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A Geologist's Winter Walk

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avatar A Geologist's Winter Walk
April 10, 2009 06:54PM
After reaching Turlock, I sped afoot over the stubble fields and through miles of brown hemizonia and purple erigeron, to Hopeton, conscious of little more than that the town was behind and beneath me, and the mountains above and before me; on through the oaks and chaparral of the foothills to Coulterville; and then ascended the first great mountain step upon which grows the sugar pine. Here I slackened pace, for I drank the spicy, resiny wind, and beneath the arms of this noble tree I felt that I was safely home. Never did pine trees seem so dear. How sweet was their breath and their song, and how grandly they winnowed the sky! I tingled my fingers among their tassels, and rustled my feet among their brown needles and burrs, and was exhilarated and joyful beyond all I can write.

When I reached Yosemite, all the rocks seemed talkative, and more telling and lovable than ever. They are dear friends, and seemed to have warm blood gushing through their granite flesh; and I love them with a love intensified by long and close companionship. After I had bathed in the bright river, sauntered over the meadows, conversed with the domes, and played with the pines, I still felt blurred and weary, as if tainted in some way with the sky of your streets. I determined, therefore, to run out for a while to say my prayers in the higher mountain temples. "The days are sunful," I said, "and, though now winter, no great danger need be encountered, and no sudden storm will block my return, if I am watchful."

The morning after this decision, I started up the canyon of Tenaya, caring little about the quantity of bread I carried; for, I thought, a fast and a storm and a difficult canyon were just the medicine I needed. When I passed Mirror Lake, I scarcely noticed it, for I was absorbed in the great Tissiack—her crown a mile away in the hushed azure; her purple granite drapery flowing in soft and graceful folds down to my feet, embroidered gloriously around with deep, shadowy forest. I have gazed on Tissiack a thousand times—in days of solemn storms, and when her form shone divine with the jewelry of winter, or was veiled in living clouds; and I have heard her voice of winds, and snowy, tuneful waters when floods were falling; yet never did her soul reveal itself more impressively than now. I hung about her skirts, lingering timidly, until the higher mountains and glaciers compelled me to push up the canyon.

This canyon is accessible only to mountaineers, and I was anxious to carry my barometer and clinometer through it, to obtain sections and altitudes, so I chose it as the most attractive highway. After I had passed the tall groves that stretch a mile above Mirror Lake, and scrambled around the Tenaya Fall, which is just at the head of the lake groves, I crept through the dense and spiny chaparral that plushes the roots of the mountains here for miles in warm green, and was ascending a precipitous rock front, smoothed by glacial action, when I suddenly fell—for the first time since I touched foot to Sierra rocks. After several somersaults, I became insensible from the shock, and when consciousness returned I found myself wedged among short, stiff bushes, trembling as if cold, not injured in the slightest.

Judging by the sun, I could not have been insensible very long; probably not a minute, possibly an hour; and I could not remember what made me fall, or where I had fallen from; but I saw that if I had rolled a little further, my mountain climbing would have been finished, for just beyond the bushes the canyon wall steepened and I might have fallen to the bottom. "There," said I, addressing my feet, to whose separate skill I had learned to trust night and day on any mountain, "that is what you get by intercourse with stupid town stairs, and dead pavements." I felt degraded and worthless. I had not yet reached the most difficult portion of the canyon, but I determined to guide my humbled body over the most nerve-trying places I could find; for I was now awake, and felt confident that the last of the town fog had been shaken from both head and feet.

I camped at the mouth of a narrow gorge which is cut into the bottom of the main canyon, determined to take earnest exercise next day. No plushy boughs did my ill-behaved bones enjoy that night, nor did my bumped head get a spicy cedar plume pillow mixed with flowers. I slept on a naked boulder, and when I awoke all my nervous trembling was gone.

