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With John o' the Birds and John o' the Mountains

By Clara Barrus

The Century Magazine, volume 80, number 4
(New York: The Century Company, August 1910)


John Burroughs
From a photograph, copyright, by J. Edward B. Greene.
Half-tone plate engraved by H. Davidson

John Burroughs
John Muir
From a photograph, copyright, by J. Edward B. Greene.
Half-tone plate engraved by H. Davidson

John Muir

Let me tell the reader at the onset that John o' Birds is the name Mr. Gilder, years ago, in one of his poems, gave to John Burroughs. For a like reason, we may call John Muir John o' Mountains, as he has felt the call of the mountains as his friend has felt the call of the birds, and has spent many years of his life roaming in pathless places in the high Sierra, the radiant peaks of which, he says, "are moe than half-way to heaven."

I have often heard Mr. Burroughs speak of himself as a reluctant traveler. "I am almost as local as a turtle," he is wont to say, "and like to poke about in a narrow field." When, last winter, one of his friends suggested to him a trip to California, he hesitated, and made excuses.

"Why should I, at my age, go about alone, just to see things?" he said, "I can see the constellations every night from my own door-step."

But the friend who had planned the journey for him was not to be easily thwarted. When Mr. Burroughs found that this friend had arranged for John Muir to meet him in Arizona and go with him to the petrified forests and to the Grand Cañon of the Colorado, he began to feel the westward pull as he had not felt it before. When he finally learned that two of his friends for many years stood ready to accompany him, his conquest was completed. I esteem it great good fortune that I happened to be one of the friends. Mr. Muir I had never met, but I had read his books, and had had many lively accounts of him from Mr. Burroughs himself.

We reached the little Arizona town of Adamana at night. Mr. Muir was there as the train stopped near the inn, and there the two friends met each other for the first time since, ten years before, they had gone to Alaska in the Harriman expedition. It was good to see them meet, both a little past seventy, both earnest students and lovers of nature. Unlike in face and figure, they are equally unlike in temperament and character, in their ways of studying nature, and in their manner of reporting her.

Mr. Muir looks what he says he recognized himself to be in early manhood, "hopelessly and forever a mountaineer"; yet in certain moods one catches glimpses of much besides, his many-sided nature revealing in turn the student, the rover, the inventor, the practical man, and the mystic. Mr. Burroughs looks like the investigator and philosopher that he is one who loves to know, and to know the reason why; who can see the highest poetry in things as they are, and whose way of studying nature has been leisurely and tranquil; who has gone quietly to her and serenely waited, confident that she would yield herself unreservedly to him; and who has, therefore, written about nature with that inevitable lucidity and charm that come only from an intimate and sympathetic companionship with her.

Mr. Muir's forte is in monologue. He is one of the most engaging talkers imaginable, discursive, grave, and gay, relating thrilling adventures, side-splitting anecdotes, choice quotations, apt characterizations, scientific data, enthusiastic descriptions, sarcastic comments, scornful denunciations, inimitable mimicry. All this and much more one will get, if one but lets him talk on uninterruptedly as he listeth.

Mr. Burroughs, on the contrary, is not a ready talker, He gives of his best in his book, while Mr. Muir's admirable writing approaches more to the conventional, and has much less the flavor of the man than his talk. Mr. Burroughs always establishes intimate relations with his reader, Mr. Muir with his listener. Mr. Burroughs is fonder of an interchange of ideas than is Mr. Muir; is not the least inclined to banter or to get the better of one; is so averse to witnessing discomfiture that even when forced into an argument, he is loth to push it to the bitter end. Yet when he does engage in an argument, he drives things home with very telling strokes, especially when writing on debatable points.

Mr. Muir takes great pleasure in taking down or cutting under almost any remark you chance to make, though it is always from a fun-loving motive, never in a spirit of unkindness. I once heard him say, "There is nothing I hate as those three things -- dirt,--physical and moral dirt, -- confusion and cruelty, especially cruelty." And one look into his kindly face would convince you that compassion and benevolence are in the very warp and woof of his character.

