The Life and Letters of John Muir
by William Frederic Badè
Persons and Problems
It seems impossible that any human being can ever have looked upon Yosemite
Valley without raising the question of its origin. Its physical features,
sculptured in granite, are so extraordinary that they at once stimulate
the imagination to go in quest of the efficient cause. Even the Indians
are said to have speculated about the Valley's origin in their legends,
and the first white men who entered it in 1851, and encamped on the river-bank
opposite El Capitan, immediately occupied themselves with the question
in their campfire talk. Although the gold rush began in 1849, it was not
until the beginning of the sixties that a systematic geological survey
of California was begun. Until then the state was, geologically speaking,
an unknown land. In the interest of the growing industrial importance of
mining this situation called for remedy, and in 1860 the California Legislature
passed an Act to create the office of State Geologist, and by a section
of the same Act Josiah D. Whitney was appointed to fill the office.
Whitney had the backing of the leading geologists of his day and was
a man of such prominence in his field that he was made Professor of Geology
at Harvard in 1865. He gathered around him an able staff of assistants,
among whom were William H. Brewer, Charles F. Hoffmann, and William M.
Gabb. In 1863 Clarence King, also, joined this group as volunteer assistant
in geological field-work. During the period from 1860 to 1874 Whitney conducted,
with these and other assistants, a topographical, geological, and natural
history survey of California, issuing six volumes under the title of
Survey of California (Cambridge, 1865-70). The first volume, Geology
of California, published in 1865, brought an intimation of the theory
Whitney was going to propound on the subject of Yosemite's origin. "The
domes," he wrote, "and such masses as that of Mount Broderick, we conceive
to have been formed by the process of upheaval, for we can discover nothing
about them which looks like the result of ordinary denudation. The Half
Dome seems, beyond a doubt, to have been split asunder in the middle, the
lost half having gone down in what may truly be said to have been 'the
wreck of matter and the crush of worlds."' In 1869 he published The
Yosemite Guide-Book and came to be regarded as the foremost scientific
authority on everything pertaining to Yosemite Valley. In this book he
set forth his view of the Valley's origin as follows: "We conceive that,
during the process of upheaval of the Sierra, or, possibly, at some time
after that had taken place, there was at the Yosemite a subsidence of a
limited area, marked by lines of 'fault' or fissures crossing each other
somewhat nearly at right angles. In other and more simple language, the
bottom of the Valley sank down to an unknown depth, owing to its support
being withdrawn from underneath during some of those convulsive movements
which must have attended the upheaval of so extensive and elevated a chain.
It only excites wonder now that a geologist of Professor Whitney's standing
should have propounded a theory so completely at variance with the evidence.
Indeed, members of his own corps pointed out that the floor of the Valley
was of one piece with the sides and that there was no evidence of fault
lines or of fusion. Although Clarence King had observed enough evidence
of glaciation in the Valley to venture the opinion that it had once been
filled with ice to the depth of at least a thousand feet, Whitney stoutly
asserted that "there is no reason to suppose, or at least no proof, that
glaciers have ever occupied the Valley or any portion of it . . . so that
this theory [of glacial erosion], based on entire ignorance of the whole
subject, may be dropped without wasting any more time upon it." It should
be added that Clarence King shared his chief 's belief in a cataclysmic
origin of the Valley, holding that glaciers only scoured and polished it
after it had been formed [See original edition of Mountaineering
in the Sierra Nevada, p. 134 (1872). Several writers have mistakenly
made Clarence King the originator of the glacial erosion theory as regards
Yosemite. He held no such theory. He did not even precede Muir in the publication
of his glacial observations in the chapter entitled "Around Yosemite Walls,"
for that chapter, unlike the others, was not published serially in 1871,
appeared for the first time in the above-mentioned volume in 1872.
dates affixed to the chapters of King's book in the Scribner reprint are
misleading, for they do not give the date of publication, but the years
in which the observations are supposed to have been made.].
Whitney's Yosemite Guide-Book was published by authority of the
California Legislature and the views set forth in it, therefore, had official
sanction in the eyes of the public. Its author was the first scientist
of standing who had reached a definite conclusion after an examination
of the geological evidence and he was little inclined to give serious consideration
to any view except his own. It required considerable courage, knowledge,
and interpretative ability to go up against such a strongly entrenched
and assertive antagonist. But Muir, recognizing the subsidence theory as
contrary to his reading of the geological record, accepted the challenge.
During the very first year of his residence in the Valley (1869-70) he
had become convinced that it had not been formed by a cataclysm, but by
long, slow, natural processes in which ice played by far the major part.
He never lost an opportunity to discuss the question with interested visitors
to the Valley and soon became the recognized and finally victorious opponent
of the cataclysmic theory. Since there has been some misapprehension among
historical geologists as to the time when Muir began to advocate the glacial
erosion theory it seems appropriate to introduce some evidence on this
In the autumn of 1871 there issued from The Riverside Press, then Hurd
and Houghton, a curious novel entitled Zanita, a Tale of the Yosemite.
did the publishers dream that the hero of the tale would one day become
one of their most famous authors. Few now remember the writer
[Thérèse Yelverton, Viscountess Avonmore, 1832-8 1, authoress
and plaintiff in the famous suit of Thelwall vs. Yelverton which the Court
of Common Pleas at Dublin, Ireland, decided in her favor. Though on this
occasion (1861) the validity of both her Irish and her Scottish marriage
to William Charles Yelverton, fourth Viscount Avonmore, was affirmed, the
latter finally succeeded in getting a majority of the House of Lords to
decide against the marriage (1867). Her maiden name was Maria Teresa Longworth.
When her slender fortune had been spent in litigation she supported herself
largely by her writings for which she found the materials in wide-ranging
travels. Her case was heralded to the entire English-speaking world not
only by journalists, but by such plays as Cyrus Redding's A Wife and
not a Wife, and James Roderick O'Flanagan's novel Gentle Blood,
or The Secret Marriage.] of the novel, though she was one of
the most noted women of her time, and a warm friend of John Muir. The novel's
chief interest lies in the fact that the authoress, coming to Yosemite
Valley and taking up her abode there for a season in the spring of 1870,
appropriated the inhabitants as characters of her tale, and reported their
conversations. The names of Oswald and Placida Naunton are only thin disguises
for Mr. and Mrs. J. M. Hutchings; Zanita and Cozy are their daughters,
Florence and Gertrude; Methley is James C. Lamon, and Professor Brown seems
to play for the most part the role of Professor Josiah D. Whitney, but
with occasional admixtures of Professor Joseph LeConte. The hero of the
novel is John Muir himself--under the name of Kenmuir. It is the sobriquet
by which she addresses him in extant letters, at the same time identifying
herself among the characters by signing herself as "Mrs. Brown."
Dear Kenmuir [she writes in 1871]
The Daughters of Ahwahnee will be out in fall. How you will
laugh when you see it. You and Cosa are the best survivors except the everlasting
hills and vales.
Subsequently, writing from Hong Kong, she complained that the publishers
had effaced many passages besides changing the title to Zanita. In spite
of much exaggeration and unreal sentiment, a student of early Yosemite
life will find here more than a historical setting. So much is clear from
a reference to the book in one of Muir's letters.
Mrs. Yelverton's book [he writes] I have not yet seen. A friend
sent me a copy, but it failed to reach hither. I saw some of the manuscript
and have some idea of it. She had a little help from me, the use of my
notebooks, etc., some of which, I suppose, she may have worked into her
The Naunton family is the Hutchings family. The name Zanita is a fragment
of the word manzanita, the Spanish name of a very remarkable California
shrub. "Zanita" is Floy Hutchings [Florence Hutchings was
the first white child bom in Yosemite Valley (August 23rd 1864). She died
in 1881, was buried in the Valley, and Mount Florence was named for her.],
a smart and handsome and mischievous Topsy that can scarce be overdrawn
. . . . She is about seven or eight years old. Her sister Cosa, as we call
her (I have forgotten what Mrs. Yelverton calls her), is more beautiful
far in body and mind, a very precious darling of a child. Mrs. Naunton
or Hutchings, was always kind to me, but Mr. Naunton is a very different
character in reality, whatever Mrs. Yelverton made of him.
As for Kenmuir, I don't think she knew enough of wild nature to pen
him well, but I have often worn shirts, soiled, ragged and buttonless,
but with a spray like what I sent you stuck somewhere, or a carex, or chance
flower. It is about all the vanity I persistently indulge in, at least
in bodily adornments.
There can be little doubt that we have in the pages of this novel a fairly
accurate description of Muir's personal appearance in 1870, however distortedly
she may have reproduced his views and conversation. While to her mind "his
garments had the tatterdemalion style of a Mad Tom," she "soon divined
that his refinement was innate, and his education collegiate." "Kenmuir,
I decided in my mind, was a gentleman," so runs her naive comment, revealing
her at the same time upon her own lofty perch of assumed gentility. It
is of interest to find her noting Muir's "glorious auburn hair," "his open
blue eyes of honest questioning," and "his bright intelligent face, shining
with a pure and holy enthusiasm." She saw his "lithe figure. . . skipping
over the rough boulders, poising with the balance of an athlete, or skirting
a shelf of rock with the cautious activity of a goat, never losing for
a moment the rhythmic motion of his flexile form. . . . His figure was
about five feet nine, well knit, and bespoke that active grace which only
trained muscles can assume." This new acquaintance, the like of whom, by
her own confession, she had never met in all her travels, proved a tempting
hero for her tale of Yosemite. Either from lack of skill in portrayal,
or because in this case fact was stranger than fiction, the reviewers of
Zanita were left unconvinced. "One says your character is all 'bosh,'"
she writes to Muir, "and only exists in my imagination. I should like to
tell him that you had an existence in my heart as well!"
The question of the Valley's origin, always one of the primary interests
of Yosemite residents and visitors, is not overlooked by the author of
Zanita. The appearance of Whitney's Yosemite Guide-Book naturally
had given new stimulus to discussion, particularly by the authoritative
manner in which its author sought to settle the question. The views attributed
to Muir in Mrs. Yelverton's reports of these discussions furnish a clue
to the early date at which he had reached conclusions opposed to those
of Whitney. Among the Valley conversations of 1870, related by her in chapter
four, is one in which the alias of Whitney ascribes the formation of the
Valley to the falling out of the bottom "in the wreck of creation," whereupon
"Good gracious! there never was a 'wreck of creation.' As though the
Lord did not know how to navigate. No bottom He made ever fell out by accident.
These learned men pretend to talk of a catastrophe happening to the Lord's
works, as though it were some poor trumpery machine of their own invention.
As it is, it was meant to be.
"Why! I can show the Professor where the mighty cavity has been grooved
and wrought out for millions of years. A day and eternity are as one in
His mighty workshop. I can take you where you can see for yourself how
the glaciers have labored, and cut and carved, and elaborated, until they
have wrought out this royal road. "
This novel also indicates that Muir knew at least as early as 1870 that
ice had overridden Glacier Point, a fact of some historical interest since
the origin of the name is not certainly known, and if any one other than
Muir bestowed it he can hardly have grasped the meaning of the evidences
of glaciation observed there. One would naturally suppose Clarence King
to have been the first to perceive both the fact and the significance of
it, but he set the limit of the highest ice-flood far below Glacier Point.
But Muir, during the first year of his residence in the Valley, had fathomed
the meaning of its glacial phenomena much more completely than he has ever
received credit for, and when he propounded a theory of glacial erosion
to account for the Valley's origin, he apparently had already correlated
the ice-record on Glacier Point. At any rate Mrs. Yelverton, in speaking
of Glacier Point as the place where she had first seen Muir, notes the
existence there of "traces of ancient glaciers which he said 'are no doubt
the instruments the Almighty used in the formation of the Valley."'
