dogwoods that fringed the rough black boles of spruces and
pines. We were now nearing the old camping ground of the Pilot Peak region
where I learned to know the large nodding lilies (L. pardalinum) so
abundant along these streams, and the groups of alder-shaded cataracts
so characteristic of the North Merced Fork. Moonlight whitened all the
long fluted slopes of the opposite bank, but we rode in continuous shadow.
The rush and gurgle and prolonged Aaaaaah of the stream coming up,
sifting into the wind, was very solemnly impressive. It was here that you
first seemed to join me. I reached up as Browny carried me underneath a
big Douglas spruce and plucked one of its long plumy sprays, which brought
you from the Oakland dead in a moment. You are more spruce than pine, though
I never definitely knew it till now.
Miles and miles of tree scripture along the sky, a bible that will one
day be read! The beauty of its letters and sentences have burned me like
fire through all these Sierra seasons. Yet I cannot interpret their hidden
thoughts. They are terrestrial expressions of the sun, pure as water and
snow. Heavens! listen to the wind song! I'm still writing beneath that
grand old pine in Black's yard and that other companion, scarcely less
noble, back of which I sheltered during the earthquake, is just a few yards
beyond. The shadows of their boles lie like charred logs on the gray sand,
while half the yard is embroidered with their branches and leaves. There
goes a woodpecker with an acorn to drive into its thick bark for winter,
and well it may gather its stores, for I can myself detect winter in the
Few nights of my mountain life have been more eventful than that of
my ride in the woods from Coulterville, where I made my reunion with the
winds and pines. It was eleven o'clock when we reached Black's ranch. I
was weary and soon died in sleep. How cool and vital and recreative was
the hale young mountain air. On higher, higher up into the holy of holies
of the woods! Pure white lustrous clouds overshadowed the massive congregations
of silver fir and pine. We entered, and a thousand living arms were waved
in solemn blessing. An infinity of mountain life. How complete is the absorption
of one's life into the spirit of mountain woods. No one can love or hate
an enemy here, for no one can conceive of such a creature as an enemy.
Nor can one have any distinctive love of friends. The dearest and best
of you all seemed of no special account, mere trifles.
Hazel Green water, famous among mountaineers, distilled from the pores
of an ancient moraine, spiced and toned in a maze of fragrant roots, winter
nor summer warm or cool it! Shadows over shadows keep its fountains ever
cool. Moss and felted leaves guard from spring and autumn frosts, while
a woolly robe of snow protects from the intenser cold of winter. Bears,
deer, birds, and Indians love the water and nuts of Hazel Green alike,
while the pine squirrel reigns supreme and haunts its incomparable groves
like a spirit. Here a grand old glacier swept over from the Tuolumne ice
fountains into the basin of the Merced, leaving the Hazel Green moraine
for the food of her coming trees and fountains of her predestined waters.
Along the Merced divide to the ancient glacial lake-bowl of Crane's
Flat, was ever fir or pine more perfect? What groves! What combinations
of green and silver gray and glowing white of glinting sunbeams. Where
is leaf or limb awanting, and is this the upshot of the so-called "mountain
glooms" and mountain storms? If so, is Sierra forestry aught beside an
outflow of Divine Love? These round-bottomed grooves sweeping across the
divide, and down whose sides our horses canter with accelerated speed,
are the pathways of ancient ice-currents, and it is just where these crushing
glaciers have borne down most heavily that the greatest loveliness of grove
and forest appears.
A deep cañon on filled with blue air now comes in view on the
right. That is the valley of the Merced, and the highest rocks visible
through the trees belong to the Yosemite Valley. More miles of glorious
forest, then out into free light and down, down, down into the groves and
meadows of Yosemite. Sierra sculpture in its entirety without the same
study on the spot, No one of the rocks seems to call me now, nor any of
the distant mountains. Surely this Merced and Tuolumne chapter of my life
I have been out on the river bank with your letters. How good and wise
they seem to be! You wrote better than you knew. Altogether they form a
precious volume whose sentences are more intimately connected with my mountain
work than any one will ever be able to appreciate. An ouzel came as I sat
reading, alighting in the water with a delicate and graceful glint on
his bosom. How pure is the morning light on the great gray wall, and
how marvelous the subdued lights of the moon! The nights are wholly enchanting.
