WHEN out of doors, Muir was
scarcely conscious of the passage of time, so completely was he absorbed,
almost physically absorbed, in the natural objects about him. The mountains,
the stars, the trees, and sweet-belied Cassiope reeked not of time! Why
should he? Nor was he at such periods burdened with thoughts of a calling.
On the contrary, he rejoiced in his freedom and, like Thoreau, sought by
honest labor of any sort only means enough to preserve it intact.
But when he came out of the
forests, or down from the mountains, and had to take account, in letters and
personal contacts, of the lives, loves, and occupations of relatives and
friends, he sometimes was brought up sharply against the fact that he had
reached middle age and yet had neither a home nor what most men in those
days would have recognized as a profession. Then, as in the following
letter, one catches a note of apology for the life he is leading. He can
only say, and say it triumphantly, that the course of his bark is controlled
by other stars than theirs, that he must be free to live by the laws of his
To Sarah Muir
[February 26th,] 1875
MY DEAR SISTER SARAH:
I have just returned from a long train of
excursions in the Sierras and find yours and many other letters waiting, all
that accumulated for five months. I spent my holidays on the Yuba and
Feather rivers exploring. I have, of course, worked hard and enjoyed hard,
ascending mountains, crossing caflons, rambling ceaselessly over hill and
dale, plain and lava bed.
I thought of you all gathered with your little
ones enjoying the sweet and simple pleasures that belong to your lives and
loves. I have not yet in all my wanderings found a single person so free as
myself. Yet I am bound to my studies, and the laws of my own life. At times
I feel as if driven with whips, and ridden upon. When in the woods I sit at
times for hours watching birds or squirrels or looking down into the faces
of flowers without suffering any feeling of haste. Yet I am swept onward in
a general current that bears on irresistibly. When, therefore, I shall be
allowed to float homeward, I dinna, dinna ken, but I hope.
The world, as well as the mountains, is good to
me, and my studies flow on in a wider and wider current by the incoming of
many a noble tributary. Probably if I were living amongst you all you would
follow me in my scientific work, but as it is, you will do so imperfectly.
However, when I visit you, you will all have to submit to numerous lectures.
Give my love to David and to Mrs. Galloway and
all your little ones, and remember me as ever lovingly your brother,
On the 28th of April he led a party to the
summit of Mount Shasta for the purpose of finding a proper place to locate
the monument of the Coast and Geodetic Survey. Two days later he made
another ascent with Jerome Fay in order to complete some barometrical
observations. While engaged in this task a fierce storm arose, enveloping
them, with great suddenness, in inky darkness through which roared a blast
of snow and hail. His companion deemed it impossible under the circumstances
to regain their camp at timber-line, so the two made their way as best they
could to the sputtering fumaroles or 'Hot Springs" on the summit. The perils
of that stormy night, described at some length in "Steep Trails," were of a
much more serious nature than one might infer from the casual reference to
the adventure in the following letter.
To Mrs. Ezra S. Carr
1419 TAYLOR ST., May 4th, 1875
DEAR MRS. CARR:
Here I am safe in the arms of Daddy Swett - home
again from icy Shasta and richer than ever in dead river gravel and in
snowstorms and snow. The upper end of the main Sacramento Valley is entirely
covered with ancient river drift and I wandered over many square miles of
it. In every pebble I could hear the sounds of running water. The whole
deposit is a poem whose many books and chapters form the geological Vedas of
our glorious state.
discovered a new species of hail on the summit of Shasta and experienced one
of the most beautiful and most violent snowstorms imaginable. I would have
been with you ere this to tell you about it and to give you some lilies and
pine tassels that I brought for you and Mrs. McChesney and ma Coolbrith, but
alack! I am battered and scarred like a log that has come down the Tuolumne
in flood-time, and I am also lame with frost nipping. Nothing serious,
however, and I will be well and better than before in a few days.
I was caught in a violent snowstorm and held
upon the summit of the mountain all night in my shirt sleeves. The intense
cold and the want of food and sleep made the fire of life smoulder and burn
low. Nevertheless in company with another strong mountaineer [Jerome Fay] I
broke through six miles of frosty snow down into the timber and reached fire
and food and sleep and am better than ever, with all the valuable
experiences. Altogether I have had a very instructive and delightful trip.
The Bryanthus you wanted was snow- buried, and I
was too lame to dig it out for you, but I will probably go back ere long.
I'll be over in a few days or so.
With the approach of summer, Muir returned to
the Yosemite and Mount Whitney region, taking with him his friends William
Keith, J. B. McChesney, and John Swett. In the letters he wrote from there
to the "San Francisco Evening Bulletin" one feels that the forest trees of
the Sierra Nevada are getting a deepening hold upon his imagination.
"Throughout all this glorious region," he writes, "there is nothing that so
constantly interests and challenges the admiration of the traveller as the
belts of forest through which he passes."
Of all the trees of the forest the dearest to
him was the sugar pine (Pinus Lambertiana), and he frequently refers to it
as the "King of the pines." "Many a volume," he declares in one of the
letters written on this outing, "might be filled with the history of its
development from the brown whirling-winged seed-nut to its ripe and Godlike
old age; the quantity and range of its individuality, its gestures in storms
or while sleeping in summer light, the quality of its sugar and nut, and the
glossy fragrant wood" - all are distinctive. But, as his notebooks and some
of the following letters show, he now begins to make an intensive study of
all the trees of the Pacific Coast, particularly of the redwood. Thus, quite
unconsciously, he was in training to become the leading defender of the
Sierra forests during critical emergencies that arose in the nineties.
To Mrs. Ezra S. Carr
YOSEMITE VALLEY, June 3d, 1875
DEAR MRS. CARR:
Where are you? Lost in conventions, elections,
women's rights and fights, and buried beneath many a load of musty granger
hay. You always seem inaccessible to me, as if you were in a crowd, and even
when I write, my written words seem to be heard by many that I do not like.
I wish some of your predictions given in your
last may come true, like the first you made long ago. Yet somehow it seems
hardly likely that you will ever be sufficiently free, for your labors
multiply from year to year. Yet who knows.
I found poor Lamon's [James C. Lamon, pioneer
settler of Yosemite Valley, who died May 22, 1875. See characterization of
him in Muir's The Yosemite.] grave, as you directed. The upper end of the
Valley seems fairly silent and empty without him.