Another, more direct, witness that Muir held the glacial origin theory
as early as 1870, and probably earlier, is found in the writings of his
friend Joseph LeConte. The latter, for many years Professor of Geology
in the University of California, arrived in the State one year later than
Muir and made his first visit to Yosemite and the High Sierra with a company
of students in the summer of 1870. Muir and LeConte met in Yosemite through
the mediation of Mrs. Carr, and Muir, on account of his knowledge of the
region north of Yosemite, was invited to accompany the party across the
crest of the Sierra to Mono Lake. On the night of the eighth of August
the party was encamped on a meadow near what is now called Eagle Peak and
there LeConte made the following entry in his journal:
After dinner, lay down on our blankets, and gazed up through
the magnificent tall spruces into the deep blue sky and the gathering masses
of white clouds. Mr. Muir gases and gazes and cannot get his fill. He is
a most passionate lover of nature. Plants, and flowers, and forests, and
sky, and clouds, and mountains, seem actually to haunt his imagination.
He seems to revel in the freedom of this life. I think he would pine away
in a city or in conventional life of any kind. He is really not only an
intelligent man, as I saw at once, but a man of strong, earnest nature,
and thoughtful, closely observing and original mind. I have talked much
with him to-day about the probable manner in which Yosemite was formed.
He fully agrees with me that the peculiar cleavage of the rock is a most
important point, which must not be left out of account. He further believes
that the Valley has been wholly formed by causes still in operation in
the Sierra--that the Merced Glacier and the Merced River and its branches
. . . have done the whole work.
This reference of LeConte to Muir's glacial observations fully bears out
the evidence of Mrs. Yelverton's novel that Muir had as early as 1870 definitely
reached the conclusion that Yosemite is not the result of a sudden and
exceptional catastrophe, but the product of "causes still in operation,"
as stated by Professor LeConte. In other words Muir was at this time aware
also of the existence of residual glaciers in the High Sierra, for in his
letter of August 7th, 1870, he mentions his intention "to set some stakes
in a dozen glaciers and gather some arithmetic for clothing my thoughts."
A year later (1871) he had verified by actual measurements his belief that
what Whitney called snowfields were glaciers, and he had also found one
in the Merced group of mountains that was delivering glacial mud, or rock
meal, showing that the process of erosion on a small scale was still going
LeConte's inference from Muir's conversation, that he believed the ancient
Merced Glacier and subsequent Merced River to "have done the whole work"
of forming Yosemite Valley, requires some modification, for Muir did assume
a certain amount of pre-glacial and post-glacial erosion, as may be seen
in certain passages of his Sierra Studies. But it still is far from
proved that he was wrong in regarding these particular erosion factors
as subordinate. In justice to Muir it must, of course, be remembered that
neither he nor any other geologist was at this time reckoning with the
work of successive glacial epochs, least of all in Yosemite where the evidence
of two glaciations remains speculative and theoretical. These are, at most,
but shiftings of the boundaries of the original problem, and in no way
detract from the value of Muir's pioneering work.
What concerned Muir most at this time was the ease with which bands
of Yosemite pilgrims were captured by Whitney's exceptional creation theory
of the Valley's origin, thus coming to regard it as "the latest, most uncompanioned
wonder of the earth."
No wonder [said Muir] that a scientist standing on the Valley
floor and looking up at its massive walls, has been unable to interpret
its history. The magnitude of the characters in which the account of its
origin is recorded has prevented him from reading it. "We have interrogated,"
says the scientist, "all the known valley-producing causes. The torrent
has replied, 'It was not I'; the glacier has answered, 'It was not I';
and the august forces that fold and crevasse whole mountain chains disclaim
all knowledge of it."
But, during my few years' acquaintance with it, I have found it not
full of chaos, uncompanioned and parentless. I have found it one of many
Yosemite valleys, which differ not more than one pine tree differs from
another. Attentive study and comparison of these throws a flood of light
upon the origin of the Yosemite; uniting her, by birth, with sister valleys
distributed through all the principal river-basins of the range.
The scorn with which Whitney and his assistants rejected Muir's theory
and observations as those of a "shepherd" had not the slightest discouraging
effect upon him, for he knew they had seen but a fraction of the evidence,
and that hastily. It only sent him back to his mountain temples for more
revealing facts which he wrote and preached to his friends with the zeal
of a Hebrew prophet and no apology except that of Amos, "The Lord Jehovah
hath spoken; who can but prophesy?" It is the voice of a man with a divine
call that is heard in the following letters:
To Catherine Merrill
Yosemite Valley, July 12th, 
Your sister's note which came with the little plants tells that you
are about to escape from the frightful tendencies of a "Christian" school
to the smooth shelter of home. I glanced at the regulations, order, etc.,
in the catalogue which you sent, and the grizzly thorny ranks of cold enslaving
"musts" made me shudder as I fancy I should had I looked into a dungeon
of the olden times full of rings and thumbscrews and iron chains. You deserve
great credit for venturing into such a place. None but an Indiana professor
would dare the dangers of such a den of ecclesiastical slave-drivers. I
suppose that you were moved to go among those flint Christians by the same
motives of philanthropy which urged you amongst other forms of human depravity.
From my page I hold my bosom to our purple rocks and snowy waters and
think of the divine repose which enwraps them all together with the tuned
flies, and birds, and plants which inhabit them, and I thank God for this
tranquil freedom, this glorious mountain Yosemite barbarism.
I have been with you and your apostolic friends these fifteen minutes
and I feel a kind of choking and sinking as though I were smothering in
nightmare. Come to Yosemite! Change the subject.
Last Sabbath week I read one of the most magnificent of God's own mountain
manuscripts. During my rambles of the last two years in the basin of Yosemite
Creek north of the Valley, I had gathered many faint hints from what I
read as glacial footprints in the rocks worn by the storms and blotting
chemistry of ages. Now there is a deep canyon in the top of the Valley
wall near the upper Yosemite Falls which has engaged my attention for more
than a year, and I could not account for its formation in any other way
than by a theory which involved the supposition that a glacier formerly
filled the basin of the stream above. Suddenly the big truth came to the
birth. I ran up the mountain, 'round to the top of the falls, said my prayers,
received baptism in the irised spray and ran northward toward the head
of the basin, full of faith, confident that there was a writing for me
somewhere on the rock, and I had not drifted four miles before I found
all that I had so long sought in a narrow hollow where the ice had been
compelled to wedge through under great pressure, thus deeply grooving and
hardening the granite and making it less susceptible of decomposition.
I continued up the stream to its source in the snows of Mt. Hoffmann, and
everywhere discovered strips of meadow and sandy levels formed from the
matter of moraine sand and bouldery accumulations of all kinds, smoothed
and leveled by overflowing waters.
This dead glacier was about twelve miles in length by about five in
breadth--of depth I have as yet no reliable data. Its course was nearly
north and south, at right angles to the branches of the summit glaciers
which entered Yosemite by the canyons of the Tenaya and Nevada streams.
It united with those opposite Hutchings, in the Valley. Perhaps it was
not born so early as those of the summits, from the canyons of Nevada and
Tenaya. This is intensely interesting to me, and from its semi-philosophic
character ought to be so in some degree to any professor. You must write.
My love to all. You must write. I start tomorrow for the High Sierra about
Mt. Dana and over in the Mono basin among the lavas and volcanoes. Will
be back in a month.
To Mrs. Ezra S. Carr
August 13th, 
I was so stunned and dazed by your last that I have not been able to
write anything. I was sure that you were coming, and you cannot come, and
Mr. King, the artist, left me the other day, and I am done with Hutchings,
and I am lonely. Well, it must be wait, for although there is no common
human reason why I should not see you and civilization in Oakland, I cannot
escape from the powers of the mountains. I shall tie some flour and a blanket
behind my saddle and return to the Mono region, and try to decide some
questions that require undisturbed thought. Then I will stalk about over
the summit slates of Dana and Gibbs and Lyell, reading new chapters of
glacial manuscript, and more if I can. Then, perhaps, I will follow the
Tuolumne down to the Hetch Hetchy Yosemite. Then perhaps follow every Yosemite
stream back to its smallest sources in the mountains of the Lyell group
and the Cathedral group and the Obelisk and Mt. Hoffmann. This will, perhaps,
be my work until the coming of the winter snows, when I will probably find
a sheltered rock nook where I can make a nest of leaves and mosses and
doze until spring.
I expect to be entirely alone in these mountain walks, and notwithstanding
the glorious portion of daily bread which my soul will receive in these
fields where only the footprints of God are seen, the gloamin' will be
very lonely, but I will cheerfully pay this price of friendship, hunger,
and all besides.
I suppose you have seen Mr. King, who kindly carried some [butter]flies
for Mr. Edwards[Mr. Henry Edwards, actor and entomologist;
for a report on this package of butterflies see Chap. 8.]. I thought
you would easily see him or let him know that you had his specimens. I
collected most of them upon Mount Hoffmann, but was so busy in assisting
Reilly that I could not do much in butterflies., Hereafter I shall be entirely
The purples and yellows begin to come in the green of our groves and
the rocks have the autumn haze and the water songs are at their lowest
hushings. Young birds are big as old ones, and it is the time of ripe berries,
and is it true that those are Bryant's "melancholy days"? I don't know.
I will not think, but I will go above these brooding days to the higher
brighter mountains. . . .
To Mrs. Ezra S. Carr
September 8th, 1871
I am sorry that King made you uneasy about me. He does not understand
me as you do, and you must not heed him so much. He thinks that I am melancholy,
and above all that I require polishing. I feel sure that if you were here
to see how happy I am, and how ardently I am seeking a knowledge of the
rocks you could not call me away, but would gladly let me go with only
God and his written rocks to guide me. You would not think of calling me
to make machines or a home, or of rubbing me against other minds, or of
setting me up for measurement. No, dear friend, you would say, "Keep your
mind untrammeled and pure. Go unfrictioned, unmeasured, and God give you
the true meaning and interpretation of his mountains."
You know that for the last three years I have been ploddingly making
observations about this Valley and the high mountain region to the East
of it, drifting broodingly about and taking in every natural lesson that
I was fitted to absorb. In particular the great Valley has always kept
a place in my mind. How did the Lord make it? What tools did He use? How
did He apply them and when? I considered the sky above it and all of its
opening canyons, and studied the forces that came in by every door that
I saw standing open, but I could get no light. Then I said, "You are attempting
what is not possible for you to accomplish. Yosemite is the end
of a grand chapter. If you would learn to read it go commence at the beginning."
Then I went above to the alphabet valleys of the summits, comparing canyon
with canyon with all their varieties of rock structure and cleavage, and
the comparative size and slope of the glaciers and waters which they contained.
Also the grand congregation of rock creations were present to me, and I
studied their forms and sculpture. I soon had a key to every Yosemite rock
and perpendicular and sloping wall. The grandeur of these forces and their
glorious results overpower me, and inhabit my whole being. Waking or sleeping
I have no rest. In dreams I read blurred sheets of glacial writing or follow
lines of cleavage or struggle with the difficulties of some extraordinary
rock form. Now it is clear that woe is me if I do not drown this tendency
toward nervous prostration by constant labor in working up the details
of this whole question. I have been down from the upper rocks only three
days and am hungry for exercise already.
