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

Letter to Joseph Hooker, February 1, 1879

by John Muir


920 Valencia Street San Francisco Feb 1st 1879

Sir Joseph Hooker.

Dear Sir,

I was delighted the other day on receiving your paper on the distribution of the North American flora. It came while I was away in the Great Basin, so that I received it only a few days ago. The explanation you present of the rarity of East Asiatic types in America, west of the prairie region, is most interesting and I would like to offer you here a few facts bearing upon the question, gleaned in the Great Basin between the Sierra Nevada and the Wasatch mountains during the last three years.

Last summer I travelled over 2,800 miles on horseback crossing the Basin in a wide zigzag between the 38th and 40th parallels. I found the average elevation of the numerous mountains to be about 9,000ft above sea level. The highest point in the basin is the summit of Mt Wheeler, on the Snake Range, near the Utah - Nevada boundary, 12,800 feet.

The average elevation of the "sinks" and intervening valleys is about 5,000 feet - of the whole Basin if levelled - mountains and valleys - about 5,800 or 6,000 feet. I found glacial traces in great abundance on all the ranges, quite fresh on the higher ones, as the Toiyabe, Toquima (??), White Pine, Golden Gate and Snake Ranges; more obscure on the lower and more weathered. The last of the Basin glaciers have but recently vanished. I also found evidence that shows conclusively that the lowlands as well as the highlands were covered with ice, but I cannot present it in a mere letter. I will however, give a few of the more important generalisations, based upon the observed facts.

1. At the beginning of the glacial period, the region now known as the Great Basin, was an elevated tableland, not furrowed as at present with parallel valleys and mountain ranges, but comparatively bald and featureless.

2. This ancient tableland, bounded on the east and west by lofty mountain ranges, but open to the north and south, was loaded with ice , which was discharged to the ocean both northward and southward, and in its flow brought most if not all of the interior ranges into relief by erosion.

3. As the Glacial winter drew near its close, the ice vanished from the lower portions of the basin, which then became lakes, into which separate glaciers descended from the mountains. Then these mountain glaciers vanished in turn after sculpturing the ranges into their present condition.

4. The few immense lakes, extending over most of the lowlands, and in the midst of which many of the interior ranges stood as islands, became shallow as the ice vanished from the highlands and separated into many distinct lakes whose waters no longer reached the ocean, and finally disappeared by the filling in of their basins and the general dessication of the climate, all save a few fed by streams from the Sierra and Wahsatch. These dry lake basins now form the Sage and Alkali plains.

The transition from one to the other of these conditions was gradual and orderly: first a nearly simple tableland. Then a grand mer de glace shedding its slow-crawling currents to the ocean and becoming gradually more wrinkled as unequal erosion roughened its bed and brought its highest ridges above the surface. Then a land of lakes, an almost continuous sheet of water from the Sierra to the Wahsatch, adorned with innumerable mountain islands. Then a slow dessication and decay to present conditions.

Such a mer de glace would form a fine barrier to the northward march of your Asiatic plants and hold them perhaps until they perished or came into competition with others better adapted to the changed conditions.

Seropis (??) fine book which you sent me long ago, reached me since I began this letter. Gray kept it some time and finally sent it out here by Sargent, who gave it to one of the members of the Academy of Sciences. I have not yet read it, but am glad to get hold of so comprehensive a collection of facts relating to an agent that plays so important a part in the baking and breaking and building of our fine world, and will doubtless find it very interesting. When are you going to pay us another visit?

What conclusions have you reached with regard to our pines and Silver firs. I found the true (?) P. Flexilis on all the higher ranges of the Great Basin. It also grows on the eastern slope of the southern Sierra. P. Balfouriana is compounded I think with P. Monticola and aristata. I fund P. edulis in western Utah mingling with P. Monophylla

Cordially yours, John Muir.


Source: Kew Gardens archives, London, England; transcribed by Graham White

Acquired November 11, 1999



Home | Alphabetical Index | What's New | Message Board


Sierra Club® and "Explore, enjoy and protect the planet"® are registered trademarks of the Sierra Club. © 2021 Sierra Club.
The Sierra Club Seal is a registered copyright, service mark, and trademark of the Sierra Club.