THE ten months' interval of
Muir's Oakland sojourn made a complete break in his accustomed activities.
It was a storm and stress period to which he refers afterward as "the
strange Oakland epoch," and we are left to infer that the strangeness
consisted chiefly in the fact that he was housebound by his own choice, to
be sure, but nevertheless shut away from the free life of the mountains. It
is not surprising, perhaps, that this period is marked by an almost complete
stoppage of his correspondence, though he never was more continuously busy
with his pen than during these months.
Easily the foremost literary
journal of the Pacific Coast at that time was the "Overland Monthly." It had
been founded in 1868, and Bret Harte was the man to whom it owed both its
beginning and the fame it achieved under his editorship. The magazine,
however, was not a profit-yielding enterprise, for John H. Carmany, its
owner, professed to have lost thirty thousand dollars in his endeavor to
make it pay. In a sheaf of reminiscences written years afterward, he reveals
the double reason why the magazine proved expensive and why so many
distinguished names, such as those of Mark Twain, Joaquin Miller, Ambrose
Bierce, Edward Rowland Sill, Bret Harte, and John Muir, appear on its roll
of contributors. "They have reason to remember me," he wrote, "for never
have such prices been paid for poems, stories, and articles as I paid to the
writers of the old 'Overland.'"
Bret Harte, balking at a
contract designed to correct his dilatory literary habits, left the magazine
in 1871, and, after several unsatisfactory attempts to supply his place,
Benjamin P. Avery became editor of the "Overland." In March, 1874, he wrote
a letter acknowledging the first number of Muir's notable series of "Studies
in the Sierra," thereby disclosing what the latter had been doing during the
winter months. "I am delighted," he tells Muir, "with your very original and
clearly written paper on 'Mountain Sculpture' which reveals the law beneath
the beauty of mountain and rock forms." This article, accompanied by
numerous illustrative line drawings, appeared as the leading contribution in
May and was followed in monthly succession by six others, in the order given
in an earlier chapter.
Not many weeks after the
receipt of this initial article, Mr. Avery accepted an appointment as
Minister to China. "Not ambition for honors," he wrote to Muir, "but the
compulsion of broken health made me risk a foreign appointment, and I
especially regret that the opportunity to share in the publication of your
valuable papers, and to know you most intimately, is to be lost to me." To
the deep regret of his friends, Avery died in China the following year. Mr.
Carmany, despairing of the "Overland" as a financial venture, let it come to
an end in 1875, and Muir, when his current engagements were discharged,
formed new literary connections.
There can be no doubt that
during the closing years of the magazine, 1874-75, Muir's articles
constituted by far the most significant contribution. It was in good measure
due to Mrs. Carr that he was finally induced to write this series of "Sierra
Studies." She had even suggested suspension of correspondence in order to
enable him to accomplish the task. "You told me I ought to abandon letter
writing," he wrote to her on Christmas day, 1872, "and I see plainly enough
that you are right in this, because my correspondence has gone on increasing
year by year and has become far too bulky and miscellaneous in its
character, and consumes too much of my time. Therefore I mean to take your
advice and allow broad acres of silence to spread between my letters,
however much of self-denial may be demanded."
In the same letter, which a strange combination
of circumstances has just brought to light again after fifty-two years, he
expresses pungently that distaste for the mechanics of writing which
undoubtedly accounts in part for the relative smallness of his formal
Book-making frightens me [he declares], because it demands so much
artificialness and retrograding. Somehow, up here in these fountain skies
[of Yosemite] I feel like a flake of glass through which light passes, but
which, conscious of the inexhaustibleness of its sun fountain, cares not
whether its passing light coins itself into other forms or goes unchanged -
neither charcoaled nor diamonded! Moreover, I find that though I have a few
thoughts entangled in the fibres of my mind, I possess no words into which I
can shape them. You tell me that I must be patient and reach out and grope
in lexicon granaries for the words I want. But if some loquacious angel were
to touch my lips with literary fire, bestowing every word of Webster, I
would scarce thank him for the gift, because most of the words of the
English language are made of mud, for muddy purposes, while those invented
to contain spiritual matter are doubtful and unfixed in capacity and form,
as wind-ridden mist-rags.
These mountain fires that glow in one's blood
are free to all, but I cannot find the chemistry that may press them
unimpaired into booksellers' bricks. True, with that august instrument, the
English language, in the manufacture of which so many brains have been
broken, I can proclaim to you that moonshine is glorious, and sunshine more
glorious, that winds rage, and waters roar, and that in 'terrible times'
glaciers guttered the mountains with their hard cold snouts. This is about
the limit of what I feel capable of doing for the public - the moiling,
squirming, fog-breathing public. But for my few friends I can do more
because they already know the mountain harmonies and can catch the tones I
gather for them, though written in a few harsh and gravelly sentences.
There was another aspect of writing that Muir
found irksome and that was its solitariness. Being a fluent and vivid
conversationalist, accustomed to the excitation of eager hearers, he missed
the give-and-take of conversation when he sat down with no company but that
of his pen. Even the writing of a letter to a friend had something of the
conversational about it. But to write between four walls for the "Babylonish
mobs" that hived past his window was another matter. Fresh from Cassiope,
the heather of the High Sierra, aglow with enthusiasm for the beauty that
had burned itself into his soul, he could but wonder and grow indignant at
the stolid self-sufficiency of "the metallic, money-clinking crowds," among
whom he felt himself as alien as any Hebrew psalmist or prophet by the
waters of Babylon.
is not to be wondered at, therefore, that this first sojourn in the San
Francisco Bay region was for Muir a kind of exile under which he evidently
chafed a good deal. His human environment was so unblushingly materialistic
that, in spite of a few sympathetic friends, it seemed to him well-nigh
impossible to obtain a hearing on behalf of Nature from any other standpoint
than that of commercial utility. On this point he differed trenchantly with
his contemporaries and doubtless engaged in a good many arguments, for his
frankness and downright sincerity did not permit him to compromise the
supremacy of values which by his own standard far exceeded those of
commercialism. It is by reference to such verbal passages of arms that we
must explain his allusion, in the following letter, to "all the morbidness
that has been hooted at me."
