“Come let’s to the fields, the meads, and the mountains,
The forests invite us, the streams and the fountains.”
Carlyle, Translations, vol. iii.
The joyful, songful streams of the Sierra are among the most famous and interesting in the world, and draw the admiring traveler on and on through their wonderful cañons, year after year, unwearied. After long wanderings with them, tracing them to their fountains, learning their history and the forms they take in their wild works and ways throughout the different seasons of the year, we may then view them together in one magnificent show, outspread over all the range like embroidery, their silvery branches interlacing on a thousand mountains, singing their way home to the sea: the small rills, with hard roads to travel, dropping from ledge to ledge, pool to pool, like chains of sweet-toned bells, slipping gently over beds of pebbles and sand, resting in lakes, shining, spangling, shimmering, lapping the shores with whispering ripples, and shaking over-leaning bushes and grass; the larger streams and rivers in the cañons displaying noble purity and beauty with ungovernable energy, rushing down smooth inclines in wide foamy sheets fold over fold, springing up here and there in magnificent whirls, scattering crisp clashing spray for the sunbeams to iris, bursting with hoarse reverberating roar through rugged gorges and boulder dams, booming in falls, gliding, glancing with cool soothing murmuring, through long forested reaches richly embowered,—filling the grand cañons with glorious song, and giving life to all the landscape.
The present rivers of the Sierra are still young, and have made but little mark as yet on the grand cañons prepared for them by the ancient glaciers. Only a very short geological time ago they all lay buried beneath the glaciers they drained, singing in low smothered or silvery ringing tones in crystal channels, while the summer weather melted the ice and snow of the surface or gave showers. At first only in warm weather was any part of these buried rivers displayed in the light of day; for as soon as frost prevailed the surface rills vanished, though the streams beneath the ice and in the body of it flowed on all the year.
When, toward the close of the glacial period, the ice mantle began to shrink and recede from the lowlands, the lower portions of the rivers were developed, issuing from cavelike openings on the melting margin and growing longer as the ice withdrew; while for many a century the tributaries and upper portions of the trunks remained covered. In the fullness of time these also were set free in the sunshine, to take their places in the newborn landscapes; each tributary with its smaller branches being gradually developed like the main trunks, as the climatic changes went on. At first all of them were muddy with glacial detritus, and they became clear only after the glaciers they drained had receded beyond lake basins in which the sediments were dropped.
This early history is clearly explained by the present rivers of southeastern Alaska. Of those draining glaciers that discharge into arms of the sea, only the rills on the surface of the ice, and upboiling, eddying, turbid currents in the tide water in front of the terminal ice wall, are visible. Where glaciers, in the first stage of decadence, have receded from the shore, short sections of the trunks of the rivers that are to take their places may be seen rushing out from caverns and tunnels in the melting front,—rough, roaring, detritus-laden torrents, foaming and tumbling over outspread terminal moraines to the sea, perhaps without a single bush or flower to brighten their raw, shifting banks. Again, in some of the warmer cañons and valleys from which the trunk glaciers have been melted, the main trunks of the rivers are well developed, and their banks planted with fine forests, while their upper branches, lying high on the snowy mountains, are still buried beneath shrinking residual glaciers; illustrating every state of development, from icy darkness to light, and from muddiness to crystal clearness.
Now that the hard grinding sculpture work of the glacial period is done, the whole bright band of Sierra rivers run clear all the year, except when the snow is melting fast in the warm spring weather, and during extraordinary winter floods and the heavy thunderstorms of summer called cloud-bursts. Even then they are not muddy above the foothill mining region, unless the moraines have been loosened and the vegetation destroyed by sheep; for the rocks of the upper basins are clean, and the most able streams find but little to carry save the spoils of the forests,—trees, branches, flakes of bark, cones, leaves, pollen dust, etc.,—with scales of mica, sand grains, and boulders, which are rolled along the bottom of the steep parts of the main channels. Short sections of a few of the highest tributaries heading in glaciers are of course turbid with finely ground rock mud, but this is dropped in the first lakes they enter.
