|It has fallen to my lot to deliver this
address at the first meeting held by our Association on the west coast.
Many of you are using the opportunity offered by your attendance here to
add to your personal knowledge of this part of the continent. It seemed
to me appropriate, therefore, to use the occasion of my speaking to you
for the purpose of calling, and recalling, to your attention a great figure
of the past who devoted himself to the interpretation of the West. His
literary executor, William Frederic Badè, wrote, in introducing
his collected works: "Thousands and thousands, hereafter, who go to the
mountains, streams, and cañons of California will choose to see
them through the eyes of John Muir, and they will see more deeply because
they see with his eyes."2
It is not solely nor principally for the sake of the factual information that John Muir's writings provide in abundance that I wish to commend them to your attention. I wish in addition to nominate him to a place in our list of secular saints, to a place among those whom we cite familiarly and to whose works we refer our students for enlightenment and stimulation. We can all profit from giving attention to his attitude toward the land, and especially to his habits of observation.
Muir's memory is most closely associated with the Sierra Nevada, particularly with the region included in Yosemite National Park. But his travels took him into all parts of the West, and his writings span the whole stretch of the Pacific coast of North America from southern California to Bering Strait. Nevada and Utah, and even Arizona, provided material for some of them.3 He visited the coastal parts of Alaska five times; and his exploration of Glacier Bay on one of these visits must rank only second to his work in the Sierra Nevada. It is immaterial whether he was or was not the first to set foot on any particular spot, of ice or of rock. By far the greater part of what he wrote is concerned with places that were, and are, accessible to any robust and hardened walker and climber. Of perhaps greater importance than what he saw is how he saw and described it.
Muir arrived in California, by way of the Isthmus of Panama, ninety years ago last spring: at the beginning of April, 1868. In more than one place he tells of his first view of California. He took the ferry across the Bay from San Francisco to Oakland, and in the company of a young Englishman walked southward through the Santa Clara Valley to Pacheco Pass, through that pass to the San Joaquin Valley, across the Valley and into the mountains to Yosemite. His freshest and most enthusiastic account of that tour is contained in a letter to Mrs. Ezra Carr, whose motherly interest and encouragement guided his early intellectual and literary growth. "The hills bordering the Santa Clara Valley," he wrote Mrs. Carr in July, 1868, "were robed with the greenest grass and richest light I ever beheld, and colored and shaded with millions of flowers, of every hue, chiefly of purple and golden yellow." But the climax of the journey was his view of the San Joaquin Valley after he had traversed Pacheco Pass:
Muir's first long visit in the Sierra was in the summer of 1869; he then commenced the meticulous examination of the mountains, especially of the upper drainage basins of the Merced and Tuolumne rivers, that gave him a knowledge of this region probably equaled only by that gained by François Matthes in the present century.
I have no evidence that Muir intended, when he began his five-year exploration of the Sierra, to write about it for publication. He had already, however, acquired the habit of keeping detailed records of his observations in notebooks, and he wrote fully about them in letters, especially to Mrs. Carr, who prepared some of his letters to her for publication. His strongest impulse to publication was his desire to establish for himself credit for the discovery of existing glaciers in the Sierra, a discovery he made in the autumn of 1871.5 By the summer of 1872 he was eager to write; and once he began to coin his journals into manuscript for publication he produced an astonishing number of articles in the eighteen-seventies. Most of these were published in The Overland Monthly of San Francisco, but a number appeared in Harper's Monthly Magazine, and so reached a large audience.6 In the same years be contributed a large number of accounts of his travels and observations to the San Francisco Bulletin.7 The characteristic sequence in the history of his writings was: full entries in his notebooks, articles in magazines or newspapers, and, long afterward, books, which were collections of the articles published earlier, more or less revised.8
It is Muir's writings from these early years in the West that have the greatest value for us of after time, not those from his later years when he had become a propagandist-in however good a cause-and a public figure, almost a public monument. This productive period was brought to a close by his settling down, after his voyage to Bering Sea and its neighboring coasts in 1881, on his father-in-law's fruit ranch near Martinez, when for six years he published nothing.