I will not try [to] tell the Valley. Yet I feel that I am a stranger
here. I have been gathering you a handful of leaves. Show them to dear
Keith and give some to Mrs. McChesney. They are probably the last of Yosemite
that I will ever give you. I will go out in a day or so. Farewell! I seem
to be more really leaving you here than there. Keep these long pages, for
they are a kind of memorandum of my walk after the strange Oakland epoch,
and I may want to copy some of them when I have leisure.
Remember me to my friends. I trust you are not now so sorely overladen.
Good-night. Keep the goldenrod and yarrow. They are auld lang syne.
Ever lovingly yours
To take leave of Yosemite was harder than he anticipated. Days grew into
weeks as in leisurely succession he visited his favorite haunts--places
to which during the preceding summer he had taken on a camping trip
vol. I, p. 322.]
a group of his closest friends, including Emily
Pelton and Mrs. Carr. It was on this outing that bears raided the provisions
cached by the party during an excursion into the Tuolumne Cañon
and Muir saved his companions from hardship by fetching a new supply of
food from Yosemite, making the arduous trip of forty miles without pause
and in an amazingly short time.
Yosemite Valley, October 7th, 1874
Dear Mrs. Carr:
I expected to have been among the foothill drift long ago, but the
mountains fairly seized me, and ere I knew I was up the Merced Cañon
where we were last year, past Shadow and Merced Lakes and our Soda Springs.
I returned turned last night. Had a glorious storm, and a thousand sacred
beauties that seemed yet more and more divine. I camped four nights at
Shadow Lake [Now called Merced Lake.]
at the old place
in the pine thicket. I have ouzel tales to tell. I was alone and during
the whole excursion, or period rather, was in a kind of calm incurable
ecstasy. I am hopelessly and forever a mountaineer.
How glorious my studies seem, and how simple. I found out a noble truth
concerning the Merced moraines that escaped me hitherto. Civilization and
fever and all the morbidness that has been hooted at me have not dimmed
my glacial eye, and I care to live only to entice people to look at Nature's
loveliness. My own special self is nothing. My feet have recovered their
cunning. I feel myself again.
Tell Keith the colors are coming to the groves. I leave Yosemite for
over the mountains to Mono and Lake Tahoe. Will be in Tahoe in a week,
thence anywhere Shastaward, etc. I think I may be at Brownsville, Yuba
County, where I may get a letter from you. I promised to call on Emily
Pelton there. Mrs. Black has fairly mothered me. She will be down in a
few weeks. Farewell.
Having worked the Yosemite problem out of his blood he was faced with the
question of the next step in his career. Apparently while debating with
others the character of the relation which Nature should sustain to man
he had found his calling, one in which his glacial studies in Yosemite
formed only an incident, though a large one. Hereafter his supreme purpose
in life must be "to entice people to look at Nature's loveliness"--understandingly,
In the seventies, before lumber companies, fires, and the fumes from
copper smelters had laid a blight upon the Shasta landscapes, the environs
of the great mountain were a veritable garden of the Lord. Its famous mineral
springs and abundant fish and game, no less than its snowy grandeur, attracted
a steady stream of visitors. Clarence King had discovered glaciers on its
flanks and many parts of the mountain were still imperfectly explored.
The year was waning into late October when Muir, seeking new treasuries
of Nature's loveliness, turned his face Shastaward.