On the northern part of the range, mantled with porous fissured volcanic rocks, the fountain waters sink and flow below the surface for considerable distances, groping their way in the dark like the draining streams of glaciers, and at last bursting forth in big generous springs, filtered and cool and exquisitely clear. Some of the largest look like lakes, their waters welling straight up from the bottom of deep rock basins in quiet massive volume giving rise to young rivers. Others issue from horizontal clefts in sheer bluffs, with loud tumultuous roaring that may be heard half a mile or more. Magnificent examples of these great northern spring fountains, twenty or thirty feet deep and ten to nearly a hundred yards wide, abound on the main branches of the Feather, Pitt, McCloud, and Fall rivers.
The springs of the Yosemite Park, and the high Sierra in general, though many times more numerous, are comparatively small, oozing from moraines and snowbanks in thin, flat irregular currents which remain on the surface or near it, the rocks of the south half of the range being mostly flawless impervious granite; and since granite is but slightly soluble, the streams are particularly pure. Nevertheless, though they are all clear, and in the upper and main central forest regions delightfully lively and cool, they vary somewhat in color and taste as well as temperature, on account of differences, however slight, in exposure, and in the rocks and vegetation with which they come in contact. Some are more exposed than others to winds and sunshine in their falls and thin plumelike cascades; the amount of dashing, mixing, and airing the waters of each receive varies considerably; and there is always more or less variety in the kind and quantity of the vegetation they flow through, and in the time they lie in shady or sunny lakes and bogs.
The water of one of the branches of the north fork of Owens River, near the southeastern boundary of the Park, at an elevation of ninety-five hundred feet above the sea, is the best I ever found. It is not only delightfully cool and bright, but brisk, sparkling, exhilarating, and so positively delicious to the taste that a party of friends I led to it twenty-five years ago still praise it, and refer to it as “that wonderful champagne water;” though, comparatively, the finest wine is a coarse and vulgar drink. The party camped about a week in a pine grove on the edge of a little round sedgy meadow through which the stream ran bank full, and drank its icy water on frosty mornings, before breakfast, and at night about as eagerly as in the heat of the day; lying down and taking massy draughts direct from the brimming flood, lest the touch of a cup might disturb its celestial flavor. On one of my excursions I took pains to trace this stream to its head springs. It is mostly derived from snow that lies in heavy drifts and avalanche heaps on or near the axis of the range. It flows first in flat sheets over coarse sand or shingle derived from a granite ridge and the metamorphic slates of Red Mountain. Then, gathering its many small branches, it runs through beds of moraine material, and a series of lakelets and meadows and frosty juicy bogs bordered with heathworts and linked together by short bouldery reaches. Below these, growing strong with tribute drawn from many a snowy fountain on either side, the glad stream goes dashing and swirling through clumps of the white-barked pine, and tangled willow and alder thickets enriched by the fragrant herbaceous vegetation usually found about them. And just above the level camp meadow it is chafed and churned and beaten white over and over again in crossing a talus of big earthquake boulders, giving it a very thorough airing. But to what the peculiar indefinable excellence of this water is due I don’t know; for other streams in adjacent cañons are aired in about the same way, and draw traces of minerals and plant essences from similar sources. The best mineral water yet discovered in the Park flows from the Tuolumne soda springs, on the north side of the Big Meadow. Mountaineers like it and ascribe every healing virtue to it, but in no way can any of these waters be compared with the Owens River champagne.
It is a curious fact that the waters of some of the Sierra lakes and streams are invisible, or nearly so, under certain weather conditions. This is noticed by mountaineers, hunters, and prospectors, wide-awake, sharp-eyed observers, little likely to be fooled by fine whims. One of these mountain men, whom I had nursed while a broken leg was mending, always gratefully reported the wonders he found. One, returning from a trip on the head waters of the Tuolumne, he came running eagerly, crying: “Muir, I’ve found the queerest lake in the mountains! It’s high up where nothing grows; and when it isn’t shiny you can’t see it, and you walk right into it as if there was nothing there. The first you know of that lake you are in it, and get tripped up by the water, and hear the splash.” The waters of Illilouette Creek are nearly invisible in the autumn; so that, in following the channel, jumping from boulder to boulder after a shower, you will frequently drag your feet in the apparently surfaceless pools.