Many others were writing about the West during the forty-odd years that include Muir's career of authorship. His most conspicuous part in the scientific and literary conquest of the West was the description and celebration, and in part the scientific explanation, of areas that were not yet subjugated to settlement, which in Muir's eyes was nearly synonymous with their defilement. Aside from his discovery of the existing glaciers of the Sierra, his most important scientific contribution is contained in a series of papers published in The Overland Monthly in 1874 and 1875 under the general title "Studies in the Sierra."9
Much of the content of these solid contributions to the geomorphology of glaciated mountains has become a commonplace part of the content of textbooks. This fact, while it reduces their interest when one reads them now, testifies to their permanent value. Their most important content is detailed evidence of the control exercised over the sculpture effected by glaciers, especially over plucking, by the jointing of the rocks. This principle was one that Muir insisted upon: "The most telling thing learned in these mountain excursions is the influence of cleavage joints on the features sculptured from the general mass of the range."10 The first of his "Studies in the Sierra" reaches a fuller and more forcible conclusion:
Never again did Muir attack a scientific question of any magnitude. He traveled widely and wrote copiously, but he never spent enough time in any other region than the Sierra Nevada to discover or solve a significant problem. "Patient observation and constant brooding above the rocks," he wrote to Mrs. Carr, "lying upon them for years as the ice did, is the way to arrive at the truths which are graven so lavishly upon them."12 He had no opportunity to brood thus over any other region. In fact, his prolonged and intense attention to the Sierra was an obstacle to his understanding of landscapes having different histories. The Sierra became for him the model and norm for all mountains, so that wherever he went-among the basin ranges of Nevada, the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and Washington, or the coastal mountains of Alaska and northeastern Siberia-he saw glacially smoothed uplands, Yosemites more or less complete, and summit sculpture by cirque glaciers. "Go where we will," he wrote in Alaska, "all the world over, we seem to have been there before."13 The mental image he had formed of the past and present forms of the Sierra was so complete and detailed that all the mountain forms he saw could be fitted into it. He clambered about Mount Shasta and explored other parts of the volcanic northeastern part of California; but the land forms produced by vulcanism did not arouse his wonder. He missed completely the nature of the relief of the Great Basin, seeing in the basin ranges drumlinoid forms that to him were evidence of a general glaciation. On the west coast of Alaska he recorded some observations of ground ice exposed in a wave-cut cliff that would have been new and interesting if adequately discussed and interpreted. We may excuse Muir for not investigating these exposures closely, for he was ashore at the site only a few hours. But within this short time he found an all too easy explanation of the largest mass of ground-ice he encountered: he diagnosed it as the last remnant of a glacier preserved against a north-facing slope, identifying it with the remnant cirque glaciers he knew in the Sierra. His eyes were still keen to see and his pen diligent to record; but he scarcely acquired a single new insight after his first few fruitful years in the Sierra Nevada.
It can scarcely be doubted that Muir had enough scientific competence to enable him to contribute more to the natural history of the West than he did. But even in his productive years in the seventies be published many more descriptive articles addressed to the general reader than solid additions to scientific knowledge. One reason for his doing so was certainly economic; writing about the country he loved was a more congenial way of supporting himself than the work he did in his first years in California. But later, when his economic position was secure, he made no effort to reach any other than a general audience.
I do not wish to make an invidious distinction between Muir's "Studies in the Sierra" and his other writings. The contrast between avowedly scientific and so-called "popular" writing has been vastly sharpened in the past eighty years, with the decline of the literate monthly magazines. Muir's articles intended for the general public are as carefully written and contain as detailed and accurate observation as any scientific writing. They differ in that the evidence carefully marshaled is not focused on an objective intellectual problem, but rather on the reader. In them Muir is attempting to share with the reader his emotional reactions to his observations. The data of observation themselves might as well have been used for a more strictly scientific purpose.