Concerning his liking for talk, one evening I heard him say, as he half apologized for having monopolized the conversation, "Johnny, I like the feel of words in my mouth better than bread," and those of us who knew his opinion of bread realized the force of the remark.

One is drawn to him, above all else, for some rare quality he has acquired in the mountain solitudes that gives him a pathetic seriousness and a certain wistfulness and furtiveness, like the wild things in nature. With all this, one has the feeling that his love of nature is a consecration; that, much as he has loved home and friends and humankind, he has loved nature more, and has obeyed some imperative need of his own in yielding to the wanderlust, which, with him, has not occupied a few years of his youth, but has been the master passion of his life. A line from Whitman aptly characterizes him:

Wandering, yearning, curious, with restless explorations.

In contrast to Mr. Muir, the wanderer, Mr. Burroughs is the home-lover, who is under the spell of the near and the familiar, and likes to wander about in a small circle. Wherever he goes, it is to be noted that the home things continue to draw him. Looking off into the Grand Cañon to where Bright Angel Creek joins the main stream, he was reminded of Montgomery Hollow, where he fished for trout as a boy; in the Yosemite Valley, amid all the unwonted beauty and grandeur, it was the robin's song that seemed to add the touch that won his heart to the valley itself; on the Mojave Desert the alfalfa patches were all that made that arid region tolerable to him; and journeying up great Haleakala, on the island of Maui, the skylarks that soared and sang about us until we passed above the clouds were what most endeared the great volcanic mountain to him.

After our arrival at Adamana, Arizona, we rode nine miles out across the rolling desert til we came to one of the petrified forests,--the North Sigillaria Forest,--discovered about three years ago by Mr. Muir as he and his daughter Helen were riding over the sandy plateau. He told us how he could not sleep that night for excitement, for he was able to judge from the petrified remains of the trees to what order, far back in geologic times, these giants had belonged; and trying to restore the living forest in his imagination was one of the most exciting of his experiences. Most of the trees in this forest are what the botanists know as Sigillarias, but I remember that occasionally Mr. Muir would indicate a great, black, silicified trunk with his foot and say: "That 's a Lepidodendron, Johnny. See the leaf-marks there?"

How I should like a record of the talk between the two men that first day together! Mr. Muir supplied most of it. It would need to be reinforced by his slight Scotch accent, the varying expressions of his mobile face, and by his sly nudges when he made his good-natured jibes at "Johnny," as he loved to call Mr. Burroughs. I started to make notes as we sat on the sand and ate our luncheon from a petrified stump; but as Mr. Muir noticed it and exclaimed: "By Jove! 'A chiel 's amang us takin' notes.' I 'll have to mind how I 'discoorse,'" I desisted, fearing it would annoy him or make him less spontaneous.

The Descent of John Muir and John Burroughs into the Grand Cañon.  
 The descent was made on March 1, 1909, by the Bright Angel Trail.  
 John Burroughs is the third in the party, the guide leading, and John Muir is the last.
From a photograph by Kolb Bros.

The Descent of John Muir and John Burroughs into the Grand Cañon.
The descent was made on March 1, 1909, by the Bright Angel Trail.
John Burroughs is the third in the party, the guide leading,
and John Muir is the last.

Ah, the charm of that first day as we drove across the Arizona desert, listening to Mr. Muir's tales of all the lands under the sun, yet absorbing the strange scene about us,--the trackless course over the rolling sands, jack-rabbits bounding over the sage-brush, bands of wild cattle in the distance,--till suddenly, on our left, there appeared a glory of rose color shining in the morning sun! "Squirrel Mountain," Mr. Muir told us, but to me it was a vision of

The light that never was, on sea or land.

Then the strange, ineffable beauty burst upon us as, from the brink of the high plateau, we obtained our first view of this weird petrified forest region. Far in the distance stretched the desert sands, and on the horizon rose curiously carved and sculptured mesas of the most wonderful pink and lilac and purple hues. Immediately below us lay the dry river-bed, and a little beyond it rose buttes of mauve and terra-cotta from which projected trunks of the petrified trees.