The gorged portion of the canyon, in which I spent all the next day, is about a mile and a half in length; and I passed the time in tracing the action of the forces that determined this peculiar bottom gorge, which is an abrupt, ragged-walled, narrow-throated canyon, formed in the bottom of the wide-mouthed, smooth, and beveled main canyon. I will not stop now to tell you more; some day you may see it, like a shadowy line, from Cloud's Rest. In high water, the stream occupies all the bottom of the gorge, surging and chafing in glorious power from wall to wall. But the sound of the grinding was low as I entered the gorge, scarcely hoping to be able to pass through its entire length. By cool efforts, along glassy, ice-worn slopes, I reached the upper end in a little over a day, but was compelled to pass the second night in the gorge, and in the moonlight I wrote you this short pencil-letter in my notebook:—

The moon is looking down into the canyon, and how marvelously the
great rocks kindle to her light! Every dome, and brow, and
swelling boss touched by her white rays, glows as if lighted with
snow. I am now only a mile from last night's camp; and have been
climbing and sketching all day in this difficult but instructive
gorge. It is formed in the bottom of the main canyon, among the
roots of Cloud's Rest. It begins at the filled-up lake basin where
I camped last night, and ends a few hundred yards above, in another
basin of the same kind. The walls everywhere are craggy and
vertical, and in some places they overlean. It is only from twenty
to sixty feet wide, and not, though black and broken enough, the
thin, crooked mouth of some mysterious abyss; but it was eroded,
for in many places I saw its solid, seamless floor.

I am sitting on a big stone, against which the stream divides, and
goes brawling by in rapids on both sides; half of my rock is white
in the light, half in shadow. As I look from the opening jaws of
this shadowy gorge, South Dome is immediately in front—high in the
stars, her face turned from the moon, with the rest of her body
gloriously muffled in waved folds of granite. On the left,
sculptured from the main Cloud's Rest ridge, are three magnificent
rocks, sisters of the great South Dome. On the right is the
massive, moonlit front of Mount Watkins, and between, low down in
the furthest distance, is Sentinel Dome, girdled and darkened with
forest. In the near foreground Tenaya Creek is singing against
boulders that are white with snow and moonbeams. Now look back
twenty yards, and you will see a waterfall fair as a spirit; the
moonlight just touches it, bringing it into relief against a dark
background of shadow. A little to the left, and a dozen steps this
side of the fall, a flickering light marks my camp—and a precious
camp it is. A huge, glacier-polished slab, falling from the
smooth, glossy flank of Cloud's Rest, happened to settle on edge
against the wall of the gorge. I did not know that this slab was
glacier-polished until I lighted my fire. Judge of my delight. I
think it was sent here by an earthquake. It is about twelve feet
square. I wish I could take it home 4 for a hearthstone.
Beneath this slab is the only place in this torrent-swept gorge
where I could find sand sufficient for a bed.

I expected to sleep on the boulders, for I spent most of the
afternoon on the slippery wall of the canyon, endeavoring to get
around this difficult part of the gorge, and was compelled to
hasten down here for water before dark. I shall sleep soundly on
this sand; half of it is mica. Here, wonderful to behold, are a
few green stems of prickly rubus, and a tiny grass. They are here
to meet us. Ay, even here in this darksome gorge, "frightened and
tormented" with raging torrents and choking avalanches of snow.
Can it be? As if rubus and the grass leaf were not enough of God's
tender prattle words of love, which we so much need in these mighty
temples of power, yonder in the "benmost bore" are two blessed
adiantums. Listen to them! How wholly infused with God is this
one big word of love that we call the world! Good-night. Do you
see the fire-glow on my ice-smoothed slab, and on my two ferns and
the rubus and grass panicles? And do you hear how sweet a sleep-
song the fall and cascades are singing?

The water-ground chips and knots that I found fastened between the rocks kept my fire alive all through the night. Next morning I rose nerved and ready for another day of sketching and noting, and any form of climbing. I escaped from the gorge about noon, after accomplishing some of the most delicate feats of mountaineering I ever attempted; and here the canyon is all broadly open again—the floor luxuriantly forested with pine, and spruce, and silver fir, and brown-trunked libocedrus. The walls rise in Yosemite forms, and Tenaya Creek comes down seven hundred feet in a white brush of foam. This is a little Yosemite valley. It is about two thousand feet above the level of the main Yosemite, and about twenty-four hundred below Lake Tenaya.

