Writings of John Muir
Volume 1 - Chapter VII. A Sojourn
ONE day in January I climbed
to the housetop to get a view of another of the fine sunsets of this land of
flowers. The landscape was a strip of clear Gulf water, a strip of sylvan
coast, a tranquil company of shell and coral keys, and a gloriously colored
sky without a threatening cloud. All the winds were hushed and the calm of
the heavens was as profound as that of the palmy islands and their
encircling waters. As I gazed from one to another of the palm-crowned keys,
enclosed by the sunset-colored dome, my eyes chanced to rest upon the
fluttering sails of a Yankee schooner that was threading the tortuous
channel in the coral reef leading to the harbor of Cedar Keys. "There,"
thought I, "perhaps I may sail in that pretty white moth." She proved to be
the schooner Island Belle.
One day soon after her
arrival I went over the key to the harbor, for I was now strong enough to
walk. Some of her crew were ashore after water. I waited until their casks
were filled, and went with them to the vessel in their boat. Ascertained
that she was ready to sail with her cargo of lumber for Cuba. I engaged
passage on her for twenty-five dollars, and asked her sharp-visaged captain
when he would sail. "Just as soon," said he, "as we get a north wind. We
have had northers enough when we did not want them, and now we have this
dying breath from the south."
Hurrying back to the house, I
gathered my plants, took leave of my kind friends, and went aboard, and
soon, as if to calm the captain's complaints, Boreas came foaming loud and
strong. The little craft was quickly trimmed and snugged, her inviting sails
spread open, and away she dashed to her ocean home like an exulting
war-horse to the battle. Islet after islet speedily grew dim and sank
beneath the horizon. Deeper became the blue of the water, and in a few hours
all of Florida vanished.
This excursion on the sea,
the first one after twenty years in the woods, was of course exceedingly
interesting, and I was full of hope, glad to be once more on my journey to
the South. Boreas increased in power and the Island Belle appeared to glory
in her speed and managed her full-spread wings as gracefully as a sea-bird.
In less than a day our norther increased in strength to the storm point.
Deeper and wider became the valleys, and yet higher the hills of the round
plain of water. The flying jib and gaff topsails were lowered and mainsails
close-reefed, and our deck was white with broken wave-tops.
"You bad better go below,"
said the captain. "The Gulf Stream, opposed by this wind, is raising a heavy
sea and you will be sick. No landsman can stand this long." I replied that I
hoped the storm would be as violent as his ship could bear, that I enjoyed
the scenery of such a sea so much that it was impossible to be sick, that I
had long waited in the woods for just such a storm, and that, now that the
precious thing had come, I would remain on deck and enjoy it. "Well," said
he, "if you can stand this, you are the first landsman I ever saw that
I remained on deck, holding
on by a rope to keep from being washed overboard, and watched the behavior
of the Belle as she dared nobly on; but my attention was mostly directed
among the glorious fields of foam-topped waves. The wind had a mysterious
voice and carried nothing now of the songs of birds or of the rustling of
palms and fragrant vines. Its burden was gathered from a stormy expanse of
crested waves and briny tangles. I could see no striving in those
magnificent wave-motions, no raging; all the storm was apparently inspired
with nature's beauty and harmony. Every wave was obedient and harmonious as
the smoothest ripple of a forest lake, and after dark all the water was
phosphorescent like silver fire, a glorious sight.
Our luminous storm was all
too short for me. Cuba's rock-waves loomed above the white waters early in
the morning. The sailors, accustomed to detect the faintest land line,
pointed out well-known guiding harbor-marks back of the Morro Castle long
before I could see them through the flying spray. We sailed landward for
several hours, the misty shore becoming gradually more earthlike. A flock of
white-plumaged ships were departing from the Havana harbor, or, like us,
seeking to enter it. No sooner had our little schooner flapped her sails in
the lee of the Castle than she was boarded by a swarm of daintily dressed
officials who were good-naturedly and good-gesturedly making all sorts of
inquiries, while our busy captain, paying little attention to them, was
giving orders to his crew.
The neck of the harbor is
narrow and it is seldom possible to sail in to appointed anchorage without
the aid of a steam tug. Our captain wished to save his money, but after much
profitless tacking was compelled to take the proffered aid of steam, when we
soon reached our quiet mid-harbor quarters and dropped anchor among ships of
every size from every sea.