The issue was one which, in his own mind, he had
settled fundamentally on his thousand- mile walk to the Gulf, but which
challenged him again at every street corner in Oakland, and he was not the
man to retire from combat in such a cause. He was, in fact, an eager and
formidable opponent. "No one who did not know Muir in those days," remarked
one of his old friends to me, "can have any conception of Muir's brilliance
as a conversational antagonist in an argument." The world made especially
for the uses of man? "Certainly not," said Muir. "No dogma taught by the
present civilization forms so insuperable an obstacle to a right
understanding of the relations which human culture sustains to wildness.
Every animal, plant, and crystal controverts it in the plainest terms. Yet
it is taught from century to century as something ever new and precious, and
in the resulting darkness the enormous conceit is allowed to go
grilling in his very blood over this huckster appraisement of Nature, Muir
labored hard and continuously with his pen throughout the winter and the
following spring and summer. When autumn came he had completed not only his
seven "Studies in the Sierra," but had also written a paper entitled
"Studies in the Formation of Mountains in the Sierra Nevada" for the
American Association for the Advancement of Science, and articles on "Wild
Sheep of California" and "Byways of Yosemite Travel." About this time his
health had begun to suffer from excessive confinement and irregular diet at
restaurants, so, yielding with sudden resolution to an overpowering longing
for the mountains, he set out again for Yosemite. The following letter in
which his correspondence with Mrs. Carr reaches its highest level and, in a
sense, its conclusion, celebrates his escape from an uncongenial
Ezra S. Carr
VALLEY, [September, 1874]
DEAR MRS. CARR:
Here again are pine trees, and the wind, and
living rock and water! I've met two of my ouzels on one of the pebble
ripples of the river where I used to be with them. Most of the meadow
gardens are disenchanted and dead, yet I found a few mint spikes and asters
and brave, sunful goldenrods and a patch of the tiny Mimulus that has two
spots on each lip. The fragrance and the color and the form, and the whole
spiritual expression of goldenrods are hopeful and strength-giving beyond
any other flowers that I know. A single spike is sufficient to heal unbelief
leaving Oakland I was so excited over my escape that, of course, I forgot
and left all the accounts I was to collect. No wonder, and no matter. I'm
beneath that grand old pine that I have heard so often in storms both at
night and in the day. It sings grandly now, every needle sun-thrilled and
shining and responding tunefully to the azure wind.
When I left I was in a dreamy exhausted daze.
Yet from mere habit or instinct I tried to observe and study. From the car
window I watched the gradual transitions from muddy water, spongy tule,
marsh and level field as we shot up the San Jose Valley, and marked as best
I could the forms of the stream canons as they opened to the plain and the
outlines of the undulating hillocks and headlands between. Interest
increased at every mile, until it seemed unbearable to be thrust so flyingly
onward even towards the blessed Sierras. I will study them yet, free from
time and wheels. When we turned suddenly and dashed into the narrow mouth of
the Livermore pass I was looking out of the right side of the car. The
window was closed on account of the cinders and smoke from the locomotive.
All at once my eyes clasped a big hard rock not a hundred yards away, every
line of which is as strictly and outspokenly glacial as any of the most
alphabetic of the high and young Sierra. That one sure glacial word thrilled
and overjoyed me more than you will ever believe. Town smokes and shadows
had not dimmed my vision, for I had passed this glacial rock twice before
without reading its meaning.
As we proceeded, the general glacialness of the
range became more and more apparent, until we reached Pleasanton where once
there was a grand mer de glace. Here the red sun went down in a cloudless
glow and I leaned back, happy and weary and possessed with a lifeful of
Lathrop we suppered and changed cars. The last of the daylight had long
faded and I sauntered away from the din while the baggage was being
transferred. The young moon hung like a sickle above the shorn wheat fields,
Ursa Major pictured the northern sky, the Milky Way curved sublimely through
the broadcast stars like some grand celestial moraine with planets for
boulders, and the whole night shone resplendent, adorned with that calm
imperishable beauty which it has worn unchanged from the beginning.
I slept at Turlock and next morning faced the
Sierra and set out through the sand afoot. The freedom I felt was
exhilarating, and the burning heat and thirst and faintness could not make
it less. Before I had walked ten miles I was wearied and footsore, but it
was real earnest work and I liked it. Any kind of simple natural destruction
is preferable to the numb, dumb, apathetic deaths of a town.
Before I was out of sight of Turlock I found •
handful of the glorious Hemizonia tirgata and • few of the patient,
steadfast eriogonums that I learned to love around the slopes of Twenty-
Hill Hollow. While I stood with these old dear friends we were joined by a
lark, and in a few seconds more Harry Edwards1 came flapping by with spotted
wings. Just think of the completeness of that reunion! - Twenty-Hill Hollow,
Hemizonia, Eriogonum, Lark, Butterfly, and I, and lavish outflows of genuine
Twenty- Hill Hollow sun gold. I threw down my coat and one shirt in the
sand, forgetting Hopeton and heedless that the sun was becoming hotter every
minute. I was wild once more and let my watch warn and point as it pleased.
Heavy wagon loads of wheat had been hauled along
the road and the wheels had sunk deep and left smooth beveled furrows in the
sand. Upon the smooth slopes of these sand furrows I soon observed a most
beautiful and varied embroidery, evidently tracks of some kind. At first I
thought of mice, but soon saw they were too light and delicate for mice.