Keith got fine sketches, and I found new
beauties and truths of all kinds. Mack [McChesney] and Swett will tell you
all. I send you my buttonhole plume.
To Mrs. Ezra S. Carr
July 31st, 1875
I have just
arrived from our long excursion to Mount Whitney, all hale and happy, and
find your weary plodding letter, containing things that from this rocky
standpoint seem strangely mixed things celestial and terrestrial, cultivated
and wild. Your letters set one a-thinking, and yet somehow they never seem
to make those problems of life clear, and I always feel glad that they do
not form any part of my work, but that my lessons are simple rocks and
waters and plants and humble beasts, all pure and in their places, the Man
beast with all his complications being laid upon stronger shoulders.
I did not bring you down any Sedum roots or
Cassiope sprays ,because I had not then received your letter, not that I
forgot you as I passed the blessed Sierra heathers, or the primulas, or the
pines laden with fragrant, nutty cones. But I am more and more made to feel
that my gardens and herbariums and woods are all in their places as they
grow, and I know them there, and can find them when I will. Yet I ought to
carry their poor dead or dying forms to those who can have no better.
The Valley is lovely, scarce more than a whit
the worse for the flower-crushing feet that every summer brings. . . . I am
not decided about my summer. I want to go with the Sequoias a month or two
into all their homes from north to south, learning what I can of their
conditions and prospects, their age, stature, the area they occupy, etc. But
John Swett, who is brother now, papa then, orders me home to booking. Bless
me, what an awful thing town duty is! I was once free as any pine-playing
wind, and feel that I have still a good length of line, but alack! there
seems to be a hook or two of civilization in me that I would fain pull out,
yet would not pull out - O, O, O!!!
I suppose you are weary of saying book, book,
book, and perhaps when you fear me lost in rocks and Mono deserts I will,
with Scotch perverseness, do all you ask and more. All this letter is about
myself, and why not when I'm the only person in all the wide world that I
know anything about - Keith, the cascade, not excepted.
Fare ye well, mother quail, good betide your
brood and be they and you saved from the hawks and the big ugly buzzards and
cormorants - grangeal, political, right and wrongical, - and I will be
"Only that and nothing more."
To Sarah Muir Galloway
YOSEMITE VALLEY, November 2nd, 1875
DEAR SISTER SARAH:
Here is your letter with the Dalles in it. I'm
glad you have escaped so long from the cows and sewing and baking to God's
green wild Dalles and dells, for I know you were young again and that the
natural love of beauty you possess had free, fair play. I shall never forget
the big happy day I spent there on the rocky, gorgey Wisconsin above
Kilbourn City. What lanes full of purple orchids and ferns! Aspidium
fragran.s I found there for the first time, and what hillsides of
huckleberries and rare asters and goldenrods. Don't you wish you were wild
like me and as free to satisfy your love for whatever is pure and beautiful?
I returned last night from a two and a half
months' excursion through the grandest portion of the Sierra Nevada forests.
You remember reading of the big trees of Calaveras County, discovered
fifteen or twenty years ago. Well, I have been studying the species (Sequoia
gigantea) and have been all this time wandering amid those giants. They
extend in a broken, interrupted belt along the western flank of the range a
distance of one hundred and eighty miles. But I will not attempt to describe
them here. I have written about them and will send you printed descriptions.
I fancy your little flock is growing fast
towards prime. Yet how short seems the time when you occupied your family
place on Hickory Hill. Our lives go on and close like a day - morning, noon,
night. Yet how full of pure happiness these life days may be, and how worthy
of the God that plans them and suns them!
The book you speak of is not yet commenced, but
I must go into whiter quarters at once and go to work. While in the field I
can only observe -take in, but give nothing out. The first winter snow is
just now falling on Yosemite rocks. The domes are whitened, and ere long
avalanches will rush with loud boom and roar, like new-made waterfalls. The
November number of "Harper's Monthly" contains "Living Glaciers of
California." The illustrations are from my pencil sketches, some of which
were made when my fingers were so benumbed with frost I could scarcely hold
Give my love
to David and the children and Mrs. Galloway, and I will hope yet to see you
all. But now, once more, Farewell.
In tracing out the main forest belt of the
Sierra Nevada, as Muir did during these years, he became appalled by the
destructive forces at work therein. No less than five sawmills were found
operating in the edge of the Big Tree belt. On account of the size of the
trees and the difficulty of felling them, they were blasted down with
dynamite, a proceeding that added a new element of criminal waste to the
terrible destruction. The noble Fresno grove of Big Trees and the one
situated on the north fork of the Kaweah already were fearfully ravaged. The
wonderful grove on the north fork of the Kings River still was intact, but a
man by the name of Charles Converse had just formed a company to reduce it
to cheap lumber in the usual wasteful manner.
Hoping to arouse California legislators to at
least the economic importance of checking this destruction he sent to the
"Sacramento Record- Union" a communication entitled "God's First Temples,"
with the sub-heading, "How Shall we Preserve our Forests?" It appeared on
February 5, 1876, and while it made little impression upon legislators it
made Muir the center around which conservation sentiment began to
crystallize. Few at this time had pointed out, as he did, the practical
importance of conserving the forests on account of their relation to
climate, soil, and water-flow in the streams. The deadliest enemies of the
forests and the public good, he declared, were not the sawmills in spite of
their slash fires and wastefulness. That unsavory distinction belonged to
the "sheep-men," as they were called, and Muir's indictment of them in the
above- mentioned article, based upon careful observation, ran as follows:
Incredible numbers of sheep are driven to the
mountain pastures every summer, and in order to make easy paths and to
improve the pastures, running fires are set everywhere to burn off the old
logs and underbrush. These fires are far more universal and destructive than
would be guessed. They sweep through nearly the entire forest belt of the
range from one extremity to the other, and in the dry weather, before the
coming on of winter storms, are very destructive to all kinds of young
trees, and especially to sequoia, whose loose, fibrous bark catches and
burns at once. Excepting the Calaveras, I, last summer, examined every
sequoia grove in the range, together with the main belt extending across the
basins of Kaweah and Tule, and found everywhere the most deplorable waste
from this cause. Indians burn off underbrush to facilitate deer-hunting.
Campers of all kinds often permit fires to run, so also do mill-men, but the
fires of "sheep-men" probably form more than ninety per cent of all
destructive fires that sweep the woods.