The characteristic form of any one of these essays was evidently given by a coherent block of material in one of Muir's notebooks. Its nucleus might be a scene or an incident. About the framework of factual report Muir wrapped a covering of interpretation drawn from his emotional experiences in the presence of the phenomena observed, and these experiences were what he was most eager to report to his readers.
It was not merely shallow sentiment that Muir invited his readers to share. He was convinced that the emotional rewards of association with nature increase with intellectual understanding, and his writings confirm that conviction: his own efforts are least successful when he is writing about things he did not understand, such as certain meteorologic phenomena and the movements of water. The reader of Muir's works must inevitably take a position with reference to the emotion that informs them. Some may reject these writings out of hand because Muir's subjective attitude toward nature is distasteful, and some may reject his interpretations and reflections while appreciating the factual material he recorded. But there is much to be gained from a sympathetic examination of the point of view from which he looked upon the world. I would suggest that in the study of nature the pursuit of ends other than those called "scientific," if done in spirit and in truth, is intellectually just as praiseworthy and rewarding as the search for strictly rational connections.
As is true of all of us, what Muir saw and reported depended at least as much on the mind that received and assimilated his observations as on the objects observed; and his interpretative reflections provide insights into the mind on which these observations impinged. Henry Fairfield Osborn, who had enough personal association with Muir to justify his speaking with some authority, wrote of him: "I have never known anyone whose nature-philosophy was more thoroughly theistic at the same time as he was a thorough-going evolutionist."14 Osborn, using terms made familiar by the great controversy of the latter part of the nineteenth century, appears to suggest that these two aspects of Muir's view of nature were in conflict. I find no conflict whatever in his writings. His "theism" was very close to pantheism. The God whose name he frequently uses is not one that would find a place in any dogmatic theology. This God, who in Muir's writings presides over the universe, is often replaced, in a neighboring paragraph or sentence, by a more or less personified, maternally solicitous Nature. In other passages these personifications are attenuated to an "eternal, invincible Harmony" among natural processes and their material products. In most instances the presiding entity is scarcely distinguishable from what is often called by the more colorless term "ecologic balance." The attribution of personality to the principle of continuity and balance in nature gives a warmth to Muir's descriptions and interpretations that his emotional constitution evidently demanded. He saw the matrix of natural events as divine love, extended particularly toward living things. "God's love covers His world like a garment of light," he wrote in his journal.15 This love is foresighted, teleologic: the glaciation of the Sierra Nevada, for example, was a device by which suitable habitats were prepared for the great variety of plants that range upward from the valleys through the belt of forests to the raw moraines in the glacial cirques; and for the animals that accompanied the plants on their march upward as the glaciers receded. Osborn should not have been astonished that in Muir's eyes such a farsighted and solicitous love could use evolution as easily as glaciation to achieve its ends.
Muir parted company with most contemporary evolutionists in his insistence on the quality of benevolence in the processes of nature. He rejected Darwin's word "struggle" (forgetting Darwin's own qualification of the term in The Origin of Species) as "ungodly."16 I have found in his writings only one account of a creature he could not fit into the scheme of harmony he saw in nature. This is his description of certain small, savage black ants whose acquaintance he made during his first summer in the Sierra. Of these "fearless, restless, wandering imps" he writes that:
Muir used this pervasive love as the basic organizing concept of his interpretation of the natural world. Few of the naturalists of his generation appealed to it, though many of them recognized a moral obligation toward nature. In the fundamental set of his mind Muir was to a substantial degree an anachronism, carrying into the Brown Decades attitudes that belonged to the Golden Day or even earlier times. He owed much to Emerson and Thoreau, and something to the romantics of the first half of the nineteenth century.