Then a tiny lizard darted into the stubble ahead of me, and I carefully
examined the track he made, but it was entirely unlike the fine print
embroidery I was studying. However I knew that he might make very different
tracks if walking leisurely. Therefore I determined to catch one and
experiment. I found out in Florida that lizards, however swift, are short-
winded, so I gave chase and soon captured a tiny gray fellow and carried him
to a smooth sand-bed where he could embroider without getting away into
grass tufts or holes. He was so wearied that he couldn't skim and was
compelled to walk, and I was excited with delight in seeing an exquisitely
beautiful strip of embroidery about five-eighths of an inch wide, drawn out
in flowing curves behind him as from a loom. The riddle was solved. I knew
that mountain boulders moved in music; so also do lizards, and their written
music, printed by their feet, moved so swiftly as to be invisible, covers
the hot sands with beauty wherever they go.
But my sand embroidery lesson was by no means
done. I speedily discovered a yet more delicate pattern on the sands, woven
into that of the lizard. I examined the strange combination of bars and
dots. No five-toed lizard had printed that music. I watched narrowly down on
my knees, following the strange and beautiful pattern along the wheel
furrows and out into the stubble. Occasionally the pattern would suddenly
end in a shallow pit half an inch across and an eighth of an inch deep. I
was fairly puzzled, picked up my bundle, and trudged discontentedly away,
but my eyes were hungrily awake and I watched all the ground. At length a
gray grasshopper rattled and flew up, and the truth flashed upon me that he
was the complementary embroiderer of the lizard. Then followed long careful
observation, but I never could see the grasshopper until he jumped, and
after he alighted he invariably stood watching me with his legs set ready
for another jump in case of danger. Nevertheless I soon made sure that he
was my man, for I found that in jumping be made the shallow pits I had
observed at the termination of the pattern I was studying. But no matter how
patiently I waited he wouldn't walk while I was sufficiently near to
observe. They are so nearly the color of the sand. I therefore caught one
and lifted his wing covers and cut off about half of each wing with my
penknife, and carried him to a favorable place on the sand. At first he did
nothing but jump and make dimples, but soon became weary and walked in
common rhythm with all his six legs, and my interest you may guess while I
watched the embroidery - the written music laid down in a beautiful
ribbon-like strip behind. I glowed with wild joy as if I had found a new
glacier - copied specimens of the precious fabric into my notebook, and
strode away with my own feet sinking with a dull craunch, craunch, craunch
in the hot gray sand, glad to believe that the dark and cloudy vicissitudes
of the Oakland period had not dimmed my vision in the least. Surely Mother
Nature pitied the poor boy and showed him pictures.
Happen what would, fever, thirst, or sunstroke,
my joy for that day was complete. Yet I was to receive still more. A train
of curving tracks with a line in the middle next fixed my attention, and
almost before I had time to make a guess concerning their author, a small
hawk came shooting down vertically out of the sky a few steps ahead of me
and picked up something in his talons. After rising thirty or forty feet
overhead, he dropped it by the roadside as if to show me what it was. I ran
forward and found a little bunchy field mouse and at once suspected him of
being embroiderer number three. After an exciting chase through stubble
heaps and weed thickets I wearied and captured him without being bitten and
turned him free to make his mark in a favorable sand bed. He also
embroidered better than he knew, and at once claimed the authorship of the
new track work.
learned to distinguish the pretty sparrow track from that of the magpie and
lark with their three delicate branches and the straight scratch behind made
by the back- curving claw, dragged loosely like a spur of a Mexican vaquero.
The cushioned elastic feet of the hare frequently were seen mixed with the
pattering scratchy prints of the squirrels. I was now wholly trackful. I
fancied I could see the air whirling in dimpled eddies from sparrow and lark
wings. Earthquake boulders descending in a song of curves, snowflakes
glinting songfully hither and thither. "The water in music the oar
forsakes." The air in music the wing forsakes. All things move in music and
write it. The mouse, lizard, and grasshopper sing together on the Turlock
sands, sing with the morning stars.
Scarce had I begun to catch the eternal
harmonies of Nature when I heard the hearty god- damning din of the mule
driver, dust whirled in the sun gold, and I could see the sweltering mules
leaning forward, dragging the heavily piled wheat wagons, deep sunk in the
sand. My embroidery perished by the mile, but grasshoppers never wearied nor
the gray lizards nor the larks, and the coarse confusion of man was speedily
About noon I
found a family of grangers feeding, and remembering your admonitions anent
my health requested leave to join them. My head ached with fever and
sunshine, and I couldn't dare the ancient brown bacon, nor the beans and
cakes, but water and splendid buttermilk came in perfect affinity, and made
evening, after passing through miles of blooming Hemizonia, I reached Hope-
ton on the edge of the oak fringe of the Merced. Here all were yellow and
woebegone with malarious fever. I rested one day, spending the time in
examining the remarkably flat water- eroded valley of the Merced and the
geological sections which it offers. In going across to the river I had a
suggestive time breaking my way through tangles of blackberry and brier-rose
and willow. I admire delicate plants that are well prickled and therefore
took my scratched face and hands patiently. I bathed in the sacred stream,
seeming to catch all its mountain tones while it softly mumbled and rippled
over the shallows of brown pebbles. The whole river back to its icy sources
seemed to rise in clear vision, with its countless cascades and falls and
blooming meadows and gardens. Its pine groves, too, and the winds that play
them, all appeared and sounded.