Whether our loose-jointed Government is really
able or willing to do anything in the matter remains to be seen. If our
law-makers were to discover and enforce any method tending to lessen even in
a small degree the destruction going on, they would thus cover a multitude
of legislative sins in the eyes of every tree lover. I am satisfied,
however, that the question can be intelligently discussed only after a
careful survey of our forests has been made, together with studies of the
forces now acting upon them.
The concluding suggestion bore fruit years afterward when President
Cleveland, in 1896, appointed a commission to report upon the condition of
the national forest areas.
To Sarah Muir Galloway
1419 TAYLOR ST., SAN FRANCISCO
April 17th, 1876
DEAR SISTER SARAH:
I was glad the other day to have the hard
continuous toil of book writing interrupted by the postman handing in your
letter. It is full of news, but I can think of little to put in the letter
you ask for.
these days is like the life of a glacier, one eternal grind, and the top of
my head suffers a weariness at times that you know nothing about. I'm glad
to see by the hills across the bay, all yellow and purple with buttercups
and gilias, that spring is blending fast into summer, and soon I'll throw
down my pen, and take up my heels to go mountaineering once more.
My first book is taking shape now, and is mostly
written, but still far from complete. I hope to see it in print, rubbed, and
scrubbed, and elaborated, some time next year.
Among the unlooked-for burdens fate is loading
upon my toil-doomed shoulders, is this literature and lecture tour. I
suppose I will be called upon for two more addresses in San Francisco ere I
make my annual hegira to the woods. A few weeks ago I lectured at San Jose
to hear of the general good health and welfare of our scattered and
multiplied family, of Katie's returning health, and Joanna's. Remember me
warmly to Mrs. Galloway, tell her I will be in Wisconsin in two or three
years, and hope to see her, still surrounded by her many affectionate
friends. I was pleasantly surprised to notice the enclosed clipping to-day
in the "N.Y. Tribune." I also read a notice of a book by Professor James Law
of Cornell University, whom I used to play with. I met one of his scholars a
short time ago. Give my love to David and all your little big ones.
Ever very affectionately yours
To Sarah Muir Galloway
1419 TAYLOR ST., SAN FRANCISCO
January 12th, 
DEAR SISTER SARAH:
received your welcome letter to-day. I was beginning to think you were
neglecting me. The sad news of dear old Mrs. Galloway, though not
unexpected, makes me feel that I have lost a friend. Few lives are so
beautiful and complete as hers, and few could have had the glorious
satisfaction, in dying, to know that so few words spoken were other than
kind, and so few deeds that did anything more than augment the happiness of
others. How many really good people waste, and worse than waste, their short
lives in mean bickerings, when they might lovingly, in broad Christian
charity, enjoy the glorious privilege of doing plain, simple, every-day
good. Mrs. Galloway's character was one of the most beautiful and perfect I
delightful it is for you all to gather on the holidays, and what a grand
multitude you must make when you are all mustered. Little did I think when I
used to be, and am now, fonder of home and still domestic life than any one
of the boys, that I only should be a bachelor and doomed to roam always far
outside the family circle. But we are governed more than we know and are
driven with whips we know not where. Your pleasures, and the happiness of
your lives in general, are far greater than you know, being clustered
together, yet independent, and living in one of the most beautiful regions
under the sun. Long may you all live to enjoy your blessings and to learn to
love one another and make sacrifices for one another's good.
You inquire about [my] books. The others I spoke
of are a book of excursions, another on Yosemite and the adjacent mountains,
and another "Studies in the Sierra" (scientific). The present volume will be
descriptive of the Sierra animals, birds, forests, falls, glaciers, etc.,
which, if I live, you will see next fall or winter. I have not written
enough to compose with much facility, and as I am also very careful and have
but a limited vocabulary, I make slow progress. Still, although I never
meant to write the results of my explorations, now I have begun I rather
enjoy it and the public do me the credit of reading all I write, and paying
me for it, which is some satisfaction, and I will not probably fail in my
first effort on the book, inasmuch as I always make out to accomplish in
some way what I undertake.
I don't write regularly for anything, although
I'm said to be a regular correspondent of the [San Francisco] "Evening
Bulletin," and have the privilege of writing for it when I like. Harper's
have two unpublished illustrated articles of mine, but after they pay for
them they keep them as long as they like, sometimes a year or more, before
David and George, and all your fine lassies, and love, dear Sarah, to
letter invites comment. Until far into the later years of his life Muir
wrote by preference with quills which he cut himself. Over against his
bantering remark, that the pen he sends her may be a goose quill after all,
should be set the fact that among the mementos preserved by his sister Sarah
is a quill-pen wrapped with a cutting from one of John's letters which
reads, "Your letter about the first book recalls old happy days on the
mountains. The pen you speak of was made of a wing-feather of an eagle,
picked up on Mount Hoffman, back a few miles from Yosemite." The book he
wrote with it did not see the light of day, at least in the form which he
then gave it, and it is not certain what it contained beyond glowing
descriptions of Sierra forests and scenery, and appeals for their
preservation. That "the world needs the woods" has now become more than a
sentimental conviction with him; the moral and economic aspects of the
question begin to emerge strongly. One likes to think it a fact of more than
poetic significance that such a book by such a man was written with a quill
from an eagle's wing, and that the most patriotic service ever rendered by
an American eagle was that of the one who contributed a wing pinion to John
Muir for the defense of the western forests.
To Sarah Muir Galloway
SAN FRANCISCO, April 23rd, 1877
MY DEAR SISTER SARAH
To thee I give and bequeath this old gray quill with which I have written
every word of my first book, knowing, as I do, your predilection for
hardly remember its origin, but I think it is one that I picked up on the
mountains, fallen from the wing of a golden eagle; but, possibly, it may be
only a pinion feather of some tame old gray goose, and my love of truth
compels me to make this unpoetical statement. The book that has grown from
its whittled nib is, however, as wild as any that has ever appeared in these
tame, civilized days. Perhaps I should have waited until the book was in
print, for it is not absolutely certain that it will be accepted by the
publishing houses. It has first to be submitted to the tasting critics, but
as everything in the way of magazine and newspaper articles that the old pen
has ever traced has been accepted and paid for, I reasonably hope I shall
have no difficulties in obtaining a publisher. The manuscript has just been
sent to New York, and will be reported on in a few weeks. I leave for the
mountains of Utah to-day.