In going to Mount Shasta, Muir walked along the main Oregon and California
stage-road from Redding to Sisson's. Unable to find any one willing to
make the ascent of the mountain with him so late in the season, he secured
the aid of Jerome Fay, a local resident, to take blankets and a week's
supply of food as far as a pack-horse could break through the snow, Selecting
a sheltered spot for a camp in the upper edge of the timber belt, he made
his adventurous ascent alone from there on the 2d of November, and returned
to his camp before dark. Realizing that a storm was brewing, he hastily
made a "storm-nest" and snugged himself in with firewood to enjoy the novel
sensation of a Shasta storm at an altitude of nine thousand feet, the elements
broke loose violently the next morning, and continued for nearly a week,
while Muir, his trusty notebook in hand, watched the deposition of snow
upon the trees, studied the individual crystals with a lens, observed a
squirrel finding her stores under the drifts, and made friends with wild
sheep that sought shelter near his camp. He was much disappointed when
Mr. Sisson, concerned for his safety, sent two horses through the blinding
snowstorm and brought him down on the fifth day from the timber-line to
his house. The following letter was written just before he began the first
stage of the ascent.
To Mrs. Ezra S. Carr
Sisson's Station, November 1st, 1874
Dear Mrs. Carr:
Here is icy Shasta fifteen miles away, yet at the very door. It is
all close-wrapt in clean young snow down to the very base--one mass of
white from the dense black forest-girdle at an elevation of five or six
thousand feet to the very summit. The extent of its individuality is perfectly
wonderful. When I first caught sight of it over the braided folds of the
Sacramento Valley I was fifty miles away and afoot, alone and weary. Yet
all my blood turned to wine, and I have not been weary since.
Stone was to have accompanied me, but has failed of course. The last
storm was severe and all the mountaineers shake their heads and say impossible,
etc., but you know that I will meet all its icy snows lovingly.
I set out in a few minutes for the edge of the timber-line. Then upwards,
if unstormy, in the early morning. If the snow proves to be mealy and loose
it is barely possible that I may be unable to urge my way through so many
upward miles, as there is no intermediate camping ground. Yet I am feverless
and strong now, and can spend two days with their intermediate night in
one deliberate unstrained effort.
I am the more eager to ascend to study the mechanical conditions of
the fresh snow at so great an elevation; also to obtain clear views of
the comparative quantities of lava denudation northward and southward;
also general views of the channels of the ancient Shasta glaciers, and
many other lesser problems besides--the fountains of the rivers here, and
the living glaciers. I would like to remain a week or two, and may have
to return next year in summer.
I wrote a short letter
["Salmon Breeding on the McCloud
River," San Francisco Evening Bulletin, Oct. 29, 1874.]
few days ago which was printed in the Evening Bulletin, and I suppose you
have seen it. I wonder how you all are faring in your wildernesses, educational,
departmental, institutional, etc. Write me a line here in care of Sisson.
I think it will reach me on my return from icy Shasta. Love to all--Keith
and the boys and the McChesneys. Don't forward any letters from the Oakland
office. I want only mountains until my return to civilization. Farewell.
Ever cordially yours
One of Muir's endearing traits was his genuine fondness for children, who
rewarded his sympathy with touching confidence and devotion. The following
letter, written to his admiring little chum [See vol.
I, p. 372.]
in the McChesney household, sheds additional light upon
his Shasta rambles and the mood, so different from mere adventure-seeking,
in which he went questing for knowledge of Nature.
To Alice McChesney
My Dear Highland Lassie Alice:
Foot of Mount Shasta
November 8th, 1874
It is a stormy day here at the foot of the big snowy Shasta and so
I am in Sisson's house where it is cozy and warm. There are four lassies
here--one is bonnie, one is bonnier, and one is far bonniest, but I don't
know them yet and I am a little lonesome and wish Alice McChesney were
here. I can never help thinking that you were a little unkind in sending
me off to the mountains without a kiss and you must make that up when I
I was up on the top of Mount Shasta, and it is very high and all deep-buried
in snow, and I am tired with the hard climbing and wading and wallowing.
When I was coming up here on purpose to climb Mount Shasta people would
often say to me, "Where are you going?" and I would say, "To Shasta," and
they would say, "Shasta City?" and I would say, "Oh, no, I mean Mount
Then they would laugh and say, "Mount Shasta!! Why man, you can't
go on Mount Shasta now. You're two months too late. The snow is
ten feet deep on it, and you would be all buried up in the snow, and freeze
to death." And then I would say, "But I like snow, and I like frost and
ice, and I'm used to climbing and wallowing in it." And they would say,
"Oh, that's all right enough to talk about or sing about, but I'm a mountaineer
myself, and know all about that Shasta Butte and you just can't go noway
and nohow." But I did go, because I loved snow and mountains better than
they did. Some places I had to creep, and some places to slide, and some
places to scramble, but most places I had to climb, climb, climb deep in
the frosty snow.