He had received good instruction in the sciences at the University of Wisconsin, and had pursued the study of nature independently for several years before coming to California. He had set his aim high. "How intensely I desire to be a Humboldt!" he had written to Mrs. Carr in September, 1866.18 It was this ambition that led him to California, even though as a second choice after his intention to follow Humboldt's footsteps into South America was thwarted. He had the bodily strength and agility required for the exertions he undertook, and habits that made him nearly independent of other human beings. He simplified the techniques of travel in the mountains so as to reduce the amount of gear he carried with him to a minimum that most persons would consider inadequate. On the one occasion when he took a pack animal with him when traveling alone-his excursion, undertaken in the autumn of 1875, to determine how far southward the sequoia extended in the Sierra-he found the mule Brownie, whose services had been urged upon him, more of a hindrance than a help. As Emerson said of Thoreau, "he chose to be rich by making his wants few and supplying them himself." By inuring himself to prolonged travel on foot with a light pack, he freed himself to observe and record. "You are all eyes, sifted through and through with light and beauty."
Muir's works abound in evidence of a consummate power of observation. Rocks, clouds, trees, flowers, animals, the great and the small, attracted his attention and found their way into his notebooks. In a letter to Mrs. Carr he described his "method of study" of the evidences of glaciation in the Sierra:
One of his records of unusual observation that I like best is his description of the flow of water down the trunks of trees during a heavy winter rainstorm in the Sierra:
Perhaps the most significant observation that Muir made was the one that led to his first discovery of an existing glacier in the Sierra, which was, moreover, the first glacier he had ever seen. The following account of this discovery is the first one he published; it is more spontaneous than the later, soberer one included in The Mountains of California:
Then I observed that this muddy stream issued from a bank of fresh quarried stones and dirt, that was sixty or seventy feet in height. This I at once took to be a moraine. In climbing to the top of it, I was struck with the steepness of its slope, and with its raw, unsettled, plantless, new-born appearance. . . .
When I had scrambled to the top of the moraine, I saw what seemed to be a huge snow-bank, four or five hundred yards in length, by half a mile in width. Imbedded in its stained and furrowed surface were stones and dirt like that of which the moraine was built. Dirt-stained lines curved across the snow-bank from side to side, and when I observed that these curved lines coincided with the curved moraine, and that the stones and dirt were most abundant near the bottom of the bank, I shouted "A living glacier!"29
He exposed himself freely, even foolhardily, to extreme discomfort and danger in order to observe. He climbed down into the bergschrund of the first glacier he found in the Sierra, and into the marginal crevasse of the first fiord glacier he had a chance to examine in Alaska, where he saw "not only its grinding, polishing action, but how it breaks off angular boulder-masses."34
Muir wrote in his journal of two ways in which living creatures may be observed:
But he did not romanticize the American aborigines. The human beings he describes in the most Swiftian terms are the Mono Indians he encountered on his first trip through Bloody Canyon in the summer of 1869, and whom he dismissed by saying that "somehow they seemed to have no right place in the landscape, and I was glad to see them fading out of sight down the Pass."38 He viewed the Indian and Eskimo he met with the same critical reserve with which he regarded everyone else, and wrote of them with the same praise, scorn, pity, or indifference, as occasion demanded. His attitude toward human beings was strongly colored by a fastidiousness that was outraged by slovenliness and dirt. He repeatedly contrasts the cleanness of wild animals with the dirtiness of men. "Strange that mankind alone is dirty."39 "Man seems to be the only animal whose food soils him."40 "Pollution, defilement, squalor are words that never would have been created had man lived conformably to Nature."41
What life conformable to nature might be we can only guess. But certainly one important element in the proper relation of man to the rest of life on earth that Muir envisaged is the recognition that all creatures have an equal right to life and enjoyment, a recognition granted by few human beings. Contemplating the fossil record of life on earth, Muir found it "a great comfort to learn that vast multitudes of creatures, great and small, and infinite in number, lived and had a good time in God's love before man was created."42 And again: ". . . if a war of races should occur between the world's beasts and Lord Man, I would be tempted to sympathize with the beasts."43