Those days in the petrified forests we ate our luncheons on the trunks of trees uprooted millions of years ago, Mr. Muir talking while we ate. When others congregated to eat, the Scot seemed specially impelled to talk. With a fine disregard for food, he sat and crumbled dry bread in his fingers, occasionally putting a bit in his mouth, talking while the eating was going on.

On this and other occasions we saw how insensible to fatigue Mr. Muir was when he could command companionship, and how independent of sleep. "Sleep!" he would exclaim. "Why, you can sleep when you get back home, or, at least, in the grave. That 's what I consoled myself with when I was too cold and hungry to sleep, when camping out, with the night and stars."

Mr. Burroughs, on the contrary, is specially dependent upon sleep and food in order to do his best work. On our arrival at the Grand Cañon in the morning, after a night of travel and fasting and little sleep, all the rest of us felt the need of refreshing ourselves, and taking breakfast before we would even take a peep at the great rose-purple abyss out there a few steps from the hotel. The teasing Scot jeered at us for thinking of eating when there was that sublime spectacle to be seen. Although he deigned to breakfast with us, he preceded us to the rim of the cañon, where he stood in silent contemplation as we approached. Turning, he waved toward the great abyss and said: "There! Empty your heads of all vanity, and look!" And we did look, over-whelmed by what must be the most truly sublime spectacle this earth has to offer - a veritable terrestrial Book of Revelation, as Mr. Burroughs said.

The next day we descended over four thousand feet in the cañon, to within a thousand feet of the river, several hours later making the ascent to the rim, the only part of the excursion that met Mr. Muir's approval. "Climb, climb, if you would see the glories," was always the burden of his cry.

One day, feeling acutely aware of our incalculable privilege, I said, "To think of having the Grand Cañon, and John Burroughs and John Muir thrown in!"

"I wish Muir was thrown in, sometimes," retorted Mr. Burroughs, with a twinkle in his eye, "when he gets between me and the cañon.

Our six weeks' stay in Pasadena, where we rented a furnished cottage and played at housekeeping, was specially welcome to Mr. Burroughs, who could not feel at home in great hotels, however genial and unobtrusive the hospitality. To formal dinners, to receptions, to clubs where men congregate and smoke, to schools or colleges or before organizations or bodies where he is expected to "show off" or be lionized in a formal way, he goes as a lamb to the slaughter, and, as a rule, he openeth not his mouth. He is not, on such occasions, a ready speaker, and it is positively painful to him to be asked to address assemblages of any kind.

Mr. Muir does not like to speak in public any more than his comrade. Neither of them likes the noise and confusion of cities or the artificial side of social life.

Once when some one asked Mr. Muir if he did not feel lonely in those years when he spent much time in the high Sierra away from everybody, he replied: "There is no loneliness except in the city. A mountain range, or even a continent, cannot separate friends." It seems strange, yet it is true, that this wanderer, who can find his way on a trackless desert, in deep forests, and on the mountains, even when the trails are covered and the snow is waist-deep, is almost as helpless as a child when he finds himself alone in a city of only a few thousand inhabitants. Even in Pasadena he had to be piloted about, and in Los Angeles he was hopelessly at sea. One day, however, he came over from the latter city to our cottage in Pasadena, and, on being asked how he had got there, said triumphantly, "By Jove, I came all the way from Hooker's alone to-day, and only made one mistake!" A stranger piloted him to our door, but in this, as in other chance acquaintances, he had evidently given freely of his best, as he and the man were deep in the discussion of the botany of some foreign country.

John Muir and John Burroughs
From a photograph by George R. King

John Muir and John Burroughs

In his recital of any adventure, Mr. Muir always gives much more than the adventure itself; if he starts to tell a bear-story, you get that after a while, but you get by the way a vivid description of gentian meadows and glacier lakes; or, if, as his readers know, he tells the story of Stickeen, his sturdy dog comrade over Alaskan glaciers, we get the story of the glaciers themselves, as well as of Stickeen, and we get, too, all unconsciously, much of the story of Stickeen's master.