I started at half-past two in the morning, all alone, and it stormed
wildly and beautifully before I got back here and they thought that poor,
crazy mountain climber must be frozen solid and lost below the drifts,
but I found a place at the foot of a low bunch of trees and made a hollow
and gathered wood and built a cheery fire and soon was warm; and though
the wind and the snow swept wildly past, I was snug-bug-rug, and in three
days I came down here. But I liked the storm and wanted to stay longer.
The weather is stormy yet, and most of the robins are getting ready
to go away to a warmer place, and so they are gathering into big flocks.
I saw them getting their breakfast this morning on cherries. Some hunters
are here and so we get plenty of wild venison to eat, and they killed two
bears and nailed their skins on the side of the barn to dry. There are
lots of both bears and deer on Shasta, and three kinds of squirrels.
Shasta snowflakes are very beautiful, and I saw them finely under my
magnifying glass, Here are some bonnie Crataegus leaves I gathered for
you. Fare ye well, my lassie. I'm going to-morrow with some hunters to
see if I can find out something more about bears or wild sheep.
Give my love to your mother and father and Carrie, and tell your mother
to keep my letters until I come back, for I don't want to know anything
just now except mountains. But I want your papa to write to me, for I will
be up here, hanging about the snowy skirts of Shasta, for one or two or
It is a dark, wild night, and the Shasta squirrels are curled up cozily
in their nests, and the grouse have feather pantlets on and are all roosting
under the broad, shaggy branches of the fir trees. Good-night, my lassie,
and may you nest well and sleep well--as the Shasta squirrels and grouse.
During the following weeks he circled the base of the mountain, visited
the Black Butte and the foot of the Whitney Glacier, as well as Rhett and
Klamath lakes, and gathered into his notebook a rich harvest of observations
to be made into magazine articles later. Some of the material, however,
he utilized at once in a series of letters to the "Evening Bulletin" of
In explanation of various allusions In some of the following letters
to Mrs. Carr, it should be added that she and her husband had in view,
and later acquired, a tract of land in what was then the outskirts of Pasadena.
Both had been very active in organizing the farmers of California into
a State Grange in 1873. Two years later Dr. Carr was elected State Superintendent
of Public Instruction, and during his incumbency Mrs. Carr served as deputy
Superintendent, discharging most of the routine work of the office in Sacramento,
besides lecturing before granges and teachers' institutes throughout the
State. There were many quarreling political factions in California, and
the Grangers' movement and the Department of Public Instruction were never
far from the center of the political storms.
To Mrs. Ezra S. Carr
Sisson's Station, December 9th, 1874
Dear Mrs. Carr:
Coming in for a sleep and rest I was glad to receive your card. I seem
to be more than married to icy Shasta. One yellow, mellow morning six days
ago, when Shasta's snows were looming and blooming, I stepped outside the
door to gaze, and was instantly drawn up over the meadows, over the forests
to the main Shasta glacier in one rushing, cometic whiz, then, swooping
to Shasta Valley, whirled off around the base like a satellite of the grand
icy sun. I have just completed my first revolution. Length of orbit, one
hundred miles; time, one Shasta day.
For two days and a half I had nothing in the way of food, yet suffered
nothing, and was finely nerved for the most delicate work of mountaineering,
both among crevasses and lava cliffs. Now I am sleeping and eating.
I found some geological facts that are perfectly glorious, and botanical
I wish I could make the public be kind to Keith and his paint.
And so you contemplate vines and oranges among the warm California angels!
I wish you would all go a-granging among oranges and bananas and all such
blazing red-hot fruits, for you are a species of Hindoo sun fruit yourself.