I was still four or five
hundred yards from land and could determine no plant in sight excepting the
long-arched leaf banners of the banana and the palm, which made a brave show
on the Morro Hill. When we were approaching the land I observed that in some
places it was distinctly yellow, and I wondered while we were yet some miles
distant whether the color belonged to the ground or to sheets of flowers.
From our harbor home I could now see that the color was plant-gold. On one
side of the harbor was a city of these yellow plants; on the other, a city
of yellow stucco houses, narrowly and confusedly congregated.
"Do you want to go ashore?"
said the captain to me. "Yes," I replied, "but I wish to go to the plant
side of the harbor." "Oh, well," he said, "come with me now. There are some
fine squares and gardens in the city, full of all sorts of trees and
flowers. Enjoy these to-day, and some other day we will all go over the
Morro Hill with you and gather shells. All kinds of shells are over there;
but these yellow slopes that you see are covered only with weeds."
We jumped into the boat and a
couple of sailors pulled us to the thronged, noisy wharf. It was Sunday
afternoon, [Doubtless January 12, 1868.] the noisiest day of a Havana week.
Cathedral bells and prayers in the forenoon, theaters and bull-fight bells
and bellowings in the afternoon! Lowly whispered prayers to the saints and
the Virgin, followed by shouts of praise or reproach to bulls and matadors!
I made free with fine oranges and bananas and many other fruits. Pineapple I
had never seen before. Wandered about the narrow streets, stunned with the
babel of strange sounds and sights; went gazing, also, among the gorgeously
flowered garden squares, and then waited among some boxed merchandise until
our captain, detained by business, arrived. Was glad to escape to our little
schooner Belle again, weary and heavy-laden with excitement and tempting
As night came on, a thousand
lights starred the great town. I was now in one of my happy dreamlands, the
fairest of West India islands. But how, I wondered, shall I be able to
escape from this great city confusion? How shall I reach nature in this
delectable land? Consulting my map, I longed to climb the central mountain
range of the island and trace it through all its forests and valleys and
over its summit peaks, a distance of seven or eight hundred miles. But alas!
though out of Florida swamps, fever was yet weighing me down, and a mile of
city walking was quite exhausting. The weather too was oppressively warm and
January 16. During the few
days since, our arrival the sun usually has risen unclouded, pouring down
pure gold, rich and dense, for one or two hours. Then island-like masses of
white-edged cumuli suddenly appeared, grew to storm size, and in a few
minutes discharged rain in tepid plashing bucketfuls, accompanied with high
wind. This was followed by a short space of calm, half-cloudy sky,
delightfully fragrant with flowers, and again the air would become hot,
thick, and sultry.
This weather, as may readily
be perceived, was severe to one so weak and feverish, and after a dozen
trials of strength over the Morro Hill and along the coast northward for
shells and flowers, I was sadly compelled to see that no enthusiasm could
enable me to walk to the interior. So I was obliged to limit my researches
to within ten or twelve miles of Havana. Captain Parsons offered his ship as
my headquarters, and my weakness prevented me from spending a single night
The daily programme for
nearly all the month that I spent here was about as follows: After breakfast
a sailor rowed me ashore on the north side of the harbor. A few minutes'
walk took me past the Morro Castle and out of sight of the town on a broad
cactus common, about as solitary and untrodden as the tangles of Florida.
Here I zigzagged and gathered prizes among unnumbered plants and shells
along the shore, stopping to press the plant specimens and to rest in the
shade of vine-heaps and bushes until sundown. The happy hours stole away
until I had to return to the schooner. Either I was seen by the sailors who
usually came for me, or I hired a boat to take me back. Arrived, I reached
up my press and a big handful of flowers, and with a little help climbed up
the side of my floating home.
Refreshed with supper and
rest, I recounted my adventures in the vine tangles, cactus thickets,
sunflower swamps, and along the shore among the breakers. My flower
specimens, also, and pocketfuls of shells and corals had to be reviewed.
Next followed a cool, dreamy hour on deck amid the lights of the town and
the various vessels coming and departing.
Many strange sounds were
heard: the vociferous, unsmotherable bells, the heavy thundering of cannon
from the Castle, and the shouts of the sentinels in measured time. Combined
they made the most incessant sharp-angled mass of noise that I ever was
doomed to hear. Nine or ten o'clock found me in a small bunk with the harbor
wavelets tinkling outside close to my ear. The hours of sleep were filled
with dreams of heavy heat, of fruitless efforts for the disentanglement of
vines, or of running from curling breakers back to the Morro, etc. Thus my
days and nights went on.