In the cool of the evening I caught Browny and
cantered across to the Tuolumne, the whole way being fragrant and golden
with Hemizonia. A breeze swept in from your Golden Gate regions over the
passes and across the plains, fanning the hot ground and drooping plants and
refreshing every beast and tired and weary, plodding man.
It was dark ere I reached my old friend Delaney,
but was instantly recognized by my voice, and welcomed in the old good
uncivilized way, not to be misunderstood.
All the region adjacent to the Tuolumne River
where it sweeps out into the plain after its long eventful journey in the
mountains, is exceedingly picturesque. Round terraced hills, brown and
yellow with grasses and composita and adorned with open groves of darkly
foliaged live oak are grouped in a most open tranquil manner and laid upon a
smooth level base of purple plain, while the river bank is lined with nooks
of great beauty and variety in which the river has swept and curled,
shifting from side to side, retreating and returning, as determined by
floods and the gradual erosion and removal of drift beds formerly laid down.
A few miles above here at the village of La Grange the wild river has made
some astonishing deposits in its young days, through which it now flows with
the manners of stately old age, apparently disclaiming all knowledge of
them. But a thousand, thousand boulders gathered from many a moraine,
swashed and ground in pot-holes, record their history and tell of white
floods of a grandeur not easily conceived. Noble sections nearly a hundred
feet deep are laid bare, like a book, by the mining company. Water is drawn
from the river several miles above and conducted by ditches and pipes and
made to play upon these deposits for the gold they contain. Thus the
Tuolumne of to-day is compelled to unravel and lay bare its own ancient
history which is a thousandfold more important than the handfuls of gold
sand it chances to contain.
I mean to return to these magnificent records in
a week or two and turn the gold disease of the La Grangers to account in
learning the grand old story of the Sierra flood period. If these hundred
laborious hydraulickers were under my employ they could not do me better
service, and all along the Sierra flank thousands of strong arms are working
for me, incited by the small golden bait. Who shall say that I am not rich?
Tip through the purple foothills to Coulteryule,
where I met many hearty, shaggy mountaineers glad to see me. Strange to say
the "Overland" studies have been read and discussed in the most unlikely
places. Some numbers have found their way through the Bloody Caņon pass to
In the evening
Black and I rode together up into the sugar pine forests and on to his old
ranch in the moonlight. The grand priest-like pines held their arms above us
in blessing. The wind sang songs of welcome. The cool glaciers and the
running crystal fountains were in it. I was no longer on but in the
mountains - home again, and my pulses were filled. On and on in white
moonlight-spangles on the streams, shadows in rock hollows and briery
ravines, tree architecture on the sky more divine than ever stars in their
spires, leafy mosaic in meadow and bank. Never had the Sierra seemed so
inexhaustible - mile on mile onward in the forest through groves old and
young, pine tassels overarching and brushing both cheeks at once. The
chirping of crickets only deepened the stillness.
About eight o'clock a strange mass of tones came
surging and waving through the pines. "That's the death song," said Black,
as he reined up his horse to listen. "Some Indian is dead." Soon two glaring
watch-fires shone red through the forest, marking the place of congregation.
The fire glare and the wild wailing came with indescribable impressiveness
through the still dark woods. I listened eagerly as the weird curves of woe
swelled and cadenced, now rising steep like glacial precipices, now swooping
low in polished slopes. Falling boulders and rushing streams and wind tones
caught from rock and tree were in it. As we at length rode away and the
heaviest notes were lost in distance, I wondered that so much of mountain
nature should well out from such a source. Miles away we met Indian groups
slipping through the shadows on their way to join the death wail.
Farther on, a harsh granting and growling seemed
to come from the opposite bank of a hazelly brook along which we rode.
"What? Hush! That's a bear," ejaculated Black in a gruff bearish undertone.
"Yes," said [I], "some rough old bruin is sauntering this fine night,
seeking some wayside sheep lost from migrating flocks." Of course all
night-sounds otherwise unaccountable are accredited to bears. On ascending a
sloping hillock less than a mile from the first we heard another grunting
bear, but whether or no daylight would transform our bears to pigs may well
be counted into the story.
Past Bower Cave and along a narrow winding trail
in deep shadow - so dark, had to throw the reins on Browny's neck and trust
to his skill, for I could not see the ground and the hillside was steep. A
fine, bright tributary of the Merced sang far beneath us as we climbed
higher, higher through the hazels and dogwoods that fringed the rough black
boles of spruces and pines. We were now nearing the old camping ground of
the Pilot Peak region where I learned to know the large nodding lilies (L.
pardalinum) so abundant along these streams, and the groups of alder-shaded
cataracts so characteristic of the North Merced Fork. Moonlight whitened all
the long fluted slopes of the opposite bank, but we rode in continuous
shadow. The rush and gurgle and prolonged Aaaaaah of the stream coming up,
sifting into the wind, was very solemnly impressive. It was here that you
first seemed to join me. I reached up as Browny carried me underneath a big
Douglas spruce and plucked one of its long plumy sprays, which brought you
from the Oakland dead in a moment. You are more spruce than pine, though I
never definitely knew it till now.
Miles and miles of tree scripture along the sky,
a bible that will one day be read! The beauty of its letters and sentences
have burned me like fire through all these Sierra seasons. Yet I cannot
interpret their hidden thoughts. They are terrestrial expressions of the
sun, pure as water and snow. Heavens! listen to the wind song! I'm still
writing beneath that grand old pine in Black's yard and that other
companion, scarcely less noble, back of which I sheltered during the
earthquake, is just a few yards beyond. The shadows of their boles lie like
charred logs on the gray sand, while half the yard is embroidered with their
branches and leaves. There goes a woodpecker with an acorn to drive into its
thick bark for winter, and well it may gather its stores, for I can myself
detect winter in the wind.