Professor Runkle [John Daniel Runkle.], President
of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was here last week, and I
preached my glacial theory to him for five days, taking him into the canyons
of the Valley and up among the grand glacier wombs and pathways of the
summit. He was fully convinced of the truth of my readings, and urged me
to write out the glacial system of Yosemite and its tributaries for the
Boston Academy of Science. I told him that I meant to write my thoughts
for my own use and that I would send him the manuscript and if he and his
wise scientific brothers thought it of sufficient interest they might publish
He is going to send me some instruments, and I mean to go over all the
glacier basins carefully, working until driven down by the snow. In winter
I can make my drawings and maps and write out notes. So you see that for
a year or two I will be very busy.
I have settled with Hutchings and have no dealings with him now. I think
that next spring I will have to guide a month or two for pocket money,
although I do not like the work. I suppose I might live for one or two
seasons without work. I have five hundred dollars here, and I have been
sending home money to my sisters and brothers--perhaps about twelve or
fifteen hundred, and a man in Canada owes me three or four hundred dollars
more which I suppose I could get if I was in need; but you know that the
Scotch do not like to spend their last dollar. Some of my friends are badgering
me to write for some of the magazines, and I am almost tempted to try it,
afraid that this would distract my mind from my main work more than
the distasteful and depressing labor of the mill or of guiding. What do
you think about it?
Suppose I should give some of the journals my first thoughts about this
glacier work as I go along, and afterwards gather them and press them for
the Boston wise. Or will it be better to hold my wheesht [Scottish word
for silence] and say it all at a breath? You see how practical I have become,
and how fully I have burdened you with my little affairs!
Perhaps you will ask, "What plan are you going to pursue in your work?"
Well, here it is--the only book I ever have invented. First, I will describe
each glacier with its tributaries separately, then describe the rocks and
hills and mountains over which they have flowed or past which they have
flowed, endeavoring to prove that all of the various forms which those
rocks now have is the necessary result of the ice action in connection
with their structure and cleavage, etc.--also the different kinds of canyons
and lake basins and meadows which they have made. Then, armed with these
data, I will come down to Yosemite, where all of my ice has come, and prove
that each dome and brow and wall, and every grace and spire and brother
is the necessary result of the delicately balanced blows of well directed
and combined glaciers against the parent rocks which contained them, only
thinly carved and moulded in some instances by the subsequent action of
Libby sent me Tyndall's new book, and I have looked hastily over it.
It is an alpine mixture of very pleasant taste, and I wish I could enjoy
reading and talking it with you. I expect Mrs. Hutchings will accompany
her husband to the East this winter, and there will not be one left with
whom I can exchange a thought. Mrs. Hutchings is going to leave me out
all the books I want, and Runkle is going to send me Darwin. These, with
my notes and maps, will fill my winter hours, if my eyes do not fail. And
now that you see my whole position I think that you would not call me to
the excitements and distracting novelties of civilization.
This bread question is very troublesome. I will eat anything you think
will suit me. Send up either by express to Big Oak Flat or by any other
chance, and I will remit the money required in any way you like.
My love to all and more thanks than I can write for your constant kindness.
[J. M. ]
To Mrs. Ezra S. Carr
Dear Friend Mrs. Carr:
[September or October], 1871
I am again upon the bottom meadow of Yosemite, after a most intensely
interesting bath among the outer mountains. I have been exploring the upper
tributaries of the Cascade and Tamarack streams, and in particular all
of the basin of Yosemite Creek. The present basin of every stream which
enters the Valley on the north side was formerly filled with ice, which
also flowed into the Valley, although the ancient ice basins did not always
correspond with the present water basins because glaciers can flow up hill.
The whole of the north wall of the valley was covered with an unbroken
flow of ice, with perhaps the single exception of the crest of Eagle Cliff,
and though the book of glaciers gradually dims as we go lower on the range,
yet I fully believe that future investigation will show that in the earlier
ages of Sierra Nevada ice vast glaciers flowed to the foot of the range
east of Yosemite, and also north and south at an elevation of 9000 feet.
The glacier basins are almost unchanged, and I believe that ice was the
agent by which all of the present rocks received their special forms.
More of this some other day. Would that I could have you here or in
any wild place where I can think and speak! Would you not be thoroughly
iced? You would not find in me one unglacial thought. Come, and I will
tell you how El Capitan and Tissiack were fashioned.
I will most likely live at Black's Hotel this winter in charge of the
premises, and before next spring I will have an independent cabin built
with a special Carr corner where you and the Doctor can come and stay all
summer. Also, I will have a tent so that we can camp and receive night
blessings where we choose, and then I will have horses enough so that we
can go to the upper temples also.
I wish you could see Lake Tenaya. It is one of the most perfectly and
richly spiritual places in the mountains, and I would like to preempt there.
Somehow I should feel like leaving home in going to Hetch Hetchy. Besides,
there is room there for many other claims, and soon will fill with coarse
homesteads. But as the winter is so severe at Lake Tenaya, very few will
care to live there. Hetch Hetchy is about four thousand feet above sea,
while Lake Tenaya is eight. I have been living in these mountains in so
haunting, hovering, floating a way, that it seems strange to cast any kind
of an anchor. All is so equal in glory, so ocean-like, that to choose one
place above another is like drawing dividing lines in the sky.
I think I answered your last with respect to remaining here in winter.
I can do much of this ice work in the quiet, and the whole I subject is
purely physical, so that I can get but little from books. All depends upon
the goodness of one's eyes. No scientific book in the world can tell me
how this Yosemite granite is put together, or how it has been taken down.
Patient observation and constant brooding above the rocks, lying upon them
for years as the ice did, is the way to arrive at the truths which are
graven so lavishly upon them.
Would that I knew what good prayers I could say, or good deeds I could
do, so that ravens would bring me bread and venison for the next two years.
Then would I get some tough gray clothes, the color of granite, so no one
could see or find me but yourself. Then would I reproduce the ancient ice
rivers, and watch their workings and dwell with them. I go again to my
lessons tomorrow morning.
Some snow fell and, bye the bye, I must tell you about it. If poor,
good, melancholic Cowper had been here yesterday morning here is just what
he would have sung:
The rocks have been washed, just washed in a shower
Which, being unmetaphored and prosed into sense, means that yesterday morning
a strong southeast wind, cooled among the highest snows of the Sierra,
drove back the warm northwest winds from the hot San Joaquin plains and
burning foothill woods, and piled up a jagged cloud addition to our Valley
walls. Soon those white clouds began to darken and to reach out long filmy
edges, which uniting over the Valley made a close dark ceiling. Then came
rain, unsteady at first, now a heavy gush, then a sprinkling halt, as if
the clouds so long out of practice had forgotten something. But after a
half hour of experimental pouring and sprinkling there came an earnest,
steady, well-controlled rain. On the mountain the rain soon turned to snow,
and some half-melted flakes reached the bottom of the Valley This morning
Starr King and Tissiack and all the upper valley rim is white. . . .
Which winds to their faces conveyed.
The plentiful cloudlets bemuffled their brows,
Or lay on their beautiful heads.
But cold sighed the winds in the fir trees above,
And down in the pine trees below;
For the rain that came laving and washing in love
Was followed, alas, by a snow.
Ever devoutly your friend,
The following letter furnishes a good summary of Muir's glacial studies
at the stage which they had reached in 1871. Attention should be called
to the fact that in his opening sentence, Muir gives the California State
Geological Survey credit for views which its chief had already repudiated,
for in his Yosemite Guide Book of 1869 Josiah D. Whitney asserted that
he had made an error in the first volume of the Survey when he stated that
glaciers had entered the Valley from the head of the Merced.
To Clinton L. Merriam
September 24th, 1871
The main trunk glaciers which entered Yosemite by the Tenaya, and Nevada,
and South Canyons, have been known to many since the publication of the
first volume of the California State Geological Survey; but I am not aware
of the existence of any published account of the smaller glaciers, which
entered the Valley by the lower side canyons or indeed that their former
existence was known at all.
I have been haunting the rocks of this region for a long time, anxious
to spell out some of the great mountain truths which I felt were written
here, and ever since the number, and magnitude, and significance of these
Yosemite glaciers began to appear, I became eager for knowledge concerning
them and am now devoting all my time to their history.
You know my views concerning the formation of Yosemite, that the great
Valley itself, together with all of its various domes and sculptured walls,
were produced and fashioned by the united labors of the grand combination
of glaciers which flowed over and through it, their forces having been
rigidly governed and directed by the peculiar physical structure of the
granite of which this region is made, and, moreover, that all of the rocks
and lakes, and meadows of the whole upper Merced basin owe their specific
forms and carving to this same glacial agency.
I left the Valley two weeks ago to explore the main trunk glacier of
Yosemite Creek basin, together with its radiating border of tributaries,
gathering what data I could read regarding their age, and direction, size,
etc., also the kind and amount of work which they had done, but while I
was seeking for traces of the western shore of the main stream upon the
El Capitan ridge, I discovered that the Yosemite glacier was not the lowest
ice stream which flowed to the Valley, but that the Ribbon basin or Virgin's
Tears as it is also called, was also the bed of an ancient glacier which
flowed nearly south, uniting with the central glaciers of the summits,
in the valley below El Capitan.
This Ribbon glacier must have been one of the very smallest of the ice
streams which flowed to Yosemite, having been only about four miles in
length by three in width. It had some small groove tributaries from the
slopes of El Capitan, but most of its ice was derived from a high spur
of the Hoffmann group to the north, which runs nearly southwest. Its bed
is steep and regular, and it must have flowed with considerable velocity.
I could not find any of the original grooved and polished surfaces of
the old bed, but some protected patches may still exist where a boulder
of the proper form has settled upon a rounded summit. I found many such
preserved patches in the basin of Yosemite creek, one of which is within
half a mile of the top of the falls. It has a polished surface of about
four square feet, with very distinct striae and grooves, although the unsheltered
rock about it is eroded to the depth of four or five inches.
In as much as this small glacier sloped openly to the sun, and was not
very deep, it was one of the first to die, and of course its written pages
have been longer exposed to blurring rains and frosts, but notwithstanding
the many crumbling blotting storms which have fallen upon the lithographs
of this small ice-stream, the great truth of its former existence in this
home, written in characters of moraine, and meadow, and fluted slope, is
just as clear as when all of its shining newborn rocks gleamed forth the
full shadowless poetry of its whole life.
There are a few castle-shaped piles, and crumbling domes upon its east
bank, excepting which the basin is now plain and lake-like. But it contains
most lovely meadows, interesting in their present flora, and in their glacial
history, and noble forests made up mostly of the two silver firs (Picea
amabilis and P. grandis) planted upon moraines which have been
spread and leveled by the agency of water.
These rambling researches in the Ribbon basin recalled some observations
made by me a year ago in the lower portion of the canyons of the Cascade
and Tamarack streams, and I now guessed that careful search would discover
abundant glacial manuscript in those basins also. Accordingly on reaching
the highest point on the rim of the Ribbon ice, I obtained broad map views
of both the Cascade and Tamarack basins, and singled out from their countless
adornments many forms of lake, and rock, which seemed to be genuine glacier
workmanship, unmarred in any way by the various powers which have come
upon them since they were abandoned by their parent ice.
This highest ridge of the Ribbon glacier basin, bounded its ice on the
north, and upon its opposite side I saw shining patches, which I ran down
to examine. They proved to be polished unchanged fragments of the bottom
of another ancient ice stream, which according to the testimony of their
striae, had flowed south 40° west. This new glacier proved to be the
eastmost tributary of the Cascade. Anxious to know it better, I proceeded
west along the Mono trail to Cascade meadows, then turning to the right,
entered the mouth of the tributary at the upper end of the meadows. Both
of the ridges which formed the banks of the stream are torn and precipitous,
evidently the work of ice. I followed up the bed of the tributary to its
source, upon the flat west bank of the Yosemite basin, and throughout its
whole length there is abundance of polished tablets, and moraines, and
various kinds of rock sculpture forming ice testimony as full and indisputable
as can be rendered by the most recent glacier pathways of the Alps.