Occasionally I was persuaded
by the captain to go ashore in the evening on his side of the harbor,
accompanied perhaps by two or three other captains. After landing and
telling the sailors when to call for us, we hired a carriage and drove to
the upper end of the city, to a fine public square adorned with shady walks
and magnificent plants. A brass band in imposing uniform played the
characteristic lance-noted martial airs of the Spanish. Evening is the
fashionable hour for aristocratic drives about the streets and squares, the
only time that is delightfully cool. I never saw elsewhere people so neatly
and becomingly dressed. The proud best-family Cubans may fairly be called
beautiful, are under- rather than over-sized, with features exquisitely
moulded, and set off with silks and broadcloth in excellent taste. Strange
that their amusements should be so coarse. Bull-fighting, brain-splitting
bell-ringing, and the most piercing artificial music appeal to their taste.
The rank and wealth of Havana
nobility, when out driving, seems to be indicated by the distance of their
horses from the body of the carriage. The higher the rank, the longer the
shafts of the carriage, and the clumsier and more ponderous are the wheels,
which are not unlike those of a cannon-cart. A few of these carriages have
shafts twenty-five feet in length, and the brilliant-liveried negro driver
on the lead horse, twenty or thirty feet in advance of the horse in the
shafts, is beyond calling distance of his master.
Havana abounds in public
squares, which in all my random strolls throughout the big town I found to
be well-watered, well-cared-for, well-planted, and full of exceedingly showy
and interesting plants, rare even amid the exhaustless luxuriance of Cuba.
These squares also contained fine marble statuary and were furnished with
seats in the shadiest places. Many of the walks were paved instead of
The streets of Havana are
crooked, labyrinthic, and exceedingly narrow. The sidewalks are only about a
foot wide. A traveler experiences delightful relief when, heated and wearied
by raids through the breadth of the dingy yellow town, dodging a way through
crowds of men and mules and lumbering carts and carriages, he at length
finds shelter in the spacious, dustless, cool, flowery squares; still more
when, emerging from all the din and darkness of these lanelike streets, he
suddenly finds himself out in the middle of the harbor, inhaling full-drawn
breaths of the sea breezes.
The interior of the better
houses which came under my observation struck me with the profusion of
dumpy, ill-proportioned pillars at the entrances and in the halls, and with
the spacious open-fielded appearance of their enclosed square house-gardens
or courts. Cubans in general appear to me superfinely polished, polite, and
agreeable in society, but in their treatment of animals they are cruel. I
saw more downright brutal cruelty to mules and horses, during the few weeks
I stayed there, than in my whole life elsewhere. Live chickens and hogs are
tied in bunches by the legs and carried to market thus, slung on a mule. In
their general treatment of all sorts of animals they seem to have no thought
for them beyond cold-blooded, selfish interest.
In tropical regions it is
easy to build towns, but it is difficult to subdue their armed and united
plant inhabitants, and to clear fields and make them blossom with
breadstuff. The plant people of temperate regions, feeble, unarmed,
unallied, disappear under the trampling feet of flocks, herds, and man,
leaving their ' homes to enslavable plants which follow the will of man and
furnish him with food. But the armed and united plants of the tropics hold
their rightful kingdom plantfully, nor, since the first appearance of Lord
Man, have they ever suffered defeat.
A large number of Cuba's wild
plants circle closely about Havana. In five minutes' walk from the wharf I
could reach the undisturbed settlements of Nature. The field of the greater
portion of my rambling researches was a strip of rocky common, silent and
unfrequented by anybody save an occasional beggar at Nature's door asking a
few roots and seeds. This natural strip extended ten miles along the coast
northward, with but few large-sized trees and bushes, but rich in
magnificent vines, cacti, composites, leguminous plants, grasses, etc. The
wild flowers of this seaside field are a happy band, closely joined in
splendid array. The trees shine with blossoms and with light reflected from
the leaves. The individuality of the vines is lost in trackless,
interlacing, twisting, overheaping union.