I found the lake frozen, and the ice was so clear and unruffled that the surrounding mountains and the groves that look down upon it were reflected almost as perfectly as I ever beheld them in the calm evening mirrors of summer. At a little distance, it was difficult to believe the lake frozen at all; and when I walked out on it, cautiously stamping at short intervals to test the strength of the ice, I seemed to walk mysteriously, without adequate faith, on the surface of the water. The ice was so transparent that I could see through it the beautifully wave-rippled, sandy bottom, and the scales of mica glinting back the down-pouring light. When I knelt down with my face close to the ice, through which the sunbeams were pouring, I was delighted to discover myriads of Tyndall's six-rayed water flowers, magnificently colored.

A grand old mountain mansion is this Tenaya region! In the glacier period it was a mer de glace, far grander than the mer de glace of Switzerland, which is only about half a mile broad. The Tenaya mer de glace was not less than two miles broad, late in the glacier epoch, when all the principal dividing crests were bare; and its depth was not less than fifteen hundred feet. Ice streams from Mounts Lyell and Dana, and all the mountains between, and from the nearer Cathedral Peak, flowed hither, welded into one, and worked together. After eroding this Tanaya Lake basin, and all the splendidly sculptured rocks and mountains that surround and adorn it, and the great Tenaya Canyon, with its wealth of all that makes mountains sublime, they were welded with the vast South, Lyell, and Illilouette glaciers on one side, and with those of Hoffman on the other—thus forming a portion of a yet grander mer de glace in Yosemite Valley.

I reached the Tenaya Canyon, on my way home, by coming in from the northeast, rambling down over the shoulders of Mount Watkins, touching bottom a mile above Mirror Lake. From thence home was but a saunter in the moonlight.

After resting one day, and the weather continuing calm, I ran up over the left shoulder of South Dome and down in front of its grand split face to make some measurements, completed my work, climbed to the right shoulder, struck off along the ridge for Cloud's Rest, and reached the topmost heave of her sunny wave in ample time to see the sunset.

Cloud's Rest is a thousand feet higher than Tissiack. It is a wavelike crest upon a ridge, which begins at Yosemite with Tissiack, and runs continuously eastward to the thicket of peaks and crests around Lake Tenaya. This lofty granite wall is bent this way and that by the restless and weariless action of glaciers just as if it had been made of dough. But the grand circumference of mountains and forests are coming from far and near, densing into one close assemblage; for the sun, their god and father, with love ineffable, is glowing a sunset farewell. Not one of all the assembled rocks or trees seemed remote. How impressively their faces shone with responsive love!

I ran home in the moonlight with firm strides; for the sun-love made me strong. Down through the junipers; down through the firs; now in jet shadows, now in white light; over sandy moraines and bare, clanking rocks; past the huge ghost of South Dome rising weird through the firs; past the glorious fall of Nevada, the groves of Illilouette; through the pines of the valley; beneath the bright crystal sky blazing with stars. All of this mountain wealth in one day!—one of the rich ripe days that enlarge one's life; so much of the sun upon one side of it, so much of the moon and stars on the other.

John Muir

avatar Re: A Geologist's Winter Walk
April 10, 2009 06:57PM
(a return to sanity)

Thank you smiling smiley


Post Edited (04-10-09 21:42)

The body betrays and the weather conspires, hopefully, not on the same day.
avatar The Sierra Nevada
April 11, 2009 12:56PM

Go where you may within the bounds of California, mountains are ever in
sight, charming and glorifying every landscape. Yet so simple and
massive is the topography of the State in general views, that the main
central portion displays only one valley, and two chains of mountains
which seem almost perfectly regular in trend and height: the Coast Range
on the west side, the Sierra Nevada on the east. These two ranges coming
together in curves on the north and south inclose a magnificent basin,
with a level floor more than 400 miles long, and from 35 to 60 miles
wide. This is the grand Central Valley of California, the waters of
which have only one outlet to the sea through the Golden Gate. But with
this general simplicity of features there is great complexity of hidden
detail. The Coast Range, rising as a grand green barrier against the
ocean, from 2000 to 8000 feet high, is composed of innumerable
forest-crowned spurs, ridges, and rolling hill-waves which inclose a
multitude of smaller valleys; some looking out through long,
forest-lined vistas to the sea; others, with but few trees, to the
Central Valley; while a thousand others yet smaller are embosomed and
concealed in mild, round-browed hills, each, with its own climate, soil,
and productions.

