Yosemite > Library > Yosemite Trails > 1. A General Survey of the Yosemite Valley >
Next: Rock-Features • Contents • Previous: Illustrations
“Mother of marvels, mysterious and tender Nature, why do we not live more in thee?”
The Yosemite Valley is not, properly speaking, a valley. That word conveys the image of a gentle depression with sloping sides, which the patient fingers of Time have smoothed and rounded into quiet, compliant lines. The Yosemite is not in the least of that character. It is a great cleft, or chasm, which one might imagine to have been the work of some exasperated Titan who, standing with feet planted fifty miles apart lengthwise of the Sierra Nevada summit and facing westward, raised his hands palm to palm over his head, and struck upon the earth with such fury as to cleave a gap nearly a mile in depth; then separating his hands he thrust back the sides of the fracture, leaving between them a narrow, precipice-walled plain.
The Act of Congress of 1864 by which the tract was granted to the State of California defined it as “the ‘cleft’ or ‘gorge’ in the granite peak of the Sierra Nevada mountain”; and it would have been better if in the early descriptions of the spot it had been referred to as the Yosemite Gorge, which would have more properly described it and also would have been more stimulating to the imagination than the tamer designation which is now, no doubt, securely fixed upon it.
In what may be called its aesthetic sense, however, the word “valley” answers well enough; for the level enclosed between the walls is a sheltered tract of the richest verdure, mixed of forest and meadow, watered by a wandering and placid river, starred with flowers, and the paradise of birds and friendly, harmless creatures.
It is greatly in this contrast between the grandeur and severity of the encircling walls and the sylvan charm of the protected enclosure that the unique character of Yosemite consists. It is as if Nature had here put herself to show a parable of contrasted excellences, setting the stern heights and solemn silences of the cliffs against the soft demeanor and gentle voices of trees and flowers, streams and heavenly meadows; and to marry them together she pours the great waterfalls, in whose cloudy graces majesty and loveliness are so mingled that one cannot tell which of the two delights him the more.
The valley —I shall use the term which custom has fixed—may be said to begin, on the west, where the Bridal Veil Fall pours down over the southern cliff, and to end at the conspicuous pillar or buttress of the northern wall that is called the Washington Column; at which point the caņons of the main Merced River and the Tenaya Creek converge. Within these limits the valley is about six miles long and has an average width of about half a mile. Its general direction is east and west, crosswise to the axis of the mountain chain which it cleaves. The “floor” is remarkably level, and lies at an elevation of almost exactly four thousand feet.
At the point where, in following upwards the course cit the Merced River, this altitude is reached, the cation opens, while at the same time the walls, which along the whole course of the river since leaving the plain of the San Joaquin have been first hilly and then mountainous, become high and precipitous cliffs, destitute of trees or brush except as regards the talus at their feet, the huge blocks and cubes of which give lot ding to a chaparral of flowering brush interspersed with oaks, maples, and platoons of indomitable pines. The level plain lies between, a long glade through which the quiet river makes its way, winding leisurely from side to side, more like some thoughtful lowland stream than what it is, —the nervous, quick-breathing child of glacier and mountain-chasm. A growth of willows and poplars marks its course, contrasting their summer green or winter lavender against the sombre richness of the evergreens.
Every observant person will be struck at first sight by what he will later find to be the salient geological teal me of the whole Yosemite region,—the curved, rind-like forms of the layers of rock of which these mountains are built. A rough image of this can be made by placing the open hands one upon the other. the palms downward and considerably concaved; or, if the reader will excuse the violence of the illustration, a granite onion of mountain size would well represent the formation. This peculiar structure is clearly seen in the domes of the upper plateau, while on the faces of the cliffs it is exhibited in arch-shaped recesses where masses of the lower strata have become detached and fallen away.
The most noticeable instance of this occurs on the northern face of the wall at a point just to the west of the Washington Column. Immense fractures and displacements of rock have there produced natural arches that are very remarkable in their vast span and deep recession. Another example, and one which I always found very impressive to the imagination, occurs in the southward-facing shoulder of the great rock that commands the entrance to the valley and is called El Capitan. When the afternoon light is reflected from that enormous polished curve, it is easy to imagine it to be the domed roof of some stupendous hall, whose door, like that of another Hall of Eblis, is that terrible half-mile cliff that faces the west.
