Thursday, December 20, 2012

Naturalist John Muir

John Muir
By Adeline Knapp

A King of Outdoors: I know no other phrase that so aptly designates John Muir, naturalist, explorer and writer; nor do I know any man to whom the phrase is so applicable.

He has been styled "the Californian Thoreau," and Emerson, who knew and liked him, once went so far as to call him "a more wonderful man than Thoreau." It is doubtful, however, whether Emerson him­self knew exactly what he meant by that rather impossible expression. The two men are wholly different in essentials of thought, so that it would be hard to institute any real comparison be­tween them.

For twenty-five years John Muir has made out of doors his realm. For more than half this time he lived and wandered alone over the high Sierras, through the Yosemite Valley, and among the glaciers of California and Alaska, studying, sketching, and climbing. At night he sometimes rested luxuriously, wrapped in a half-blanket be­side a camp fire; sometimes, when fuel was wanting, and the way too arduous to admit of carrying his piece of blanket, he hollowed for himself a snug nest in the snow. He is no longer a young man, but when last I saw him he was making plans to go again to the North, to explore the four new glaciers dis­covered last summer by the Harriman Expedition.

"What do you come here for?" two Alaskan Indians once asked him, when they had accompanied him as far, through peril­ous ways, as he could hire or coax them to go.

"To get knowledge," was his reply.

The Indians grunted; they had no words to express their opinion of this extraordi­nary lunatic. They turned back and left him to venture alone across the great glacier which now bears his name. So trifling a matter as their desertion could not deter him from his purpose. He built a cabin at the edge of the glacier and there settled to work, and to live for two long years. He made daily trips over that icy region of deep gorges, rugged descents and vast moraines, taking notes and making sketches, until he had obtained the knowledge, and the understanding of knowledge, that he was after. Muir Gla­cier is the largest glacier discharging in­to the wonderful Gla­cier Bay on the Alas­kan coast. Being the most accessible one in that region, tourists are allowed to go ashore to climb upon its sheer, icy cliffs, and watch the many icebergs that go tum­bling down from it. This is a thrilling ex­perience to the globe trotter, but to dwell there beside the gla­cier, to study the phenomena, encounter perils, alone and un­aided, is an experience that few besides John Muir would court.


John Muir’s cabin on the Muir Glacier
It is largely to the extended, patient re­searches of John Muir that the scientific world is indebted for a great part of its information on glacial movements. What Thoreau did for the region about Walden Pond, Mr. Muir has done for the whole Pa­cific slope, from the ice-bound fastnesses of Alaska to the snow-capped peaks of the South, giving us a minute and accurate rec­ord, geographical, geological and botanical.

Along the mountains of the coast to Alaska stretches a series of glaciers, thou­sands in number. Many of them are still active. From the summit of Mount Rainier, for instance, radiate eight glaciers, from seven to twelve miles long, forming the sources of the principal rivers of the State of Washington. On through British Colum­bia and into Alaska, the mountains stretch, and among their peaks and in their deep canyons, are still other glaciers. John Muir estimates that there are probably more than 5,000 glaciers, not counting the smallest ones. Muir Glacier has 200 tributaries, and, at its greatest width, spreads out about twenty-five miles.

The work of these great streams is even yet doing. They are cutting deep canyons in the mountains, preparing the soil for for­ests yet to exist, forming new lakes, some­times destroying those now there; forming and extending fiords and inlets, blocking out, grinding down, breaking away preci­pices, and, by age-long processes of erosion helping on the business of licking into shape the continent upon which we live. It is among these awesome forces that John Muir has spent the best years of his life. "God's glacial mills grind slowly," he has somewhere said, "but they have kept in mo­tion long enough in California to grind suffi­cient soil for a glorious abundance of life."

This grinding he has watched year by year. He has spent months beside now one, now another great glacier; measuring their rates of travel, sometimes little more than one inch in a day, sometimes, in the case of what we may call lightning express glaciers, five or ten feet in twenty-four hours. He has noted the making of meadows and mo­raines; the extinction of a lake by an ava­lanche. He has traversed under ice caverns, and crevasses, where, inch by inch, great boulders were journeying down through the centuries, to the plains below. For hours he has watched the antics of a squirrel on a bough. Nothing has been too mighty, too awe-inspiring to turn back his reverent feet and inquiring brain from investigation; noth­ing too small, among all the living things of nature, not to be worth his sympathetic ob­servation and record. This is why the story of his life reads like a saga of old, and the rec­ords of his studies are full of fascination.

On his travels John Muir carried bread, made by himself, in a little sack at­tached to his belt. In one pocket he kept an alcohol lamp, in its tin cup; in another a package of tea. Melted snow furnished water to infuse this, and the outfit formed his provi­sions for weeks at a time.

"I never car­ried a gun," he once said to me, "because I want­ed to gain the confidence of my fellow creatures, and to make their acquaintance.

You can't learn much about either men or wild animals, merely by killing them and making arithmetical measurements of their bodies."