Making your way through the mazes of the Coast Range to the summit of
any of the inner peaks or passes opposite San Francisco, in the clear
springtime, the grandest and most telling of all California landscapes
is outspread before you. At your feet lies the great Central Valley
glowing golden in the sunshine, extending north and south farther than
the eye can reach, one smooth, flowery, lake-like bed of fertile soil.
Along its eastern margin rises the mighty Sierra, miles in height,
reposing like a smooth, cumulous cloud in the sunny sky, and so
gloriously colored, and so luminous, it seems to be not clothed with
light, but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city.
Along the top, and extending a good way down, you see a pale, pearl-gray
belt of snow; and below it a belt of blue and dark purple, marking the
extension of the forests; and along the base of the range a broad belt
of rose-purple and yellow, where lie the minor's gold-fields and the
foot-hill gardens. All these colored belts blending smoothly make a wall
of light ineffably fine, and as beautiful as a rainbow, yet firm as

When I first enjoyed this superb view, one glowing April day, from the
summit of the Pacheco Pass, the Central Valley, but little trampled or
plowed as yet, was one furred, rich sheet of golden compositae, and the
luminous wall of the mountains shone in all its glory. Then it seemed to
me the Sierra should be called not the Nevada, or Snowy Range, but the
Range of Light. And after ten years spent in the heart of it, rejoicing
and wondering, bathing in its glorious floods of light, seeing the
sunbursts of morning among the icy peaks, the noonday radiance on the
trees and rocks and snow, the flush of the alpenglow, and a thousand
dashing waterfalls with their marvelous abundance of irised spray, it
still seems to me above all others the Range of Light, the most divinely
beautiful of all the mountain-chains I have ever seen.

The Sierra is about 500 miles long, 70 miles wide, and from 7000 to
nearly 15,000 feet high. In general views no mark of man is visible on
it, nor anything to suggest the richness of the life it cherishes, or
the depth and grandeur of its sculpture. None of its magnificent
forest-crowned ridges rises much above the general level to publish its
wealth. No great valley or lake is seen, or river, or group of
well-marked features of any kind, standing out in distinct pictures.
Even the summit-peaks, so clear and high in the sky, seem comparatively
smooth and featureless. Nevertheless, glaciers are still at work in the
shadows of the peaks, and thousands of lakes and meadows shine and bloom
beneath them, and the whole range is furrowed with cañons to a depth of
from 2000 to 5000 feet, in which once flowed majestic glaciers, and in
which now flow and sing a band of beautiful rivers.

Though of such stupendous depth, these famous cañons are not raw,
gloomy, jagged-walled gorges, savage and inaccessible. With rough
passages here and there they still make delightful pathways for the
mountaineer, conducting from the fertile lowlands to the highest icy
fountains, as a kind of mountain streets full of charming life and
light, graded and sculptured by the ancient glaciers, and presenting,
throughout all their courses, a rich variety of novel and attractive
scenery, the most attractive that has yet been discovered in the
mountain-ranges of the world.

In many places, especially in the middle region of the western flank of
the range, the main cañons widen into spacious valleys or parks,
diversified like artificial landscape-gardens, with charming groves and
meadows, and thickets of blooming bushes, while the lofty, retiring
walls, infinitely varied in form and sculpture, are fringed with ferns,
flowering-plants of many species, oaks, and evergreens, which find
anchorage on a thousand narrow steps and benches; while the whole is
enlivened and made glorious with rejoicing streams that come dancing and
foaming over the sunny brows of the cliffs to join the shining river
that flows in tranquil beauty down the middle of each one of them.

The walls of these park valleys of the Yosemite kind are made up of
rocks mountains in size, partly separated from each other by narrow
gorges and side-cañons; and they are so sheer in front, and so compactly
built together on a level floor, that, comprehensively seen, the parks
they inclose look like immense halls or temples lighted from above.
Every rock seems to glow with life. Some lean back in majestic repose;
others, absolutely sheer, or nearly so, for thousands of feet, advance
their brows in thoughtful attitudes beyond their companions, giving
welcome to storms and calms alike, seemingly conscious yet heedless of
everything going on about them, awful in stern majesty, types of
permanence, yet associated with beauty of the frailest and most fleeting
forms; their feet set in pine-groves and gay emerald meadows, their
brows in the sky; bathed in light, bathed in floods of singing water,
while snow-clouds, avalanches, and the winds shine and surge and wreathe
about them as the years go by, as if into these mountain mansions Nature
had taken pains to gather her choicest treasures to draw her lovers into
close and confiding communion with her.