When the fracture and subsidence which formed the valley took place, the two principal streams that flow into the Merced River at this point, Yosemite Creek from the north and Bridal Veil Creek from the south, became at a stroke the waterfalls which are known by those names. The Yosemite Creek, originating on Mount Hoffman and flowing southwesterly over a high granite plateau, makes in three steps a fall of twenty-five hundred feet, which places it, on the score of height, at the head of the considerable water tails of the world. The Bridal Veil Creek runs northwesterly and leaps over a sheer cliff of six hundred and twenty feet at the lowest point of the valley well, where the upper course of the stream has followed a deep trough which may have been formed when the general subsidence took place. The other two great waterfalls, Vernal, of three hundred and twenty feet, and Nevada, of six hundred feet, occur near together on the course of the Merced River itself, in the narrow caņon which leads up to another and smaller valley known as the Little Yosemite.
These four waterfalls, with their various actions and charms of manner, appear to form the preeminent attraction of the valley to the great majority of people who come to view its scenery. That this should be so is not surprising, for a waterfall is like a hot-house flower of Nature, a kind of rarity for exhibition; and there is good reason for enthusiasm in the wonderful and changing beauty of the falls. But a great many people rare captured by mere novelty, and I venture In think that this trifling feature is a main factor in the judgment which places second, or disregards altogether, the unequalled majesty of the cliffs.
The human palate is, in fact, strangely dead to the majestic ingredient. How often, when I have been passing along a city street while some gorgeous solemnity of cloud-scenery has been offered to the gaze, have I marvelled to see that hardly one out of hundreds or thousands of passers-by has bestowed even a casual glance upon it, but that their attention has been given entirely to the store-windows, the pavement, or the hats. There is something rather awful about this insensibility: what can it mean? No doubt in the case of many of these oblivious ones it means that they are engrossed with an invisible companion, him whom the ceremonious Spaniards name Don Dinero. But I am afraid it means also that most people are bored by anything great, unless it is also novel. As for the sky, that is an every-day affair, and they do not account anything that is to be seen there to be worth attention. These are the people who are given to stage-drivers for a prey, and who find happiness in tracing those zoological resemblances which that valuable body of men, whose fertility of fancy would scarcely be inferred from a demeanor often of singular stolidity, have discovered to exist in the cliff-scenery of the great valley.
The luxuriant forest that occupies the greater part of the valley floor, broken here and there by meadows, also is worth some share of the admiration which too many people reserve exclusively for the waterfalls. Companies of pines from one hundred to two hundred feet high, straight, smooth, and taper as ever tree grew, ought not to be commonplace to most of us. (Certainly the birds and squirrels do not find them so, or they themselves could not remain so interesting and individual, but would tend, like us, to become dull and uniform. I have known a parrot who has
[click to enlarge]
THE YOSEMITE FALLS
If it were only for the perfection of their types, these valley-sheltered trees, which have grown to the completest stature of their kind in this sunny nursery, are full of value and interest. The yellow pine (Pinus ponderosa) especially shows here its finest traits, spiring up for the skies with a fervor of tree-desire that is indescribably stimulating, and dressed complete with branches that sweep in loveliness to the very ground. In the shadow of the south wall grows the Douglas spruce (Pseudotsuga taxifolia), a Nestor among trees, great, strong, and wise in counsel, plated with dark and rugged bark, and waving plumes of sombre splendor in the cool wind that draws along the face of the cliffs. With him stands here and there the white silver fir (Abies concolor), tall, straight, and of admirable symmetry. If the Douglas is Nestor the white fir is Paris.
The cedar (Libocedrus decurrens) also reaches here the perfect dignity of its race, and mixing everywhere freely among the pines brightens their dark richness with pyramids of ferny olive. The old trees of this species, fulfilling the characteristics of their type, are nearly always dead in their tops though in full career of life. They rise solemnly amid the forest like many-branched candlesticks, and enforce by their shape the vague idea of a religious association which is suggested by their common name of “incense cedar,” and by the many allusions in the Book of Psalms to their brethren of the Lebanon forests. It is pleasant to know that the great Israelitish king was a man of trees as well as of war, and loved the merry greenwood heartily.