The frayed upper end of the pen was produced by
nervous gnawing when some interruption in my logic or rhetoric occurred from
stupidity or weariness. I gnawed the upper end to send the thoughts below
and out at the other.
Love to all your happy family and to thee and David. The circumstances of my
life since I last bade you farewell have wrought many changes in me, but my
love for you all has only grown greater from year to year, and whatsoever
befalls I shall ever be,
The statement, in the preceding letter, that he
is leaving for the mountains of Utah, the reader familiar with Muir's
writings will at once connect with the vivid Utah sketches that have
appeared in the volume entitled "Steep Trails." In the same book are found
the two articles on "The San Gabriel Valley" and "The San Gabriel
Mountains," which grew out of an excursion he made into southern California
soon after his return from Utah.
Mrs. Carr, who in 1877 had suffered the loss of
another of her sons, was at this time preparing to carry out her long
cherished plan to retire from public life to her new home in the South. With
her for a magnet, Carmelita, as she called it, became for a time the
literary center of southern California. There Helen Hunt Jackson wrote the
greater part of her novel "Ramona," and numerous other literary folk, both
East and West, made it at one time or another the goal of their pilgrimages.
In her spacious garden she indulged to the full her passion for bringing
together a great variety of unusual plants, shrubs, and trees, many of them
contributed by John Muir. Dr. E. M. Congar, mentioned in one of the
following letters, had been a fellow student of Muir at the University of
To Mrs. Ezra
SWETT HOME, July
I made only a
short dash into the dear old Highlands above Yosemite, but all was so full
of everything I love, every day seemed a measureless period. I never enjoyed
the Tuolumne cataracts so much; coming out of the sun lands, the gray salt
deserts of Utah, these wild ice waters sang themselves into my soul more
enthusiastically than ever, and the forests' breath was sweeter, and
Cassiope fairer than in all my first fresh contacts.
But I am not going to tell it here. I only write
now to say that next Saturday I will sail to Los Angeles and spend a few
weeks in getting some general views of the adjacent region, then work
northward and begin a careful study of the Redwood. I will at least have
time this season for the lower portion of the belt, that is for all south of
here. If you have any messages, you may have time to write me (I sail at 10
A.M.), or if not, you may direct to Los Angeles. I hope to see Congar, and
also the spot you have elected for home. I wish you could be there in your
grown, fruitful groves, all rooted and grounded in the fine garden nook that
I know you will make. It must be a great consolation, in the midst of the
fires you are compassed with, to look forward to a tranquil seclusion in the
South of which you are so fond.
John [Swett] says he may not move to Berkeley,
and if not I may be here this winter, though I still feel some tendency
towards another winter in some mountain den.
It is long indeed since I had anything like a
quiet talk with you. You have been going like an avalanche for many a year,
and I sometimes fear you will not be able to settle into rest even in the
orange groves. I'm glad to know that the Doctor is so well. You must be
pained by the shameful attacks made upon your tried friend LaGrange.
To Mrs. Ezra S. Carr
Los ANGELES, CALIFORNIA
August 12th, 1877
your sunny Pasadena and the patch called yours. Everything about here
pleases me and I felt sorely tempted to take Dr. Congar's advice and invest
in an orange patch myself. I feel sure you will be happy here with the
Doctor and Allie among so rich a luxuriance of sunny vegetation. How you
will dig and dibble in that mellow loam! I cannot think of you standing
erect for a single moment, unless it be in looking away out into the dreamy
I made a fine
shaggy little five days' excursion back in the heart of the San Gabriel
Mountains, and then a week of real pleasure with Congar resurrecting the
past about Madison. He has a fine little farm, fine little family, and fine
cozy home. I felt at home with Congar and at once took possession of his
premises and all that in them is. We drove down through the settlements
eastward and saw the best orange groves and vineyards, but the mountains I,
as usual, met alone. Although so gray and silent and unpromising they are
full of wild gardens and ferneries. Lilyries! - some specimens ten feet high
with twenty lilies, big enough for bonnets! The main results I will tell you
some other time, should you ever have an hour's leisure.
I go North to-day, by rail to Newhall, thence by
stage to Soledad and on to Monterey, where I will take to the woods and feel
my way in free study to San Francisco. May reach the City about the middle
of next month....
To Mrs. Ezra S. Carr
1419 TAYLOR ST., SAN FRANCISCO
September 3d, 
DEAR MRS. CARR:
I have just been over at Alameda with poor dear
old Gibbons. [W. P. Gibbons, M.D., an able amateur botanist and early member
of the California Academy of Sciences.] You have seen him, and I need give
no particulars. "The only thing I'm afraid of, John," he said, looking up
with his old child face, "is that I shall never be able to climb the Oakland
hills again." But he is so healthy and so well cared for, we will be strong
to hope that he will. He spoke for an hour with characteristic unselfishness
on the injustice done Dr. [Albert] Kellogg in failing to recognize his
long-continued devotion to science at the botanical love feast held here the
other night. He threatens to write up the whole discreditable affair, and is
very anxious to obtain from you a copy of that Gray letter to Kellogg which
was not delivered.
had a glorious ramble in the Santa Cruz woods, and have found out one very
interesting and picturesque fact concerning the growth of this Sequoia. I
mean to devote many a long week to its study. What the upshot may be I
cannot guess, but you know I am never sent empty away.
I made an excursion to the summit of Mt.
Hamilton in extraordinary style, accompanied by Allen, Norton, Brawley, and
all the lady professors and their friends a curious contrast to my ordinary
still hunting. Spent a week at San Jose, enjoyed my visit with Allen very
much. Lectured to the faculty on methods of study without undergoing any
very great scare.
believe I wrote you from Los Angeles about my Pasadena week. Have sent a
couple of letters to the "Bulletin" from there —not yet published.
I have no inflexible plans as yet for the
remaining months of the season, but Yosemite seems to place itself as a most
persistent candidate for my winter. I shall soon be in flight to the
Sierras, or Oregon.
seem to give up hope of ever seeing you calm again. Don't grind too hard at
these Sacramento mills. Remember me to the Doctor and Ailie.
