April 21, 2018

Dear Friends,

On the 180th Birthday of John Muir (1838-1914), after a year's sabbatical, I am again prompted to send along some of Muir’s glorious writings celebrating the Earth’s wild places.

Doris and I have recently returned to the Pacific Northwest, this time Portland, Oregon, to be specific, so I thought sharing some excerpts from Muir’s “travelogue” of Oregon’s features might be appropriate.

The selections below are from Chapter 25, The Basin of the Columbia River, written by Muir, in John Muir, ed., Picturesque California: The Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Slope, J. Dewing Publishing Co., New York and San Francisco, 1888-1890 [See also the Editorial Note]. Paragraph headings are my own.


Richard Cellarius
Portland, Oregon


Oregon is a large, rich, compact section of the west side of the continent, containing nearly a hundred thousand square miles of deep, wet evergreen woods, fertile valleys, icy mountains, and high, rolling wind-swept plains, watered by the majestic Columbia River and its countless branches. It is bounded on the north by Washington, on the east by Idaho, on the south by California and Nevada, and on the west by the Pacific Ocean. It is a grand, hearty, wholesome, foodful wilderness and, like Washington, once a part of the Oregon Territory, abounds in bold, far-reaching contrasts as to scenery, climate, soil, and productions. Side by side there is drouth on a grand scale and overflowing moisture; flinty, sharply cut lava beds, gloomy and forbidding, and smooth, flowery lawns; cool bogs, exquisitely plushy and soft, overshadowed by jagged crags barren as icebergs; forests seemingly boundless and plains with no tree in sight; presenting a wide range of conditions, but as a whole favorable to industry. Natural wealth of an available kind abounds nearly everywhere, inviting the farmer, the stock-raiser, the lumberman, the fisherman, the manufacturer, and the miner, as well as the free walker in search of knowledge and wildness. The scenery is mostly of a comfortable, assuring kind, grand and inspiring without too much of that dreadful overpowering sublimity and exuberance which tend to discourage effort and cast people into inaction and superstition. …

The Oregon Coast:

In sailing along the Oregon coast one sees but few more signs of human occupation than did Juan de Fuca three centuries ago. The shore bluffs rise abruptly from the waves, forming a wall apparently unbroken, though many short rivers from the coast range of mountains and two from the interior have made narrow openings on their way to the sea. At the mouths of these rivers good harbors have been discovered for coasting vessels, which are of great importance to the lumbermen, dairymen, and farmers of the coast region. But little or nothing of these appear in general views, only a simple gray wall nearly straight, green along the top, and the forest stretching back into the mountains as far as the eye can reach.

Going ashore, we find few long reaches of sand where one may saunter, or meadows, save the brown and purple meadows of the sea, overgrown with slippery kelp, swashed and swirled in the restless breakers. The abruptness of the shore allows the massive waves that have come from far over the broad Pacific to get close to the bluffs ere they break, and the thundering shock shakes the rocks to their foundations. No calm comes to these shores. Even in the finest weather, when the ships off shore are becalmed and their sails hang loose against the mast, there is always a wreath of foam at the base of these bluffs. The breakers are ever in bloom and crystal brine is ever in the air.

A scramble along the Oregon sea bluffs proves as richly exciting to lovers of wild beauty as heart could wish. Here are three hundred miles of pictures of rock and water in black and white, or gray and white, with more or less of green and yellow, purple and blue. The rocks, glistening in sunshine and foam, are never wholly dry -- many of them marvels of wave-sculpture and most imposing in bulk and bearing, standing boldly forward, monuments of a thousand storms, types of permanence, holding the homes and places of refuge of multitudes of seafaring animals in their keeping, yet ever wasting away. How grand the songs of the waves about them, every wave a fine, hearty storm in itself, taking its rise on the breezy plains of the sea, perhaps thousands of miles away, traveling with majestic, slow-heaving deliberation, reaching the end of its journey, striking its blow, bursting into a mass of white and pink bloom, then falling spent and withered to give place to the next in the endless procession, thus keeping up the glorious show and glorious song through all times and seasons forever!