Here, too, in the middle region of deepest cañons are the grandest
forest-trees, the Sequoia, king of conifers, the noble Sugar and Yellow
Pines, Douglas Spruce, Libocedrus, and the Silver Firs, each a giant of
its kind, assembled together in one and the same forest, surpassing all
other coniferous forests in the world, both in the number of its species
and in the size and beauty of its trees. The winds flow in melody
through their colossal spires, and they are vocal everywhere with the
songs of birds and running water. Miles of fragrant ceanothus and
manzanita bushes bloom beneath them, and lily gardens and meadows, and
damp, ferny glens in endless variety of fragrance and color, compelling
the admiration of every observer. Sweeping on over ridge and valley,
these noble trees extend a continuous belt from end to end of the range,
only slightly interrupted by sheer-walled cañons at intervals of about
fifteen and twenty miles. Here the great burly brown bears delight to
roam, harmonizing with the brown boles of the trees beneath which they
feed. Deer, also, dwell here, and find food and shelter in the ceanothus
tangles, with a multitude of smaller people. Above this region of
giants, the trees grow smaller until the utmost limit of the timber line
is reached on the stormy mountain-slopes at a height of from ten to
twelve thousand feet above the sea, where the Dwarf Pine is so lowly and
hard beset by storms and heavy snow, it is pressed into flat tangles,
over the tops of which we may easily walk. Below the main forest belt
the trees likewise diminish in size, frost and burning drought repressing
and blasting alike.

The rose-purple zone along the base of the range comprehends nearly all
the famous gold region of California. And here it was that miners from
every country under the sun assembled in a wild, torrent-like rush to
seek their fortunes. On the banks of every river, ravine, and gully they
have left their marks. Every gravel- and boulder-bed has been
desperately riddled over and over again. But in this region the pick and
shovel, once wielded with savage enthusiasm, have been laid away, and
only quartz-mining is now being carried on to any considerable extent.
The zone in general is made up of low, tawny, waving foot-hills,
roughened here and there with brush and trees, and outcropping masses of
slate, colored gray and red with lichens. The smaller masses of slate,
rising abruptly from the dry, grassy sod in leaning slabs, look like
ancient tombstones in a deserted burying-ground. In early spring, say
from February to April, the whole of this foot-hill belt is a paradise
of bees and flowers. Refreshing rains then fall freely, birds are busy
building their nests, and the sunshine is balmy and delightful. But by
the end of May the soil, plants, and sky seem to have been baked in an
oven. Most of the plants crumble to dust beneath the foot, and the
ground is full of cracks; while the thirsty traveler gazes with eager
longing through the burning glare to the snowy summits looming like hazy
clouds in the distance.

The trees, mostly _Quercus Douglasii_ and _Pinus Sabiniana_,
thirty to forty feet high, with thin, pale-green foliage, stand far
apart and cast but little shade. Lizards glide about on the rocks
enjoying a constitution that no drought can dry, and ants in amazing
numbers, whose tiny sparks of life seem to burn the brighter with the
increasing heat, ramble industriously in long trains in search of food.
Crows, ravens, magpies--friends in distress--gather on the ground
beneath the best shade-trees, panting with drooping wings and bills wide
open, scarce a note from any of them during the midday hours. Quails,
too, seek the shade during the heat of the day about tepid pools in the
channels of the larger mid-river streams. Rabbits scurry from thicket to
thicket among the ceanothus bushes, and occasionally a long-eared hare
is seen cantering gracefully across the wider openings. The nights are
calm and dewless during the summer, and a thousand voices proclaim the
abundance of life, notwithstanding the desolating effect of dry sunshine
on the plants and larger animals. The hylas make a delightfully pure and
tranquil music after sunset; and coyotes, the little, despised dogs of
the wilderness, brave, hardy fellows, looking like withered wisps of
hay, bark in chorus for hours. Mining-towns, most of them dead, and a
few living ones with bright bits of cultivation about them, occur at
long intervals along the belt, and cottages covered with climbing roses,
in the midst of orange and peach orchards, and sweet-scented hay-fields
in fertile flats where water for irrigation may be had. But they are
mostly far apart, and make scarce any mark in general views.