I should gladly have welcomed the grateful toil of exploring the main
trunk of this Cascade glacier from its farthest snows upon the Tuolumne
divide, to its mouth in the Merced Canyon below Yosemite, but my stock
of provisions was too small, and besides I felt that I would most likely
have to explore the basin of Tamarack also, and following westward among
the older, changed, and covered glacier highways, I might drift as far
as the end of Pilot Peak ridge. Therefore turning reluctantly to the easier
pages of Yosemite Creek I resolved to leave those lower chapters for future
lessons' But before proceeding with Yosemite Creek let me distinctly give
here as my opinion that future investigation will discover proofs of the
existence in the earlier ages of a Sierra Nevada ice of vast glaciers which
flowed to the very foot of the range.
Already it is clear that all of the upper basins were filled with ice,
so deep and universal that but few of the ridges were sufficiently high
to separate it into individual glaciers. Vast mountains were flowed over,
and rounded or moved away like boulders in a river.
Ice flowed into Yosemite by every one of its canyons, and at a comparatively
recent period of its history, its north wall, with perhaps the single exception
of the crest of Eagle Cliff was covered with an unbroken stream of ice,
the several glaciers having united before coming to the wall.
Fortunately Muir decided not to hold his "wheesht" [Scottish word for silence].
The above letter is an abridgment of an article, entitled "Yosemite Glaciers"
that he sent four days later as his "first thoughts" to the New York
. After some delay it appeared in that paper, December 5th,
1871, and constitutes the first published statement of the ice erosion
theory to account for the origin of Yosemite. It is but just to point out
that Muir was not following in any one's footsteps in propounding his theory
Phipps Blake has been mistakenly credited with being the originator of
the theory. In his paper "Sur I'action des anciens glaciers dans la Sierra
Nevada de Californie et sur l'origine de la vallée de Yo-Semite,"
published in the Comptes Rendus des Seances de l'Academie des Sciences
de Paris, tome 65, 1867, the origin of the Valley is ascribed to sub-glacial
erosion by water pouring; from the glaciers above. The precise form of
statement is as follows: "On peut en conclure que cette vallée parait
due à une érosion sous-glaciaire,
due à l'écoulement des
eaux provenant de la fonte des glaces supérieures."]
the simple reason that there was no one to be followed, and though he put
forward but a small part of his evidence, it proved to be the beginning
of the end of Whitney's subsidence theory.
Muir had hardly published his views and discoveries when Professor Samuel
Kneeland, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, utilized his article,
together with letters he had written to President J. D. Runkle, to prepare
a paper ["On the Glaciers of the Yosemite Valley," read at
a meeting held February 21, 1872, and published in the Proceedings
of the Society, Vol. XV, pp. 36-47 (1872). Also republished the same year
in Kneeland's book The Wonders of Yosemite Valley and of California.]
the Boston Society of Natural History. Muir did not approve of the use
that Kneeland made of his materials, claiming that he gave him "credit
for all the smaller sayings and doings and stole the broadest truth to
himself." But the paper had the effect of attracting considerable attention
to Muir's views and explorations.
Meanwhile Muir was going at his task systematically. The difficulty
of correlating his studies without good maps was in large measure surmounted
by his ability to sketch accurately and rapidly the physical features of
the region under examination. Nothing shows better his industry and the
minute care with which he worked than the large number of mountain sketches
that date from this period. By means of them he could, when working up
his results, call to mind with particularity and vividness the physiography
of the country in connection with his notes.
Early in November, 1871, when winter cold was already settling upon
the heights, he made his first expedition to Hetch Hetchy, the "Tuolumne
Yosemite" as he aptly described it. whose needless destruction and conversion
to the domestic uses of San Francisco was to sadden the evening of his
life. A hunter by the name of Joseph Screech is said to have discovered
the Valley in 1850, a year before Yosemite was entered for the first time
by Captain Boling's party. In 1871 its use was claimed by a sheep owner
named Smith and consequently was often called Smith's Valley. This man's
shepherd and a few Digger Indians were the only occasional inhabitants
of the Valley at this time.
Excerpts from a description of this "last raid of the season" will give
the reader an idea of the manner in which he fared on these lonely excursions.
I went alone [he writes], my outfit consisting of a pair of
blankets and a quantity of bread and coffee. There is a weird charm in
carrying out such a free and pathless plan as I had projected; passing
through untrodden forests, from canyon to canyon, from mountain to mountain;
constantly co upon new beauties and new truths. . . . As I drifted over
the dome-paved basin of Yosemite Creek . . . sunset found me only three
miles back from the brow of El Capitan, near the head of a round smooth
gap--the deepest groove in the El Capitan ridge. Here I lay down and thought
of the time when the groove in which I rested was being ground away at
the bottom of a vast ice-sheet that flowed over all the Sierra like a slow
wind. . . . My huge camp fire glowed like a sun. . . . A happy brook sang
confidingly, and by its side I made my bed of rich, spicy boughs, elastic
and warm. Upon so luxurious a couch, in such a forest, and by such a fire
and brook, sleep is gentle and pure. Wildwood sleep is always refreshing;
and to those who receive the mountains into their souls, as well as into
their sight--living with them clean and free--sleep is a beautiful death,
from which we arise every dawn into a new-created world, to begin a new
life in a new body.
The second day he suddenly emerged on top of the wall of the main Tuolumne
Canyon about two miles above Hetch Hetchy. After describing glowingly the
canyon floor four thousand feet below and the sublime wilderness of mountains
around and beyond, he indulges in some reflections on the diversity of
impression produced upon different persons by such a scene.
To most persons unacquainted with the genius of the Sierra
Nevada [he observes], especially to those whose lives have been spent in
shadows, the impression produced by such a landscape is dreary and hopeless.
Like symbols of a desolate future, the sunburned domes, naves, and peaks,
lie dead and barren beneath a thoughtless, motionless sky; weed-like trees
darken their gray hollows and wrinkles, with scarcely any cheering effect.
To quote from a Boston professor [J. D. Whitney], "The heights are bewildering,
the distances overpowering, the stillness oppressive, and the utter barrenness
and desolation indescribable." But if you go to the midst of these bleached
bones of mountains, and dwell confidingly and waitingly with them be assured
that every death-taint will speedily disappear; the hardest rocks will
pulse with life, secrets of divine beauty and love will be revealed to
you by lakes, and meadows, and a thousand flowers, and an atmosphere of
spirit be felt brooding over all.
He descended into the canyon by what he at first supposed to be a trail
laid out by Indians, but soon discovered that it was a bear-path leading
to harvests of brown acorns in black oak groves and to thickets of berry-laden
manzanita. Muir never went armed on any of these exploratory excursions,
his aim being, so far as in him lay, to live at peace with all the inhabitants
of the wilds.
The sandy ground [he notes] was covered with bear-tracks; but
that gave me no anxiety. because I knew that bears never eat men where
berries and acorns abound. Night came in most impressive stillness. My
blazing fire illumined the brown columns of my guardian trees, and from
between their bulging roots a few withered breckans and golden-rods leaned
forward, as if eager to drink the light. Here and there a star glinted
through the shadowy foliage overhead, and in front I could see a portion
of the mighty canyon walls massed in darkness against the sky; making me
feel as if at the bottom of the sea. The near, soothing hush of the river
joined faint, broken songs of cascades. I became drowsy, and, on the incense-like
breath of my green pillow, I floated away into sleep.
After a careful exploration of the Hetch Hetchy Valley he struck, on his
return, straight across the mountains toward Yosemite. November storms
often blanket the High Sierra in snow, and he was caught in the edge of
a storm on the way back.
During the first night [he writes] a few inches of snow fell,
but I slept safely beneath a cedar-log, and pursued my journey next day,
charmed with the universal snow-bloom that was upon every tree, bush, and
weed, and upon all the ground, in lavish beauty. I reached home the next
day, rejoicing in having added to my mountain wealth one more Yosemite
Thus ended the exploring season of 1871, and in the following letter, written
to his mother immediately after the Hetch Hetchy excursion, we get a glimpse
of his plans:
To Mrs. Daniel Muir
November 16th, 
Our high-walled home is quiet now; travel has ceased for the season,
and I have returned from my last hard exploratory ramble in the summit
mountains. I will remain during the winter at Black's Hotel, taking care
of the premises and working up the data which I have garnered during these
last months and years concerning the ancient glacial system of this wonderful
region. For the last two or three months I have worked incessantly among
the most remote and undiscoverable of the deep canyons of this pierced
basin, finding many a mountain page glorious with the writing of God and
in characters that any earnest eye could read. The few scientific men who
have written upon this region tell us that Yosemite Valley is unlike anything
else, an exceptional creation, separate in all respects from all other
valleys, but such is not true. Yosemite is one of many, one chapter of
a great mountain book written by the same pen of ice which the Lord long
ago passed over every page of our great Sierra Nevadas. I know how Yosemite
and all the other valleys of these magnificent mountains were made and
the next year or two of my life will be occupied chiefly in writing their
history in a human book--a glorious subject, which God help me preach aright.
I have been sleeping in the rocks and snow, often weary and hungry,
sustained by the excitements of my subject and by the Scottish pluck and
perseverance which belongs to our family. For the last few days I have
been eating and resting and enjoying long warm sleeps beneath a roof, in
a warm, rockless, boulderless bed.
In all my lonely journeys among the most distant and difficult pathless,
passless mountains, I never wander, am never lost. Providence guides through
every danger and takes me to all the truths which I need to learn, and
some day I hope to show you my sheaves, my big bound pages of mountain
I have been busy moving my few chattels from Hutchings' to Black's,
about half a mile down the Valley, and I scarce feel at home. Tidings of
the great far sweeping fires have reached our hidden home, and I am thankful
that your section of towns and farms has been spared. I heard a few weeks
ago from David and Joanna and learn that all is well. Wisconsin winter
will soon be upon you. May you enjoy its brightness and universal beauty
in warm and happy homes.
Our topmost mountains are white with their earliest snow, but the Valley
is still bare and brown with rustling leaves of the oak and alder and fronds
of the fast fading ferns. Between two and three thousand persons visited
the Valley this summer. I am glad they are all gone. I can now think my
thoughts and say my prayers in quiet.
Ever devoutly yours in family love
It was during the winter of 1871-72 that Muir began to write for publication.
"In the beginning of my studies I never intended to write a word for the
press," he was accustomed to remark to his friends. But in September, 1871,
he sent the first of several serial letters to the
New York Tribune,
and it appeared on December 5th, 1871, under the title "Yosemite Glaciers."
The second and third, entitled "Yosemite in Winter" and "Yosemite in Spring,"
appeared January 1st and May 7th, 1872. Extracts from letters written to
friends in Boston were read at the February, March, and May
meetings of the Boston Society of Natural History by Dr. Samuel Kneeland,
and were afterwards published in the
Proceedings of the Society.
In April, 1872, he began a series of contributions to the Overland Monthly,
editorial direction had then passed from Francis Bret Harte to Benjamin
P. Avery. This was the magazine upon which John H. Carmany, its publisher,
is reputed to have spent thirty thousand dollars--to make Bret Harte famous.
Muir's first contribution, placed through the mediation of Mrs. Carr, was
"Yosemite Valley in Flood"--a vivid description of a great storm that swept
Yosemite for three days during the preceding December. This article, exciting
instant and widespread interest, was followed in July by "Twenty Hill Hollow."