Excepting a few low, warm slopes, fountain snow usually covers all the Yosemite Park from November or December to May, most of it until June or July, while on the coolest parts of the north slopes of the mountains, at a height of eleven to thirteen thousand feet, it is perpetual. It seldom lies at a greater depth than two or three feet on the lower margin, ten feet over the middle forested region, or fifteen to twenty feet in the shadowy cañons and cirques among the peaks of the Summit, except where it is drifted, or piled in avalanche heaps at the foot of long converging slopes to form perennial fountains.
The first crop of snow crystals that whitens the mountains and refreshes the streams usually falls in September or October, in the midst of charming Indian summer weather, often while the goldenrods and gentians are in their prime; but these Indian summer snows, like some of the late ones that bury the June gardens, vanish in a day or two, and garden work goes on with accelerated speed. The grand winter storms that load the mountains with enduring fountain snow seldom set in before the end of November. The fertile clouds, descending, glide about and hover in brooding silence, as if thoughtfully examining the forests and streams with reference to the work before them; then small flakes or single crystals appear, glinting and swirling in zigzags and spirals; and soon the thronging feathery masses fill the sky and make darkness like night, hurrying wandering mountaineers to their winter quarters. The first fall is usually about two to four feet deep. Then, with intervals of bright weather, not very cold, storm succeeds storm, heaping snow on snow, until from thirty to fifty or sixty feet has fallen; but on account of heavy settling and compacting, and the waste from evaporation and melting, the depth in the middle region, as stated above, rarely exceeds ten feet. Evaporation never wholly ceases, even in the coldest weather, and the sunshine between storms melts the surface more or less. Waste from melting also goes on at the bottom from summer heat stored in the rocks, as is shown by the rise of the streams after the first general storm, and their steady sustained flow all winter.
The greatest storms, however, are usually followed by a deep, peculiar silence, especially profound and solemn in the forests; and the noble trees stand hushed and motionless, as if under a spell, until the morning sunbeams begin to sift through their laden spires. Then the snow, shifting and falling from the top branches, strikes the lower ones in succession, and dislodges bossy masses all the way down. Thus each tree is enveloped in a hollow conical avalanche of fairy fineness, silvery white, irised on the outside; while the relieved branches spring up and wave with startling effect in the general stillness, as if moving of their own volition. These beautiful tree avalanches, hundreds of which may be seen falling at once on fine mornings after storms, pile their snow in raised rings around corresponding hollows beneath the trees, making the forest mantle somewhat irregular, but without greatly influencing its duration and the flow of the streams.
The large storm avalanches are most abundant on the Summit peaks of the range. They descend the broad, steep slopes, as well as narrow gorges and couloirs, with grand roaring and booming, and glide in graceful curves out on the glaciers they so bountifully feed.
Down in the main cañons of the middle region broad masses are launched over the brows of cliffs three or four thousand feet high, which, worn to dust by friction in falling so far through the air, oftentimes hang for a minute or two in front of the tremendous precipices like gauzy half-transparent veils, gloriously beautiful when the sun is shining through them. Most of the cañon avalanches, however, flow in regular channels, like the cascades of tributary streams. When the snow first gives way on the upper slopes of their basins a dull muffled rush and rumble is heard, which, increasing with heavy deliberation, seems to draw rapidly nearer with appalling intensity of tone. Presently the wild floods comes in sight, bounding out over bosses and sheer places, leaping from bench to bench, spreading and narrowing and throwing off clouds of whirling diamond dust like a majestic foamy cataract. Compared with cascades and falls, avalanches are short-lived, and the sharp clashing sounds so common in dashing water are usually wanting; but in their deep thunder tones and pearly purple-tinged whiteness, and in dress, gait, gestures, and general behavior, they are much alike.