Ever yours cordially
One of the earliest and most distinguished
pioneer settlers of California was General John Bidwell, of Chico, at whose
extensive and beautiful ranch distinguished travelers and scientists often
were hospitably entertained. In 1877, Sir Joseph Hooker and Asa Gray were
among the guests of Rancho Chico, when they returned from a botanical trip
to Mount Shasta, whither they had gone under the guidance of John Muir. This
excursion, of which more later, drew Muir also into the friendly circle of
the Bidwell family, and the following letter was written after a prolonged
visit at Rancho Chico. "Lize in Jackets," wrote the late Mrs. Annie E. K.
Bidwell in kindly transmitting a copy of this letter, "refers to my sister's
mule, which, when attacked by yellow jackets whose nests we trod upon, would
rise almost perpendicularly, then plunge forward frantically, kicking and
twisting her tail with a rapidity that elicited uproarious laughter from Mr.
Muir. Each of our riding animals had characteristic movements on this
occasion, which Mr. Muir classified with much merriment." Just before his
departure, on October 2, Muir expressed the wish that he might be able to
descend the Sacramento River in a skiff, whereupon General Bidwell had his
ranch carpenter hastily construct a kind of boat in which Muir made the trip
described in the following letter.
To General John Bidwell, Mrs. Bidwell, and Miss
SACRAMENTO, October 10th, 1877
The Chico flagship and I are safely arrived in
Sacramento, unwrecked, unsnagged, and the whole winding way was one glorious
strip of enjoyment. When I bade you good-bye, on the bank I was benumbed and
bent down with your lavish kindnesses like one of your vine-laden willows.
It is seldom that I experience much difficulty in leaving civilization for
God's wilds, but I was loath indeed to leave you three that day after our
long free ramble in the mountain woods and that five weeks' rest in your
cool fruity home. The last I saw of you was Miss Kennedy white among the
leaves like a fleck of mist, then sweeping around a bend you were all gone
-the old wildness came back, and I began to observe, and enjoy, and be
camp was made on a little oval island some ten or twelve miles down, where a
clump of arching willows formed a fine nest- like shelter; and where I
spread my quilt on the gravel and opened the box so daintily and
thoughtfully stored for my comfort. I began to reflect again on your real
goodness to me from first to last, and said, "I'll not forget those Chico
three as long as I live."
I placed the two flags at the head of my bed,
one on each side, and as the campfire shone upon them the effect was very
imposing and patriotic. The night came on full of strange sounds from birds
and insects new to me, but the starry sky was clear and came arching over my
lowland nest seemingly as bright and familiar with its glorious
constellations as when beheld through the thin crisp atmosphere of the
second day the Spoonbill sprang a bad leak from the swelling of the bottom
timbers; two of them crumpled out thus [sketch] [After Mrs. Bidwell's death,
the writer unfortunately was unable to obtain from her relatives the loan of
this letter for the reproduction of the two included sketches.] at a point
where they were badly nailed, and I had to run her ashore for repairs. I
turned her upside down on a pebbly bar, took out one of the timbers,
whittled it carefully down to the right dimensions, replaced it, and nailed
it tight and fast with a stone for a hammer; then calked the new joint,
shoved her back into the current, and rechristened her "The Snag-Jumper."
She afterwards behaved splendidly in the most trying places, and leaked only
at the rate of fifteen tincupfuls per hour.
Her performances in the way of snag- jumping are
truly wonderful. Most snags are covered with slimy alga and lean downstream
and the sloping bows of the Jumper enabled her to glance gracefully up and
over them, when not too high above the water, while her lightness prevented
any strain sufficient to crush her bottom. [Sketch of boat.] On one occasion
she took a firm slippery snag a little obliquely and was nearly rolled
upside down, as a sod is turned by a plow. Then I charged myself to be more
careful, and while rowing often looked well ahead for snag ripples - but
soon I came to a long glassy reach, and my vigilance not being eternal, my
thoughts wandered upstream back to those grand spring fountains on the head
of the McCloud and Pitt. Then I tried to picture those hidden tributaries
that flow beneath the lava tablelands, and recognized in them a capital
illustration of the fact that in their farthest fountains all rivers are
lost to mortal eye, that the sources of all are hidden as those of the Nile,
and so, also, that in this respect every river of knowledge is a Nile. Thus
I was philosophizing, rowing with a steady stroke, and as the current was
rapid, the Jumper was making fine headway, when with a tremendous bump she
reared like "Lize in Jackets," swung around stern downstream, and remained
fast on her beam ends, erect like a coffin against a wall. She managed,
however, to get out of even this scrape without disaster to herself or to
I usually sailed
from sunrise to sunset, rowing one third of the time, paddling one third,
and drifting the other third in restful comfort., landing now and then to
examine a section of the bank or some bush or tree. Under these conditions
the voyage to this port was five days in length. On the morning of the third
day I hid my craft in the bank vines and set off cross- lots for the highest
of the Marysville Buttes, reached the summit, made my observations, and got
back to the river and Jumper by two o'clock. The distance to the nearest
foothill of the group is about three miles, but to the base of the southmost
and highest butte is six miles, and its elevation is about eighteen hundred
feet above its base, or in round numbers two thousand feet above tidewater.
The whole group is volcanic, taking sharp basaltic forms near the summit,
and with stratified conglomerates of finely polished quartz and metamorphic
pebbles tilted against their flanks. There is a sparse growth of live oak
and laurel on the southern slopes, the latter predominating, and on the
north quite a close tangle of dwarf oak forming a chaparral. I noticed the
white mountain spiraa also, and madrofia, with a few willows, and three
ferns toward the summit. Pellxa andromedafolia, Gymnogramma Iriangularis,
and Cheilanthes gracillima; and many a fine flower - penstemons, gilias, and
our brave eriogonums of blessed memory. The summit of this highest southmost
butte is a coast survey station.
The river is very crooked, becoming more and
more so in its lower course, flowing in grand lingering deliberation, now
south, now north, east and west with fine un-American indirectness. The
upper portion down as far as Colusa is full of rapids, but below this point
the current is beautifully calm and lake-like, with innumerable reaches of
most surpassing loveliness. How you would have enjoyed it! The bank vines
all the way down are of the same species as those that festoon your
beautiful Chico Creek (Vitis californica), but nowhere do they reach such
glorious exuberance of development as with you.
The temperature of the water varies only about
two and a half degrees between Chico and Sacramento, a distance by the river
of nearly two hundred miles - the upper temperature 64°, the lower 66°. I
found the temperature of the Feather [River] waters at their confluence one
degree colder than those of the Sacramento, 65° and 66° respectively, which
is a difference in exactly the opposite direction from what I anticipated.