For me, I like better the huckleberries of cool glacial bogs, and acid
currants, and benevolent, rosy, beaming apples, and common Indian summer
pumpkins. I wish you could see the holy morning alpen-glow of Shasta.
Farewell. I'll be down into gray Oakland some time. I am glad you are
essentially independent of those commonplace plotters that have so marred
your peace. Eat oranges and hear the larks and wait on the sun.
To Mrs. Ezra S. Carr
Sisson's Station, December 21st, 1874
Dear Mrs. Carr:
I have just returned from a fourth Shasta excursion, and find your
[letter] of the 17th. I wish you could have been with me on Shasta's shoulder
last eve in the sun-glow. I was over on the head-waters of the McCloud,
and what a head! Think of a spring giving rise to a river! I fairly quiver
with joyous exultation when I think of it. The infinity of Nature's glory
in rock, cloud, and water! As soon as I beheld the McCloud upon its lower
course I knew there must be something extraordinary in its alpine fountains,
and I shouted, "O where, my glorious river, do you come from?" Think of
a spring fifty yards wide at the mouth, issuing from the base of a lava
bluff with wild songs--not gloomily from a dark cavey mouth, but from a
world of ferns and mosses gold and green! I broke my way through chaparral
and all kinds of river-bank tangle in eager vigor, utterly unweariable.
The dark blue stream sang solemnly with a deep voice, pooling and boulder-dashing
in white flashing rapids, when suddenly I heard
water notes I never had heard before. They came from that mysterious spring;
and then the Elk forest, and the alpine-glow, and the sunset! Poor pen cannot
The sun this morning is at work with its blessings as if it had never
blessed before. He never wearies of revealing himself on Shasta. But in
a few hours I leave this altar and all its--Well, to my Father I say thank
you, and go willingly.
I go by stage and rail to Brownsville to see Emily [Pelton] and the
rocks there and the Yuba. Then perhaps a few days among the auriferous
drifts on the Tuolumne, and then to Oakland and that book, walking across
the Coast Range on the way, either through one of the passes or over Mount
Diablo. I feel a sort of nervous fear of another period of town dark, but
I don't want to be silly about it. The sun glow will all fade out of me,
and I will be deathly as Shasta in the dark. But mornings will come, dawnings
of some kind, and if not, I have lived more than a common eternity already.
Farewell. Don't overwork--that is not the work your Father
wants. I wish you could come a-beeing in the Shasta honey lands. Love to
the boys. [John Muir]
On one of the excursions to which he refers in the preceding letter, Muir
accompanied four hunters, three of them Scotchmen
these Scots was G. Buchanan Hepburn, of Hadingdonshire, on one of whose
letters Muir made the memorandum, "Lord Hepburn, killed in Mexico or Lower
California." Twenty years later, during his visit to Scotland, Muir was
by chance enabled to communicate the details of the man's unhappy fate
to his relatives.]
, who were in search of wild sheep. The party
went to Sheep Rock, twenty miles north of Sisson's, and from there fifty
miles farther to Mount Bremer, then one of the most noted strongholds of
wild game in the Shasta region. This expedition afforded Muir a new opportunity
to study wild sheep and his observations were charmingly utilized in the
little essay "Wild Wool," one of his last contributions to the "Overland"
in 1875, republished afterwards in "Steep Trails."
A week after writing the above letter he was at Knoxville, also known
as Brownsville, on the divide between the Yuba and Feather Rivers. lt was
a mild, but tempestuous, December, and during a gale that sprang up while
he was exploring a valley tributary to the Yuba, he climbed a Douglas spruce
in order to be able to enjoy the better the wild music of the storm. The
experience afterwards bore fruit in one of his finest descriptions--an
article entitled "A Wind Storm in the Forests of the Yuba," which appeared
in "Scribner's Monthly" in November, 1878, and later as a chapter in "The
Mountains of California." With the possible exception of his dog story,
"Stickeen," no article drew more enthusiastic comments from readers who
felt moved to write their appreciation.