Besides these common storm avalanches there are two other kinds, the annual and the century, which still further enrich the scenery, though their influence on fountains is comparatively small. Annual avalanches are composed of heavy compacted snow which has been subjected to frequent alternations of frost and thaw. They are developed on cañon and mountain sides, the greater number of them, at elevations of from nine to ten thousand feet, where the slopes are so inclined that the dry snows of winter accumulate and hold fast until the spring thaws sap their foundations and make them slippery. Then away in grand style go the ponderous icy masses, adorned with crystalline spray without any cloudy snow dust; some of the largest descending more than a mile with even, sustained energy and directness like thunderbolts. The grand century avalanches, that mow wide swaths through the upper forests, occur on shady mountain sides about ten to twelve thousand feet high, where, under ordinary conditions, the snow accumulated from winter to winter lies at rest for many years, allowing trees fifty to a hundred feet high to grow undisturbed on the slopes below them. On their way through the forests they usually make a clean sweep, stripping off the soil as well as the trees, clearing paths two or three hundred yards wide from the timber line to the glacier meadows, and piling the uprooted trees, head downward, in windrows along the sides like lateral moraines. Sears and broken branches on the standing trees bordering the gaps record the side depth of the overwhelming flood; and when we come to count the annual wood rings of the uprooted trees, we learn that some of these colossal avalanches occur only once in about a century, or even at still wider intervals.
Few mountaineers go far enough, during the snowy months, to see many avalanches, and fewer still know the thrilling exhilaration of riding on them. In all my wild mountaineering I have enjoyed only one avalanche ride; and the start was so sudden, and the end came so soon, I thought but little of the danger that goes with this sort of travel, though one thinks fast at such times. One calm, bright morning in Yosemite, after a hearty storm had given three or four feet of fresh snow to the mountains, being eager to see as many avalanches as possible, and gain wide views of the peaks and forests arrayed in their new robes, before the sunshine had time to change or rearrange them, I set out early to climb by a side cañon to the top of a commanding ridge a little over three thousand feet above the valley. On account of the looseness of the snow that blocked the cañon I knew the climb would be trying, and estimated it might require three or four hours. But it proved far more difficult than I had foreseen. Most of the way I sank waist-deep, in some places almost out of sight; and after spending the day to within half an hour of sundown in this loose, baffling snow work, I was still several hundred feet below the summit. Then my hopes were reduced to getting up in time for the sunset, and a quick, sparkling home-going beneath the stars. But I was not to get top views of any sort that day; for deep trampling near the cañon head; where the snow was strained, started an avalanche, and I was swished back down to the foot of the cañon as if by enchantment. The plodding, wallowing ascent of about a mile had taken all day, the undoing descent perhaps a minute.
When the snow suddenly gave way, I instinctively threw myself on my back and spread my arms, to try to keep from sinking. Fortunately, though the grade of the cañon was steep, it was not interrupted by step levels or precipices big enough to cause outbounding or free plunging. On no part of the rush was I buried. I was only moderately imbedded on the surface or a little below it, and covered with a hissing back-streaming veil of dusty snow particles; and as the whole mass beneath or about me joined in the flight I felt no friction, though tossed here and there, and lurched from side to side. And when the torrent swedged and came to rest, I found myself on the top of the crumpled pile, without a single bruise or scar. Hawthorne says that stream has spiritualized travel, notwithstanding the smoke, friction, smells, and clatter of boat and rail riding. This flight in a milky way of snow flowers was the most spiritual of all my travels; and, after many years, the mere thought of it is still an exhilaration.
In the spring, after all the avalanches are down and the snow is melting fast, it is glorious to hear the streams sing out on the mountains. Every fountain swelling, countless rills hurry together to the rivers at the call of the sun,—beginning to run and sing soon after sunrise, increasing until toward sundown, then gradually failing through the cold frosty hours of the night. Thus the volume of the upper rivers, even in flood time, is nearly doubled during the day, rising and falling as regularly as the tides of the sea. At the height of flood, in the warmest June weather, they seem fairly to shout for joy, and clash their upleaping waters together like clapping of hands; racing down the cañons with white manes flying in glorious exuberance of strength, compelling huge sleeping boulders to wake up and join in the dance and song to swell their chorus.
