Printer-friendly version Share:  Share this page on FacebookShare this page on TwitterShare this page by emailShare this page with other services

Nature and the Human Spirit: The Transformation of Henry Loomis

by Ronald H. Limbaugh

(Reprinted from the John Muir Newsletter , Vol. 2, No. 4, Fall 1992)

A few years ago, while working on a research project at Yale's Sterling Memorial Library, I ran across a 90-page handwritten journal written by Henry Bradford Loomis, son of a prominent Yale mathematician and astronomer, an irresolute companion of John Muir during a three-month trip to Alaska in 1890. In labored but legible longhand, Loomis chronicled the expedition [1] . It is a fascinating record. Not only does it provide a starkly contrasting view to Muir's glowing nature prose in Travels in Alaska [2] , it also documents a transformation in the mind of its author. It is a demonstrable example of what environmental advocates have often described as the "healing power of nature" [3] .

Loomis was a young Seattle attorney whom Muir had met during the California Scot's trip north in 1888 to climb Mount Rainier. They agreed to meet again two years later for a joint Alaska excursion [4] . Rendezvousing at Port Townsend on June 17, they traveled by steamship to Fort Wrangel, then on to Glacier Bay, which they reached the morning of June 23. As soon as they unloaded their gear, Muir took a jaunt alone while Loomis stayed in camp, trying to keep warm without a fire. The contrast between the ship's creature comforts and the icy blast of an Arctic storm quickly drained the lawyer's enthusiasm. He began to have second thoughts which must have increased as he watched the steamer sail out of the Bay, leaving him stranded for a week. Muir returned late that afternoon, determined to camp near the glacier, but Loomis complained about the lack of a good campsite, with no trees or timber in sight, a "chilling wind," and "no wood worth mentioning." "It is a wilderness of ice & rocks, and a cold, barren & dreary place to camp - even for one interested in science." They made a crude shelter for their provisions and ptched a tent, but Loomis continued to grumble.

His foul mood matched the weather for the next two days. Following breakfast the morning after they landed, they ventured out along the glacier face--"a dangerous place," wrote Loomis. Bad weather limited their visibility, and even Muir thought it best to stay in camp the following day. All day they fought a gale-force wind that nearly blew away their tent and forced them to go to bed to keep warm. The gale slackened a bit by June 26, and Muir was anxious to travel.

Loomis reluctantly followed but was miserable all day: "We took a walk in drizzling rain about 1 1/2 miles up to glacier," he wrote. "It was dismal tramp over ice & rocks & glacial mud. No one but an enthusiast would have taken such a walk at such a time. Mr Muir is very deeply interested in t. subject of glaciers -(some would say a crank) ..." After another 2-mile walk in similar conditions they sat down to rest. Loomis" mood was as dark as the low clouds overhead: "to me it seemed dreary & dismal," he wrote, "But Mr. Muir evidently was not thinking of t. rain & mud--for he said to me "Isn't this lovely"? I replied 'Well, I have seen things more lovely.'"

On July 1 the steamer returned, to Loomis' great relief. After warming up aboard and savoring a hearty meal for lunch, his spirits revived. On board were four more eager explorers, including Professor Harry Fielding Reid of the Case School of Applied Science in Cleveland. They invited Muir and Loomis to join them for the next two weeks trekking around Glacier Bay. Muir was delighted, and how could Loomis refuse another test of manliness?

Two more weeks ashore tempered Loomis' outlook. His journal records not only the passage of time but also the change of mood. By July 13 he found, to his own amazement, that the bad weather had had no ill effects--indeed, had actually improved his health, as Muir assured him it would:

It is remarkable that we have not caught cold--sleeping as we have exposed in the open air, or in an airy tent, where t. wind blows continually hard & cold--especially sence [sic] our feet have been frequently & (for long times) wet & cold-all day and a number of times we have been so cold that we were obliged to go to bed to get warm. I have not had a cold since I started fr. home (two months ago] and not a touch of catarrh - and Mr. Muir has recovered entirely fr. a severe cold wh. he had on his lungs when he arrived here and wh. he contracted before he left his home in California.

Muir parted company with Loomis and the rest of the expedition on July 21, sledding for eleven days on a hazardous solo trek. He rejoined the party the first week of August, resiliant and filled with adventures that Loomis enthusiastically described in his journal [5] .

Thereafter Loomis' journal notes show a remarkable metamorphosis. He begins to sing the glacier song. His earlier gloom-and-doom notations give way to a Muirlike rhapsodizing. With a box camera he returned to Muir glacier on August 5, observing "many beautiful ice formations" and stopping to admire the "beautiful little points of crystal ice arranged like gems along t. edges of streams, rivulets & pools of water. They glistened in t. sunshine like diamonds, these little ice crystals & twinkled like stars. They assume infinite variety of fantastic shapes...."

Standing in the middle of Muir Glacier Loomis saw not dreary ice but "a glorious sight," with "a great ice-sea" surrounding him on all sides, and with peaks "completely encircling [the] great glacier like an amphitheatre...." In the depths below he noticed the "solemn grinding sound of t. moulins - in contrast w. t. sweet-toned, gentle, sound of t. little brooks flowing on t. ice...." His final journal entry shows how completely he had been transformed after six weeks at Glacier Bay. It concludes with an opinion his Scottish companion would surely have seconded: "Here is a magnificent picture of nature"s wondrous power & beauty."


  1. Henry B. Loomis, Alaska Journal, 1890. HMS, 90 p. Elias Loomis Papers, Yale University Library. All journal quotes hereafter are from this item.

  2. For Muir's account of the same trip, see Travels in Alaska (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, c1915), pp. 273-293.

  3. John Muir, John of the Mountains . Edited by Linnie Marsh Wolfe (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979, c1938), 234. See also Robert Marshall, "Wilderness," 163, and Roderick Nash, "Wilderness Advocacy," 265, in American Environmentalism , 3rd edition, edited by Roderick Nash (New York: McGraw-Hill, c1990).

  4. John Muir, Alaska Notes Summer of 1890, AMS (notebook) [1895], pp. 18-19, in John Muir Papers, Microfilm edition, Reel 33 at 01404.

  5. For details of Muir's 1890 sled trip, see Travels in Alaska , 294-311.

Sierra Club® and "Explore, enjoy and protect the planet"® are registered trademarks of the Sierra Club. © 2024 Sierra Club.
The Sierra Club Seal is a registered copyright, service mark, and trademark of the Sierra Club.