In his early days in California Muir was able to avoid town life for the most part, and did not have much occasion to record the discomfort he experienced when visiting Oakland or San Francisco, "diving into that slimy town sea-bottom," as he said in a letter to Mrs. Carr. But even in the Sierra he could not escape the destruction wrought by the predatory inhabitants of the lowlands. The earliest example of such destruction that he had occasion to see was the damage inflicted by sheep driven up into the mountains for summer pasture. Fortunately he was soon able to escape from the hateful occupation of caring for these animals, to which necessity had driven him in his first year in California. But he never ceased to bewail the depredations of these "hoofed locusts," as he always called sheep; and a good part of the motivation of his later work for the preservation of the forests of the West was his knowledge of the damage done to the mountain vegetation by them. Yet he did not vent his loathing primarily on the "poor, helpless, hungry sheep"; he saw them as "in great part misbegotten, without good right to be, semi-manufactured, made less by God than by man, born out of time and place."44 When he became acquainted with the wild mountain sheep, he compared them drastically and invidiously with the domestic breeds: "These are clean and elegant, the others dirty and awkward. These are guarded by the great Shepherd of us all, those by erring money-seekers."45
A second kind of depredation that Muir learned to know early in his sojourn in the Sierra was wasteful lumbering, with its accompanying destructive fires. The forests of the Sierra-the finest in the world, as he often said-were particularly dear to him, and it was primarily in their behalf that he engaged in strenuous propaganda in the latter part of his career. But though he condemned "the invading hordes of destroyers called settlers," though he lamented the destruction, in his own lifetime, of the blanket of golden and purple flowers with which the San Joaquin Valley had greeted him when he first saw it, he could imagine, at least late in his career, a use of the land that would accord with his principles:
Of the naturalist proper Muir demanded more than passive recognition of the rights of all living things to access to the sources of life on the earth. The naturalist must also be animated by a positive love of nature. This is the quality he admired most in the naturalists he had occasion to praise: in Linnaeus, for example, whose great influence he ascribes to Linnaeus' love of nature and natural things.48 He attributes the same love to Charles Sprague Sargent, author of the great Silva of North America.49 To his regret, he found less of it in Asa Gray, when he made Gray's personal acquaintance, than be had expected to find.50
Muir's intense devotion to nature gives a pathos to his writings that is denied to more restrained observers. At times he expresses it with so much warmth that we are embarrassed when reading his words as, according to report, his more reticent associates were sometimes embarrassed by his conversation. On rare occasions the vehemence of his words carries him beyond the bounds of good taste. Yet if I apply to his writings the test for false sentiment suggested by P. G. Hamerton, that if the character of a landscape evokes emotions "it is only a part of veracity to describe these effects on the mind,"51 I find no evidence that he exaggerated his sentiments. At least he confided to his journal and to private letters expressions as warm as any he wrote for publication, expressions that in most of us would seem gross exaggerations of our actual feelings. His capacity for sympathy with nature was obviously far greater than most of us possess, as was his capacity for close and concentrated observation and for hard physical exertion and endurance of prolonged and intense discomfort. Without these traits he would not have been able to perform the work he did. They are good traits, whose excess is less to be deplored than their deficiency.
Muir's attitude toward nature was singularly balanced, combining inseparably and harmoniously intellectual, esthetic, and ethical constituents. The immediate profit of his observations was esthetic; his writings are as much a hymn to beauty as to divine love. "Beauty is universal and immortal, above, beneath, on land and sea, mountain and plain, in heat and cold, light and darkness."52 Intellectual inquiry adds intensity to the perception of beauty, and the recognition of beauty sharpens the senses and quickens intellectual curiosity. Finally, the recognition of order and coherence in nature-"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe"53-provides a guide to action through a sense of the common origin we share with the rest of nature, and of our responsibility toward it.