All the brown discoloring mud of the lower Sacramento, thus far, is derived
from the Feather, and it is curious to observe how completely the two
currents keep themselves apart for three or four miles. I never landed to
talk to any one, or ask questions, but was frequently cheered from the bank
and challenged by old sailors "Ship ahoy," etc., and while seated in the
stern reading a magazine and drifting noiselessly with the current, I
overheard a deck hand on one of the steamers say, "Now that's what I call
taking it aisy."
still at a loss to know what there is in the rig or model of the Jumper that
excited such universal curiosity. Even the birds of the river, and the
animals that came to drink, though paying little or no heed to the passing
steamers with all their plash and outroar, at once fixed their attention on
my little flagship, some taking flight with loud screams, others waiting
with outstretched necks until I nearly touched them, while others circled
overhead. The domestic animals usually dashed up the bank in extravagant
haste, one crowding on the heels of the other as if suffering extreme
terror. I placed one flag, the smaller, on the highest pinnacle of the
Butte, where I trust it may long wave to your memory; the other I have
still. Watching the thousand land birds - linnets, orioles, sparrows,
flickers, quails, etc. - Nature's darlings, taking their morning baths, was
no small part of my enjoyments.
I was greatly interested in the fine bank
sections shown to extraordinary advantage at the present low water, because
they cast so much light upon the formation of this grand valley, but I
cannot tell my results here.
This letter is already far too long, and I will
hasten to a close. I will rest here a day or so, and then push off again to
the mouth of the river a hundred miles or so farther, chiefly to study the
deposition of the sediment at the head of the bay, then push for the
mountains. I would row up the San Joaquin, but two weeks or more would be
required for the trip, and I fear snow on the mountains.
I am glad to know that you are really interested
in science, and I might almost venture another lecture upon you, but in the
mean time forbear. Looking backward I see you three in your leafy home, and
while I wave my hand, I will only wait to thank you all over and over again
for the thousand kind things you have done and said - drives, and grapes,
and rest, "a' that and a' that."
And now, once more, farewell.
Ever cordially your friend
During this same summer of 1877, and previous to
the experiences narrated in the preceding letter, the great English botanist
Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker had accepted an invitation from Dr. F. V. Hayden,
then in charge of the United States Geological and Geographical Survey of
the Territories, to visit under his conduct the Rocky Mountain region, with
the object of contributing to the records of the Survey a report on the
botany of the western states. Professor Asa Gray was also of the party.
After gathering some special botanical collections in Colorado, New Mexico,
and Utah, they came to California and persuaded John Muir, on account of his
familiarity with the region, to go with them to Mount Shasta. One September
evening, as they were encamped on its flanks in a forest of silver firs,
Muir built a big fire, whose glow stimulated an abundant flow of interesting
conversation. Gray recounted reminiscences of his collecting tours in the
Alleghanies; Hooker told of his travels in the Himalayas and of his work
with Tyndall, Huxley, and Darwin. "And of course," notes Muir, "we talked of
trees, argued the relationship of varying species, etc.; and I remember that
Sir Joseph, who in his long active life had traveled through all the great
forests of the world, admitted, in reply to a question of mine, that in
grandeur, variety, and beauty, no forest on the globe rivaled the great
coniferous forests of my much loved Sierra."
But the most memorable incident of that night on
the flanks of Shasta grew out of the mention of Linnaea borealis - the
charming little evergreen trailer whose name perpetuates the memory of the
illustrious Linnaus. "Muir, why have you not found Linnaea in California?"
said Gray suddenly during a pause in the conversation. "It must be here, or
hereabouts, on the northern boundary of the Sierra. I have heard of it, and
have specimens from Washing- ton and Oregon all through these northern
woods, and you should have found it here." The camp fire sank into heaps of
glowing coals, the conversation ceased, and all fell asleep with Linnaa
uppermost in their minds.
The next morning Gray continued his work alone,
while Hooker and Muir made an excursion westward' across one of the upper
tributaries of the Sacramento. In crossing a small stream, they noticed a
green bank carpeted with what hooker at once recognized as Linnia - the
first discovery of the plant within the bounds of California. "It would
seem," said Muir, "that Gray had felt its presence the night before on the
mountain ten miles away. That was a great night, the like of which was never
to be enjoyed by us again, for we soon separated and Gray died." [Muir's
article on Linnaeus in Library of the World's Best Literature, vol. 16
(1897).] The impression Muir made upon Hooker is reflected in his letters.
In one of them, written twenty-five years after the event, Hooker declares,
"My memory of you is very strong and durable, and that of our days in the
forests is inextinguishable."
In the following letter to his sister Muir gives
some additional details of the Shasta excursion, and makes reference to an
exceedingly strenuous exploring trip up the Middle Fork of the Kings River,
from which he had just returned.
To Sarah Muir Galloway
AT OLD 1419 TAYLOR ST.
[November 29, 1877]
DEAR SISTER SARAH:
find an unanswered letter of yours dated September 23d, and though I have
been very hungry on the mountains a few weeks ago, and have just been making
bountiful amends at a regular turkey thank-feast of the old New England
type, I must make an effort to answer it, however incapacitated by
"stuffing," for, depend upon it, this Turkish method of thanks does make the
simplest kind of literary effort hard; one's brains go heavily along the
easiest lines like a laden wagon in a bog.
But I can at least answer your questions. The
Professor Gray I was with on Shasta is the writer of the school botanies,
the most distinguished botanist in America, and Sir Joseph Hooker is the
leading botanist of England. We had a fine rare time together in the Shasta
forests, discussing the botanical characters of the grandest coniferous
trees in the world, camping out, and enjoying ourselves in pure freedom.
Gray is an old friend that I led around Yosemite years ago, and with whom I
have corresponded for a long time. Sir Joseph I never met before. He is a
fine cordial Englishman, President of the Royal Scientific Society, and has
charge of the Kew Botanic Gardens. He is a great traveler, but perfectly
free from all chilling airs of superiority. He told me a great deal about
the Himalayas, the deodar forests there, and the gorgeous rhododendrons that
cover their flanks with lavish bloom for miles and miles, and about the
cedars of Lebanon that he visited and the distribution of the species in
different parts of Syria, and its relation to the deodar so widely extended
over the mountains of India. And besides this scientific talk he told many a
story and kept the camp in fine lively humor. On taking his leave be gave me
a hearty invitation to London, and promised to show me through the famous
government gardens at Kew, and all round, etc., etc. When I shall be able to
avail myself of this and similar advantages I don't know. I have met a good
many of Nature's noblemen one way and another out here, and hope to see some
of them at their homes, but my own researches seem to hold me fast to this
comparatively solitary life.