Mr. Muir likes a laugh at his own expense. He told us of a school-teacher in the vicinity of his own home instructing her pupils about Alaska and the glaciers, and on telling them that the great Muir Glacier was named after their neighbor, who discovered it, one little boy piped up with, "What, not that old man that drives around in a buggy!"

I may as well offset this with one of our Hawaiian experiences. When we were in Honolulu, we heard that one of the teachers there, thinking to make a special impression on her pupils, told them the main facts about Mr. Burroughs's writings, their scope and influence, what he stood for as a nature-writer, his place in literature, etc. Then she described his appearance, and said: "And this noted man, this great nature-lover, is right here - a guest in our city!" A little lad broke in with: "I know; I saw him yesterday. He was in our yard stealing mangoes."

One memorable day, with the artist William Keith and others, we walked in the noble primeval forest of sequoias just out of San Francisco, recently given to the United States as a national park. President Roosevelt, on the self-denying suggestion of the generous donor, Mr. William Kent, fittingly named it "Muir Woods."

At the outset of those five Yosemite days he disparaged our exclamations of delight at the wondrous beauty of the wild-flowers in San Joaquin Valley by telling us that we had come just forty years too late; that when he first came there it was "one golden and purple carpet of compositae," but that in the years that have followed the glorious blooms have been "plowed and pastured out of existence." He told us how, forty years ago, when living in Wisconsin, he started out for a walk, not planning very particularly where he would go, and how he did not return till eighteen years afterward. When, in his journeyings, he reached California, he immediately asked the way to Yosemite, and went in with no knowledge of its topography, and with the snows so deep that the blazed trails were all covered. Yet for three weeks he had a glorious time, and "lived on three dollars the entire time in the valley."

This was the first of many excursions in the high Sierra. For many years he summered and wintered there. In those early days he had a saw-mill in the valley, which he had build himself. We wondered how he, a tree-lover, could engage in such work; but we learned later that he never committed the sacrilege of felling the trees, and "sawed only those which the Lord had felled."

On leaving his cabin in the valley, he established a home on a ranch about forty miles from San Francisco. As soon as the vineyard was prepared for the summer, he would flee to the mountains, and be gone for three months, living mainly on bread and tea, and pursuing his studies. Then he would return to harvest his grapes.

Several times I heard him say, in effect, "Few have loved beauty as I have enough to forego so much to attain it." He told us, as he has written in "The Mountains of California," of the music of the storm in the trees, of how he used to climb to the tops of their swaying branches to feel the very pulsing of the heart of the storm; of his ride upon an avalanche; of his deep joy when he came first upon the giant sequoias; and how he sat in his creaking cabin making notes while an earthquake was in progress in the valley; how he rushed out while the air was full of the tremendous roar from the fall of Earthquake Rock and of fumes like burning sulphur from their friction. He actually climbed upon one of the new-born taluses as, grinding and chafing, it settled into place. Such reckless enthusiasm gave us a glimpse of the man's ardor. He disclaims recklessness, however; says a mountaineer learns caution, and practises it instinctively; and that he has always observed caution in dangerous places.

"How does this compare with Esopus Valley, Johnny?" called out the proud Scotchman as he saw all of us dumb with wonder and admiration at the grandeur and beauty revealed along the way. And then he told us that when Emerson was in the valley he had said that Yosemite was the only thing he saw in the West that "came up to the brag."

In speaking of certain desecrations in the valley, in spite of its having been made a natural reservation, Mr. Muir said indignantly: "But what can you expect? The Lord Himself could n't keep the devil out of the first reservation that ever was made."

As we came into the deep-walled inclosure of Yosemite Valley, and looked up in amazement at its stupendous, sheer granite walls, three thousand and more feet high, and saw also the tender, winsome beauty of it all, we were awed into reverent silence, mighty El Capitan guarding the entrance, granite domes and spires roundabout, foaming waterfalls, stately trees, and the river, which we had seen tumbling over boulders as we came hither, now lazily coursing along through pastoral meadows.