Few nights of my mountain life have been more
eventful than that of my ride in the woods from Coulterville, where I made
my reunion with the winds and pines. It was eleven o'clock when we reached
Black's ranch. I was weary and soon died in sleep. How cool and vital and
recreative was the hale young mountain air. On higher, higher up into the
holy of holies of the woods! Pure white lustrous clouds overshadowed the
massive congregations of silver fir and pine. We entered, and a thousand
living arms were waved in solemn blessing. An infinity of mountain life. How
complete is the absorption of one's life into the spirit of mountain woods.
No one can love or hate an enemy here, for no one can conceive of such a
creature as an enemy. Nor can one have any distinctive love of friends. The
dearest and best of you all seemed of no special account, mere trifles.
Hazel Green water, famous among mountaineers,
distilled from the pores of an ancient moraine, spiced and toned in a maze
of fragrant roots, winter nor summer warm or cool it! Shadows over shadows
keep its fountains ever cool. Moss and felted leaves guard from spring and
autumn frosts, while a woolly robe of snow protects from the intenser cold
of winter. Bears, deer, birds, and Indians love the water and nuts of Hazel
Green alike, while the pine squirrel reigns supreme and haunts its
incomparable groves like a spirit. Here a grand old glacier swept over from
the Tuolumne ice fountains into the basin of the Merced, leaving the Hazel
Green moraine for the food of her coming trees and fountains of her
Along the Merced divide to the ancient glacial lake-bowl of Crane's Flat,
was ever fir or pine more perfect? What groves! What combinations of green
and silver gray and glowing white of glinting sunbeams. Where is leaf or
limb awanting, and is this the upshot of the so-called "mountain glooms" and
mountain storms? If so, is Sierra forestry aught beside an outflow of Divine
Love? These round- bottomed grooves sweeping across the divide, and down
whose sides our horses canter with accelerated speed, are the pathways of
ancient ice-currents, and it is just where these crushing glaciers have
borne down most heavily that the greatest loveliness of grove and forest
A deep caņon
filled with blue air now comes in view on the right. That is the valley of
the Merced, and the highest rocks visible through the trees belong to the
Yosemite Valley. More miles of glorious forest, then out into free light and
down, down, down into the groves and meadows of Yosemite. Sierra sculpture
in its entirety without the same study on the spot. No one of the rocks
seems to call me now, nor any of the distant mountains. Surely this Merced
and Tuolumne chapter of my life is done.
I have been out on the river bank with your
letters. How good and wise they seem to be! You wrote better than you knew.
Altogether they form a precious volume whose sentences are more intimately
connected with my mountain work than any one will ever be able to
appreciate. An ouzel came as I sat reading, alighting in the water with a
delicate and graceful glint on his bosom. How pure is the morning light on
the great gray wall, and how marvelous the subdued lights of the moon! The
nights are wholly enchanting.
I will not try [to] tell the Valley. Yet I feel
that I am a stranger here. I have been gathering you a handful of leaves.
Show them to dear Keith and give some to Mrs. McChesney. They are probably
the last of Yosemite that I will ever give you. I will go out in a day or
so. Farewell! I seem to be more really leaving you here than there. Keep
these long pages, for they are a kind of memorandum of my walk after the
strange Oakland epoch, and I may want to copy some of them when I have
Remember me to
my friends. I trust you are not now so sorely overladen. Good-night. Keep
the goldenrod and yarrow. They are auld lang syne.
Ever lovingly yours
To take leave of Yosemite was harder than he
anticipated. Days grew into weeks as in leisurely succession he visited his
favorite haunts - places to which during the preceding summer he had taken
on a camping trip a group of his closest friends, including Emily Pelton and
Mrs. Carr. It was on this outing that bears raided the provisions cached by
the party during an excursion into the Tuolumne Caņon and Muir saved his
companions from hardship by fetching a new supply of food from Yosemite,
making the arduous trip of forty miles without pause and in an amazingly
VALLEY, October 7th, 1874
DEAR MRS. CARR:
I expected to have been among the foothill drift
long ago, but the mountains fairly seized me, and ore I knew I was up the
Merced Caņon where we were last year, past Shadow and Merced Lakes and our
Soda Springs. I returned last night. Had a glorious storm, and a thousand
sacred beauties that seemed yet more and more divine. I camped four nights
at Shadow Lake at the old place in the pine thicket. I have ouzel tales to
tell. I was alone and during the whole excursion, or period rather, was in a
kind of calm incurable ecstasy. I am hopelessly and forever a mountaineer.
How glorious my studies seem, and how simple. I
found out a noble truth concerning the Merced moraines that escaped me
hitherto. Civilization and fever and all the morbidness that has been hooted
at me have not dimmed my glacial eye, and I care to live only to entice
people to look at Nature's loveliness. My own special self is nothing. My
feet have recovered their cunning. I feel myself again.
Tell Keith the colors are coming to the groves.
I leave Yosemite for over the mountains to Mono and Lake Tahoe. Will be in
Tahoe in a week, thence anywhere Shastaward, etc. I think I may be at
Brownsville, Yuba County, where I may get a letter from you. I promised to
call on Emily Pelton there. Mrs. Black has fairly mothered me. She will be
down in a few weeks. Farewell.
Having worked the Yosemite problem out of his
blood lie was faced with the question of the next step in his career.
Apparently while debating with others the character of the relation which
Nature should sustain to man he had found his calling, one in which his
glacial studies in Yosemite formed only an incident, though a large one.
Hereafter his supreme purpose in life must be "to entice people to look at
Nature's loveliness" - understandingly, of course.