Our American "South" is rich
in flowery vines. In some districts almost every tree is crowned with them,
aiding each other in grace and beauty. Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee have
the grapevine in predominant numbers and development. Farther south dwell
the greenbriers and countless leguminous vines. A vine common among the
Florida islets, perhaps belonging to the dogbane family, overruns live-oaks
and palmettoes, with frequently more than a hundred stems twisted into one
cable. Yet in no section of the South are there such complicated and such
gorgeously flowered vine-tangles as flourish in armed safety in the hot and
humid wild gardens of Cuba.
The longest and the shortest
vine that I found in Cuba were both leguminous. I have said that the harbor
side of the Morro Hill is clothed with tall yellow-flowered composites
through which it is difficult to pass. But there are smooth, velvety,
lawnlike patches in these Composite forests. Coming suddenly upon one of
these open places, I stopped to admire its greenness and smoothness, when I
observed a sprinkling of large papilionaceous blossoms among the short green
grass. The long composites that bordered this little lawn were entwined and
almost smothered with vines which bore similar corollas in tropic abundance.
I at once decided that these
sprinkled flowers had been blown off the encompassing tangles and had been
kept fresh by dew and by spray from the sea. But, on stooping to pick one of
them up, I was surprised to find that it was attached to Mother Earth by a
short, prostrate, slender hair of a vine stem, bearing, besides the one
large blossom, a pair or two of linear leaves. The flower weighed more than
stem, root, and leaves combined. Thus, in a land of creeping and twining
giants, we find also this charming, diminutive simplicity - the vine reduced
to its lowest terms.
The longest vine, prostrate
and untwined like its little neighbor, covers patches of several hundred
square yards with its countless branches and close growth of upright,
trifoliate, smooth green leaves. The flowers are as plain and unshowy in
size and color as those of the sweet peas of gardens. The seeds are large
and satiny. The whole plant is noble in its motions and features, covering
the ground with a depth of unconfused leafage which I have never seen
equaled by any other plant. The extent of leaf-surface is greater, I think,
than that of a large Kentucky oak. It grows, as far as my observation has
reached, only upon shores, in a soil composed of broken shells and corals,
and extends exactly to the water-line of the highest-reaching waves. The
same plant is abundant in Florida.
The cacti form an important
part of the plant population of my ramble ground. They are various as the
vines, consisting now of a diminutive joint or two hid in the weeds, now
rising into bushy trees, wide-topped, with trunks a foot in diameter, and
with glossy, dark-green joints that reflect light like the silex-varnished
palms. They are planted for fences, together with the Spanish bayonet and
In one of my first walks I
was laboriously scrambling among some low rocks gathering ferns and vines,
when I was startled by finding my face close to a great snake, whose body
was disposed carelessly like a castaway rope among the weeds and stones.
After escaping and coming to my senses I discovered that the snake was a
member of the vegetable kingdom, capable of no dangerous amount of
locomotion, but possessed of many a fang, and prostrate as though under the
curse of Eden, "Upon thy belly shalt thou go and dust shalt thou eat."
One day, after luxuriating in
the riches of my Morro pasture, and pressing many new specimens, I went down
to the bank of brilliant wave-washed shells to rest awhile in their beauty,
and to watch the breakers that a powerful norther was heaving in splendid
rank along the coral boundary. I gathered pocketfuls of shells, mostly small
but fine in color and form, and bits of rosy coral. Then I amused myself by
noting the varying colors of the waves and the different forms of their
curved and blossoming crests. While thus alone and free it was interesting
to learn the richly varied songs, or what we mortals call the roar, of
expiring breakers. I compared their variation with the different distances
to which the broken wave-water reached landward in its farthest-flung
foam-wreaths, and endeavored to form some idea of the one great song
sounding forever all around the white-blooming shores of the world.
Rising from my shell seat, I
watched a wave leaping from the deep and coming far up the beveled strand to
bloom and die in a mass of white. Then I followed the spent waters in their
return to the blue deep, wading in their spangled, decaying fragments until
chased back up the bank by the coming of another wave. While thus playing
half studiously, I discovered in the rough, beaten deathbed of the wave a
little plant with closed flowers. It was crouching in a hollow of the brown
wave-washed rock, and one by one the chanting, dying waves rolled over it.
The tips of its delicate pink petals peered above the clasping green calyx.
"Surely," said I, as I stooped over it for a moment, before the oncoming of
another wave, "surely you cannot be living here! You must have been blown
from some warm bank, and rolled into this little hollow crack like a dead
shell." But, running back after every retiring wave, I found that its roots
were wedged into a shallow wrinkle of the coral rock, and that this
wave-beaten chink was indeed its dwelling-place.