From his earliest youth Muir had derived keen enjoyment from storms,
but he had never tried to give a reason for the joy that was in him. The
reaction he got from the reading public showed that they regarded his enthusiasin
for storms as admirable, but also as singular. The latter was a surprise
to Muir, who regarded all the manifestations of Nature as coming within
the range of his interest, and saw no reason why men should fear
storms. Reflecting upon the fact, he reached the conclusion that such fear
is due to a wrong attitude toward nature, to imaginary or grossly exaggerated
notions of danger, or, in short, to a "lack of faith in the Scriptures
of Nature," as, he averred, was the case with Ruskin. As for himself, a
great storm was nothing but "a cordial outpouring of Nature's love."
By what he regarded as a fortunate coincidence, he was still on the
headwaters of the Feather and the Yuba rivers on the date of the memorable
Marysville flood, January 19, 1875. A driving warm rainstorm suddenly melted
the heavy snows that filled the drainage basins of these rivers and sent
an unprecedented flood down into the lowlands, submerging many homesteads
and a good part of Marysville. One can almost sense the haste with which
he dashed off the lines of the following letter on the morning of the day
of the flood--impatient to heed the call of the storm.
To Mrs. Ezra S. Carr
Brownsville, Yuba County
My dear Mother Carr:
January 19th, 1875
Here are some of the dearest and bonniest of our Father's bairns--the
little ones that so few care to see. I never saw such enthusiasm in the
care and breeding of mosses as Nature manifests among these northern Sierras.
I have studied a big fruitful week among the cañons and ridges of
the Feather and another among the Yuba rivers, living and dead.
I have seen a dead river--a sight worth going round the world
to see. The dead rivers and dead gravels wherein lies the gold form magnificent
problems, and I feel wild and unmanageable with the intense interest
they excite, but I will choke myself off and finish my glacial work and
that little book of studies. I have been spending a few fine social days
with Emily [Pelton], but now work.
How gloriously it storms! The pines are in ecstasy, and I feel it and
must go out to them. I must borrow a big coat and mingle in the storm and
make some studies. Farewell. Love to all.
P.S. How are Ned and Keith? I wish Keith had been with me these Shasta
and Feather River days. I have gained a thousandfold more than I hoped.
Heaven send you Light and the good blessings of wildness. How the rains
plash and roar, and how the pines wave and pray!
Tradition still tells of his return to the Knox House after the storm,
dripping and bedraggled; of the pity and solicitude of his friends over
his condition, and their surprise when he in turn pitied them for having
missed "a storm of exalted beauty and riches." The account of his experience
was his final contribution to the "Overland Monthly" in June, 1875, under
the title, "A Flood-Storm in the Sierra." Nowhere has he revealed his fervid
enjoyment of storms more unreservedly than in this article
was incorporated in part only as the chapter on "The River Floods" in
Mountains of California. The omitted portions are important to a student
of Muir's personality.].
"How terribly downright," he observes,
"must be the utterances of storms and earthquakes to those accustomed to
the soft hypocrisies of society. Man's control is being extended over the
forces of nature, but it is well, at least for the present, that storms
can still make themselves heard through our thickest walls. . . . Some
were made to think."
There was a new note in his discourses, written and spoken, when he
emerged from the forests of the Yuba. Fear and utilitarianism, he was convinced,
are a crippling equipment for one who wishes to understand and appreciate
the beauty of the world about him. But meanness of soul is even worse.
Herded in cities, where the struggle for gain sweeps along with the crowd
even the exceptional individual, men rarely come in sight of their better
selves. There is more hope for those who live in the country. But instead
of listening to the earnest and varied voices of nature, the country resident,
also, is too often of the shepherd type who can only hear "baa." "Even
the howls and ki-yis of coyotes might be blessings if well heard, but he
hears them only through a blur of mutton and wool, and they do him no good."
Despite these abnormalities, Muir insisted, we must live in close contact
with nature if we are to keep fresh and clean the fountains of moral sanity.
"The world needs the woods and is beginning to come to them," he asserts
in his floodstorm article. "But it is not yet ready . . . for storms. .
. . Nevertheless the world moves onward, and 'it is coming yet, for a'
that,' that the beauty of storms will be as visible as that of calms."
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