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John Muir

by Alexander McAdie

From Sierra Club Bulletin, John Muir Memorial Number, Vol. 10, No. 1 (January, 1916).

A scientific friend* recently sent me some measurements of the displacement of earth particles at Ottawa caused by a mountain slide in the Pamir. Seismographs in the Dominion Observatory (and elsewhere) had faithfully recorded the train of earth waves started by the trembling range ten thousand miles away. Moreover it was possible to determine the mass, momentum and energy involved in this fall of a mountain. John Muir would have been interested in these measurements made at a distance, but undoubtedly would have been far more interested in a description of the fall itself, and would have cheerfully started at a moment's notice for Afghanistan or the uttermost part of the earth is assured that another gigantic slide were imminent. Entirely regardless of comfort or personal security he would have watched the mountain fall, exulting in the rare privilege of thus viewing at close range the making and unmaking of the "eternal" hills. We would have had a description, both accurate and eloquent, for he would have written into it not only what the eye beheld, but much that other men must have failed to note, because they failed to feel. His nature was keenly sensitive to the significance of motion in inanimate things. One recalls his story of the earthquake in the Yosemite. "A noble earthquake," he cried, as he ran from his tent in the early morning to get a better view of what was happening in the Valley. This was the famous Inyo earthquake of March 26, 1872, about 2:30 a.m., with aftershocks until 6:30 a.m., and probably the greatest seismic disturbance that has occurred in the United States for two centuries. It was quite severe in the whole Sierra zone, and of course to those who were in the Yosemite at the time was a most terrifying experience. Mr. Muir often described the scene to the writer and fellow members of the Sierra Club. It is plain that after the first two or three seconds of doubt and trepidation, Muir realized what was happening and enthusiastically welcomed such an opportunity for close observation of the swaying trees, and the piling up of the talus by the torrent of rocks from the cliffs, forming a luminous bow as they fell. His intense interest and forgetfulness of self were not assumed, but the natural expression of a spirit all eager to observe and interpret, if he could, the shaking earth and allied phenomena. He was probably the one man in the Valley who kept his head while these unnerving events were in progress.

He had many stirring adventures while climbing and roaming. One in particular was in later years somewhat joculary referred to as "a personally conducted ride on an avalanche," although at the time it was anything but a jocular matter. Here again Muir showed remarkable presence of mind. And how he exulted in the mountain storms! Nothing of their majesty and might escaped his notice. He knew them well, from the towering cumulo-nimbus, whose slow upbuilding foretold the coming thunder, to the wild rush and wrestling of the blast with the forest monarchs. Sprung from a long line of Highland forebears, he scanned with critical eye the gray low-flying scud and the fast falling flakes that blotted out the landscape and bewildered men. To Muir these were never-to-be-forgotten and ever-to-be-enjoyed manifestations of Nature's might and her thousand ways of casting forth her strength.

Or turning from scenes of elemental strife to those of elemental calm, we can picture him keeping lonely vigil on the summit of Whitney. Wandering as night falls, near the crest of the range, the solitary figure looms large against the sky-line. Out of the world, yet in it; no human hand within touching distance, no human habitation within a day's march; serene and self-poised, like one of the prophets of old he strays from men. And as the sun passes below the farther peaks, and darkness broods o'er the vast stretch of earth, he holds communion with the friendly stars, nor knows nor feels his loneliness.

Of all the mountains he had visited, and he had climbed many in all parts of the world, his heart ever turned to and yearned most for the Sierra, or, as he called them, the Mountains of Light. They were his constant inspiration, and all their varying moods he knew and loved. Loitering through the meadows or scaling the heights, Muir was here at home and at his best. Not infrequently he was called upon to act as guide, interpreter and host to those who came from afar. For all such he mixed with the independence of a mountaineer a true Highland hospitality. It was delightful to hear him tell of Emerson's visit, all too brief, or the later, longer outing of an intrepid former president, who insisted on having Muir for his escort and Muir only. Both saw to it that the trivialities of city life were left behind and forgotten. There was no room for artificialities in the friendly mountains. Rather the long day's tramp, the inspiring views, the refreshment of the mountain stream, the growing appetite, the simple meal, the quiet mind, the pine-bough bed and restful sleep beside the camp-fire, that, flickering, threw into bolder relief the sentinel Sequoia.

Muir was the keenest of observers and no mean scientist; but it was his power of expression and gift of interpretation that made him known among men. He was able to convey to others a full measure of his own enthusiasm, and kindle in them an unquenchable longing for out-of-door life, and golden, glorious days and nights in Nature's own playground, the mountains. This was Muir's mission and at it he wrought diligently. His influence was not confined to one city or one State. It is indeed a question if this was not greater in distant lands than in the State and section where he dwelt and which he loved so well.

When a mountain falls and jars the planet's crust, the earth waves spread in all directions with ever widening circles but ever diminishing energy. When a great man passes from the sunlit way, human interest is stirred in many lands, but there is no lessening of appreciation and sympathy with increasing distance. Thus it is with Muir. He stood as a great advocate for the preservation of the wild and the beautiful; he gave the best that was in him to the service of men; he strove earnestly to turn their thoughts from the daily routine, with its unrest and turmoil, to the peace and beauty of the hills.

His eloquent sentences will remain as long as our mother tongue endures; his pleadings will not lose their force, and his influence can but spread and strengthen as he years pass.

* Dr. Otto Klotz, thc Dominion Astronomer.

Source: Sierra Club Bulletin, Vol. 10, No. 1 (1916 January)

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