Every winter the High Sierra and the middle forest region get snow in
glorious abundance, and even the foot-hills are at times whitened. Then
all the range looks like a vast beveled wall of purest marble. The rough
places are then made smooth, the death and decay of the year is covered
gently and kindly, and the ground seems as clean as the sky. And though
silent in its flight from the clouds, and when it is taking its place on
rock, or tree, or grassy meadow, how soon the gentle snow finds a voice!
Slipping from the heights, gathering in avalanches, it booms and roars
like thunder, and makes a glorious show as it sweeps down the
mountain-side, arrayed in long, silken streamers and wreathing, swirling
films of crystal dust.

The north half of the range is mostly covered with floods of lava, and
dotted with volcanoes and craters, some of them recent and perfect in
form, others in various stages of decay. The south half is composed of
granite nearly from base to summit, while a considerable number of
peaks, in the middle of the range, are capped with metamorphic slates,
among which are Mounts Dana and Gibbs to the east of Yosemite Valley.
Mount Whitney, the culminating point of the range near its southern
extremity, lifts its helmet-shaped crest to a height of nearly 14,700
feet. Mount Shasta, a colossal volcanic cone, rises to a height of
14,440 feet at the northern extremity, and forms a noble landmark for
all the surrounding region within a radius of a hundred miles. Residual
masses of volcanic rocks occur throughout most of the granitic southern
portion also, and a considerable number of old volcanoes on the flanks,
especially along the eastern base of the range near Mono Lake and
southward. But it is only to the northward that the entire range, from
base to summit, is covered with lava.

From the summit of Mount Whitney only granite is seen. Innumerable peaks
and spires but little lower than its own storm-beaten crags rise in
groups like forest-trees, in full view, segregated by cañons of
tremendous depth and ruggedness. On Shasta nearly every feature in the
vast view speaks of the old volcanic fires. Far to the northward, in
Oregon, the icy volcanoes of Mount Pitt and the Three Sisters rise above
the dark evergreen woods. Southward innumerable smaller craters and
cones are distributed along the axis of the range and on each flank. Of
these, Lassen's Butte is the highest, being nearly 11,000 feet above
sea-level. Miles of its flanks are reeking and bubbling with hot
springs, many of them so boisterous and sulphurous they seem over ready
to become spouting geysers like those of the Yellowstone.

The Cinder Cone near marks the most recent volcanic eruption in the
Sierra. It is a symmetrical truncated cone about 700 feet high, covered
with gray cinders and ashes, and has a regular unchanged crater on its
summit, in which a few small Two-leaved Pines are growing. These show
that the age of the cone is not less than eighty years. It stands
between two lakes, which a short time ago were one. Before the cone was
built, a flood of rough vesicular lava was poured into the lake, cutting
it in two, and, overflowing its banks, the fiery flood advanced into the
pine-woods, overwhelming the trees in its way, the charred ends of some
of which may still be seen projecting from beneath the snout of the
lava-stream where it came to rest. Later still there was an eruption of
ashes and loose obsidian cinders, probably from the same vent, which,
besides forming the Cinder Cone, scattered a heavy shower over the
surrounding woods for miles to a depth of from six inches to several

The history of this last Sierra eruption is also preserved in the
traditions of the Pitt River Indians. They tell of a fearful time of
darkness, when the sky was black with ashes and smoke that threatened
every living thing with death, and that when at length the sun appeared
once more it was red like blood.