Then the plants also are in flood; the hidden sap singing into leaf and flower, responding as faithfully to the call of the sun as the streams from the snow, gathering along the outspread roots like rills in their channels on the mountains, rushing up the stems of herb and tree, swirling in their myriad cells like streams in potholes, spreading along the branches and breaking into foamy bloom, while fragrance, like a finer music, rises and flows with the winds.
About the same may be said of the spring gladness of blood when the red streams surge and sing in accord with the swelling plants and rivers, inclining animals and everybody to travel in hurrahing crowds like floods, while exhilarating melody in color and fragrance, form and motion, flows to the heart through all the quickening senses.
In early summer the streams are in bright prime, running crystal clear, deep and full, but not overflowing their banks,—about as deep through the night as the day, the variation so marked in spring being now too slight to be noticed. Nearly all the weather is cloudless sunshine, and everything is at its brightest,—lake, river, garden, and forest, with all their warm, throbbing life. Most of the plants are in full leaf and flower; the blessed ousels have built their mossy huts, and are now singing their sweetest song on spray-sprinkled ledges beside the waterfalls.
In tranquil, mellow autumn, when the year’s work is about done, when the fruits are ripe, birds and seeds out of their nests, and all the landscape is glowing like a benevolent countenance at rest, then the streams are at their lowest ebb,—their wild rejoicing soothed to thoughtful calm. All the smaller tributaries whose branches do not reach back to the perennial fountains of the Summit peaks shrink to whispering, tinkling currents. The snow of their basins gone, they are now fed only by small moraine springs, whose waters are mostly evaporated in passing over warm pavements, and in feeling their way from pool to pool through the midst of boulders and sand. Even the main streams are so low they may be easily forded, and their grand falls and cascades, now gentle and approachable, have waned to sheets and webs of embroidery, falling fold over fold in new and ever changing beauty.
Two of the most songful of the rivers, the Tuolumne and Merced, water nearly all the Park, spreading their branches far and wide, like broad-headed oaks; and the highest branches of each draw their sources from one and the same foundation on Mount Lyell, at an elevation of about thirteen thousand feet above the sea. The crest of the mountain, against which the head of the glacier rests, is worn to a thin blade full of joints, through which a part of the glacial water flows southward, giving rise to the highest trickling affluents of the Merced; while the main drainage, flowing northward, gives rise to those of the Tuolumne. After diverging for a distance of ten or twelve miles, these twin rivers flow in a general westerly direction, descending rapidly for the first thirty miles, and rushing in glorious apron cascades and falls from one Yosemite valley to another. Below the Yosemites they descend in gray rapids and swirling, swaying reaches,
Illustration: TUOLUMNE CASCADE, YOSEMITEthrough the chaparral-clad cañons of the foothills and across the golden California plain, to their confluence with the San Joaquin, where, after all their long wanderings, they are only about ten miles apart.
The main cañons are from fifty to seventy miles long, and from two to four thousand feet deep, carved in the solid flank of the range. Though rough in some places and hard to travel, they are the most delightful of roads, leading through the grandest scenery, full of life and motion, and offering most telling lessons in earth sculpture. The walls, far from being unbroken, featureless cliffs, seem like ranges of separate mountains, so deep and varied is their sculpture; rising in lordly domes, towers, round-browed outstanding headlands, and clustering spires, with dark, shadowy side cañons between. But, however wonderful in height and mass and fineness of finish, no anomalous curiosities are presented, no “freaks of nature.” All stand related in delicate rhythm, a grand glacial rock song.
