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François Matthes and the Marks of Time: Yosemite and the High Sierra by François E. Matthes (1962)


François Matthes, said Robert Gordon Sproul, President of the University of California, “interpreted the beauty of the Western American Landscape to the mind as well as eyes of all who love the mountains.”

Dr. Sproul spoke for many: those who could testify that Matthes had made them more than just spectators of land forms, by giving them a fresh and deeper insight into the meaning of what they saw, so that, under his tutelage, intelligent understanding was added to their initial admiration and wonder.

As an interpreter of the western scene, Matthes was without peer among contemporary American geologists. Even when writing technical papers he kept in mind the interested laymen who shared his interests. Recently a Sierra Club leader wrote me, with reference to a friend and himself (neither of them geologists), “We have both carried Professional Paper 160 in our knapsacks when every ounce of weight was precious.” This tribute would have meant much to Matthes. His concern with the general public netted him little in terms of professional standing, but this did not deter him from giving unstintingly of his time and effort to such “extracurricular” activities. The latter were important, he knew, because they enriched the lives of others. This was sufficient.

Matthes’ eagerness to impart to others what he himself perceived in landscapes led him, very early in his career, to contribute geological essays to mountaineering and other journals. Some of his finest essays were written about the National Parks—Mount Rainier, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Crater Lake— and were printed on the reverse side of the topographic maps of these areas. This use assured them exceptionally wide distribution, and it put them in the hands of those most likely to read them with profit and appreciation. The literary charm of these essays, coupled with their high level of scientific reliability, made them—and continues to make them—uniquely effective in the interpretative program of the National Park Service. Most of Matthes’ essays, however, were written for the Bulletin of the Sierra Club, and were addressed primarily to his fellow members in that group.

The present volume brings together fifteen representative essays written between 1911 and 1938. This twenty-seven year period spans only a part of the time which Matthes devoted to Sierra studies, as that time extended, with only a few interruptions, from 1905 until his death in 1948. The choice of essays was made with a view to achieving unity in the collection (all of the essays relate to the Sierra Nevada, and all have general appeal as regards subject matter and treatment) while also illustrating the diversity to be found in the descriptive and expository writings of this author. Five of the essays are here published for the first time.

It is possible that when Matthes began writing his Sierra essays he contemplated a series, dealing mainly with the Yosemite, which eventually might be assembled in book form. At any rate, between 1910 and 1914 he wrote five essays for the Sierra Club Bulletin all entitled “Little Studies in the Yosemite Valley,” each with an appropriate subtitle and numbered, consecutively, I to V. His next Sierra essay did not appear until 1920, and it was entitled simply “Cockscomb Crest.” The six year gap in the series resulted, at least in part, from World War I, but abandonment of the general title and plan for numbering may be attributed to other circumstances. Most of the essays written after 1920 were hardly “Little Studies,” as were the earlier ones, nor did they relate only to the Yosemite region. (Publication of Professional Paper 160, Geologic History of Yosemite Valley, in 1930 provided adequately for Matthes’ Yosemite studies.) Rather, they dealt with many and widely scattered geomorphic features in the Sierra Nevada, and they reflected the vastly broadened sweep of his interests, which by this time encompassed some of the most fundamental problems of the Sierra as a whole.

Some repetition will be found in this book—necessarily so—overlapping being inescapable since each essay was written to be a unit complete in itself. However, the amount of repetition is relatively small, and if the essays are read individually, as will generally be the case, it should not prove disturbing. The essays have been arranged chronologically for the most part, a few have been shortened slightly, and editorial annotations (signed “Ed.” to distinguish them from the author’s own footnotes) have been kept to a minimum. In some instances, recent photographs have been substituted for the original photographs which now seem archaic—for photography and the techniques of reproducing photographic illustrations have come a long way since the early volumes of the Sierra Club Bulletin were printed. Features mentioned in these essays are shown on the topographic maps of Yosemite Valley and Yosemite National Park, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, and the Mount Lyell, Mount Morrison, Mount Goddard, and Kaiser quadrangles. Elevations used in the book come from editions of these U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps (scale 1:125,000) which preceded the more accurate, photogrammetrically based maps now being issued (scale 1:62,500). There were minor interim adjustments of elevations in the course of the study period represented in the Matthes essays; no attempt has been made to correct the essays accordingly. Readers wishing to go farther afield with Matthes, through the medium of other essays and more technical papers, may consult the Selected Bibliography referred to on page 39 for specific suggestions. In particular they may wish to seek acquaintance with the monograph already alluded to, Professional Paper 160, and two posthumous books, The Incomparable Valley: a geologic interpretation of the Yosemite, and Sequoia National Park: a geological album, published in 1950 by the University of California Press. Mention may be made of another posthumous work, Professional Paper 329, Reconnaissance of the Geomorphology and Glacial Geology of the San Joaquin Basin, Sierra Nevada, California, published in 1960.

This volume, like its predecessors, The Incomparable Valley and Sequoia National Park, embodies the vision and planning of August Fruge and David Brower of the Sierra Club. Encouraged by these friends, I undertook to prepare the book in the summer of 1953, as a joint venture with my oldest son, John, then 22, who gladly did the essential preliminary copying of the essays, checked the typescript against the original texts, and critically reviewed my first draft of the biographical account. With John’s death that fall, the work ceased. Later I returned to the project and this time, with the help of my other sons, Roald and Redwood, completed it. Carol Broline and Lois Wittbecker also aided me, with the retyping of parts of the final manuscript and Mona Goranson assisted with proofreading.

Ansel Adams, with typical generosity, allowed the Sierra Club to explore his files of Sierra photographs and donated all that would be particularly appropriate to the book. Special thanks are also due George Mauger, of the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks Company, for photographs in the Tokopah Valley chapter. All of the François Matthes photographs are used here by permission of the U.S. Geological Survey. Other illustrations were originally published in early Sierra Club Bulletins or have been taken from the club’s photographic collection. Robert V. Golden, of the club’s staff, aided in their selection and identification. Mark Robertson, the book’s designer, contributed above and beyond the call of duty in his concern about content as well as form. Professor William Putnam, at the University of California, Los Angeles, encouraged the final effort to bring the book into print, and Bruce M. Kilgore, as Managing Editor for the Sierra Club, staunchly carried it through its final stages at a time when conservation crises were making extraordinary demands.

Readers will share the gratitude I feel to those who helped, in these various ways, to give this selection of “Matthes gem-like essays” a place among the admirable books bearing the distinguished imprint of the Sierra Club.

F. F.

Rock Island, Illinois
November 30, 1961

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management