Next you speak of my storm night on Shasta.
Terrible as it would appear from the account printed, the half was not told,
but I will not likely be caught in the same experience again, though as I
have said, I have just been very hungry - one meal in four days, coupled
with the most difficult, nerve-trying cliff work. This was on Kings River a
few weeks ago. Still, strange to say, I did not feel it much, and there
seems to be scarce any limit to my endurance.
I am far from being friendless here, and on this
particular day I might have eaten a score of prodigious thank dinners if I
could have been in as many places at the same time, but the more I learn of
the world the happier seems to me the life you live. You speak of your
family gatherings, of a week's visit at Mother's and here and there. Make
the most of your privileges to trust and love and live in near, unjealous,
generous sympathy with one another, for I assure you these are blessings
scarce at all recognized in their real divine greatness...
We had a company of fourteen at dinner tonight,
and we had what is called a grand time, but these big eating parties never
seem to me to pay for the trouble they make, though all seem to enjoy them
immensely. A crust by a brookside out on the mountains with God is more to
me than all, beyond comparison. Nevertheless these poor legs in their
weariness do enjoy a soft bed at times and plenty of nourishment. I had
another grand turkey feast a week ago. Coming home here I left my boat at
Martinez, thirty miles up the bay, and walked to Oakland across the top of
Mount Diablo, and on the way called at my friends, the Strentzels, who have
eighty acres of choice orchards and vineyards, where I rested two days, my
first rest in six weeks. They pitied my weary looks, and made me eat and
sleep, stuffing me with turkey, chicken, beef, fruits, and jellies in the
most extravagant manner imaginable, and begged me to stay a month. Last eve
dined at a French friend's in the city, and you would have been surprised to
see so temperate a Scotchman doing such justice to French dishes. The fact
is I've been hungry ever since starving in the mountain canons.
This evening the guests would ask me how I felt
while starving? Why I did not die like other people? How many bears I had
seen, and deer, etc.? How deep the snow is now and where the snow line is
located, etc.? Then upstairs we chat and sing and play piano, etc., and then
I slip off from the company and write this. Now it [is] near midnight., and
I must slip from thee also, wishing you and David and all your dear family
good-night. With love,
ST., SAN FRANCISCO
December 3, 1877
in my old winter quarters here a week ago, my season's field work done, and
I was just sitting down to write to Mrs. Bidwell when your letter of
November 29th came in. The tardiness of my Kings River postal is easily
explained. I committed it to the care of a mountaineer who was about to
descend to the lowlands, and he probably carried it for a month or so in his
breeches' pocket in accordance with the well-known business habits of that
class of men. And now since you are so kindly interested in my welfare I
must give you here a sketch of my explorations since I wrote you from
Snag-Jumper at Sacramento in charge of a man whose name I have forgotten. He
has boats of his own, and I tied Snag to one of his stakes in a snug
out-of-the-way nook above the railroad bridge. I met this pilot a mile up
the river on his way home from hunting. He kindly led me into port, and then
conducted me in the dark up the Barbary Coast into the town; and on taking
leave he volunteered the information that he was always kindly disposed
towards strangers, but that most people met under such circumstances would
have robbed and made away with me, etc. I think, therefore, that leaving
Snag in his care will form an interesting experiment on human nature.
I fully intended to sail on down into the bay
and up the San Joaquin as far as Millerton, but when I came to examine a map
of the river deltas and found that the distance was upwards of three hundred
miles, and learned also that the upper San Joaquin was not navigable this
dry year even for my craft, and when I also took into consideration the
approach of winter and danger of snowstorms on the Kings River summits, I
concluded to urge my way into the mountains at once, and leave the San
Joaquin studies until my return.
Accordingly I took the steamer to San Francisco,
where I remained one day, leaving extra baggage, and getting some changes of
clothing. Then went direct by rail to Visalia, thence pushed up the
mountains to Hyde's Mill on the Kaweah, where I obtained some flour, which,
together with the tea Mrs. Bidwell supplied me with, and that piece of dried
beef, and a little sugar, constituted my stock of provisions. From here I
crossed the divide, going northward through fine Sequoia woods to Converse's
on Kings River. Here I spent two days making some studies on the Big Trees,
chiefly with reference to their age. Then I turned eastward and pushed off
into the glorious wilderness, following the general direction of the South
Fork a few miles back from the brink until I had crossed three tributary
canons from 1500 to 2000 feet deep. In the eastmost and middle one of the
three I was delighted to discover some four or five square miles of Sequoia,
where I had long guessed the existence of these grand old tree kings.
After this capital discovery I made my way to
the bottom of the main South Fork Caņon down a rugged side gorge, having a
descent of more than four thousand feet. This was at a point about two miles
above the confluence of Boulder Creek. From here I pushed slowly on up the
bottom of the caņon, through brush and avalanche boulders, past many a
charming fall and garden sacred to nature, and at length reached the grand
yosemite at the head, where I stopped two days to make some measurements of
the cliffs and cascades. This done, I crossed over the divide to the Middle
Fork by a pass 12,200 feet high, and struck the head of a small tributary
that conducted me to the head of the main Middle Fork Caņon, which I
followed down through its entire length, though it has hitherto been
regarded as absolutely inaccessible in its lower reaches. This accompushed,
and all my necessary sketches and measurements made, I climbed the caņon
wall below the confluence of the Middle and South Forks and came out at
Converse's again; then back to Hyde's Mill, Visalia, and thence to Merced
City by rail, thence by stage to Snelling, and thence to Hopeton afoot.