Many of his friends at this time were aware of his literary ability
through his letters and were urging him to write, but no one had assessed
his genius and his literary powers more accurately than his friend Jeanne
C. Carr. In an extant fragment of a letter written in March she informs
him that she has combined two of his glacial letters, one written to her
and the other to Professor LeConte, and that she is sending this combination
to Emerson with the request to get it published in the
"You are not to know anything about it," she writes--"let it take its chances."
"My mind is made up on one point," she continues. "All this fugitiveness
is going to be gathered up, lest you should die like Moses in the mountains
and God should bury you where 'no man knoweth.' I copied every word of
your old Journal. It looks pretty, and reads well. You have only to continue
it and make the Yosemite Year Book, painting in your inimitable
way the march of the seasons there. Try your pen on the humans, too. Get
sketches at least. I think it would be a beautiful book. Then you will
put your scientific convictions into clear-cut crystalline prose for other
uses." To these suggestions the following letter is in part a reaction:
To Mrs. Ezra S. Carr
Dear Mrs. Carr:
March 16th, 
Yours of February 26th reached me to-day, and as I have a chance to
send you a hasty line by an Indian who is going to Mariposa I would say
that I fear you are giving yourself far too much trouble about those little
fragments. If they or any other small pieces that chance to the end of
my pen give you and the Doctor any pleasure I am well paid. Very few friends
besides will care for them. . . .
You don't understand my reference to Ruskin's "moderation." Don't you
remember that he speaks in some of his books about the attributes of Nature,
"Repose," "Moderation," etc.? He says many true and beautiful things of
Repose, but weak and uninspired things concerning Moderation, telling us
most solemnly that Nature is never immoderate! and that if he had the power
and the paint he would have "Moderation" brushed in big capitals upon all
the doors and lintels of art factories and manufactories of the whole world!
etc., etc., as near as I can recollect. The heavy masonry of the Sierra
seems immoderate to some.
I am astonished at your copying those dry tattered notes. People speak
of writing with one foot in the grave. I wrote most of those winter notes
with one foot in bed while stupid with the weariness of Hutchings' logs.
I'm not going to die until done with my glaciers. As for that glacier which
you propose to construct out of your letter and LeConte's, I cannot see
how a balanced unit can be made from such material.
I had a letter from Emerson the other day of which I told you in another
letter. He prophesies, in the same dialect that you are accustomed to use,
that I shall one day go to the Atlantic Coast. He knows nothing of my present
I read your Hindu extracts with much interest. I am glad to know, by
you and Emerson and others living and dead, that my unconditional surrender
to Nature has produced exactly what you have foreseen--that drifting without
human charts through fight and dark, calm and storm, I have come to so
glorious an ocean. But more of this by and by.
As for that idea of Mountain Models, I told Runkle last fall that a
model, in plaster of Paris, of a section of the Sierra reaching to the
summits, including Yosemite, would do more to convince people of the truth
of our glacial theory of the formation of the Valley and of canyons in
general than volumes of rocky argument; because magnitudes are so great
only very partial views are obtained. He agreed with me and promised to
send me a box with plaster for a model three or four feet long, and instruments,
barometer, level, etc., but it has not come.
I have material for some outline glacier maps, but as I had no barometer
last fall I have no definite depths of canyons or heights. If you think
they would be worth presenting to the wise Congress of next summer, I will
send them. Emerson told me, hurry done with the mountains. I don't see
how he knows I am meddling with them. Have you told him? He says I may
go East with Agassiz. I will not be done here for several years.
I am in no hurry. I want to see all the world. I am going to be down
about the Golden Gate looking for a mouth to a portion of my ice. I answered
two others of yours dated 4th and 8th of February, but the letter is still
here. I will risk only this with Lo.
During the month of February he had got in touch again with his friend
Emily Pelton, of Prairie du Chien days. In 1864, on the way back from his
botanical ramble down the Wisconsin River, he had made a detour to pay
her a visit, but her uncle, for reasons of his own, had contrived to prevent
a meeting by telling him that she was not at home. Years had passed since
then, and now her coming to California opened the prospect of a visit to
Yosemite. "You will require no photographs to know me," he writes. "The
most sun-tanned and round-shouldered and bashful man of the crowd--if you
catch me in a crowd--that's me! . . . In all these years since I saw you
I have been isolated; somehow I don't mould in with the rest of mankind
and have become far more confusedly bashful than when I lived in the Mondell."
He recalls with amusement his odd appearance when he came to Prairie
du Chien, and how he rebuked various members of the Mondell circle for
irreverence and sins of one kind or another. And then shines forth a characteristic
Muir trait--undying loyalty and devotion to his friends. For he adds: "something
else I remember, Emily,--your kind words to me the first time I saw you.
Kind words are likely to live in any human soil, but planted in the heart
of a Scotchman they are absolutely immortal, and whatever Heaven may have
in store for you in after years you have at least one friend while John
The subjoined letter to her, though apparently written hurriedly, is
significant for its clear-cut and pungent defence of his mode of life and
the effect which he believed it to have upon his character. Miss Pelton
did not visit the Valley until June, 1873. In her party, which camped in
Tenaya Canyon for nine days, were Mrs. Carr, A. Kellogg, botanist of the
California Academy of Sciences, William Keith, the artist, and several
others. Muir's acquaintanceship with Keith, begun on a previous visit to
the Valley, speedily ripened into a devoted and lasting friendship.
The projected excursion with Professor LeConte, mentioned in the same
letter, acquires significance in connection with the latter's publication
of a paper on "Some Ancient Glaciers of the Sierra," read in September,
1872, before the California Academy of Sciences. In this paper Professor
LeConte made the first published announcement of Muir's discovery of living
glaciers in the Sierra Nevada. LeConte gave Muir full credit for this discovery,
but the freedom with which the latter, in conversation as well as in his
letters, poured out the results of his exploratory work before his scientific
friends gave point to Mrs. Carr's fear that others, less scrupulous, might
obtain the credit and reap the advantage of his glacial discoveries. She
therefore urged him, as will appear later, to do his own publishing of
To Emily Pelton
Dear Friend Emily:
April 2nd, 1872
Your broad pages are received. You must never waste letter time in
apologies for size. The more vast and prairie-like the better. But now
for the business part of your coming. Be sure you let me know within a
few days the time of your setting out so that I may be able to keep myself
in a findable, discoverable place. I am, as perhaps I told you, engaged
in the study of glaciers and mountain structure, etc., and I am often out
alone for weeks where you couldn't find me. Moreover, I have a good many
friends of every grade who will be here, all of whom have greater or lesser
claims on my attention. With Professor LeConte I have made arrangements
for a long scientific ramble back in the summits; also with Mrs. Carr.
You will readily understand from these engagements and numerous other probabilities
of visits, especially from scientific friends who almost always take me
out of Yosemite, how important it is that I should know very nearly the
time of your coming. I would like to have a week of naked, unoccupied time
to spend with you and nothing but unavoidable, unescapable engagements
will prevent me from having such a week.
If Mr. Knox would bring his team you could camp out, and the expense
would be nothing, hardly, and you could make your headquarters at a cabin
I am building. This would be much the best mode of travelling and of seeing
the Valley. Independence is nowhere sweeter than in Yosemite. People who
come here ought to abandon and forget all that is called business and duty,
etc.; they should forget their individual existences, should forget they
are born. They should as nearly as possible live the life of a particle
of dust in the wind, or of a withered leaf in a whirlpool. They should
come like thirsty sponges to imbibe without rule. It is blessed to lean
fully and trustingly on Nature, to experience, by taking to her a pure
heart and unartificial mind, the infinite tenderness and power of her love.
You mention the refining influences of society. Compared with the intense
purity and cordiality and beauty of Nature, the most delicate refinements
and cultures of civilization are gross barbarisms.
As for the rough vertical animals called men, who occur in and on these
mountains like sticks of condensed filth, I am not in contact with them;
I do not live with them. I live alone, or, rather, with the rocks and flowers
and snows and blessed storms; I live in blessed mountain
and love nothing less pure. You'll find me rough as the rocks and about
the same color--granite. But as for loss of pure mindedness that you seem
to fear, come and see my teachers; come, see my Mountain Mother, and you
will be at rest on that point.
We have had a glorious storm of the kind called earthquake. I've just
been writing an account of it for the New York Tribune [May 7th,
1872]. It would seem strange that any portion of our perpendicular walls
are left unshattered. It is delightful to be trotted and dumpled on our
Mother's mountain knee. I hope we will be blessed with some more. The first
shock of the morning of [March] 26th, at half-past two o'clock, was the
most sublime storm I ever experienced.
Most cordially yours
The above-mentioned earthquake was one of great intensity and made one
of the memorable experiences of his life. He sent a description of it to
the Boston Society of Natural History and to several friends.
Though I had never enjoyed a storm of this sort [he wrote],
the thrilling motion could not be mistaken, and I ran out of my cabin,
both glad and frightened, shouting, "A noble earthquake!" feeling sure
I was going to learn something. The shocks were so violent and varied,
and succeeded one another so closely, that I had to balance myself carefully
in walking as if on the deck of a ship among waves, and it seemed impossible
that the high cliffs of the valley could escape being shattered. In particular,
I feared that the sheer-fronted Sentinel Rock, towering above my cabin,
would be shaken down, and I took shelter back of a large yellow pine hoping
that it might protect me from at least the smaller outbounding boulders.
For a minute or two the shocks became more and more violent--flashing horizontal
thrusts mixed with a few twists and battering, explosive, upheaving jolts--as
if Nature were wrecking her Yosemite temple, and getting ready to build
a better one.
It was on this occasion that he saw Eagle Rock on the south wall give way
and fall into the Valley with a tremendous roar.
I saw it failing [writes Muir] in thousands of the great boulders
I had so long been studying, pouring to the Valley floor in a free curve
luminous with friction, making a terribly sublime spectacle--an arc of
glowing passionate fire, fifteen hundred feet span, as true in form and
as serene in beauty as a rainbow in the midst of the stupendous roaring
He was thrilled by the phenomenon, for he realized that by a fortunate
chance he was enabled to witness the formation of a mountain talus, a process
about which he had long been speculating.
Before the great boulders had fairly come to rest he was upon the newborn
talus, listening to the grating, groaning noises with which the rocks were
gradually settling into their places. His scientific interest in the phenomenon
made him so attentive to even its slightest effects that all fear was banished,
and he astounded his terrified fellow residents of Yosemite with his enthusiastic
recital of his observations. They were ready to flee to the lowlands, leaving
the keys of their premises in his hands, while he prepared to resume his
glacial studies, armed with fresh clues to the origin of canyon taluses.
To Mrs. Ezra S. Carr
New Sentinel Hotel,
Sunday night I was up in the moon among the lumined spray of the upper
Falls. The lunar bows were glorious and the music Godful as ever. You will
yet mingle amid the forms and voices of this peerless fall.
I wanted to have you spend two or three nights up there in
full moon, and planned a small hut for you, but since the boisterous waving
of the rocks, the danger seems forbidding, at least for you. We can go
up there in the afternoon, spend an hour or two, and return.
I had a grand ramble in the deep snow outside the Valley, and discovered
one beautiful truth concerning snow structure, and three concerning the
forms of forest trees.
These earthquakes have made me immensely rich. I had long been aware
of the life and gentle tenderness of the rocks, and instead of walking
upon them as unfeeling surfaces, began to regard them as a transparent
sky. Now they have spoken with audible voice and pulsed with common motion.
This very instant just as my pen reached "and" on the third line above,
my cabin creaked with a sharp shock and the oil waved in my lamp.
We had several shocks last night. I would like to go somewhere on the
west South American coast to study earthquakes. I think I could invent
some experimental . . . [Rest of letter lost.]