In the seventies, before
lumber companies, fires, and the fumes from copper smelters had laid a
blight upon the Shasta landscapes, the environs of the great mountain were a
veritable garden of the Lord. Its famous mineral springs and abundant fish
and game, no less than its snowy grandeur, attracted a steady stream of
visitors. Clarence King had discovered glaciers on its flanks and many parts
of the mountain were still imperfectly explored. The year was waning into
late October when Muir, seeking new treasuries of Nature's loveliness,
turned his face Shastaward.
In going to Mount Shasta, Muir walked along the
main Oregon and California stage- road from Redding to Sisson's. Unable to
find any one willing to make the ascent of the mountain with him so late in
the season, he secured the aid of Jerome Fay, a local resident, to take
blankets and a week's supply of food as far as a pack-horse could break
through the snow. Selecting a sheltered spot for a camp in the upper edge of
the timber belt, he made his adventurous ascent alone from there on the 2d
of November, and returned to his camp before dark. Realizing that a storm
was brewing, he hastily made a "storm-nest" and snugged himself in with
firewood to enjoy the novel sensation of a Shasta storm at an altitude of
nine thousand feet. The elements broke loose violently the next morning, and
continued for nearly a week, while Muir, his trusty notebook in hand,
watched the deposition of snow upon the trees, studied the individual
crystals with a lens, observed a squirrel finding her stores under the
drifts, and made friends with wild sheep that sought shelter near his camp.
He was much disappointed when Mr. Sisson, concerned for his safety, sent two
horses through the blinding snowstorm and brought him down on the fifth day
from the timber-line to his house. The following letter was written just
before he began the first stage of the ascent:
To Mrs. Ezra S. Carr
SISSON'S STATION, November 1st, 1874
DEAR MRS. CARR:
Here is icy Shasta fifteen miles away, yet at
the very door. It is all close-wrapt in clean young snow down to the very
base - one mass of white from the dense black forest-girdle at an elevation
of five or six thousand feet to the very summit. The extent of its
individuality is perfectly wonderful. When I first caught sight of it over
the braided folds of the Sacramento Valley I was fifty miles away and afoot,
alone and weary. Yet all my blood turned to wine, and I have not been weary
Stone was to have accompanied
me, but has failed of course. The last storm was severe and all the
mountaineers shake their heads and say impossible, etc., but you know that I
will meet all its icy snows lovingly.
I set out in a few minutes for the edge of the
timber-line. Then upwards, if unstormy, in the early morning. If the snow
proves to be mealy and loose it is barely possible that I may be unable to
urge my way through so many upward miles, as there is no intermediate
camping ground. Yet I am feverless and strong now, and can spend two days
with their intermediate night in one deliberate unstrained effort.
I am the more eager to ascend to study the
mechanical conditions of the fresh snow at so great an elevation; also to
obtain clear views of the comparative quantities of lava denudation
northward and southward; also general views of the channels of the ancient
Shasta glaciers, and many other lesser problems besides - the fountains of
the rivers here, and the living glaciers. I would like to remain a week or
two, and may have to return next year in summer.
I wrote a short letter [Salmon Breeding on the
McCloud River," San Francisco Evening Bulletin, Oct. 29, 1874.] a few days
ago which was printed in the Evening Bulletin, and I suppose you have seen
it. I wonder how you all are faring in your wildernesses, educational,
departmental, institutional, etc. Write me a line here in care of Sisson. I
think it will reach me on my return from icy Shasta. Love to all - Keith and
the boys and the McChesneys. Don't forward any letters from the Oakland
office. I want only mountains until my return to civilization. Farewell.
Ever cordially yours
One of Muir's endearing traits was his genuine
fondness for children, who rewarded his sympathy with touching confidence
and devotion. The following letter, written to his admiring little chum' in
the McChesney household, sheds additional light upon his Shasta rambles and
the mood, so different from mere adventure-seeking, in which he went
questing for knowledge of Nature.
To Alice McChesney
FOOT OF MOUNT SHASTA
November 8th, 1874
My DEAR HIGHLAND LASSIE
It is a stormy
day here at the foot of the big snowy Shasta and so I am in Sisson's house
where it is cozy and warm. There are four lassies here - one is bonnie, one
is bonnier, and one is far bonniest, but I don't know them yet and I am a
little lonesome and wish Alice McChesney were here. I can never help
thinking that you were a little unkind in sending me off to the mountains
without a kiss and you must make that up when I get back.
I was up on the top of Mount Shasta, and it is
very high and all deep-buried in snow, and I am tired with the hard climbing
and wading and wallowing. When I was coming up here on purpose to climb
Mount Shasta people would often say to me, "Where are you going?" and I
would say, "To Shasta," and they would say, "Shasta City?" and I would say,
"Oh, no, I mean Mount Shasta!" Then they would laugh and say, "Mount
Shasta!! Why man, you can't go on Mount Shasta now. You're two months too
late. The snow is ten feet deep on it, and you would be all buried up in the
snow, and freeze to death." And then I would say, "But I like snow, and I
like frost and ice, and I'm used to climbing and wallowing in it." And they
would say, "Oh, that's all right enough to talk about or sing about, but I'm
a mountaineer myself, and know all about that Shasta Butte and you just
can't go noway and nohow." But I did go, because I loved snow and mountains
better than they did. Some places I had to creep, and some places to slide,
and some places to scramble, but most places I had to climb, climb, climb
deep in the frosty snow.
I started at half-past two in the morning, all
alone, and it stormed wildly and beautifully before I got back here and they
thought that poor, crazy mountain climber must be frozen solid and lost
below the drifts, but I found a place at the foot of a low bunch of trees
and made a hollow and gathered wood and built a cheery fire and soon was
warm; and though the wind and the snow swept wildly past, I was
snug-bug-rug, and in three days I came down here. But I liked the storm and
wanted to stay longer.