"How is that for a piece of masonry, Johnny?" asked Mr. Muir, as we came to El Capitan. The next day, when we were journeying toward Half Dome and Mr. Muir was telling how probably the glacier had worn off at least half a mile from its top, and then had sawed right down through the valley, he turned and asked, "John, how is that for a piece of work?" Mr. Burroughs answered him, "Oh, Lord, that 's too much, Muir." He said that it stuck in his crop - this theory that ice alone accounts for this great valley cut out of the solid rocks. On our way up Nevada Fall, I heard Mr. Muir telling him of the glacial scourings that he had seen on the top of Half Dome, and of their traces all along as glaciers had sawed down through this valley; and Mr. Burroughs had protested: "But, Muir, the million years before the ice age -- what was going on here then?"

"Oh, God knows," said Mr. Muir; but he added that he had found slate fragments on the top of Half Dome, which he adduced as further proof of his theory.

When we stood as near as we could get to the thundering Yosemite Fall, and looked up at that body of water, which in a series of three great leaps has a fall of twenty-six hundred feet, Mr. Burroughs exclaimed in reverent wonder, "Great God Almighty!" and seemed more deeply moved than I had noticed him to be at any of the wonders we had yet seen.

As we neared Register Rock, a granite boulder weighing, they estimated, between twenty and thirty thousand tons, Mr. Muir said, "Think of the roar when that came down, and the smell like sulphur, and the red glow!"

The second day in Yosemite, one of us was lamenting that we could not see the giant sequoias, climb to Glacier Point, go to the tops of various falls, and do many other things. Mr. Muir retorted, "I puttered around here for ten years, and you expect to see and do everything in four days!" And again: "You come in here, and then excuse yourselves to God, who has kept these glories waiting for you by saying, 'I 've got to go back to Slabsides," or, 'We want to go to Honolulu.'"

I shall never forget the sight of him that May day as we rushed excitedly down the trail to the foot of Nevada Fall, and saw the hilarious, tumbling waters throwing up glistening fountains of spray. With great bounds he leaped down the trail, and, on reaching the foot, threw up his arms and shouted exultantly, "Ha!" There was something almost demoniacal in his glee: his spirit and the wild free spirit of the madly rushing waterfall seemed to be saluting each other. One had a glimpse of the wild, ecstatic moods he must have experienced when, alone, he came upon those glorious scenes in the years that are gone.

As we were resting on the rocks after our climb to Nevada Fall, he showed me a tiny fern (pellaea densa) -- "one of the bonniest of our father's bairns" -- and said, "Will you keep it, if I pick it for you?" receiving assurance before he would remove it from its shelter in the rock. Just to hear him name certain flowers is a privilege; his face grows tender, and his voice is a caress as he speaks of his darlings - Calypso, Bryanthus, and Cassiope, and declares that "Heaven itself would not be heaven without them."

I see that I have kept Mr. Burroughs somewhat in the background. But so it was on our Western tour; when the Scot was there, he occupied the center of the stage, and we were content to have it so, for Mr. Muir was on his native heath.

The night of our return from Nevada Fall we found shelter in the hospitable Camp Ahwahnee, where, as happy dwellers in tents, we tasted the charm of the ideal way of living in Yosemite.

Sitting about the huge camp-fire, under the noble spruces and firs, we saw the moon rise over Sentinel Rock, lending the crowning touch to this ideal scene. After the other campers had gone to rest we lingered, loath to bring to its close a day so replete with sublimity and beauty. Mr. Burroughs summed it up as he said good night: "A day with the gods of eld - a holy day in the temple of the gods."

The next day as we reluctantly left the valley, turning back for one more glance, I surprised a wistful parting look on Mr. Muir's countenance, and, as he faced forward, he confessed: "I hate to think any time I 'm leaving the valley that it is for the last time." Later, as one tried to voice the gratitude we felt at the inestimable privilege of seeing all this wondrous beauty under his guidance, he said: "You were pretty good people when you went into the valley, but you are a good deal better now. Life is richer."


Source: The Century Magazine, Volume 80, Number 4
(New York: The Century Company, August 1910)

[Converted to HTML, from a copy in the University of California, San Diego Library, by Daniel E. Anderson, 2000.]



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