Less recent craters in great numbers roughen the adjacent region; some
of them with lakes in their throats, others overgrown with trees and
flowers, Nature in these old hearths and firesides having literally
given beauty for ashes. On the northwest side of Mount Shasta there is a
subordinate cone about 3000 feet below the summit, which, has been
active subsequent to the breaking up of the main ice-cap that once
covered the mountain, as is shown by its comparatively unwasted crater
and the streams of unglaciated lava radiating from it. The main summit
is about a mile and a half in diameter, bounded by small crumbling peaks
and ridges, among which we seek in vain for the outlines of the ancient

These ruinous masses, and the deep glacial grooves that flute the sides
of the mountain, show that it has been considerably lowered and wasted
by ice; how much we have no sure means of knowing. Just below the
extreme summit hot sulphurous gases and vapor issue from irregular
fissures, mixed with spray derived from melting snow, the last feeble
expression of the mighty force that built the mountain. Not in one great
convulsion was Shasta given birth. The crags of the summit and the
sections exposed by the glaciers down the sides display enough of its
internal framework to prove that comparatively long periods of
quiescence intervened between many distinct eruptions, during which the
cooling lavas ceased to flow, and became permanent additions to the bulk
of the growing mountain. With alternate haste and deliberation eruption
succeeded eruption till the old volcano surpassed even its present
sublime height.


Standing on the icy top of this, the grandest of all the fire-mountains
of the Sierra, we can hardly fail to look forward to its next eruption.
Gardens, vineyards, homes have been planted confidingly on the flanks of
volcanoes which, after remaining steadfast for ages, have suddenly
blazed into violent action, and poured forth overwhelming floods of
fire. It is known that more than a thousand years of cool calm have
intervened between violent eruptions. Like gigantic geysers spouting
molten rock instead of water, volcanoes work and rest, and we have no
sure means of knowing whether they are dead when still, or only

Along the western base of the range a telling series of sedimentary
rocks containing the early history of the Sierra are now being studied.
But leaving for the present these first chapters, we see that only a
very short geological time ago, just before the coming on of that
winter of winters called the glacial period, a vast deluge of molten
rocks poured from many a chasm and crater on the flanks and summit of
the range, filling lake basins and river channels, and obliterating
nearly every existing feature on the northern portion. At length these
all-destroying floods ceased to flow. But while the great volcanic cones
built up along the axis still burned and smoked, the whole Sierra passed
under the domain of ice and snow. Then over the bald, featureless,
fire-blackened mountains, glaciers began to crawl, covering them from
the summits to the sea with a mantle of ice; and then with infinite
deliberation the work went on of sculpturing the range anew. These
mighty agents of erosion, halting never through unnumbered centuries,
crushed and ground the flinty lavas and granites beneath their crystal
folds, wasting and building until in the fullness of time the Sierra was
born again, brought to light nearly as we behold it today, with glaciers
and snow-crushed pines at the top of the range, wheat-fields and
orange-groves at the foot of it.

This change from icy darkness and death to life and beauty was slow, as
we count time, and is still going on, north and south, over all the
world wherever glaciers exist, whether in the form of distinct rivers,
as in Switzerland, Norway, the mountains of Asia, and the Pacific Coast;
or in continuous mantling folds, as in portions of Alaska, Greenland,
Franz-Joseph-Land, Nova Zembla, Spitzbergen, and the lands about the
South Pole. But in no country, as far as I know, may these majestic
changes be studied to better advantage than in the plains and mountains
of California.

Toward the close of the glacial period, when the snow-clouds became less
fertile and the melting waste of sunshine became greater, the lower
folds of the ice-sheet in California, discharging fleets of icebergs
into the sea, began to shallow and recede from the lowlands, and then
move slowly up the flanks of the Sierra in compliance with the changes
of climate. The great white mantle on the mountains broke up into a
series of glaciers more or less distinct and river-like, with many
tributaries, and these again were melted and divided into still smaller
glaciers, until now only a few of the smallest residual topmost branches
of the grand system exist on the cool slopes of the summit peaks.

Plants and animals, biding their time, closely followed the retiring
ice, bestowing quick and joyous animation on the new-born landscapes.
Pine-trees marched up the sun-warmed moraines in long, hopeful files,
taking the ground and establishing themselves as soon as it was ready
for them; brown-spiked sedges fringed the shores of the newborn lakes;
young rivers roared in the abandoned channels of the glaciers; flowers
bloomed around the feet of the great burnished domes,--while with quick
fertility mellow beds of soil, settling and warming, offered food to
multitudes of Nature's waiting children, great and small, animals as
well as plants; mice, squirrels, marmots, deer, bears, elephants, etc.
The ground burst into bloom with magical rapidity, and the young forests
into bird-song: life in every form warming and sweetening and growing
richer as the years passed away over the mighty Sierra so lately
suggestive of death and consummate desolation only.