The weather is stormy yet, and most of the robins are getting ready to go
away to a warmer place, and so they are gathering into big flocks. I saw
them getting their breakfast this morning on cherries. Some hunters are here
and so we get plenty of wild venison to eat, and they killed two bears and
nailed their skins on the side of the barn to dry. There are lots of both
bears and deer on Shasta, and three kinds of squirrels.
Shasta snowflakes are very beautiful, and I saw
them finely under my magnifying glass. Here are some bonnie Cratagus leaves
I gathered for you. Fare ye well, my lassie. I'm going to-morrow with some
hunters to see if I can find out something more about bears or wild sheep.
Give my love to your mother and father and
Carrie, and tell your mother to keep my letters until I come back, for I
don't want to know anything just now except mountains. But I want your papa
to write to me, for I will be up here, hanging about the snowy skirts of
Shasta, for one or two or three weeks.
It is a dark, wild night, and the Shasta
squirrels are curled up cozily in their nests, and the grouse have feather
pantlets on and are all roosting under the broad, shaggy branches of the fir
trees. Good-night, my lassie, and may you nest well and sleep well - as the
Shasta squirrels and grouse.
During the following weeks he circled the base
of the mountain, visited the Black Butte and the foot of the 'Whitney
Glacier, as well as Rhett and Klamath lakes, and gathered into his notebook
a rich harvest of observations to be made into magazine articles later. Some
of the material, however, he utilized at once in a series of letters to the
"Evening Bulletin" of San Francisco.
In explanation of various
allusions in some of the following letters to Mrs. Carr, it should be added
that she and her husband had in view, and later acquired, a tract of land in
what was then the outskirts of Pasadena. Both had been very active in
organizing the farmers of California into a State Grange in 1873. Two years
later Dr. Carr was elected State Superintendent of Public Instruction, and
during his incumbency Mrs. Carr served as deputy Superintendent, discharging
most of the routine work of the office in Sacramento, besides lecturing
before granges and teachers' institutes throughout the State. There were
many quarreling political factions in California, and the Grangers' movement
and the Department of Public Instruction were never far from the center of
the political storms.
Mrs. Ezra S. Carr
SISSON's STATION, December 9th, 1874
DEAR MRS. CARR:
Coming in for a sleep and rest I was glad to
receive your card. I seem to be more than married to icy Shasta. One yellow,
mellow morning six days ago, when Shasta's snows were looming and blooming,
I stepped outside the door to gaze, and was instantly drawn up over the
meadows, over the forests to the main Shasta glacier in one rushing, cometic
whiz, then, swooping to Shasta Valley, whirled off around the base like a
satellite of the grand icy sun. I have just completed my first revolution.
Length of orbit, one hundred miles; time, one Shasta day.
For two days and a half I had nothing in the way
of food, yet suffered nothing, and was finely nerved for the most delicate
work of mountaineering, both among crevasses and lava cliffs. Now I am
sleeping and eating. I found some geological facts that are perfectly
glorious, and botanical ones, too.
I wish I could make the public be kind to Keith
and his paint.
you contemplate vines and oranges among the warm California angels! I wish
you would all go a-granging among oranges and bananas and all such blazing
red-hot fruits, for you are a species of Hindoo sun fruit yourself. For me,
I like better the huckleberries of cool glacial bogs, and acid currants, and
benevolent, rosy, beaming apples, and common Indian summer pumpkins.
I wish you could see the holy morning alpenglow
I'll be down into gray Oakland some time. I am glad you are essentially
independent of those commonplace plotters that have so marred your peace.
Eat oranges and hear the larks and wait on the sun.
To Mrs. Ezra S. Carr
SISSON's STATION, December 21st, 1874
DEAR MRS. CARR:
I have just returned from a fourth Shasta
excursion, and find your [letter] of the 17th. I wish you could have been
with me on Shasta's shoulder last eve in the sun-glow. I was over on the
head-waters of the McCloud, and what a head! Think of a spring giving rise
to a river! I fairly quiver with joyous exultation when I think of it. The
infinity of Nature's glory in rock, cloud, and water! As soon as I beheld
the McCloud upon its lower course I knew there must be something
extraordinary in its alpine fountains, and I shouted, "0 where, my glorious
river, do you come from?" Think of a spring fifty yards wide at the mouth,
issuing from the base of a lava bluff with wild songs - not gloomily from a
dark cavey mouth, but from a world of ferns and mosses gold and green! I
broke my way through chaparral and all kinds of river-bank tangle in eager
vigor, utterly unweariable.
The dark blue stream sang solemnly with a deep
voice, pooling and boulder-dashing and aha-a-a-ing in white flashing rapids,
when suddenly I heard water notes I never had heard before. They came from
that mysterious spring; and then the Elk forest, and the alpine-glow, and
the sunset! Poor pen cannot tell it.
The sun this morning is at work with its blessings as if it had never
blessed before. He never wearies of revealing himself on Shasta. But in a
few hours I leave this altar and all its - Well, to my Father I say thank
you, and go willingly.
I go by stage and rail to Brownsville to see Emily [Pelton] and the rocks
there and the Yuba. Then perhaps a few days among the auriferous drifts on
the Tuolumne, and then to Oakland and that book, walking across the Coast
Range on the way, either through one of the passes or over Mount Diablo. I
feel a sort of nervous fear of another period of town dark, but I don't want
to be silly about it. The sun glow will all fade out of me, and I will be
deathly as Shasta in the dark. But mornings will come, dawnings of some
kind, and if not, I have lived more than a common eternity already.
Farewell. Don't overwork - that is not the work
your Father wants. I wish you could come a-beeing in the Shasta honey lands.
Love to the boys.