I had oftentimes admired the
adaptation displayed in the structure of the stately dulse and other
seaweeds, but never thought to find a high-bred flowering plant dwelling
amid waves in the stormy, roaring domain of the sea. This little plant has
smooth globular leaves, fleshy and translucent like beads, but green like
those of other land plants. The flower is about five eighths of an inch in
diameter, rose purple, opening in calm weather, when deserted by the waves.
In general appearance it is like a small portulaca. The strand, as far as I
walked it, was luxuriantly fringed with woody Composite , two or three feet
in height, their tops purple and golden with a profusion of flowers. Among
these I discovered a small bush whose yellow flowers were ideal; all the
parts were present regularly alternate and in fives, and all separate, a
When a page is written over
but once it may be easily read; but if it be written over and over with
characters of every size and style, it soon becomes unreadable, although not
a single confused meaningless mark or thought may occur among all the
written characters to mar its perfection. Our limited powers are similarly
perplexed and overtaxed in reading the inexhaustible pages of nature, for
they are written over and over uncountable times, written in characters of
every size and color, sentences composed of sentences, every part of a
character a sentence. There is not a fragment in all nature, for every
relative fragment of one thing is a full harmonious unit in itself. All
together form the one grand palimpsest of the world.
One of the most common plants
of my pasture was the agave. It is sometimes used for fencing. One day in
looking back from the top of the Morro Hill, as I was returning to the
Island Belle, I chanced to observe two poplar-like trees about twenty-five
feet . in height. They were growing in a dense patch of cactus and
vine-knotted sunflowers. I was anxious to see anything so homelike as a
poplar, and so made haste towards the two strange trees, making a way
through the cactus and sunflower jungle that protected them. I was surprised
to find that what I took to be poplars were agaves in flower, the first I
had seen. They were almost out of flower, and fast becoming wilted at the
approach of death. Bulbs were scattered about, and a good many still
remained on the branches, which gave it a fruited appearance.
The stem of the agave seems
enormous in size when one considers that it is the growth of a few weeks.
This plant is said to make a mighty effort to flower and mature its seeds
and then to die of exhaustion. Now there is not, so far as I have seen, a
mighty effort or the need of one, in wild Nature. She accomplishes her ends
without unquiet effort, and perhaps there is nothing more mighty in the
development of the flower-stem of the agave than in the development of a
Havana has a fine botanical
garden. I spent pleasant hours in its magnificent flowery arbors and around
its shady fountains. There is a palm avenue which is considered wonderfully
stately and beautiful, fifty palms in two straight lines, each rigidly
perpendicular. The smooth round shafts, slightly thicker in the middle,
appear to be productions of the lathe, rather than vegetable stems. The
fifty arched crowns, inimitably balanced, blaze in the sunshine like heaps
of stars that have fallen from the skies. The stems were about sixty or
seventy feet in height, the crowns about fifteen feet in diameter.
Along a stream-bank were
tall, waving bamboos, leafy as willows, and infinitely graceful in wind
gestures. There was one species of palm, with immense bipinnate leaves and
leaflets fringed, jagged, and one-sided, like those of Adiantum. Hundreds of
the most gorgeous-flowered plants, some of them large trees, belong to the
Leguminosce. Compared with what I have before seen in artificial
flower-gardens, this is past comparison the grandest. It is a perfect
metropolis of the brightest and most exuberant of garden plants, watered by
handsome fountains, while graveled and finely bordered walks slant and curve
in all directions, and in all kinds of fanciful playground styles, more like
the fairy gardens of the Arabian Nights than any ordinary man-made
In Havana I saw the strongest
and the ugliest negroes that I have met in my whole walk. The stevedores of
the Havana wharf are muscled in true giant style, enabling them to tumble
and toss ponderous casks and boxes of sugar weighing hundreds of pounds as
if they were empty. I heard our own brawny sailors, after watching them at
work a few minutes, express unbounded admiration of their strength, and wish
that their hard outbulging muscles were for sale. The countenances of some
of the negro orange-selling dames express a devout good-natured ugliness
that I never could have conceived any arrangement of flesh and blood to be
capable of. Besides oranges they sold pineapples, bananas, and lottery
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