Among the interesting and influential of the secondary features of cañon scenery are the great avalanche taluses, that lean against the walls at intervals of a mile or two. In the middle Yosemite region they are usually from three to five hundred feet high, and are made up of huge, angular, well-preserved, unshifting boulders, overgrown with gray lichens, trees shrubs, and delicate flowering plants. Some of the largest of the boulders are forty or fifty feet cube, weighing from five to ten thousand tons; and where the cleavage joints of the granite are exceptionally wide apart a few blocks may be found nearly a hundred feet in diameter. These wonderful boulder piles are distributed throughout all the cañons of the range, completely choking them in some of the narrower portions, and no mountaineer will be likely to forget the savage roughness of the roads they make. Even the swift, overbearing rivers, accustomed to sweep everything out of their way, are in some places bridled and held in check by them. Foaming, roaring, in glorious majesty of flood, rushing off long rumbling trains of ponderous blocks without apparent effort, they are not able to move the largest, which, withstanding all assaults for centuries, are left at rest in the channels like islands, with gardens on their tops, fringed with foam below, with flowers above.
On some points concerning the origin of these taluses I was long in doubt. Plainly enough they were derived from the cliffs above them, the size of each talus being approximately measured by a scar on the wall, the rough angular surface of which contrasts with the rounded, glaciated, unfractured parts. I saw also that, instead of being slowly accumulated material, weathered off, boulder by boulder, in the ordinary way, almost every talus had been formed suddenly, in a single avalanche, and had not been increased in size during the last three or four centuries; for trees three or four hundred years old were growing on them, some standing at the top close to the wall, without a bruise or broken branch, showing that scarcely a single boulder had fallen among them since they were planted. Furthermore, all the taluses throughout the range seemed, by the trees and lichens growing on them, to be of the same age. All the phenomena pointed straight to a grand ancient earthquake. But I left the question open for years, and went on from cañon to con, observing again and again; measuring the heights of taluses throughout the range on both flanks, and the variations in the angles of their surface slopes; studying the way their boulders were assorted and related and brought to rest, and the cleavage joints of the cliffs from whence they were derived, cautious about making up my mind. Only after I had seen one made did all doubt as to their formation vanish.
In Yosemite Valley, one morning about two o’clock, I was aroused by an earthquake; and though I had never before enjoyed a storm of this sort, the strange, wild thrilling motion and rumbling could not be mistaken, and I ran out of my cabin, near the Sentinel Rock, both glad and frightened, shouting, “A noble earthquake!” feeling sure I was going to learn something. The shocks were so violent and varied, and succeeded one another so closely, one had to balance in walking as if on the deck of a ship among the waves, and it seemed impossible the high cliffs should escape being shattered. In particular, I feared that the sheer-fronted Sentinel Rock, which rises to a height of three thousand feet, would be shaken down, and I took shelter back of a big pine, hoping I might be protected from outbounding boulders, should any come so far. I was now convinced that an earthquake had been the maker of the taluses, and positive proof soon came. It was a calm moonlight night, and no sound was heard for the first minute or two save a low muffled underground rumbling and a slight rustling of the agitated trees, as if, in wrestling with the mountains, Nature were holding her breath. Then, suddenly, out of the strange silence and strange motion there came a tremendous roar. The Eagle Rock, a short distance up the valley, had given way, and I saw it falling in thousands of the great boulders I had been studying so long, pouring to the valley floor in a free curve luminous from friction, making a terribly sublime and beautiful spectacle,—an arc of the fifteen hundred feet span, as true in form and as steady as a rainbow, in the midst of the stupendous roaring rock storm. The sound was inconceivably deep and broad and earnest, as if the whole earth, like a living creature, had at last found a voice and were calling to her sister planets. It seemed to me that if all the thunder I ever heard were condensed into one roar it would not equal this rock roar at the birth of a mountain talus. Think, then, of the roar that arose to heaven when all the thousands of ancient cañon taluses throughout the length and breadth of the range were simultaneously given birth.
The main storm was soon over, and, eager to see the new-born talus, I ran up the valley in the moonlight and climbed it before the huge blocks, after their wild fiery flight, had come to complete rest. They were slowly settling into their places, chafing, grating against one another, groaning, and whispering; but no motion was visible except in a stream of small fragments pattering down the face of the cliff at the head of the talus. A cloud of dust particles, the smallest of the boulders, floated out across the whole breadth of the valley and formed a ceiling that lasted until after sunrise; and the air was loaded with the odor of crushed Douglas spruces, from a grove that had been mowed down and mashed like weeds.