Here I built a little unpretentious successor to
Snag out of some gnarled, sun-twisted fencing, launched it in the Merced
opposite the village, and rowed down into the San Joaquin - thence down the
San Joaquin past Stockton and through the tule region into the bay near
Martinez. There I abandoned my boat and set off cross lots for Mount Diablo,
spent a night on the summit, and walked the next day into Oakland. And here
my fine summer's wanderings came to an end. And now I find that this mere
skeleton finger board indication of my excursion has filled at least the
space of a long letter, while I have told you nothing of my gains. If you
were nearer I would take a day or two and come and report, and talk
inveterately in and out of season until you would be glad to have me once
more in the canons and silence. But Chico is far, and I can only finish with
a catalogue of my new riches, setting them down one after the other like
words in a spelling book.
1. Four or five square miles of Sequoias.
2. The ages of twenty-six specimen Sequoias.
3. A fine fact about bears.
4. A sure measurement of the deepest of all the
ancient glaciers yet traced in the Sierra.
5. Two waterfalls of the first order, and
6. A new Yosemite valley!!!
7. Grand facts concerning the formation of the
central plain of California.
8. A picturesque cluster of facts concerning the
river birds and animals.
9. A glorious series of new landscapes, with
mountain furniture and garniture of the most ravishing grandeur and beauty.
Here, Mrs. Bidwell, is a rose leaf from a wild
briar on Mount Diablo whose leaves are more flowery than its petals. Isn't
it beautiful? That new Yosemite Valley is located in the heart of the Middle
Fork Caņon, the most remote, and inaccessible, and one of the very grandest
of all the mountain temples of the range. It is still sacred to Nature, its
gardens untrodden, and every nook and rejoicing cataract wears the bloom and
glad sun-beauty of primeval wildness - ferns and lilies and grasses over
one's head. I saw a flock of five deer in one of its open meadows, and a
grizzly bear quietly munching acorns under a tfee within a few steps.
The cold was keen and searching the night I
spent on the summit by the edge of a glacier 1ke twenty-two degrees below
the freezing point, and a storm wind blowing in fine hearty surges among the
shattered cliffs overhead, and, to crown all, snow flowers began to fly a
few minutes after midnight, causing me to fold that quilt of yours and fly
to avoid a serious snowbound. By daylight I was down in the main Middle Fork
in a milder climate and safer position at an elevation of only seventy-five
hundred feet. All the summit peaks were quickly clad in close unbroken
I was terribly
hungry ere I got out of this wild caņon - had less than sufficient for one
meal in the last four days, and this, coupled with very hard nerve-trying
cliff work was sufficiently exhausting for any mountaineer. Yet strange to
say, I did not suffer much. Crystal water, and air, and honey sucked from
the scarlet flowers of Zauschneria, about one tenth as much as would suffice
for a humming bird, was my last breakfast - a very temperate meal, was it
not? - wholly ungross and very nearly spiritual. The last effort before
reaching food was a climb up out of the main caņon of five thousand feet.
Still I made it in fair time only a little faint, no giddiness, want of
spirit, or incapacity to observe and enjoy, or any nonsense of this kind.
How I should have liked to have then tumbled into your care for a day or
My sail down the
Merced and San Joaquin was about two hundred and fifty miles in length and
took two weeks, a far more difficult and less interesting [trip], as far as
scenery is concerned, than my memorable first voyage down the Sacramento.
Sandbars and gravelly riffles, as well as snags gave me much trouble, and in
the Tule wilderness I had to tether my tiny craft to a bunch of rushes and
sleep cold in her bottom with the seat for a pillow. I have gotten past most
of the weariness but am hungry yet notwithstanding friends have been
stuffing me here ever since. I may go hungry through life and into the very
grave and beyond unless you effect a cure, and I'm sure I should like to try
Rancho Chico - would have tried it ere this were you not so far off.
I slept in your quilt all through the excursion,
and brought it here tolerably clean and whole. The flag I left tied to the
bush-top in the bottom of the third F Caņon. I have not yet written to Gray,
have you? Remember me to your sister, I mean to write to her soon. I must
close. With lively remembrances of your rare kindness, I am
Ever very cordially yours
To Dr. and Mrs. John Strentzel, and Miss
Sr., SAN FRANCISCO
December 5th, 1877
I made a
capital little excursion over your Mount Diablo and arrived in good order in
San Francisco after that fine rest in your wee white house.
I sauntered on leisurely after bidding you
good-bye, enjoying the landscape as it was gradually unrolled in the evening
light. One charming bit of picture after another came into view at every
turn of the road, and while the sunset fires were burning brightest I had
attained an elevation sufficient for a grand comprehensive feast.
I reached the summit a little after dark and
selected a sheltered nook in the chaparral to rest for the night and await
the coming of the sun. The wind blew a gale, but I did not suffer much from
the cold. The night was keen and crisp and the stars shone out with better
brilliancy than one could hope for in these lowland atmospheres.
The sunrise was truly glorious. After lingering
an hour or so, observing and feasting and making a few notes, I went down to
that halfway hotel for breakfast. I was the only guest, while the family
numbered four, well attired and intellectual looking persons, who for a time
kept up a solemn, quakerish silence which I tried in vain to break up. But
at length all four began a hearty, spontaneous discussion upon the art of
cat killing, solemnly and decently relating in turn all their experience in
this delightful business in bygone time, embracing everything with grave
fervor in the whole scale of cat, all the way up from sackfuls of purblind
kittens to tigerish Toms. Then I knew that such knowledge was attainable
only by intellectual New Englanders.
My walk down the mountain-side across the
valleys and through the Oakland hills was very delightful, and I feasted on
many a bit of pure picture in purple and gold, Nature's best, and beheld the
most ravishingly beautiful sunset on the Bay I ever yet enjoyed in the
I shall not
soon forget the rest I enjoyed in your pure white bed, or the feast on your
fruity table. Seldom have I been so deeply weary, and as for hunger, I've
been hungry still in spite of it all, and for aught I see in the signs of
the stomach may go hungry on through life and into the grave and beyond.
Heaven forbid a dry year! May wheat grow!
With lively remembrances of your rare kindness, I am,
Very cordially your friend
The winter and the spring months passed swiftly
in the effort to correlate and put into literary form his study of the
forests. There were additional "tree days," too, and other visits with the
congenial three on the Strentzel ranch. But when the Swetts, with whom he
made his home, departed for the summer, taking their little daughter with
them, he furloughed himself to the woods again without ceremony. "Helen
Swett," he wrote to the Strentzels on May 5th, "left this morning, and the
house is in every way most dolefully dull, and I won't stay in it. Will go
into the woods, perhaps about Mendocino - will see more trees."