The Man, The Trail, and The Wilderness Ideal
by Don Weiss
I woke up when the first hint of pink light showed through the trees. Sunrise Creek sang its incompre-hensible tune as a background to the intermittent shriek of a chickaree and the piping of two different birds in the trees somewhere over my head.
The chickaree, more properly “Douglas’ Squirrel,” is everybody’s favorite mountaineer. Muir loved his exuberant wildness–to Muir, the wilder something was, the better it was. Few animals seem wilder than a chickaree, chattering and trilling, leaping from tree trunk to branch, to trunk to ground and back again, the archetype of “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.”
Over breakfast, I thought about why I felt pleasure at knowing the name of one animal, “chickaree,” and disappointment because I couldn’t name the birds. Putting a name to something is somehow part of possessing it. “And out of the ground the Lord formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.” It’s a kind of baptism, and you get to be the priest. It’s almost as if by putting the name to something you control or possess it. That’s why mountains have names, and lakes, and Sequoia trees. That’s why the miller’s daughter didn’t have to give up her first child to the funny little man who spun gold for her–she was able to call him by his name, Rumplestiltskin.
The first party of whites to reach The Valley spent their first night there naming all its most significant features. They were the ones who decided to call it “Yosemite” after the totem animal of the local Indians, the grizzly or “uzumaite.” They took possession of The Valley, psychically, on behalf of their race. They prepared the landscape as an artist prepares a canvas, covering over any traces of prior use, preparing the cloth to accept the paint.
Muir showed no such need to name everything he found. The few names he bestowed in the Sierra were personal, not for general use. They were the pet names of a lover. He left few marks on the growing map of the land he came to know so well. Faced with the wonder and mystery of Yosemite and the High Sierra, wrote that he prayed to be allowed to study these phenomena:
“Every rock, mountain, stream, plant, lake, lawn, forest, garden, bird, beast, insect seems to call and invite us to come and learn something of its history and relationship.”
Muir spent the summer of 1869 herding sheep in the Tuolumne Meadows area. Then he returned to The Valley and went to work for James Hutchings, one of the real pioneers of Yosemite and its most enthusiastic early booster. Hutchings had guided the first party of tourists into The Valley in 1855. That group included the artist Thomas Ayres. Ayres’ sketches were printed in HutchingsÕ California Magazine, starting the tourist business that enabled Hutchings to buy the Upper Hotel in 1864 and move to The Valley with his beautiful young wife.
Almost everyone who met him was drawn to Muir, but Hutchings didn’t appreciate his wife’s fondness for this wild looking but poetic and learned man who he had hired to run his sawmill. Moreover, Hutchings was gone much of the time, fighting the governments of California and the U. S. over compensation for his homestead claim. When Yosemite Valley became a park in 1864, his claim was voided, though he stayed on and ran the hotel.
Although he was working for Hutchings, Muir spent many days roaming as far as his legs could carry him, which was very far indeed. He was described as traveling slowly, perhaps a mile an hour, as he stooped repeatedly to examine and study all the rocks, trees, flowers, mosses and other things in his path, but he could travel endlessly. Often he would turn a day off into two by “sauntering” for the eighteen hours of summer daylight and then running home by moonlight in time to saw more logs the next day.
Hutchings thought of himself as the Valley’s premier interpreter. In addition to his marital insecurity, he was undoubtedly also jealous of the fact that the stream of important and famous visitors who came to The Valley insisted that the only person to guide them was Muir. They were sent by the woman who was Muir’s closest friend, Jeanne Carr.
She discovered him in 1860, when he was displaying his wooden clocks at the Wisconsin State Fair. Later, as a student at the University of Wisconsin, he studied geology with her husband, Prof. Ezra Carr, and was a frequent visitor in their home. They related to one another as amateur botanists, lovers of the Infinite reflected in Nature, and disciples of Emerson. She was the one person who inspired and led Muir, helping him to become more than a botanist, more than a geologist, more than a mountain guide. He wrote her once, “Happy indeed … they who have a friend to whom they can unmask the working of their real life…”
They were lovers, but only in the spiritual sense. To her, above all, he would unburden his heart of its loneliness and emotional turmoil. Parts of their correspondence have been destroyed, adding fuel to speculations of a physical affair. They would later travel together in the romantic wildness of Yosemite.
