The Life and Letters of John Muir
by William Frederic Badè
"The World Needs the Woods"
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-belled
Cassiope recked 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 own life.
To Sarah Muir Galloway
Oakland, [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 bard, ascending mountains, crossing
cañons, rambling ceaselessly over hill and dale, plain and lava
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 rent 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
To Mrs. Ezra S. Carr
1419 Taylor St.,
Dear Mrs. Carr:
May 4th, 1875
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.
I 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 Ina 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 deepenmg 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
Of all the trees of the forest the dearest to him was the sugar pine
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
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
To Mrs. Ezra S. Carr
Dear Mrs. 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
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
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
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 fragrans 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 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 winter
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 my pencil.
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
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 wastefullness.
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 deerhunting. 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
The concluding suggestion bore fruit years afterward when President Cleveland,
in 1896, appointed a commission to report upon the condition of the national
To Sarah Muir Galloway
1419 Taylor St., San Francisco
Dear Sister Sarah:
April 17th, 1876
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.
My life 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
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 and Oakland.
I'm glad 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
Dear Sister Sarah:
January 12th, 
I 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 ever knew.
How 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
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 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 publishing.
Love to David and George, and all your fine lassies, and love, dear
Sarah, to yourself.
From your wandering brother
The following 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 curiosities.
I can 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 grater 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 Wisconsin.
To Mrs. Ezra S. Carr
July 23rd, 
Dear Mrs. Carr:
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. Farewell.
Ever cordially yours
To Mrs. Ezra S. Carr
Dear Mrs. Carr:
Los Angeles, California
August 12th, 1877
I've seen 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 West.
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
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
Dear Mrs. Carr:
September 3d, 
I have Just been over at Alameda with poor dear old Gibbons.
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
I 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
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.
I 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 remaming 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.
I 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 Allie.
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, on 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
car. penter 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 Sallie Kennedy
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 myself again.
My first camp was made on a little oval island some ten or twelve miles
down, where a clump of arching willows formed a fine nestlike 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 mountain-tops.
On the second day the Spoonbill sprang a bad leak from the swelling
of the bottom timbers; two of them crumpled out thus [sketch]
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
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 algae 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 me.
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 spiraea also, and madroña,
with a few willows, and three ferns toward the summit. Pellaea andromedoefolia,
Gymnogramma triangularis, 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
deveIopment 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 1/2°. 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
I am 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 there 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 abandant 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
"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
But the most memorable incident of that night on the flanks of Shasta
grew out of the mention of Linnoea borealis--charming little evergreen
trailer whose name perpetuates the memory of the illustrious Linnaeus.
"Muir, why have you not found linnoea 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 Washington 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
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
Linnoea--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."
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
To Sarah Muir Galloway
My Dear Sister Sarah:
at old 1419 Taylor St.
[November 29, 1877]
I 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 he 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 wearniess 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 cañons.
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 goodnight.
To General John Bidwell
1419 Taylor St., San Francisco
My Dear General:
December 3, 1877
I arrived 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 Sacramento.
I left 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
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 cañons
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 Cañon 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 cañon, 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 Cañon,
which I followed down through its entire length, though it has hitherto
been regarded as absolutely inaccessible in its lower reaches. This accomplished,
and all my necessary sketches and measurements made, I climbed the cañon
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 cañons 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.
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 Cañon, 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 tree within a few steps.
Four or five square miles of Sequoias.
The ages of twenty-six specimen Sequoias,
A fine fact about bears,
A sure measurement of the deepest of all the ancient glaciers yet traced
in the Sierra.
Two waterfalls of the first order, and cascades innumerable.
A new Yosemite valley!!!
Grand facts concerning the formation of the central plain of California.
A picturesque cluster of facts concerning the river birds and animals.
A glorious series of new landscapes, with mountain furniture and garniture
of the most ravishing grandeur and beauty.
The cold was keen and searching the night I spent on the summit by the
edge of a glacier lake 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 white.
I was terribly hungry ere I got out of this wild cañon--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 cañon
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 two!
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 bushtop in the bottom
of the third F Cañon. 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
1419 Taylor St., 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
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 low-lands.
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."
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