On one of the excursions to which he refers in
the preceding letter, Muir accompanied four hunters, three of them
Scotchmen, [Among these Scots was G. Buchanan Hepburn, of Haddingdonshire,
on one of whose letters Muir made the memorandum, "Lord Hepburn, killed in
Mexico or Lower California." Twenty years later, during his visit to
Scotland, Muir was by chance enabled to communicate the details of the man's
unhappy fate to his relatives.] who were in search of wild sheep. The party
went to Sheep Rock, twenty miles north of Sisson's, and from there fifty
miles farther to Mount Bremer, then one of the most noted strongholds of
wild game in the Shasta region. This expedition afforded Muir a new
opportunity to study wild sheep and his observations were charmingly
utilized in the little essay "Wild Wool," one of his last contributions to
the "Overland" in 1875, republished afterwards in "Steep Trails."
A week after writing the above letter he was at
Knoxville, also known as Brownsville, on the divide between the Yuba and
Feather Rivers. It was a mild, but tempestuous, December, and during a gale
that sprang up while he was exploring a valley tributary to the Yuba, he
climbed a Douglas spruce in order to be able to enjoy the better the wild
music of the storm. The experience afterwards bore fruit in one of his
finest descriptions - an article entitled "A Wind Storm in the Forests of
the Yuba," which appeared in "Scribner's Monthly" in November, 1878, and
later as a chapter in "The Mountains of California." With the possible
exception of his dog story, "Stickeen," no article drew more enthusiastic
comments from readers who felt moved to write their appreciation.
From his earliest youth Muir had derived keen
enjoyment from storms, but he had never tried to give a reason for the joy
that was in him. The reaction he got from the reading public showed that
they regarded his enthusiasm for storms as admirable, but also as singular.
The latter was a surprise to Muir, who regarded all the manifestations of
Nature as coming within the range of his interest, and saw no reason why men
should fear storms. Reflecting upon the fact, he reached the conclusion that
such fear is due to a wrong attitude toward nature, to imaginary or grossly
exaggerated notions of danger, or, in short, to a "lack of faith in the
Scriptures of Nature," as, he averred, was the case with Ruskin. As for
himself, a great storm was nothing but "a cordial outpouring of Nature's
By what he
regarded as a fortunate coincidence, he was still on the headwaters of the
Feather and the Yuba rivers on the date of the memorable Marysville flood,
January 19, 1875. A driving warm rainstorm suddenly melted the heavy snows
that filled the drainage basins of these rivers and sent an unprecedented
flood down into the lowlands, submerging many homesteads and a good part of
Marysville. One can almost sense the haste with which he dashed off the
lines of the following letter on the morning of the day of the flood -
impatient to heed the call of the storm.
To Mrs. Ezra S. Carr
BROWNSVILLE, YUBA COUNTY
January 19th, 1875
MY DEAR MOTHER CARR:
Here are some of the dearest and bonniest of our
Father's bairns - the little ones that so few care to see. I never saw such
enthusiasm in the care and breeding of mosses as Nature manifests among
these northern Sierras. I have studied a big fruitful week among the caflons
and ridges of the Feather and another among the Yuba rivers, living and
I have seen a
dead river - a sight worth going round the world to see. The dead rivers and
dead gravels wherein lies the gold form magnificent problems, and I feel
wild and unmanageable with the intense interest they excite, but I will
choke myself off and finish my glacial work and that little book of studies.
I have been spending a few fine social days with Emily [Pelton], but now
How gloriously it
storms! The pines are in ecstasy, and I feel it and must go out to them. I
must borrow a big coat and mingle in the storm and make some studies.
Farewell. Love to all.
P.S. How are Ned and Keith? I wish Keith had
been with me these Shasta and Feather River days. I have gained a
thousandfold more than I hoped. Heaven send you Light and the good blessings
of wildness. How the rains plash and roar, and how the pines wave and pray!
Tradition still tells of his return to the Knox
House after the storm, dripping and bedraggled; of the pity and solicitude
of his friends over his condition, and their surprise when he in turn pitied
them for having missed "a storm of exalted beauty and riches." The account
of his experience was his final contribution to the "Overland Monthly" in
June, 1875, under the title, "A Flood-Storm in the Sierra." Nowhere has he
revealed his fervid enjoyment of storms more unreservedly than in this
article. [It was incorporated in part only as the chapter on "The River
Floods" in The Mountains of California. The omitted portions are important
to a student of Muir's personality.] "How terribly downright," he observes,
"must be the utterances of storms and earthquakes to those accustomed to the
soft hypocrisies of society. Man's control is being extended over the forces
of nature, but it is well, at least for the present, that storms can still
make themselves heard through our thickest walls. Some were made to think."
There was a new note in his discourses, written
and spoken, when he emerged from the forests of the Yuba. Fear and
utilitarianism, he was convinced, are a crippling equipment for one who
wishes to understand and appreciate the beauty of the world about him. But
meanness of soul is even worse. Herded in cities, where the struggle for
gain sweeps along with the crowd even the exceptional individual, men rarely
come in sight of their better selves. There is more hope for those who live
in the country. But instead of listening to the earnest and varied voices of
nature, the country resident, also, is too often of the shepherd type who
can only hear "baa." "Even the howls and ki-yis of coyotes might be
blessings if well heard, but he hears them only through a blur of mutton and
wool, and they do him no good."
Despite these abnormalities, Muir insisted, we
must live in close contact with nature if we are to keep fresh and clean the
fountains of moral sanity. "The world needs the woods and is beginning to
come to them," he asserts in his flood-storm article. "But it is not yet
ready for storms.. . . Nevertheless the world moves onward, and 'it is
coming yet, for a' that,' that the beauty of storms will be as visible as
that of calms."