Sauntering about to see what other changes had been made, I found the Indians in the middle of the valley, terribly frightened, of course, fearing the angry spirits of the rocks were trying to kill them, The few whites wintering in the valley were assembled in front of the old Hutchings Hotel, comparing notes and meditating flight to steadier ground, seemingly as sorely frightened as the Indians. It is always interesting to see people in dead earnest, from whatever cause, and earthquakes make everybody earnest. Shortly after sunrise, a low blunt muffled rumbling, like distant thunder, was followed by another series of shocks, which, though not nearly so severe as the first, made the cliffs and domes tremble like jelly, and the big pines and oaks thrill and swish and wave their branches with startling effect. Then the groups of talkers were suddenly hushed, and the solemnity on their faces was sublime. One in particular of these winter neighbors, a rather thoughtful, speculative man, with whom I had often conversed, was a firm believer in the cataclysmic origin of the valley; and I now jokingly remarked that his wild tumble-down-and-engulfment hypothesis might soon be proved, since these underground rumblings and shakings might be the forerunners of another Yosemite-making cataclysm, which would perhaps double the depth of the valley by swallowing the floor, leaving the ends of the wagon roads and trails three or four thousand feet in the air. Just then came the second series of shocks, and it was fine to see how awfully silent and solemn he became. His belief in the existence of a mysterious abyss, into which the suspended floor of the valley and all the domes and battlements of the walls might at any moment go roaring down, mightily troubled him. To cheer and tease him into another view of the case, I said: “Come, cheer up; smile a little and clap your hands, now that kind Mother Earth is trotting us on her knee to amuse us and make us good.” But the well-meant joke seemed irreverent and utterly failed, as if only prayerful terror could rightly belong to the wild beauty-making business. Even after all the heavier shocks were over, I could do nothing to reassure him. On the contrary, he handed me the keys of his little store, and, with a companion of like mind, fled to the lowlands. In about a month he returned; but a sharp shock occurred that very day, which sent him flying again.
The rocks trembled more or less every day for over two months, and I kept a bucket of water on my table to learn what I could of the movements. The blunt thunder-tones in the depths of the mountains were usually followed by sudden jarring, horizontal thrusts from the northward, often succeeded by twisting, upjolting movements. Judging by its effects, this Yosemite, or Inyo earthquake, as it is sometimes called, was gentle as compared with the one that gave rise to the grand talus system of the range and did so much for the cañon scenery. Nature, usually so deliberate in her operations, then created, as we have seen, a new of features, simply by giving the mountains a shake,—changing not only the high peaks and cliffs, but the streams. As soon as these rock avalanches fell every stream began to sing new songs; for in many places thousands of boulders were hurled into their channels, roughening and half damming them, compelling the waters to surge and roar in rapids where before they were gliding smoothly. Some of the streams were completely dammed, driftwood, leaves, etc., filling the interstices between the boulders, thus giving rise to lakes and level reaches; and these, again, after being gradually filled in, to smooth meadows, through which the streams now silently meander; while at the same time some of the taluses took the places of old meadows and groves. Thus rough places were made smooth, and smooth places rough. But on the whole, by what at first sight seemed pure confusion and ruin, the landscapes were enriched; for gradually every talus, however big the boulders composing it, was covered with groves and gardens, and made a finely proportioned and ornamental base for the sheer cliffs. In this beauty work, every boulder is prepared and measured and put in its place more thoughtfully than are the stones of temples. If for a moment you are inclined to regard these taluses as mere draggled, chaotic dumps, climb to the top of one of them, tie your mountain shoes firmly over the instep, and with braced nerves run down without any haggling, puttering hesitation, boldly jumping from boulder to boulder with even speed. You will then find your feet playing a tune, and quickly discover the music and poetry of rock piles,—a fine lesson; and all nature’s wildness tells the same story. Storms of every sort, torrents, earthquakes, cataclysms, “convulsions of nature,” etc., however mysterious and lawless at first sight they may seem, are only harmonious notes in the song of creation, varied expressions of God’s love.
[Back to chapter 7]
[Forward to chapter 9]
Our National Parks