To Mrs. Ezra S. Carr
New Sentinel Hotel
Dear Mrs. Carr:
April 23rd, 1872
Yours of April 9th and 15th, containing Ned's canoe and colonization
adventures came tonight. I feel that you are coming, and I win not hear
any words preparatory of consolation for the unsupposable case of your
Come by way of Clark's, and spend a whole day or two in the Sequoias.
Thence to Sentinel Dome and Glacier Point. From thence swoop to our meadows
and groves direct by a trail now in course of construction which
will be completed by the time the snow melts. This new trail will be the
best in scenery and safety of five which enter the Valley. It leads from
Glacier Point down the face of the mountain by an easy grade to a point
back of Leidig's hotel, and has over half a dozen Inspiration Points.
I hear that Mr. Paregoy intends building a hotel at Glacier Point. If
he does you should halt there for the night after leaving Clark's. If not,
then stop at the present "Paregoy's" five or six miles south of the Valley
at the Westfall Meadows--built since your visit. You might easily ride
from Clark's to the Valley in a day, but a day among the silver firs and
another about the glories of the Valley rim and settings is a "sma' request."
The snow is deep this year, and the regular Mariposa trail leading to
Glacier Point, etc., will not be open before June. The Mariposa travel
of May, and perhaps a week or so of June, will enter the Valley from Clark's
by a sort of sneaking trail along the river canyon below the snow, but
you must not come that way.
You may also enter the Valley via Little Yosemite and Nevada and Vernal
Falls, by a trail constructed last season; also by Indian Canyon on the
north side of the Valley by a trail now nearly completed. This last is
a noble entrance, but perhaps not equal to the first. Whatever way you
come we will travel all of these, up or down, and bear in mind that you
must go among the summits in July or August. Bring no friends that will
not go to these fount fountains beyond, or are uncastoffable. Calm thinkers
like your Doctor, who first fed me with science, and LeConte are the kind
of souls fit for the formation of human clouds adapted to this mountain
sky. Nevertheless, I will rejoice beyond measure, though you come as a
comet tailed with a whole misty town. Ned is a brave fellow. God bless
him unspeakably and feed him with his own South American self.
I shall be most happy to know your Daggetts or anything that you call
dear. I have not seen any of my Tribune letters, though I have written
five or six. Send copy if you can.
Goodnight and love to all. J. M.
To Miss Catharine Merrill
New Sentinel Hotel
June 9th, 1872
My Dear Friend
I am very happy to hear your hand language once more, but in some places
I am black and blue with your hurricane of scolding.
I [am] glad you so much enjoy your work (not scolding), but am sorry
to hear of the languor which clearly speaks of struggles and long continued
toil of nerve-exhausting kind. I hope you will not persist in self-sacrifice
of so destructive a species. The sea will do you good; bathe in it and
bask in sunshine and allow the pure and generous currents of universal
uncolleged beauty to blow about your bones and about all the overworked
wheels of your mind. I know very well how you toil and toil, striving against
lassitude and the cloudy weather of discouraging cares with a brave heart,
your efforts toned by the blessedness of doing good; but do not, I pray
you, destroy your health. The Lord understands his business and has plenty
of tools, and does not require over-exertion of any kind.
I wish you could come here and rest a year in the simple unmingled Love
fountains of God. You would then return to your scholars with fresh truth
gathered and absorbed from pines and waters and deep singing winds, and
you would find that they all sang of fountain Love just as did Jesus Christ
and all of pure God manifest in whatever form. You say that good men are
"nearer to the heart of God than are woods and fields, rocks and waters"
Such distinctions and measurements seem strange to me. Rocks and waters,
etc., are words of God and so are men. We all flow from one fountain Soul.
All are expressions of one Love. God does not appear, and flow out, only
from narrow chinks and round bored wells here and there in favored races
and places, but He flows in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless
over creeds and forms and all kinds of civilizations and peoples and beasts,
saturating all and fountainizing all.
You say some other things that I don't believe at all, but I have no
room to say them nay; further--I don't stab the old grannies where I wasted
so much time, the colleges of all kinds, "Christian" and common, West and
Northwest, with their long tails of pretensions. I only said a few words
of free sunshine, using the dim old clouds of learning for a background.
My love to Mina and Mrs. Moores and the dear younglings. The falls are
in song gush and the light is balmed with summer love. Would I could send
some. I shall be sure to keep you an open letter-road so that you can see
your Merrill whom you all commit so confidingly to my care. Hoping that
you will get strength by the sea and enjoy all the spiritual happiness
I am ever cordially Your friend
To Mrs. Ezra S. Carr
New Sentinel Hotel, Yosemite Valley
Dear Mrs. Carr:
July 6th, 
Yours of Tuesday eve, telling me of our Daggetts and Ned and Merrill
Moores, has come. So has the lamp and the book. I have not yet tried the
lamp, but it is splendid in shape and shines grand as gold.
The Lyell is just what I wanted. I think that your measure of the Daggetts
is exactly right. As good as civilized people can be, they have grown to
the top of town culture and have sent out some shoots half-gropingly into
the spirit sky.
I am very glad to know that Ned is growing strong. Perhaps we may [see]
South America together yet. I hope to see you come to your own of mountain
fountains soon. Perhaps Mrs. Hutchings may go with us. You live so fully
in my own life that I cannot realize that I have not yet seen you here.
A year or two of waiting seems nothing.
Possibly I may be down on your coast this fall or next, for I want to
see what relations the coast and coast mountains have to the Sierras. Also
I want to go north and south along this range, and then among the basins
and ranges eastward. My subject is expanding at a most unfollowable pace.
I could write something with data already harvested, but I am not satisfied.
I have just returned from Hetch Hetchy with Mrs. [J. P.] Moore. Of course
we had a glory and a fun--the two articles in about parallel columns of
equal size. Meadows grassed and lillied head-high, spangled river reaches,
and currentless pools, cascades countless and unpaintable in form and whiteness,
groves that heaven all the Valley! You were with us in all our joy, and
you will come again.
I am a little weary and half incline to truantism from mobs, however
blessed, in some unfindable grove. I start in a few minutes for Clouds'
Rest with Mr. and Mrs. Moore.
I am ever your friend
To Mrs. Ezra S. Carr
New Sentinel Hotel, Yosemite Valley
July 14th, 1872
Dear Mrs. Carr:
Yours announcing Dr. [Asa] Gray is received. I have great longing for
Gray whom I feel to be a great, progressive, unlimited man like Darwin
and Huxley and Tyndall. I will be most glad to meet him. You are unweariable
in your kindness to me, and you helm my fate more than all the world beside.
I am approaching a kind of fruiting time in this mountain work, and
I want very much to see you. All say "Write," but I don't know how
or what; and, besides, I want to see North and South, and the inland basins
and the sea-coast, and all the lake basins and the canyons, also the Alps
of every country and the continental glaciers of Greenland, before I write
the book we have been speaking of. All this will require a dozen years
or twenty, and money. The question is, what will I write now, etc.? I have
learned the alphabet of ice and mountain structure here, and I think I
can read fast in other countries. I would let others write what I have
read here, but that they make so damnable le a hash of it and ruin so glorious
I miss the [J. P.] Moores because they were so cordial and kind to me.
Mrs. Moore believes in ice and can preach it too. I wish you could bring
Whitney and her together and tell me the fight. Mrs. Moore made the most
sensible visit to our mountains of all comers I have known. Mr. Moore is
a man who thinks and he took to this mountain structure like a pointer
to partridges. . . . Talk to Mrs. Moore about Hetch Hetchy, etc. She knows
it all from Hog Ranch to highest sea wave cascades, and higher, yet higher.
I ought not to fun away letter space in speaking to you. Yet I am weary
and impractical and fit for nothing serious until I am tuned and toned
by a few weeks of calm. . . .
Farewell. I will see you and we will plan work and ease and days of
holy mountain rest. . . .
Remember me to Ned and all the boys, and to the Doctor, who ought to
come hither with you.
To Sarah Muir Galloway
Dear Sister Sarah:
July 16th, 1872
Your bundle composed of socks and letters has arrived, for which I
am much indebted. I had not seen the Tribune letter you sent. I
want you to see all I write, good or bad. I may some time write regularly
for some journal or other. My scientific friends are clamorous for glaciers,
I have had a great day in meeting Dr. Asa Gray, the first botanist in
the world. My Boston friends made him know me before he came, and I expect
a grand time with him. While waiting for Gray this afternoon on the mountainside
I climbed the Sentinel Rock, three thousand feet high. Here is an oak sprig
from the top.
Merrill Moores came a couple of days ago to spend a few months with
me. I am very happy, but have to see too many people for the successful
prosecution of my studies.
Full moon lights all the groves and rocks and casts splendid masses
of shade on meadow and wall. Visitors jar and noise, but Nature goes grandly
and calmly over all confusion like winds over our domes. . . .
I hope to see Agassiz this summer, and if I can get him away into the
outside mountains among the old glacier wombs alone, I shall have a glorious
time. . . .
During the latter part of July, Mrs. Carr, in one of her letters, suggested
a way in which he might study the Coast Range with her Oakland home as
This is what you are going to do [she writes]. After the harvest
time is over, and the last bird plucked (I wish I could see some of your
game birds; all that I see are sacred storks and ibises), you will pack
up all your duds, ready to leave [Yosemite] two or more years, take your
best horse and ride forth some clear September morning. You will live with
us, and your horse at Moores near by, whenever you are not exploring the
Coast Range. We will have some choice side trips . . . You will pass the
winter here, and meanwhile ways will open for you to go to South America.
You will write up all your settled convictions, and put your cruder reflections
in the form of notes and queries, not without scientific worth, and securing
to yourself any advantage there may be in priority of observation. So writing,
and studying, and visiting, the months will pass swiftly until your Valley
home is filled again with color and song. God will teach you, as He has
taught me, that the dear places and the dearer souls are but tents of a
night; we must move on and leave them, though it cost heart-breaks. Not
those who cling to you, but those who walk apart, yet ever with you, are
your true companions.
The proposed plan had for him one fatal defect. It revealed too patent
a design to separate him from Yosemite and for this he was not ready. Here
follows his reply:
To Mrs. Ezra S. Carr
Dear Mrs. Carr:
August 5th, 1872
Your letter telling me to catch my best glacier birds and come to you
and the Coast mountains only makes me the more anxious to see you, and
if you cannot come up I will have to come down, if only for a talk. My
birds are flying everywhere, into all mountains and plains all climes and
times, and some are ducks in the sea, and I scarce know what to do about
it. I must see the Coast Ranges and the coast, but I was thinking that
a month or so might answer for the present, and then, instead of spending
the winter in town, I would hide in Yosemite and write, or I thought I
would pack up some meal and dried plums to some deep wind sheltered canyon
back among the glaciers of the summits and write there and be ready to
catch any whisper of ice and snow in these highest storms.
You anticipate all the bends and falls and rapids and cascades of my
mountain life and I know that you say truly about my companions being those
who live with me in the same sky, whether in reach of hand or only of spiritual
contact, which is the most real contact of all. I am learning to live close
to the lives of my friends without ever seeing them. No miles of any measurement
can separate your soul from mine.
[Part of the letter missing.]
The Valley is full of sun but glorious Sierras are piled above
the South Dome and Staff King. I mean the bossy cumuli that are daily upheaved
at this season, making a cloud period yet grander than the rock-sculpturing,
Yosemite making, forest-planting glacial period. Yesterday we had our first
midday shower; the pines waved gloriously at its approach, the woodpeckers
beat about as if alarmed, but the humming-bird moths thought the cloud
shadows belonged to evening and came down to eat among the mints. All the
firs and rocks of Starr King were bathily dripped before the Valley was
vouchsafed a single drop. After the splendid blessing the afternoon was
veiled in calm clouds, and one of intensely beautiful pattern and gorgeously
irised was stationed over Eagle Rock at the sunset. Farewell. . . .