Terribly impressive as is this cliff and wave scenery when the skies are bright and kindly sunshine makes rainbows in the spray, it is doubly so in dark, stormy nights, when, crouching in some hollow on the top of some jutting headland, we may gaze and listen undisturbed in the heart of it. Perhaps now and then we may dimly see the tops of the highest breakers, looking ghostly in the gloom; but when the water happens to be phosphorescent, as it oftentimes is, then both the sea and the rocks are visible, and the wild, exulting, up-dashing spray burns, every particle of it, and is combined into one glowing mass of white fire; while back in the woods and along the bluffs and crags of the shore the storm wind roars, and the rain-floods, gathering strength and coming from far and near, rush wildly down every gulch to the sea, as if eager to join the waves in their grand, savage harmony; deep calling unto deep in the heart of the great, dark night, making a sight and a song unspeakable sublime and glorious. …

Oregon Rains:

Many a tale, good-natured or otherwise, is told concerning the overflowing abundance of the Oregon rains. Once an English traveler, as the story goes, went to a store to make some purchases and on leaving found that rain was falling; therefore, not liking to get wet, he stepped back to wait till the shower was over. Seeing no signs of clearing, he soon became impatient and inquired of the storekeeper how long he thought the shower would be likely to last. Going to the door and looking wisely into the gray sky and noting the direction of the wind, the latter replied that he thought the shower would probably last about six months, an opinion that of course disgusted the fault-finding Briton with the "blawsted country," though in fact it is but little if at all wetter or cloudier than his own.

No climate seems the best for everybody. Many there be who waste their lives in a vain search for weather with which no fault may be found, keeping themselves and their families in constant motion, like floating seaweeds that never strike root, yielding compliance to every current of news concerning countries yet untried, believing that everywhere, anywhere, the sky is fairer and the grass grows greener than where they happen to be. Before the Oregon and California railroad was built, the overland journey between these States across the Siskiyou Mountains in the old-fashioned emigrant wagon was a long and tedious one. Nevertheless, every season dissatisfied climate-seekers, too wet and too dry, might be seen plodding along through the dust in the old " 49 style," making their way one half of them from California to Oregon, the other half from Oregon to California. The beautiful Sisson meadows at the base of Mount Shasta were a favorite halfway resting place, where the weary cattle were turned out for a few days to gather strength for better climates, and it was curious to hear those perpetual pioneers comparing notes and seeking information around the campfires.

"Where are you from?" some Oregonian would ask.

"The Joaquin."

"It's dry there, ain't it?"

"Well, I should say so. No rain at all in summer and none to speak of in winter, and I'm dried out. I just told my wife I was on the move again, and I'm going to keep moving till I come to a country where it rains once in a while, like it does in every reg'lar white man's country; and that, I guess, will be Oregon, if the news be true."

"Yes, neighbor, you's heading in the right direction for rain," the Oregonian would say. "Keep right on to Yamhill and you'll soon be damp enough. It rains there more than twelve months in the year; at least, no saying but it will. I've just come from there, plumb drownded out, and I told my wife to jump into the wagon and we should start out and see if we couldn't find a dry day somewhere. Last fall the hay was out and the wood was out, and the cabin leaked, and I made up my mind to try California the first chance."

"Well, if you be a horned toad or coyote," the seeker of moisture would reply, "then maybe you can stand it. Just keep right on by the Alabama Settlement to Tulare and you can have my place on Big Dry Creek and welcome. You'll be drowned there mighty seldom. The wagon spokes and tires will rattle and tell you when you come to it."

