Sunday, November 7, 2021

Yosemite Valley in Flood

John Muir (1838–1914)
From John Muir: Nature Writings

Sentinel Rock, Yosemite, 1872, oil on canvas by Scottish American painter William Keith (1838–1911). Wikimedia Commons. Both Keith and John Muir were born in Scotland the same year; the two men met for the first time when Keith traveled to Yosemite in 1872 and Muir took the visitor on one of his tours of the valley. They became close friends, occasionally traveling together in the Sierra Nevada range during the subsequent four decades, and Muir owned several of Keith’s paintings. In an 1875 article in The Overland Monthly, Keith criticized the accuracy of previous paintings of Yosemite by Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Hill: “The cliffs are neither red nor yellow, but an indescribable shifting gray, changing and shifting even as you look.”
A month before his twenty-ninth birthday, John Muir was fixing the belt system in an Indianapolis factory that manufactured wagon parts when he lost his grip and a sharp-pointed file pierced his right eye. The damage was serious enough to affect the vision in both eyes and he was unable to see for several weeks. While recuperating during the summer of 1867, he decided that if he fully regained his sight, he would take a trip “sufficient to lighten and brighten my after life in the gloom and hunger of civilization’s defrauding duties.” His sight in both eyes did return, and he planned to travel to the Amazon to focus on his botanical studies—but he didn’t make it that far. Instead, he took a train to Louisville and chose to walk to the Gulf of Mexico (via Savannah)—a trip of nearly a thousand miles. He then traveled to Cuba before heading north to New York City, where he decided to go to California—by way of Panama, the closest he got to South America.

Arriving in San Francisco in the spring of 1868, Muir took a job later in the year tending 1,800 sheep in the Central Valley. The following spring, he led his flock into the Sierra Nevada mountains and to the Yosemite Valley—and his fate was sealed. After quitting his shepherding job, he began working at a sawmill in Yosemite, and spent Sundays exploring the valley. Years earlier, as a student at the University of Wisconsin, he had studied geology as well as botany under Ezra S. Carr (now teaching, as it happened, at the University of California), and Muir quickly became convinced that glaciers had carved out the area’s landscape. Jeanne Carr, Ezra’s wife, began sending dignitaries, scientists, and artists to Yosemite with notes to Muir asking him to guide them through the valley.

Muir’s voluntary duties as tour guide won numerous converts to his belief in Yosemite’s glacial origins, and during the summer of 1871 Muir left the sawmill to devote more time to search for evidence to support the theory. And that’s when he struck “gold,” as it were. During one hike, he found a muddy stream that carried silt “entirely mineral of composition” and that issued from what he believed to be a moraine. As he recalled the following year:
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!
He determined that the glacier was “several hundred feet in depth,” and during subsequent weeks he measured its slow movement (about an inch per day) across the landscape. During the following years, he would identify a total of 65 glaciers in the Sierra Nevada. Many of them, including the first ice sheet identified by Muir as a “living glacier,” have completely melted away in recent decades.

Encouraged by Clinton L. Merriam (a New York congressman interested in geology) and John Daniel Runkle (president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology) to publish his findings, Muir adapted several of the letters he had written about glaciers and other natural phenomena into article form. His first published essay, “Yosemite Glaciers,” appeared in the New-York Tribune in December, for which he was paid $200—a princely sum at the time. Realizing he could earn a living as a writer, he began publishing a series of articles describing his adventures in Yosemite in The Overland Monthly, a California literary magazine. By 1875, he was writing about his investigations to a national audience; an article in Harper’s Monthly Magazine began, “The Sierra Nevada of California may be regarded as one grand wrinkled sheet of glacial records.”

All of this was a direct challenge to Josiah Whitney, the famed Harvard geologist and chief of the California Geological Survey, which in 1864 had named the state’s tallest mountain after him. The year Muir arrived in California, Whitney published The Yosemite Guide-Book, which posited his own theory on how Yosemite was formed—by a massive earthquake, a cataclysmic event during which “the bottom of the Valley sank down.” He preemptively dismissed speculation that glacial activity might have been involved: “A more absurd theory was never advanced than that by which it was sought to ascribe to glaciers the sawing out of these vertical walls and the rounding of the domes.” He furthermore insisted that there was no evidence that glaciers ever even existed in the region. After Muir’s findings convinced many geologists (including, most notably, Joseph Le Conte), Whitney doubled down, protesting in 1882 that “it seems surprising that a theory so utterly averse to the facts should have ever gained currency, and it is almost humiliating to be obliged to enter into an argument to prove that the Yosemite Valley was not dug out of the solid granite by ice.” He reaffirmed his belief that “there are no glaciers at all in the Sierra Nevada” and none even in the Rocky Mountains south of Idaho or Wyoming. Muir’s findings prevailed, of course, although Whitney insisted on the primacy of his “subsidence” theory until his death in 1896.*

In 1911, Muir wrote to a friend, “Have I forgotten the Amazon, Earth’s greatest river? Never, never, never. It has been burning in me half a century, and will burn forever.” That August, at the age of 71, Muir—alone, and over the objections of nearly everyone he knew—embarked on a steamer and finally fulfilled his dream of visiting the Amazon delta. His voyage took him throughout South America, as well as around the entire continent of Africa, through the Suez Canal, and into the Mediterranean. He returned to New York in March 1912, two and a half years before his death on Christmas Eve 1914.

For our Story of the Week selection, we present one of the articles Muir wrote in the 1870s for The Overland Monthly, describing a spectacular and torrential storm in late autumn.

* In most biographies of Muir, as well as in Yosemite guidebooks and online essays, Josiah Whitney is quoted as referring to Muir as “a mere sheep herder, an ignoramus” (or some similarly worded phrase). Geophysicist Craig H. Jones, in his book The Mountains That Remade America (2017), questions whether Whitney ever said anything of the sort about Muir—although, he admits, “this does sound like Whitney.” The word ignoramus was certainly in Whitney’s armory of insults; we found an 1851 letter in which he used it to describe a high school teacher peddling an inaccurate geological chart for academic use. But the earliest source for the quote we could locate—and the one cited by several subsequent authors—is Linnie Marsh Wolfe’s 1945 biography of Muir, Son of the Wilderness, published a full half century after Whitney’s death. Wolfe does not identify her source, however, and (as Jones points out) it does not appear that Whitney ever directly mentioned Muir, either in his published works or in his extant letters. Seven years earlier, in 1938, the geologist Fran├žois E. Matthes wrote a laudatory profile for radio broadcast on the occasion of Muir’s centenary and reprinted it in the Sierra Club Bulletin, in which he stated, “His views were assailed, ridiculed, and belittled as the wild fantasies of an ignorant shepherd”—but Matthes did not attach this epithet to Whitney or any other individual. In sum, in the absence of any contemporaneous evidence, the attribution of the quote to Whitney should be considered apocryphal.

Notes: Hutching’s and Black’s were two hotels operating in the Yosemite Valley. Thomas Hill, who emigrated from England in 1840, painted dozens of Yosemite landscapes. It is not clear which of his paintings Muir refers to in his essay.

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Many a joyful stream is born in the Sierras, but not one can sing like the Merced. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

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