As ever. . . Your friend
Instead of coming down to Oakland he writes to her three weeks later, "My
horse and bread, etc., are ready for upward. I returned three days ago
from Mounts Lyell, McClure, and Hoffmann. I spent three days on a glacier
up there planting stakes, etc. This time I go to the Merced group, one
of whose mountains shelters a glacier. . . . Ink cannot tell the glow that
lights me at this moment in turning to the mountains. I feel strong to
leap Yosemite walls at a bound. Hotels and human impurity will be far below.
I will fuse in spirit skies."
Meanwhile Muir was enlarging the circle of his scientific friends and
strengthening the bonds that united him to old ones. Professor Asa Gray
had returned to Cambridge, enthusiastic about his Yosemite excursions,
and sent Muir a list of live plants he wanted for the Botanic Garden "at
the rate of a cigar box full of each." The latter was still nursing disappointment
that Gray had not accompanied him on an excursion into the high mountains
north of Yosemite. "If you and Mrs. Gray," he writes, "had only exposed
yourselves to the plants and rocks and waters and glaciers of our glorious
High Sierra, I would have been content to have you return to your Cambridge
classes and to all of the just and proper ding dong of civilization."
Mrs. Carr meanwhile was acting as an intermediary between Muir and Professor
Louis Agassiz who was making a brief sojourn in San Francisco, and was
then regarded as the leading authority on glaciation. "I sent to Agassiz,"
she writes, "the [letter] you enclosed. Either that or something from the
papers (New York Tribune clippings) excited him to say with great
warmth, 'Muir is studying to greater purpose and with greater results than
any one else has done.' LeConte told me he spoke of your work with enthusiasm."
Among these new friends was also the noted botanist John Torrey, who,
writing in September, 1872, from the home of his friend Dr. Engelmann in
St. Louis, expressed his great satisfaction over the pleasant and instructive
hours he spent with Muir in Yosemite, and gave an interesting account of
his visit with Dr. Parry at Empire. It was, as Muir noted on the envelope
of Torrey's letter, "his last Yosemite trip," for he died the following
March. "That little Botrychium," adds Torrey in reference to a plant Muir
had sent him, "looks peculiar and I will report on it when I go home."
He never did, and twenty-six years elapsed before any one else found a
plant of this genus in the High Sierra.
From the month of October of this same year, 1872, dates the beginning
of Muir's devoted friendship with the artist William Keith, who, with a
fellow artist by the name of Irwin, came to Yosemite with a letter of introduction
from Mrs. Carr. "I commission Mr. Irwin," writes the latter, "to sketch
you in your hay-rope suspenders, etc., against the day when you are famous
and carry all the letters of the alphabet as a tail to your literary kites.
. . . The Agassizes God bless them, go to-day, taking some of your glacierest
letters, and the slip from the New York Tribune containing 'A Glacier's
Death,' for reading on the way."
And so these letters were lost to the purposes of this biography. But
the following one, in which he gives the first full account of his discovery
of living glaciers in the Sierra Nevada, has fortunately survived the accidents
To Mrs. Ezra S. Carr
Dear Mrs. Carr:
October 8th, 1872
Here we are again, and here is your letter of September 24th. I got
down last eve, and boo! was I not weary? Besides pushing through the rough
upper half of the great Tuolumne Canyon, have climbed more than twenty-four
thousand feet in these ten days!--three times to the top of the glacieret
of Mount Hoff[mann] and once to Mounts Lyell and McClure.
Have bagged a quantity of Tuolumne rocks sufficient to build a dozen
Yosemites. Strips of cascades longer than ever, lacy or smooth, and white
as pressed snow. A glacier basin with ten glassy lakes set all near together
like eggs in a nest. Three El Capitans and a couple of Tissiacks. Canyons
glorious with yellows and reds of mountain maple and aspen and honeysuckle
and ash, and new music immeasurable from strange waters and winds, and
glaciers, too, flowing and grinding, alive as any on earth. Shall I pull
you out some?
Here is a clean white-skinned glacier from the back of McClure with
glassy emerald flesh and singing crystal blood, all bright and pure as
a sky, yet handling mud and stone like a navvy, building moraines like
a plodding Irishman. Here is a cascade two hundred feet wide, half a mile
long, glancing this way and that, filled with bounce and dance and joyous
hurrah, yet earnest as a tempest, and singing like angels loose on a frolic
from heaven. And here [are] more cascades and more--broad and flat like
clouds, and fringed like flowing hair, and falls erect as Pines, and lakes
like glowing eyes. And here are visions, too, and dreams, and a splendid
set of ghosts, too many for ink and narrow paper. . . .
Professor [Samuel] Kneeland, Secretary of the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology, gathered some letters I sent to Runkle and that Tribune
and hashed them into a compost called a paper for the Boston Society of
Natural History and gave me credit for all of the smaller sayings and doings,
and stole the broadest truth to himself. I have the proof sheets of the
paper and will show them to you some time. . . .
As for the living "Glaciers of the Sierra," here is what I have learned
concerning them. You will have the first chalice to steal, for I have just
concluded my experiments on them for the season and have not yet cast them
at any of the great professors or presidents.
One of the yellow days of last October, , when I was among the
mountains of the Merced group, following the footprints of the ancient
glaciers that once flowed grandly from their ample fountains, reading what
I could of their history as written in moraines and canyons and lakes and
carved rocks, I came upon a small stream that was carrying mud of a kind
I had not before seen. In a calm place where the stream widened I collected
some of this mud and observed that it was entirely mineral in composition
and fine as flour like mud from a fine grit grindstone. Before I had time
to reason I said, "Glacier mud!--mountain meal!"
Then I observed that this muddy stream issued from a bank of fresh-quarried
stones and dirt that was sixty or seventy feet in height. This I at once
took to be a moraine. In climbing to the top of it I was struck with the
steepness of its slope and with its raw, unsettled, plantless, new-born
appearance. The slightest touch started blocks of red and black slate,
followed by a rattling train of smaller stones and sand and a cloud of
the dry dust of mud, the whole moraine being as free from lichens and weather-stains
as if dug from the mountain that very day.
When I had scrambled to the top of the moraine I saw what seemed to
be a huge snowbank four or five hundred yards in length by half a mile
in width. Embedded in its stained and furrowed surface were stones and
dirt like that of which the moraine was built. Dirtstained lines curved
across the snowbank from side to side, and when I observed that these curved
lines coincided with the curved moraine, and that the stones and dirt were
most abundant near the bottom of the bank, I shouted, "A living glacier!"
These bent dirt lines show that the ice is flowing in its different parts
with unequal velocity, and these embedded stones are journeying down to
be built into the moraine, and they gradually become more abundant as they
approach the moraine because there the motion is slower.
On traversing my new-found glacier I came to a crevasse down a wide
an jagged portion of which I succeeded in making my way, and discovered
and jagged that my so-called snowbank was clear green ice, and comparing
the form of the basin which it occupied with similar adjacent basins that
were empty I was led to the opinion that this glacier was several hundred
feet in depth.
Then I went to the "snowbanks" of Mounts Lyell and McClure and believed
that they also were true glaciers and that a dozen other snowbanks seen
from the summit of Mount Lyell, crouching in shadow, were glaciers living
as any in the world and busily engaged in completing that vast work of
mountain-making accomplished by their giant relatives now dead, which,
united and continuous, covered all the range from summit to sea like a
But although I was myself thus fully satisfied concerning the real nature
of these ice masses, I found that my friends [An undated
fragmentary letter of 1872, addressed to Mrs. Carr, contains the following
passage: "I had a good letter from LeConte. He evidently doesn't know what
to think of the huge lumps of ice that I sent him. I don't wonder at his
cautious withholding of judgment. When my Mountain Mother first told me
the tale I could hardly dare to believe either and kept saying, 'What?'
like a child half asleep."] regarded my deductions and statements
with distrust. Therefore I determined to collect proofs of the common measured
On the 21st of August last, I planted five stakes in the glacier of
Mount McClure which is situated east of Yosemite Valley near the summit
of the Range. Four of these stakes were extended across the glacier in
a straight line, from the east side to a point near the middle of the glacier.
The first stake was planted about twenty-five yards from the east bank
of the glacier, the second, ninety-four yards, the third, one hundred and
fifty-two, and the fourth, two hundred and twenty-five yards. The positions
of these stakes were determined by sighting across From bank to bank past
a plumb-fine made of a stone and a black horsehair.
On observing my stakes on the 6th of October, or in forty-six days after
being planted, I found that stake No. I had been carried downstream eleven
inches, No. 2, eighteen inches, No. 3, thirty-four, No. 4, forty-seven
inches. As stake No. 4 was near the middle of the glacier, perhaps it was
not far from the point of maximum velocity--forty-seven inches in forty-six
days, or one inch per day. Stake No. 5 was planted about midway between
the head of the glacier and stake No. 4. Its motion I found to be in forty-six
days forty inches.
Thus these ice masses are seen to possess the true glacial motion. Their
surfaces are striped with bent dirt bands. Their surfaces are bulged and
undulated by inequalities in the bottom of their basins, causing an upward
and downward swedging corresponding to the horizontal swedging as indicated
by the curved dirt bands.
The Mount McClure glacier is about one half mile in length and about
at the broad the same in width abroadest place. It is crevassed on the
southeast corner. The crevasse runs about southeast and northeast and is
several hundred yards in length. its width is nowhere more than one foot.
The Mount Lyell glacier, separate from that of McClure by a narrow crest,
is about a mile in width by a mile in length.
I have planted stakes in the glacier of Red Mountain also, but have
not yet observed them.
The Sierras adjacent to the Yosemite granite set on edge at right angles
to the direction of the range, or about N. 30° E., S. 30° W. Also
lines of cleavage cross these, running nearly parallel with the main range.
Also the granite of this region has a horizontal cleavage or stratification.
The first mentioned of these lines have the fullest development, and give
direction and character to many Valleys and canyons and determine the principal
features of many rock forms. No matter how hard and domed and homogeneous
the granite may be, it still possesses these lines of cleavage, which require
only simple conditions of moisture, time, etc., for their development.
But I am not ready to discuss the origin of these planes of cleavage which
make this granite so denudable, nor their full significance with regard
to mountain structure in general. I will only say here that oftentimes
the granite contained between two of these N. 30° E. planes is softer
than that Outside and has been denuded, leaving vertical walls as determined
by the direction of the cleavage, thus giving, rise to those narrow slotted
canyons called "Devil's slides," "Devil's lanes," "Devil's gateways," etc.
In many places in the higher portions of the Sierra these slotted canyons
are filled with "snow," which I thought might prove to be ice--might prove
to be living glaciers still engaged in cutting into the mountains like
To decide this question on the 23rd of August last, I set two stakes
in the narrow slot glacier of Mount Hoffmann, marking their position by
sighting across from wall to wall, as I did on the McClure glacier, but
on visiting them a month afterwards I found that they had been melted out,
and I was unable to decide anything with any considerable degree of accuracy.
On the 4th of October last I stretched a small trout-line across the
glacier, fastening both ends in the solid banks, which at this place were
only sixteen feet apart. I set a short inflexible stake in the ice so as
just to touch the tightly drawn line, by which means I was enabled to measure
the flow of the glacier with great exactness.