A set of letters, not yet published, supports the view that their relationship was platonic. Elvira Hutchings wrote to Jeanne Carr, admitting she was in love with Muir, suggesting she wanted to run off with him. Muir received a scolding by mail from his dear friend and mentor, though his own reply is missing. Probably it was one of the letters destroyed, by his instructions, after his death. The American Hero generally envinces an ambivalent attitude towards women. Muir’s close friendships with Mrs. Carr and Mrs. Hutchings and his avoidance of the doting and available novelist Therese Yelverton are clearly all relationships in this vein. Mrs. Carr remained devoted to her husband and her family. Therese Yelverton continued her trip around the world. And Elvira Hutchings soon left her husband–for another man, not Muir. Muir was free to “mosey off into the sunset.”
By seven I was on the trail. It was cool and I walked rapidly through the Red Fir forest. In some places, massive trees had fallen across the trail. They were neatly sawed through, with the rounds of trunk rolled aside like a mammoth set of Lincoln Logs, waiting for a young Paul Bunyan. After awhile, I realized the trail followed an old glacial moraine, one of those sinuous, lateral moraines that trace the edge of a vanished glacier. Muir’s first published work was an article on Yosemite’s glaciers. The first great controversy of his life was over his theory that Yosemite Valley had been dug out by a huge glacier and not created when the bottom simply dropped out from beneath in one awe-inspiring cataclysmic CRASH. This article, like all his best writing, juxtaposes lively accounts of his sometimes dangerous, often incredibly energetic travels with closely observed evidence relative to his glacial and botanical observations.
Much of Muir’s appeal as a writer and as a man lies in his ability to combine the emotionalism of a Romantic with the cold, hard reasoning and descriptive powers of a scientist. His science was personal, his Romanticism was concrete.
The forest here was open, and to the south I could see the peaks and glaciers of the Clark Range on Yosemite’s southern border. Muir discovered his first glacier there, in 1871. It has since disappeared, a victim of this warm, dry century. But it served its purpose, helping to prove that mountain scenery was explicable by natural, observable forces, helping to remove the fear of the Wilderness by making it understandable in human terms.
As Muir guided the scientists and intellectuals that Jeanne Carr sent to him, including her mentor and his idol, Emerson, he impressed them with his combination of learning and emotional communion with Nature. Some were overwhelmed.
Therese Yelverton, who knew him in 1871, put him into a novel and practically deified him. She called the character Kenmuir. She described, “his open blue eyes of honest questioning, and glorious auburn hair [that] might have stood as a portrait of the angel Raphael. His figure was about five feet nine, well knit, and bespoke that active grace which only trained muscles can assume.” In her novel, the narrator’s guide said to Kenmuir, “‘She wants to know what you were doing out on that bloody knob, overhanging etarnity.'” He answered, “‘Praising God, madam, for his mighty works, his glorious earth, and the sublimity of these fleecy clouds, the majesty of that great roaring torrent…
“‘Harken to the hymn of praise that resounds upwards from every tiny sedge…'”
“I looked on the face of Kenmuir, shining with a pure and holy enthusiasm, and it reminded me of the face of a Christ I had seen years ago in some little old Italian village.”
Therese Yelverton wasn’t the only one to exclaim over Muir’s enthusiasm. Joseph LeConte, one of the first Geology Professors at U.C. Berkeley, saw both the analytical and the ecstatic Muir, by turns. First, “Mr Muir is a gentleman of rare intelligence, of much knowledge of science…” But then, “Mr Muir gazes and gazes, and cannot get his fill. He is a most passionate lover of nature. Plants and flowers and forests, and sky and clouds and mountains seem actually to haunt his imagination. He seems to revel in the freedom of this life. I think he would pine away in a city or in conventional life of any kind.”
My mood that morning lacked Muir’s emotionalism, but I still had great satisfaction in both studying what I saw and trying to understand the play of forces and the flow of change on the landscape. Of course, I had it easy. The basics are now known, no longer widely debated. But understanding goes beyond mere knowledge of the basics. I felt, walking up the trail, with stops to ponder the little ferns growing miraculously out of hairline cracks in house- sized boulders, that all this was speaking to me in a language beyond words, a language directed at my unconscious mind, which would only understand when my conscious mind got out of the way.