It is hard without long and loving study to realize the magnitude of the
work done on these mountains during the last glacial period by glaciers,
which are only streams of closely compacted snow-crystals. Careful study
of the phenomena presented goes to show that the pre-glacial condition
of the range was comparatively simple: one vast wave of stone in which a
thousand mountains, domes, cañons, ridges, etc., lay concealed. And in
the development of these Nature chose for a tool not the earthquake or
lightning to rend and split asunder, not the stormy torrent or eroding
rain, but the tender snow-flowers noiselessly falling through unnumbered
centuries, the offspring of the sun and sea. Laboring harmoniously in
united strength they crushed and ground and wore away the rocks in their
march, making vast beds of soil, and at the same time developed and
fashioned the landscapes into the delightful variety of hill and dale
and lordly mountain that mortals call beauty. Perhaps more than a mile
in average depth has the range been thus degraded during the last
glacial period,--a quantity of mechanical work almost inconceivably
great. And our admiration must be excited again and again as we toil and
study and learn that this vast job of rockwork, so far-reaching in its
influences, was done by agents so fragile and small as are these flowers
of the mountain clouds. Strong only by force of numbers, they carried
away entire mountains, particle by particle, block by block, and cast
them into the sea; sculptured, fashioned, modeled all the range, and
developed its predestined beauty. All these new Sierra landscapes were
evidently predestined, for the physical structure of the rocks on which
the features of the scenery depend was acquired while they lay at least
a mile deep below the pre-glacial surface. And it was while these
features were taking form in the depths of the range, the particles of
the rocks marching to their appointed places in the dark with reference
to the coming beauty, that the particles of icy vapor in the sky
marching to the same music assembled to bring them to the light. Then,
after their grand task was done, these bands of snow-flowers, these
mighty glaciers, were melted and removed as if of no more importance
than dew destined to last but an hour. Few, however, of Nature's agents
have left monuments so noble and enduring as they. The great granite
domes a mile high, the cañons as deep, the noble peaks, the Yosemite
valleys, these, and indeed nearly all other features of the Sierra
scenery, are glacier monuments.

Contemplating the works of these flowers of the sky, one may easily
fancy them endowed with life: messengers sent down to work in the
mountain mines on errands of divine love. Silently flying through the
darkened air, swirling, glinting, to their appointed places, they seem
to have taken counsel together, saying, "Come, we are feeble; let us
help one another. We are many, and together we will be strong. Marching
in close, deep ranks, let us roll away the stones from these mountain
sepulchers, and set the landscapes free. Let us uncover these clustering
domes. Here let us carve a lake basin; there, a Yosemite Valley; here, a
channel for a river with fluted steps and brows for the plunge of
songful cataracts. Yonder let us spread broad sheets of soil, that man
and beast may be fed; and here pile trains of boulders for pines and
giant Sequoias. Here make ground for a meadow; there, for a garden and
grove, making it smooth and fine for small daisies and violets and beds
of heathy bryanthus, spicing it well with crystals, garnet feldspar, and
zircon." Thus and so on it has oftentimes seemed to me sang and planned
and labored the hearty snow-flower crusaders; and nothing that I can
write can possibly exaggerate the grandeur and beauty of their work.
Like morning mist they have vanished in sunshine, all save the few small
companies that still linger on the coolest mountainsides, and, as
residual glaciers, are still busily at work completing the last of the
lake basins, the last beds of soil, and the sculpture of some of the
highest peaks.

John Muir

avatar Re: A Geologist's Winter Walk
April 11, 2009 07:38PM
>When I reached Yosemite, all the rocks seemed talkative, and more telling and lovable than ever. They are dear friends, and seemed to have warm blood gushing through their granite flesh; and I love them with a love intensified by long and close companionship.<

I place my bet that John Muir was immune from loneliness. How could he with "friends" such as these..

>The moon is looking down into the canyon, and how marvelously the
great rocks kindle to her light! Every dome, and brow, and
swelling boss touched by her white rays, glows as if lighted with

Priceless. Just the best. I love night in Yosemite almost as much as day (the unseen avalanches pose more than a momentary thrill) I have tried for years to take moon shots to no avail....maybe preferable kept as a memory.

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