"All right, partner, we'll swap square, you can have mine in Yamhill and the rain thrown in. Last August a painter sharp came along one day wanting to know the way to Willamette Falls, and I told him: Young man, just wait a little and you'll find falls enough without going to Oregon City after them. The whole dog-gone Noah's flood of a country will be a fall and melt and float away some day.'" And more to the same effect. …

The Cascade Mountains and Mount Hood:

As we approach Oregon from the coast in summer, no hint of snowy mountains can be seen, and it is only after we have sailed into the country by the Columbia, or climbed some one of the commanding summits, that the great white peaks send us greeting and make telling advertisements of themselves and of the country over which they rule. So, also, in coming to Oregon from the east the country by no means impresses one as being surpassingly mountainous, the abode of peaks and glaciers. Descending the spurs of the Rocky Mountains into the basin of the Columbia, we see hot, hundred-mile plains, roughened here the there by hills and ridges that look hazy and blue in the distance, until we have pushed well to the westward. Then one white point after another comes into sight to refresh the eye and the imagination; but they are yet a long way off, and have much to say only to those who know them or others of their kind. How grand they are, though insignificant-looking on the edge of the vast landscape! What noble woods they nourish, and emerald meadows and gardens! What springs and streams and waterfalls sing about them and to what a multitude of happy creatures they give homes and food! …

The principal mountains of the range are Mounts Pitt, Scott, and Thielson, Diamond Peak, the Three Sisters, Mounts Jefferson, Hood, St. Helen's, Adams, Rainier, Aix, and Baker. Of these the seven first named belong to Oregon, the others to Washington. They rise singly at irregular distances from one another along the main axis of the range or near it, with an elevation of from about eight thousand to fourteen thousand four hundred feet above the level of the sea. From few points in the valleys may more than three or four of them be seen, and of the more distant ones of these only the tops appear. Therefore, speaking generally, each of the lowland landscapes of the State contains only one grand snowy mountain.

The heights back of Portland command one of the best general views of the forests and also of the most famous of the great mountains both of Oregon and Washington. Mount Hood is in full view, with the summits of Mounts Jefferson, St. Helen's, Adams, and Rainier in the distance. The city of Portland is at our feet, covering a large area along both banks of the Willamette, and, with its fine streets, schools, churches, mills, shipping, parks, and gardens, makes a telling picture of busy, aspiring civilization in the midst of the green wilderness in which it is planted. The river is displayed to fine advantage in the foreground of our main view, sweeping in beautiful curves around rich, leafy islands, its banks fringed with willows. …

A few miles beyond the Willamette flows the renowned Columbia, and the confluence of these two great rivers is at a point only about ten miles below the city. Beyond the Columbia extends the immense breadth of the forest, one dim, black, monotonous field with only the sky, which one is glad to see is not forested, and the tops of the majestic old volcanoes to give diversity to the view. That sharp, white, broad-based pyramid on the south side of the Columbia, a few degrees to the south of east from where you stand, is the famous Mount Hood. The distance to it in a straight line is about fifty miles. Its upper slopes form the only bare ground, bare as to forests, in the landscape in that direction. It is the pride of Oregonians, and when it is visible is always pointed out to strangers as the glory of the country, the mountain of mountains. It is one of the grand series of extinct volcanoes extending from Lassen's Butte 31 to Mount Baker, a distance of about six hundred miles, which once flamed like gigantic watch-fires along the coast. Some of them have been active in recent times, but no considerable addition to the bulk of Mount Hood has been made for several centuries, as is shown by the amount of glacial denudation it has suffered. Its summit has been ground to a point, which gives it a rather thin, pinched appearance. It has a wide-flowing base, however, and is fairly well proportioned. Though it is eleven thousand feet high, it is too far off to make much show under ordinary conditions in so extensive a landscape. Through a great part of the summer it is invisible on account of smoke poured into the sky from burning woods, logging camps, mills, etc., and in winter for weeks at a time, or even months, it is in the clouds. Only in spring and early summer and in what there may chance to be of bright weather in winter is it or any of its companions at all clear or telling. From the Cascades on the Columbia it may be seen at a distance of twenty miles or thereabouts, or from other points up and down the river, and with the magnificent foreground it is very impressive. It gives the supreme touch of grandeur to all the main Columbia views, rising at every turn, solitary, majestic, awe-inspiring, the ruling spirit of the landscape. But, like mountains everywhere, it varies greatly in impressiveness and apparent height at different times and seasons, not alone from differences as to the dimness or transparency of the air. Clear, or arrayed in clouds, it changes both in size and general expression. Now it looms up to an immense height and seems to draw near in tremendous grandeur and beauty, holding the eyes of every beholder in devout and awful interest. Next year or next day, or even in the same day, you return to the same point of view, perhaps to find that the glory has departed, as if the mountain had died and the poor dull, shrunken mass of rocks and ice had lost all power to charm.