"Suppose you had been killed?" I asked somewhat hastily.

He looked at me, with the one bright eye that sees so much more than the two of other people, and I realized my foolishness.

"Killed?" he repeated, with his broadest Scotch burr. "Suppose I had been. Could there be a sweeter, decenter place to die and be buried than up there on a snowy peak, or in a deep ice gorge? I might die in a dirty street in any city, and be buried in a hole in the ground."

"Going to the mountains," Mr. Muir says, "going to God's clean, healthy wilds, near or far, is going home."

Front Discharging Wall of the Muir Glacier with Stranded Icebergs
The mountains and the wilds have been the home of his own choosing, through many years, and a marvelous home they are for any human creature. The Sierra Nevada is about 500 miles long, some seventy miles wide, and from about 7,000 to nearly 15,000 feet high. It is a region comparatively new, the most recent evidence of volcanic action, the cinder cone, dating less than one hun­dred years ago.

This "Snowy Range," which Mr. Muir loves to call instead, "The Range of Light," is the largest, and, on the whole, the most interesting chain of mountains in the United States. But until the King of Outdoors be­gan his wonderful years of mountaineering among them, they were fairly unknown territory. Until recent years, it was declared by geologists that while traces of glacial action were everywhere visible among its higher peaks, no glaciers were to be found within the range. How superficial was the knowledge upon which this statement was based, John Muir's explorations have since shown.

His researches have done much to famil­iarize us with the geography and the re­sources, other than mineral, of this wonder­ful region. To him we owe our knowledge of hidden lakes among lofty peaks; of beauti­ful streams making deep canyons and passes in their journey to the sea; of fair bloom­ing meadows and magnificent forest-crowned ridges hid among bare, brown slopes, and snow-crowned peaks that, alone, impress themselves upon the observer from below. He it is, more than any other one man, who has brought to us knowledge of the floral wealth of these mountains. He has written of the natural gardens of the Yosemite, since destroyed by the hooved and wool-clad locusts of the valley herdsmen. To his elo­quent pleas was due the earlier movement to protect this great natural park from commercial vandalism. It was because John Muir's writings had made Mr. R. M. John­ston familiar with the thought of Yosemite as a garden that he demanded to know, on the occasion of his first visit to the valley, what had become of all those wild flowers that Muir had romanced about. When he was told that the sheep had devoured them, and that the work of devastation still went on, he returned east to start, through the pages of The Century Magazine, that wave of public protest which ended in the Govern­ment's protection of Yosemite.

John Muir is a Scotchman by birth, a Highlander. He came to this country with his parents in early youth, and his boyhood was spent in the Middle West. He is a kind of mechanical genius as well as a scientist. It is perhaps this mechanical bent that so widely differentiates him from his Eastern prototype, Thoreau, the poet and philoso­pher. In all his work he is essentially objec­tive; the observer, the recorder, the scien­tist and exact mathematical constructor. What of philosophy creeps into his writing is most elementary. At one time he believed that nature meant him to be an engineer and inventor; but an accident blinded one eye, and drove him into the wilds for comfort and peace—to the great gain of the rest of the world.

Silver fir trees, the Mountaineer’s Bed
But he likes to remember the days when he was one of the cunningest of tinkers, as now he is one of the wisest of nature stu­dents. One day, in his library, he showed me a clock which he made for himself while at college. At that time he had never seen the inside of any clock, but his contrivance was a good timekeeper, besides being very cleverly designed, and carved. Moreover, it was connected with his bed and with his study table, in such fashion that, at a cer­tain hour every morning, it stood him upon his feet, by the simple process of elevating his bed endwise, while, at the proper time, the book that he needed for study was lifted from a shelf by a lever and laid, open, upon his table. After seeing this contrivance, one learns without surprise that John Muir holds several patents of his own for labor-saving inven­tions.

The real work of his life, as we have seen, has been done among the mountains. The record of it is contained in volume upon vol­ume of notes. He showed me a number of these note books. Little black-bound, pocket-worn things they are, filled, from cover to cover, with minute writing of ex­quisite neatness. On many of the pages are sketches as interesting as the notes themselves; here the curious growth of a storm-wrenched tree; there a singular rock-formation; on another page a painstaking study, leaf by leaf, of the top of a tree.

"Nature finishes up her work so beautifully," he said. "Just see the top of that great tree. Was there ever a feather more graceful or perfect? See what a delightful curve that one takes; look at this one and at these. Every one is different, every one has its own beauty, and every one, in a forest of a million trees, with just its own particular little curve or twist to make it charming in its own way."

It was John Muir's custom, during the years of his mountain pilgrimages, to build little shelters, the merest storm nests, at snow line, to serve as bases of supplies, and from these to make trips in the higher regions of perpetual snow and ice. Several of these tiny huts are still standing, in the Yosemite, and through the mountains. One, in the valley, has been "discovered," now and again, by tourists, but owing to the inability of any one of them to relocate the hidden shelter when seeking to return to it, it has been dubbed, "The Lost Cabin," though the builder of it declares that he could even now go to it in the dark.

