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August 19, 2019
 

Letter to a Friend

John Muir, circa 1863: ‘I am well again, I came to life in the cool winds and crystal waters of the mountains, and, were it not for a thought now and then of loneliness and isolation, the pleasure of my existence would be complete.’ –John Muir in ‘Letter to a Friend’

 

by John Muir

(originally published by Houghton Mifflin Company, 1915)

 

Prefatory Note

When John Muir was a student in the University of Wisconsin he was a frequent caller at the house of Dr. Ezra S. Carr. The kindness shown him there, and especially the sympathy which Mrs. Carr, as a botanist and a lover of nature, felt in the young man’s interests and aims, led to the formation of a lasting friendship. He regarded Mrs. Carr, indeed, as his “spiritual mother,” and his letters to her in later years are the outpourings of a sensitive spirit to one who he felt thoroughly understood and sympathized with him. These letters are therefore peculiarly revealing of their writer’s personality. Most of them were written from the Yosemite Valley, and they give a good notion of the life Muir led there, sheep-herding, guiding and tending a sawmill at intervals to earn his daily bread, but devoting his real self to an ardent scientific study of glacial geology and a joyous and reverent communion with Nature. Below is one of the more impassioned missives in the collection, written from Merced County, California, July 26, 1868.

 

Near Snelling, Merced Co.,
California, July 26th, [1868.]

I have had the pleasure of but one letter since leaving home from you. That I received at Gainesville, Georgia.

I have not received a letter from any source since leaving Florida, and of course I am very lonesome and hunger terribly for the communion of friends. I will remain here eight or nine months and hope to hear from all my friends.

Fate and flowers have carried me to California, and I have reveled and luxuriated amid its plants and mountains nearly four months. I am well again, I came to life in the cool winds and crystal waters of the mountains, and, were it not for a thought now and then of loneliness and isolation, the pleasure of my existence would be complete.

I have forgotten whether I wrote you from Cuba or not. I spent four happy weeks there in January and February.

I saw only a very little of the grandeur of Panama, for my health was still in wreck, and I did not venture to wait the arrival of another steamer. I had but half a day to collect specimens. The Isthmus train rushed on with camel speed through the gorgeous Eden of vines and palms, and I could only gaze from the car platform and weep and pray that the Lord would some day give me strength to see it better.

After a delightful sail among the scenery of the sea I arrived in San Francisco in April and struck out at once into the country. I followed the Diablo foothills along the San José Valley to Gilroy, thence over the Diablo Mountains to valley of San Joaquin by the Pacific pass, thence down the valley opposite the mouth of the Merced River, thence across the San Joaquin, and up into the Sierra Nevada to the mammoth trees of Mariposa and the glorious Yosemite, thence down the Merced to this place.

The goodness of the weather as I journeyed towards Pacheco was beyond all praise and description, fragrant and mellow and bright. The air was perfectly delicious, sweet enough for the breath of angels; every draught of it gave a separate and distinct piece of pleasure. I do not believe that Adam and Eve ever tasted better in their balmiest nook.

The last of the Coast Range foothills were in near view all the way to Gilroy. Their union with the valley is by curves and slopes of inimitable beauty, and they 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; and hundreds of crystal rills joined songs with the larks, filling all the valley with music like a sea, making it an Eden from end to end.

‘The valley of the San Joaquin is the floweriest piece of world I ever walked, one vast level, even flower-bed, a sheet of flowers, a smooth sea ruffled a little by the tree fringing of the river and here and there of smaller cross streams from the mountains. –John Muir, in ‘Letter to a Friend’

The scenery, too, and all of Nature in the pass is fairly enchanting,—strange and beautiful mountain ferns, low in the dark cañons and high upon the rocky, sunlit peaks, banks of blooming shrubs, and sprinklings and gatherings of  flowers, precious and pure as ever enjoyed the sweets of a mountain home. And oh, what streams are there! beaming, glancing, each with music of its own, singing as they go in the shadow and light, onward upon their lovely changing pathways to the sea; and hills rise over hills, and mountains over mountains, heaving, waving, swelling, in most glorious, overpowering, unreadable majesty; and when at last, stricken with faint like a crushed insect, you hope to escape from all the terrible grandeur of these mountain powers, other fountains, other oceans break forth before you, for there, in clear view, over heaps and rows of foothills is laid a grand, smooth outspread plain, watered by a river, and another range of peaky snow-capped mountains a hundred miles in the distance. That plain is the valley of the San Joaquin, and those mountains are the great Sierra Nevadas. The valley of the San Joaquin is the floweriest piece of world I ever walked, one vast level, even flower-bed, a sheet of flowers, a smooth sea ruffled a little by the tree fringing of the river and here and there of smaller cross streams from the mountains. Florida is indeed a land of flowers, but for every flower creature that dwells in its most delightsome places more than a hundred are living here. Here, here is Florida. Here they are not sprinkled apart with grass between, as in our prairies, but grasses are sprinkled in the flowers; not, as in Cuba, flowers piled upon flowers heaped and gathered into deep, glowing masses, but side by side, flower to flower, petal to petal, touching but not entwined, branches weaving past and past each other, but free and separate, one smooth garment, mosses next the ground, grasses above, petaled flowers between.

Before studying the flowers of this valley, and their sky and all of the furniture and sounds and adornments of their home, one can scarce believe that their vast assemblies are permanent, but rather that, actuated by some plant purpose, they had convened from every plain, and mountain, and meadow of their kingdom, and that the different coloring of patches, acres, and miles marked the bounds of the various tribe and family encampments. And now just stop and see what I gathered from a square yard opposite the Merced. I have no books and cannot give specific names:

OrdersOpen flowersSpecies

Compositæ–132,125–2 yellow, 3305 heads

Leguminosæ—2620–2 purple and white

Scrophulariaceæ—169–1 purple

Umbellaceæ—620–1 yellow

Geraniaceæ 22–1 purple

Rubiaceæ 40 1 white

85 Natural order unknown 60 Plants unflowered

Polemoniaceæ—40–2 purple

Gramineæ–29,830–3; stems about 700;

Spikelets–10,700

Musci–10,000,000–2 purples–Dicranum, Tunar

Total of open flowers, 165,912

Total of flowers in bud, 100,000

Total of withered, 40,000

Total of natural orders, 9–11

Total of species, 16–17

The yellow of these Compositæ is extremely deep and rich and bossy, as though the sun had filled their petals with a portion of his very self. It exceeds the purple of all the others in superficial quantity forty or fifty times their whole amount, but to an observer who first looks downward and then takes a more distant view, the yellow gradually fades and purple predominates because nearly all of the purple flowers are higher. In depth the purple stratum is about ten or twelve inches, the yellow seven or eight, and second purple of mosses one.

Hetch Hetchy reservoir in Yosemite National Park: ‘[Yosemite] is by far the grandest of all of the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter. It must be the sanctum sanctorum of the Sierras…’ –John Muir, in ‘Letter to a Friend’

I’m sorry my page is done. I have not told anything. I thought of you, Mrs. Carr, when I was in the glorious Yosemite and of the prophecy of “the Priests” that you would see it and worship there with your Doctor and Priest and I. It is by far the grandest of all of the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter. It must be the sanctum sanctorum of the Sierras, and I trust that you will all be led to it.

Remember me to the Doctor. I hope he has the pleasure of sowing in good and honest hearts the glorious truth of science to which he has devoted his life. Give my love to all your boys and my little Butler.

Adieu.
J. Muir.

Courtesy Project Gutenberg