Examining this stake in twenty-four hours after setting it, I found
that it had been carried down about three sixteenths of an inch. At the
end of four days I again examined it, and found that the whole downward
motion was thirteen sixteenths of an inch, showing that the flow of this
glacieret was perfectly regular.
In accounting for these narrow lane canyons so common here, I had always
referred them to ice action in connection with special conditions of cleavage,
and I was gratified to find that their formation was still going on. This
Hoffmann glacieret is about one thousand feet long by fifteen to thirty
feet wide, and perhaps about one hundred feet deep in deepest places.
Now, then, Mrs. Carr, I must hasten back to the mountains. I'll go tomorrow.
This letter forms the kernel of an article, "Living Glaciers of California,"
which he published in the Overland Monthly
of December, 1872. The
following January it was reprinted in Silliman's Journal of Science
, and so was brought to the attention of a wide circle of scientific
men. The blank stubbornness of the prejudices by which Muir was opposed
at this time is revealed in the fact that ten years after Muir had published
his discovery, and the facts had been confirmed by Professor LeConte and
accepted by leading geologists, Professor Whitney asserted in one of his
papers, "It may be stated that there are no glaciers at all in the Sierra
Nevada. . . . There are certainly none in the higher portions of the Sierra
Nevada or Rocky Mountains, these most elevated regions having been sufficiently
explored to ascertain that fact." When Israel C. Russell, of the United
States Geological Survey, wrote his treatise Glaciers of North America,
Muir full credit for his discovery, he called attention to this curiously
dogmatic statement, and to the fact that Clarence King "also rejected Mr.
Muir's observations as is shown by several emphatic passages in his report
on the exploration of the fortieth parallel."
In the following letter, of which the first part is missing, Muir records
some observations regarding the amount of erosion accomplished by water,
as compared with ice, since the close of the last glacial epoch. Attention
should be called also to Muir's observation that, viewed from mountain
tops, the outlines of moraines about Yosemite are marked by fir forests.
To Mrs. Ezra S. Carr
. . . The bottom portion of the foregoing section, with perpendicular sides
is here about two feet in depth and was cut by the water. The Nevada here
was more than four or five feet deep, and all of the bank records of
all the upper streams say the same thing of the absence of great floods.
The entire region above Yosemite and as far down as the bottom of Yosemite
has scarcely been touched by any other denudation than that of ice. Perhaps
all of the post-glacial denudation of every kind would not average an inch
in depth for the whole region.
Yosemite and Hetch Hetchy are lake basins filled with sand and the matter
of moraines washed from the upper canyons. The Yosemite ice in escaping
from the Yosemite basin was compelled to flow upward a considerable height
on both sides of the bottom walls of the Valley. The canyon below the Valley
is very crooked and very narrow, and the Yosemite glacier flowed across
all of its crooks and high above its walls without paying any compliance
to it, thus: [drawing]. The light lines show the direction of the ice current
text of this letter is taken from a typewritten copy of the original which
has been lost. Hence it is not possible to reproduce the drawings which
was a part of the original letter.].
In going up any of the principal Yosemite streams, lakes in all stages
of decay are found in great abundance regularly becoming younger until
we reach the almost countless gems of the summits with scarce an inch of
carex upon their shallow sandy borders, and with their bottoms still bright
with the polish of ice. Upon the Nevada and its branches there are not
fewer than a hundred of these glacial lakes from a mile to a hundred yards
in diameter, with countless glistening pondlets not much larger than moons.
All of the grand fir forests about the Valley are planted upon moraines
and from any of the mountain tops the shape and extent of the neighboring
moraines may always be surely determined by the firs growing upon them.
Some pines will grow upon shallow sand and crumbling granite, but those
luxuriant forests of the silver firs are always upon a generous bed of
glacial drift. I discovered a moraine with smooth pebbles upon a shoulder
of the South Dome, and upon every part of the Yosemite upper and lower
I am surprised to find that water has had so little to do with mountain
structure here. Whitney says that there is no proof that glaciers ever
flowed in this Valley, yet its walls have not been eroded to the depth
of an inch since the ice left it, and glacial action is glaringly apparent
many miles below the Valley.
In concluding this chapter a few comments are in place on the historical
significance of the foregoing series of letters and published communications
from the pen of John Muir. One writer, mistaking the facts, has claimed
for Clarence King the honor of having been "the first to point out the
Prominent role which the ice of the glacial epochs must have played in
the elaboration of the Yosemite Valley." For two decisive reasons this
claim is void. In the first place, King believed that the ice gave nothing
to the Valley but a little polishing, and in the next place he did not
himself publish anything upon the subject until after William Phipps Blake
and John Muir were already in print with their observations. Nor am I able
to find that King, when he did publish, added any important scientific
item to what Muir had already said more fully in his Tribune
Since Blake, as previously noted, attributed the erosion of Yosemite to
water pouring down from glaciers above the Valley, and not to the abrasion
of glaciers themselves, Muir stands out alone as the first one who demonstrated
the part that ice played in the making of Yosemite. He, too, was the first
one to point out how the glacial action was controlled by the peculiar
structure and jointing of the granite. Others who have written upon this
feature have in good part only followed in his footsteps.
It would have been interesting if Clarence King and John Muir could
have been brought together for a discussion of their theories and observations.
But so far as we are able to ascertain they never met personally. From
Whitney's report The Geology of the Sierra Nevada, Muir knew that
King had noted the existence of moraines in Yosemite Valley. But Whitney,
in recording the fact, treated King's observations somewhat cavalierly,
and four years later stigmatized them as erroneous. Thereafter the decidedly
adverse views of his chief probably prevented King from leaving the question
of glacial action and the origin of Yosemite open for further investigation.
At any rate, six years later King, in his article entitled "The Range,"
expressly exempts Yosemite from formation by streams and ice, and classifies
it as one of those "most impressive passages of the Sierra Valleys that
are actual ruptures of the rock; either the engulfinent of masses of great
size, as Professor Whitney supposes in explanation of the peculiar form
of Yosemite, or a splitting asunder in yawning cracks!" The latter was
apparently King's own view.
Muir regarded his Tribune article in 1871 as only a preliminary
statement of his views, continuing meanwhile his study and exploration
of the Sierra Nevada, with Yosemite as his base, until 1874. In that year
he published, in the Overland Monthly, his series of articles under
the general title of "Studies in the Sierra." [The titles
of the individual "Studies" are: 1. "Mountain Sculpture," May, 1874; 2,
"Origin of Yosemite Valleys," June, 1874; 3. "Ancient Glaciers and their
Pathways," July, 1874; 4. "Glacial Denudation," August, 1874; 5. '"Post-Glacial
Denudation," November, 1874; 6. "Formation of Soils," December, 1874; 7.
"Mountain-Building," January, 1875. Reprinted with the inclusion of Muir's
typographical corrections, in the Sierra Club Bulletin, Vols. IX-XI
(1915-21). For a convenient summary of Muir's views on Yosemite glaciation
the reader is referred to The Yosemite (1912).] These articles
were a remarkable achievement for the time when they were written and contain
the condensed results of five years of careful and detailed field-work.
From 1869 to 1874 he had spent the whole of every summer season in the
High Sierra, reading, as he put it, "the glacial manuscripts of God." Thereafter
these studies were continued intermittently for another five years, so
that in 1879 he could say that he had devoted ten years of his life to
the interpretation of the Sierra Nevada. Numerous notebooks and sketches
attest his industry as well as the minuteness and care with which he went
over every part of the region.
When the Sierra Club began to republish Muir's "Studies in the Sierra,"
the noted geologist E. C. Andrews, of the Geological Survey of Australia,
wrote to Secretary William E. Colby:
John Muir's note on glacial action is very fine indeed. In
Muir you had a man in America long ago who explained the action of ice-rivers,
and it was really quite unnecessary to have waited until Henry Gannett
made his great rediscovery or, rather, belated contribution to glacial
studies. John Muir evidently was not understood stood in his generation,
but he will surely come to his own now, and he will become one of the "immortals"--one
who illustrated the force of the passages, "Blessed are the meek, for they
shall inherit the earth," and "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they
shall see God.". . . Had I had access to the treasure house of knowledge
afforded by the Sierra Club's reprint of Muir's notes, I would have written
a much better note on "An Excursion to the Yosemite" in 1910, as I would
have had a much larger number of valuable facts to draw upon than I had
as a result of my limited observations alone.
It is interesting to compare this retrospective tribute with a forward-looking
one in a paper read before the Rhode Island Historical Society, in 1872.
The writer, John Erastus Lester, met Muir in Yosemite and refers to him
as one, "who, Hugh Miller like, is studying the rocks in and around the
Valley. . . . He is by himself pursuing a course of geological studies,
and is making careful drawings of different parts of the gorge. No doubt
he is more thoroughly acquainted with this Valley than any one else. He
has been far up the Sierras where glaciers are now in action, ploughing
deep depressions in the mountains. He has made a critical examination of
the superincumbent rocks, and already has much material upon which to form
a correct theory."Muir did not take up the question as to what the physical
contours of the Yosemite region were before the last glacial epoch. In
assuming that they were comparatively simple, many competent to form a
judgment think he is more likely to have been right than those who speculate
about a pre-glacial Yosemite. As for the doctrine of two distinct glaciations
of the Sierra Nevada, recently advanced, most students of the question
probably will agree with Professor Lawson that this is a theory that "must
be subjected to much more critical study before it can be accepted by geologists
as an established fact." In evaluating Muir's work it must be borne in
mind that he was contending against a theory which eliminated glaciers
altogether from the causes that led to the formation of Yosemite. To have
injected into his disproof of that theory speculations about a pre-glacial
Yosemite would only have weakened, in his days, the penetrative power of
Now that time has mellowed the issues that once were so hotly debated,
and death has removed the actors in the explorers' drama to that bourn
whence no traveller returns, we may attempt the task of calmly assessing
the originality and importance of the work which these early investigators
have severally done. This is not the place to go into details, although
we have looked into the work of each of these men with care. But even in
the light of the facts presented it will, I think, be conceded without
question that Muir was not only the first, but the only one who has presented
a reasoned and systematic account of the glaciation of the Sierra Nevada,
and who recognized the fact that the origin of Yosemite Valley cannot be
separated from the origin of similar Yosemites in the Sierra Nevada. Indeed,
the very use of the word "yosemite" in the generic sense was originated
by him, and as such contains the essence of his denial of Whitney's and
King's assumption that the Valley was of unique cataclysmic origin. In
his main contention he was right, and the extent to which his minor conclusions
may be modified by advancing geological science is a question quite apart
from the credit that belongs to him as the greatest of the pioneer students
of the Yosemite problem.
To one who now looks back upon Muir's glacial explorations through his
letters, the practical profit of these years of intense preoccupation and
activity may seem disproportionately small. But it is all a matter of time
and scale and the kind of values for which one is looking. As Sir E. Ray
Lankester says in his Diversions of a Naturalist, a man's pursuit
of science has been sufficiently profitable if "it has given him a new
and unassailable outlook on all things both great and small. Science commends
itself to us as does Honesty and as does great Art and all fine thought
and deed--not as a policy yielding material profits, but because it satisfies
Muir's letters show that these deeper satisfactions of the soul were
his in full measure during these years. There were those among his friends
who again and again in their letters expressed their longing for his peace
of mind. "I can see you sitting, reading this," wrote Thérèse
Yelverton in 1872, "in some quiet spot in the evening, with all nature
as calm and still as your own heart. I used to envy you that, for mine
will not be still, but is restless and unquiet." To all such longings he
could but say in one form or another, "Camp out among the grass and gentians
of glacier meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of Nature's darlings. Climb
the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into
you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness
into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn
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