A Yosemite cabin
In these cabins the explorer was wont to settle down for a few days, or even weeks, when a great storm was raging, to write his notes and prepare for his next adventure. Here he rested in the luxury of a fir-bough bed, often to be awakened in early morning hours, by the rocking of his cabin and the noise of detached torrents and avalanches rushing down side canyons, making the whole valley vibrate with thunderous music.

He has printed some of his most thrilling experiences; but more wonderful it is to hear him tell them. There is something primeval in his account of how he climbed Mount Ritter. In it one gets a glimpse of the very beginnings of things in man's age-long struggle to subdue the earth.

For forty-eight hours he had been climb­ing the mountain, tracing the channel of an avalanche in daylight, resting in the snow at night. On the morning of the third day he reached an elevation of 12,200 feet, and found himself at the foot of a sheer, icy wall, some fifty feet high. He had no ice ax with him; he dared not go back; for al­ready, in his progress, he had scaled pas­sages which he knew he could not descend. He could only go on. Cautiously picking finger and toe holds in the smooth ice, he began the climb. For the first time in all his experience, his matchless nerve failed just as he was half way up. With out­stretched arms and clinging feet, he pressed his body close to the sheer wall. Helpless and shaken, he was awaiting the inevitable instant when, the tension of his muscles relaxing, he should plunge down that terri­ble descent to the glacier showing white below him.

Suddenly, in the thick of that awful peril, his mind cleared, his strength seemed to be renewed and as one returning from a look upon death, he crept up the remaining dis­tance, to a firm foothold. The rest of the way, a maze of deep gullies and yawning caverns, "riven ravine and rocky preci­pice," he traversed without difficulty, to reach the topmost crag in a blaze of sun­light, conqueror at last of that sublime place.

One of the greatest services John Muir has done for his adopted state, and, inci­dentally, for the country at large, has been his aid in procuring legislation for the pro­tection of the forests. The forestry prob­lem, in California, has long been a serious one. Among all the forest reservations within the state none includes that most characteristic Californian tree, the sequoia sempervirens, commonly known as the red­wood. This grows nowhere outside Cali­fornia; yet the state now owns not one acre of redwood forest. Every foot of it has been sold to private parties, and the trees are rapidly converting into lumber. But with the history of every forest reservation in the state the name of John Muir is closely associated. He loves a tree as most of us love kindred spirits among human kind, and is even now engaged in an exhaustive work dealing with the national parks and forest reservations of this country, a subject, to handle which he is preeminently well quali­fied.

"Do you know the sugar pine?" he once asked of me. "The high priest among trees; look at this one," and he showed me a photograph of a magnificent specimen. "I wish," he added, "that the whole world could go out and 'listen to him. We should not need then to implore pro­tection for our forests."

To John Muir, trees are individ­ual and char­acteristic. Each one that he meets becomes an acquaint­ance; but for the rest of us it is as he himself says, "Few have lived long enough with the trees to gain anything like a loving conception of their grandeur and significance as mani­fested in the harmonies of their distribution and varying aspects."

John Muir is a fascinating companion. He abounds in fun, and his talk is apt to become a monologue, as listeners grow too interested even for comment. He runs on in a steady, sparkling stream of witty chat, charming reminiscence of famous men, of bears in the woods and red men in the mountains; of walks with Emerson in the beautiful flowered meadows of Yosemite; of tossing in a frail kayak on the storm-tossed waters of Alaskan fiords. By turns is he scientist, mountaineer, story-teller and light­hearted schoolboy.

John Muir’s ranch in Contra Costa Hills, California
Alhambra Valley, where he has a home of many broad acres, is a beautiful vale curled down in the lap of the Contra Costa hills, shel­tered from every wind that blows, and warmed to the heart by the genial Californian sun­light. Here he dwells, a slender, grizzled man, worn-looking, and appearing older than he is, for the hard years among the mountains have told upon him. Here he has a series of vineyards that are a delight to look upon. It was grape time when I saw it last; acre upon acre of vines stretched out in every di­rection, the brilliant red of flaming Tokays, the golden green of ripe Mus­cats, the rich purples of Black Hamburgs and Cornichons made a fine color scheme amid the rich dark foliage, while all the air was deli­cious with the fragrance of the teeming harvest.

It was a fair picture of peace and plenty, under the soft, blue September sky. A stream ran close at hand, shaded by alders and sycamores and the sweet-scented wild willow. On the bank nearest us stood a soli­tary blue crane, surveying us fearlessly. A flock of quail made themselves heard in the undergrowth, and low above the vineyards a shrike flew, uttering his sharp cry. Noting him, I said to Mr. Muir:

"So you don't kill even the butcher birds?"

He looked up, following the bird's flight.

"Why, no," he said; "they are not my birds."


From Ainslee’s Magazine – April 1901.