The ultimate appeal that Muir makes in his descriptions of the West is "Come to the mountains and see." This is a generous and noble invitation. I invite you to contemplate Muir's serene and harmonious view of nature, a veritable "higher Sierra" of the human spirit. We may not be able to climb to this exalted height, as few of us would be able to follow Muir to the peaks of the physical mountains of the West; but our own less aspiring minds can not avoid receiving some ennobling influence from it. "Doubly happy," wrote Muir, "is the man to whom lofty mountain-tops are within reach, for the lights that shine from there illumine all that lies below."54
The kind of observation and reporting of nature that Muir practiced has, fortunately, not been lost. One of its capable practitioners of the present generation, Loren Eiseley, has recently called attention to some modern instances of it and has attempted to place it in the history of science.55 He contrasts this "literary, personal and contemplative" kind of writing about nature with its opposite, "severely experimental, unaesthetic and empirical," which he calls "Baconian." That label is a good one, for it recalls the brazen clang of Bacon's injunction to seek knowledge for the sake of controlling nature. "It is not necessary to take sides in this perennial controversy," Eiseley hastens to assure us. "The good men, like Charles Darwin, have always known the best that could be derived from either point of view." It is, I believe, more profitable to think not of a sharp antithesis, but rather of a gradation, a spectrum, that stretches between the extremes that Eiseley defines. At a time such as the present, when the Baconian end of the spectrum is glowing with particular brilliance, it is good for this group to remind itself that its natural affinities he toward the opposite end, toward the pole where stand such figures as Gilbert White of Selborne and W. H. Hudson. It is a good company we meet when we turn in that direction, and not the least member of it is John Muir. We can still learn from him: not only about the West, but also about the world in general and the joy and wisdom that come from the contemplation of it.
3 The individual work that contains material on the largest number of western regions by Muir is the sumptuous Picturesque California: the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Slope . . . (New York and San Francisco, 1887). Muir edited this work, and contributed to it the chapters "Peaks and Glaciers of the High Sierra," "The Passes of the High Sierra," "The Yosemite Valley," "Mount Shasta," "Alaska," "Washington and Puget Sound," and "The Basin of the Columbia River."
4 Letters to a Friend. Written to Mrs. Ezra Carr 1866-1879 (Boston and New York, 1915), pp. 39, 40. Muir's writings will be cited here by title only, without repetition of his name. If more than one edition of a book has appeared, the pagination cited is that of the original edition.
8 These collections (all published at Boston and New York) are: The Mountains of California (1894, new and enlarged edition, 1911); Our National Parks (1901, new and enlarged edition, 1909); My First Summer in the Sierra (1911); The Yosemite (1912); Travels in Alaska (1915, thus posthumous, but nearly ready for the printer at the time of Muir's death in December, 1914). The Cruise of the Corwin (1917) and in part Steep Trails (1918) are similar collections edited by William Frederic Badè.
9 I, "Mountain Sculpture," Vol. 12 (1874), pp. 393- 403; II, "Mountain Sculpture-Origin of Yosemite Valleys," idem, pp. 489-500; III, "Ancient Glaciers and their Pathways," Vol. 13 (1874), pp. 67-69; IV, "Glacial Denudation," idem, pp. 174-84; V, "Post-glacial Denudation," idem, pp. 393-402; VI, "Formation of Soils," idem, pp. 530-40; VII, "Mountain Building," Vol. 14 (1875), pp. 64-73. These were reprinted in Sierra Club Bulletin, Vol. 9 (1915), pp. 225-39; Vol. 10 (1916-19), pp. 62-77, 184-202, 304-18, 414-28; Vol. 11 (1920-21), pp. 69-85, 181-93. More recently the Sierra Club has issued them, with an Introduction by Willieam E. Colby and a Foreword by John P. Buwalda, in the volume John Muir's Studies in the Sierra (San Francisco, 1950). Muir published a summary of them under the title "Studies in the Formation of Mountains in the Sierra Nevada" in the Proceedings, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Vol. 23 (1875), pp. 49-64.
31 Idem, pp. 41-2. Muir published this enumeration, together with other details of his first trip in the West, in "Rambles of a Botanist among the Plants and Climates of California," Old and New, Vol. 5 (1872), pp. 767-72.
48 "Linnaeus," in Charles Dudley Warner, ed., Library of the World's Best Literature, vol. 16 (New York, 1897), pp. 9077-83. Reference to p. 9081. I fear that Muir ascribed to Linnaeus too much of his own emotional warmth. I fear, too, that Linnaeus harbored the (to Muir) ultimate heresy that the world was created for the use of man.