This feeling of being one with nature has raised the interest of many thinkers. Emerson wrote, “The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable.”
Joseph Campbell rejected the idea of an intellectual meaning in Nature. “What is the ‘meaning’ of a tree? of a butterfly? of the birth of a child? or of the universe? What is the ‘meaning’ of the song of a rushing stream? Such wonders simply are. They are antecedent to meaning, though ‘meanings’ may be read into them.”
Muir, in a letter to Jeanne Carr on finding she had moved to California, took a position somewhere between Emerson and Campbell. “I am glad indeed that you are here to read for yourself the glorious lessons of sky and plain and mountains, which no mortal power can ever speak.” Later, I came to understand that certain kinds of knowledge truly are “beyond words” –they are perceived in the part of the brain where words do not find a home.
At 9:30 I met a young couple in shorts with small backpacks, heading down the trail. After they passed, I realized they were the first human beings I had seen since mid-afternoon the day before. Yet I was within a dozen miles of The Valley on the busiest weekend of the year. Soon I met a few others. Then I crossed a low crest and started down into Long Meadow. The upper lobes of the meadow were of an intense green only found in places like this, mountain meadows, still wet from melted winter snow, bursting with young grass and framed by the blue green needles of encroaching lodgepole pines. The sheep that grazed here in the late nineteenth century are sometimes blamed for the encroachment of the trees into the meadows, but Muir noted in 1869 that the meadow grass was not actually favored by his “hoofed locusts.” Perhaps horses did some of the damage. Or maybe much of it is just the natural course of events, the flow of the land from use to use. This meadow was scooped out by a glacier. Receding, the glacier left a lake which silted up and formed a meadow. The soil is too wet for trees to flourish, so the meadow remains. If it dries out, the forest takes the meadow. No doubt in the long cycles of the centuries, many of these meadows have become forest, then meadow, then forest again. Man, sheep and horse may all hasten the process, but as the saying goes, “Nature Bats Last.”
Nature isn’t always kindly and beneficent, especially in a wet meadow in early July. The further I descended into Long Meadow, the more I found myself walking through a cloud of mosquitoes. These meadow mosquitoes were smaller than their forest cousins but their sheer numbers created an almost solid cloud through which I walked, ever faster, trying in vain to escape their whine and bite.
I stopped to put on DEET, but my thin shirt left much of me unprotected. Sweat dripped in my eyes. Every few minutes I inhaled another mozzie. I stopped momentarily to look at a marmot on a rock, then hurried on even though I’m a great lover of marmots, their whistling warnings and wobbling walk.
I passed Sunrise High Sierra Camp at a near run, parched from the heat and the exertion but afraid if I stopped I would pay for it with a hundred bites per minute.
By lunchtime I was on Cathedral Pass, with a close view of one of the most magnificent Sierra peaks, Cathedral. I drank it in with my lemonade, and enjoyed it all the more since it wasn’t half obscured by mosquitoes. Passes funnel wind and even on this still, hot, sunny day there was enough breeze there to clear the air of the whining little bloodsuckers.
Muir spoke of visitors to Yosemite having to, “labor for beauty as for bread,” and I had. Since leaving the Valley I had climbed a vertical mile and walked 18. I had earned this spot, this view.
A couple came by as I ate, and I realized that nearly half the people I had seen in these 18 miles of trail had been women, some in couples or groups, many alone. I thought about the pictures of the early Sierra Club High Trips, most of which showed Muir in his flowing beard surrounded by women in trousers and bloomer costumes, each with her wide-brimmed hat and a tall alpenstock.
They told me, this couple with their matching red backpacks, that a bear had tried to get their food the preceding night, and had succeeded in chewing up a book. They thought he had gotten the food some other camper had hung too close to the trunk of the tree that anchored the cable. This was at Lower Cathedral Lake Campground, where I was to meet my wife in a few hours.
Lower Cathedral Lake, one of the most popular backcountry areas in the park, is half a mile off the John Muir Trail. Its popularity stems from its accessibility– it’s only four miles from the Tioga Road. But more than that is The View.