Though the special glory of this forest belt lies in the conifers, the Yosemite is splendid in oaks also. There are many magnificent specimens of both evergreen and deciduous oak in the valley, where the balanced beauty of their shapes is heightened by contrast with the straight-pillared pines and cedars. Far up Indian Caņon, on the north side of the valley, there is growing an oak that I believe would out-oak every oak that grows on California mountain, foothill, or plain, if it could be brought to the proof. Very few people see it, for the caņon is narrow, gloomy, and difficult to climb. I viewed with amazement the great wall-like trunk of this solitary monster. A kind of octopus in shape, his long grey arms go searching up and down the caņon as though he were feeling for a way out, and might presently lift his splayed foot and drag his Cyclopean deformity down to the plain, to affright the puny sons of men.
In luxuriance of flowers the valley in spring and summer is notable even beyond the measure of the plain and foothill regions of the state. Chief in brilliance, and in novelty as regards most people, of the spring flowers is the snow-plant (Sarcodes sanguinea), which begins to appear on the floor of the valley soon after the snow has melted, and astonishes the early visitor with its unexpected blood-red apparition. An unlluwer-like flower, it is attractive only for its glaring violence of color. Every fibre is red, the red of Burgundy wine. It is a Mephistopheles among plants, a kind of diabolical asparagus.
While the snow-plant still blazes on the brown floor, the forest begins to be lighted up along every watercourse with the six-inch blossoms of the dogwood, gleaming like candle-flames down the dark aisles of the pines, or flickering in the breeze that follows the flowing river. Then the violets enter, white and blue, and the meadows stand thick with purple cyclamens. Next comes on the procession of lilies, that will last all through the summer; and with them arrives the mountain-lilac (Ceanothus) in clouds of azure and white that emulate the very sky. Then the azaleas, whose sheathed leaf-buds, like spurts of green flame, have waited impatiently for the flower-buds to join them, break into leaf and blossom together, and every land-path and water-path is bordered with their tropical beauty and rich, exotic perfume. Wild roses mingle with them, delightful beyond all the rest with their rustic associations and wholesome daintiness of air: a very epitome of country delights in very breath of their frank, simple fragrance.
As midsummer comes on, Nature takes up the full burden of her labor of love. Grasses grow knee-high, and, ripening their humble fruitage, roll in russet tides over the meadows and surge against the forest wall. Brakes stand thickly in every opening, their cathedral richness of tracery matching the cedar-sprays that fleck them with playful shadows. Oak-leaves gleam with a dull, healthy polish. The birds that have been rehearsing all the spring now give their full concert, and the squirrel rejoices volubly in the multitude of cones, which he can hardly suffer to ripen before he must begin to harvest them. Hummingbirds dash and whir about like little thunderbolts of flaming energy, and butterflies drowse on drooping tassels of goldenrod.
So, in a riot of godetia, columbine, mimulus, pentstemon, lupine, and a score of others, the summer passes by, and autumn, when it comes, comes in such a rush and tumult of massed and gorgeous color that one never thinks to mourn for summer, dead and gone. Dogwood blooms again, crimson for white; willows and poplars are all of paly gold; the oaks burn rusty-red, as befits their iron strength; only the pines and cedars, of a higher breed than the rest, stand disdaining change and defying times and seasons. Slow lichens, purple, grey, and “melancholy gold” (Ruskin’s fine expression), creep like the tears of Time over cold granite of cliff and earthquake-talus, to find their summer in the yellow autumn sunlight that only reaches them when maple and mountain-lilac have begun to shed their leaves.
Snow rarely falls in the valley before Christmas, although the trails of the upper levels may have been closed two months before, and the passes of the High Sierra are often sealed as early as mid-September. In
[click to enlarge]
THE YOSEMITE VALLEY
At last the weather breaks and the snow falls. In some winters only a few inches of snow may lie on the valley floor; in others, many feet. But it is always the winter of the mountains, vivifying and kindly. The habitants of the valley bring out ski, sleds, and snow-shoes, and the hardy Norse and Saxon strain revives and strikes a blow for freedom. The pines stand as it were with folded arms, resolute and enduring, and rejoice in the Spartan severity. The waterfalls shroud themselves in bewildering phantasmagorias of ice, and act again the glacial age in little. Yosemite builds up a huge white cone five hundred fret in height; a volcano, but of ice instead of fire. Vernal and Nevada array themselves with giant icicles, and thunder through reverberating caverns of blue and green splendor.
Gradually the balance of power reverses. The sun strengthens and the snows recede. The rush of falling water pulsates through the valley, and the river runs strong and dark. Somewhere the great word is spoken; and the old, strange striving begins once more in herb and bush and tree.
Next: Rock-Features • Contents • Previous: Illustrations