Never shall I forget my first glorious view of Mount Hood one calm evening in July, though I had seen it many times before this. I was then sauntering with a friend across the new Willamette bridge between Portland and East Portland for the sake of the river views, which are here very fine in the tranquil summer weather. The scene on the water was a lively one. Boats of every description were gliding, glinting, drifting about at work or play, and we leaned over the rail from time to time, contemplating the gay throng. Several lines of ferry boats were making regular trips at intervals of a few minutes, and river steamers were coming and going from the wharves, laden with all sorts of merchandise, raising long diverging swells that make all the light pleasure craft bow and nod in hearty salutation as they passed. The crowd was being constantly increased by new arrivals from both shores, sailboats, rowboats, racing shells, rafts, were loaded with gayly dressed people, and here and there some adventurous man or boy might be seen as a merry sailor on a single plank or spar, apparently as deep in enjoyment as were any on the water. It seemed as if all the town were coming to the river, renouncing the cares and toils of the day, determined to take the evening breeze into their pulses, and be cool and tranquil ere going to bed.

Absorbed in the happy scene, given up to dreamy, random observation of what lay immediately before me, I was not conscious of anything occurring on the outer rim of the landscape. Forest, mountain, and sky were forgotten, when my companion suddenly directed my attention to the eastward, shouting, "Oh, look! look!" in so loud and excited a tone of voice that passers-by, saunterers like ourselves, were startled and looked over the bridge as if expecting to see some boat upset. Looking across the forest, over which the mellow light of the sunset was streaming, I soon discovered the source of my friend's excitement. There stood Mount Hood in all the glory of the alpenglow, looming immensely high, beaming with intelligence, and so impressive that one was overawed as if suddenly brought before some superior being newly arrived from the sky.

The atmosphere was somewhat hazy, but the mountain seemed neither near nor far. Its glaciers flashed in the divine light. The rugged, storm-worn ridges between them and the snowfields of the summit, these perhaps might have been traced as far as they were in sight, and the blending zones of color about the base. But so profound was the general impression, partial analysis did not come into play. The whole mountain appeared as one glorious manifestation of divine power, enthusiastic and benevolent, glowing like a countenance with ineffable repose and beauty, before which we could only gaze in devout and lowly admiration.


Editorial Note:

Picturesque California was originally published as thirty parts, then ten, and finally as two volumes (J. Dewing and Company: 1888-1890). It was reprinted as West of the Rocky Mountains (Philadelphia: Running Press, 1976). Chapters 10, 24, and 25 were reprinted in Chapters 3-5, 17-20, and 21-23, respectively, of Muir, Steep Trails. (William Frederic Bade, ed) 1918. The two-volume edition of Picturesque California might be characterized as the first “Exhibit Format” book. The full texts of Muir’s chapters are available at https://vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/writings/picturesque_california/default.aspx.

In the introduction to the 1976 reprint, Richard E. Nicholls wrote,

While he was a prolific writer, this book is unique among his published works. Evidently, Muir hit upon the idea of putting together a series of articles for a national magazine, written by knowledgeable observers, in which the features and life forms of each of the regions west of the Rockies would be described. He convinced an editor to undertake the project, of which Muir became the enthusiastic overseer. He helped select illustrations, recruit writers and edit the contributions. He wrote six essays for the series, describing the Sierras and the Pacific Northwest region. The articles apparently enjoyed some success, for they were next collected and issued as a book, supplemented by over six hundred illustrations.

At the time of its original publication, there cannot have been anything quite like this book available. It was the first large-scale attempt to present to the American people a thorough description of the mountains, forests, deserts, wildlife and people of the western half of the nation.

Page Created by Richard Cellarius, Portland, April 19, 2018.