There’s a certain type of mountain view that has fascinated artists ever since Claude Lorrain perfected it 300 years ago. Trees frame a lake that reflects both the azure sky and a mountain beyond. In the middle ground, the artist adds a few people to give scale, or a deer to symbolize the innocence of nature before The Fall of Man. Some nineteenth century American artists like Bierstadt and Cole substituted Indians or other “primitives” for the same reason. Lower Cathedral Lake Campground is dominated by just such a view.
I took an hour to set up camp, wash some clothes, and hang. Then I sat down to relax on a knob of granite that defined the lake’s northern shore. The granite had been polished smooth by the Tuolumne Glacier, now long gone, but once over a quarter mile thick where I sat. The burnished rocky crust was stained red, perhaps from the lake when the water level had been higher. In places this crust was exfoliating, flaking off in great round sheets, giving the rock a mottled appearance like the barnacled skin of a whale.
The lake spread out from my feet and rippled slightly in the lightest of breezes. The sky was reflected, lightened by the ripples. Beyond the far shore, the afternoon sun bathed the granite slopes which stood out white against the dark cloak of trees. The peak itself soared up into the empty sky, its pinnacle at the broken height of a curve.
As the sun descended, the breeze dropped and the mozzies reappeared. I retreated to my tent, securely screened, for my remaining cheese, crackers and trail mix. Maybe my wife had had car trouble. Maybe she was sick. Maybe she was mad at me. Maybe she had run off with a backcountry ranger.
As the sun neared the horizon, I reminded myself that I was supposed to be a Photographer. I spread on as much DEET as I could, slipped on a thick wool shirt, tucked my cuffs in my socks, and went out to look for pictures to take.
I began at a small cascade that was the lake’s only outlet, clambering over the rocks, loaded with all my cameras, lenses and tripod. Soon, as usual, I fell into the rhythm of my craft. With each shot, I felt I was warming up my eye and my critical, creative senses. After some photo sessions, I find that my first vision, my first series of exposures, is the best, the freshest, the least “studied.” This was not one of those times. I could sense myself looking at the elements around me, gradually selecting those that would express what I felt about this place, at this time, in this light.
I returned to the lake shore and the view of Cathedral Peak. I chose my viewpoint beyond the trees that enclosed the camp. I didn’t want the Claudian effect of trees framing my picture. Instead, I moved right down to the shore, where the sky and the lake, washing the sides of my chosen image, gave the greatest play to the changing light. Those 19th century painters who depicted such scenes were called “luminists.” It’s an esthetic that harks back to the earliest known root of the word “divine” — “div” or “shining.”
As the light turned amber, angling acutely through the atmosphere, I took the first of a series of exposures, lake, rock, trees, sky, and heaven-pointing peak. I left the camera on the tripod and watched the shadows lengthen and the colors change.
Mountain sunsets pass through a fairly predictable series of color changes, but each is unique in the rate of change, the intensity of the color phases, the influence of clouds, and the local effects on rock, vegetation and sky. Painters have the option of rearranging the scenery. Muir hated this, especially when they changed the scene to something geologically impossible. He must have despised Bierstadt’s most famous pictures of Yosemite, where the cliffs are moved closer together and the valley is flooded with crimson light rather than the delicate amber or rose of reality. Muir’s friend Keith said once of a Bierstadt, “… it was large, theatrical and false.”
A photographer must watch the light and take his pictures when it is most favorable in angle and hue. I sat there on the rock as so many times before, in mountains, deserts and sometimes in cities. I watched the light and took additional pictures at each incremental change.
Gradually the peak glowed with an ever more amber light. It must have gotten dimmer, but it seemed to brighten as the shadow cast by the trees crossed the lake and crept up the slopes of rock and tree. The lake never stilled, the breeze still made ripples, and the trout added turbulence to the surface. Finally, the trout stopped feeding and the breeze subsided. The rocks, now almost pink, glowed as if on fire. The mountain doubled itself, upright in the sky, reversed in the lake. I quickly took three more pictures. The colors held a moment longer, blue sky, rosy peak, darkly green trees. Then the sun was gone and all went into shadow and silhouet