Water Closet for  April 25, 2014

Back in late winter we fretted from afar about droughts and fires in magnificent, one thousand mile long, California, a state with mountains four times Massachusetts’s highest, and Death Valley several hundred feet below sea level.  Central Valley alone would accommodate several New England states. Seven hundred north-south miles of mighty mountain ranges catch clouds coming in from the vast Pacific.  As they ride from sea level to almost three miles, they cool and drop their loads as snow and rain.  The resulting winter snow pack, most years exceeding many meters, is the state’s supply of summer water. [pullquote]”Muir, a Scotsman, of a race reputed to be dour fellows, was anything but as he waxed eloquently about the beauty that he found himself caught up in.”[/pullquote] For the last couple months, we’ve had naturalist John Muir’s strange and wondrous book about his climb from the valley to the peaks with a large flock of sheep.The sheep rancher fattened his flocks each summer in the high meadows where there was water.  Muir volunteered to go along for room and board.  Now and then he’d help the shepherd and his dogs with the sheep.  Most of the time he rambled off alone with sketchpad and notebook.  His ‘bedrooms’ were wondrous woods or wild flower gardens with “bells” of blue sky, and at night stars, for ceilings.  The music that put him to glorious sleep was from handsome conifer harps played by the wind.  Wind sounds harmonized with those of cold water cascading down numerous streams.  Muir, a Scotsman, of a race reputed to be dour fellows, was anything but as he waxed eloquently about the beauty that he found himself caught up in.  His enthusiastic prose puts any descriptions of false heavens to shame.  He used the word heaven often for those found here on earth.

Here in the high Sierra Nevadas are remnant glaciers and winter snow packs; the water storehouses for Muir’s streams, rivers, lakes and California’s agriculture.  Internet Photo

Here in the high Sierra Nevadas are remnant glaciers and winter snow packs; the water storehouses for Muir’s streams, rivers, lakes and California’s agriculture.
Internet Photo

The summer described was spent in the Sierra Nevada, around and above Yosemite Valley.   Places he returned to later in life again and again.  Millions from around the world have followed.  On and on he goes, page after brilliant page filled with plant, rock, mineral and cloud names.  Repetitious some might say.  We reading in the closet say exhilarating; each scene so enthusiastically described lifts us as it did him.  He never ceases to be amazed at what he discoverers in rounding each glacier polished knoll or lovely grove of soaring pines.  He was a highly educated, brilliant man who loved wild places.  He got others, perhaps most notably President Theodore Roosevelt, to love them too. Here is a sample of Muir’s messages from on high.  (Notes in parentheses ours.)

“None could fail to glory in Nature’s tender care for them (small flowering plants on the edges of high snow packs) in so wild a place.  The little ouzel (small water bird of rapids) is flitting rock to rock along the rapid swirling Canyon Creek, diving for breakfast in the icy pools, and merrily singing as if the huge rugged avalanche-swept gorge was the most delightful of all its mountain homes.  Besides a high fall on the north wall of the canyon, apparently coming direct from the sky, there are many narrow cascades, bright silvery ribbons zigzagging down the red cliffs, tracing the diagonal cleavage joints of the metamorphic slates, now contracted and out of sight, now leaping from ledge to ledge in filmy sheets through which the sunbeams sift.  And on the main Canyon Creek, to which all these are tributary, is a series of small falls, cascades, and rapids extending all the way down to the foot of the canyon, interrupted only by the lakes in which the tossed and beaten waters rest.  One of the finest of the cascades is outspread on the face of the precipice, its waters separating into ribbon-like strips, and woven into diamond like pattern by tracing the cleavage joints of the rock, while tufts of bryanthus, grass, sedge, and saxifrage form beautiful fringes.  Who could imagine beauty so fine in so savage a place?”2

Had Muir been a musician this typical passage of his might have resulted in a watery crescendo of a great symphony.  He, who struggled at writing, often said that words just wouldn’t do for his observations.  One friend said he might go over a sentence twenty times in an effort to get it right.  No less a writer than mutual admirer and friend Ralph Waldo Emerson thought him one of the spiritual fathers of nature writing, right up there with his neighbor Henry David Thoreau, a naturalist Muir much admired. Was Muir truly one of our species, a fellow man?  Was he sent to observe, to wonder, and to explain?  By whom?  He attributed much to God, but not the one literally beaten into him as a child by a strict father.3  His God translates more as Mother Nature to modern readers.  He uses both names a lot in his exultations.  He seems to see no separate creations, rather an interacting whole of soils, rocks, sky, water and people; he often uses the phrases “plant people” and “animal people”.  He always includes himself in the mix.  We now know about DNA in all organisms.  He did not.  Surprisingly he only mentions his contemporary Darwin once in eight hundred pages of fine print.  Both were superb scientists and naturalists. Despite his failure to use the word evolution for a process he at times seemed close to understanding, we, a century plus after his descriptions stand in awe of him as he did of his subjects.  Muir joyfully praised Mother Nature.  Our frequent use of this title includes evolution within it.  We half baked environmentalists bow to him in thanks.  As Earth Day approaches we again recognize him as one of the spiritual parents of our concerns.   1  Muir, John.  My First Summer in the Sierra  (The Library of America collection of  Muir’s work entitled   Muir, Nature Writings)  1992 2  Ibid,  pg. 283 – 284 3  Ibid.  pg. 7 – 142,  The Story of My Boyhood and Youth in Scotland and Wisconsin ________________________________________________________________________ WATER RESOURCE AND CONSERVATION INFORMATION FOR MIDDLETON, BOXFORD AND TOPSFIELD

Precipitation Data* for Month of: Jan Feb March April
30 Year Normal (1981 – 2010) Inches 3.40 3.25 4.65 4.53
 2013 – 14 Central Watershed Actual 3.47 4.34 4.32 2.7 as of 4/21**

Ipswich R. Flow Rate(S. Middleton USGS Gage) in Cubic Feet/ Second (CFS): For April 21, 2014: Normal . . . 98 CFS           Current Rate . . . 91 CFS **Updated April precipitation data is from MST gage..*Danvers Water Filtration Plant, Lake Street, Middleton is the source for actual precipitation data thru March. Normalsdata is from the National Climatic Data Center. THE WATER CLOSET is provided by the Middleton Stream Team: www.middletonstreamteam.org or <MSTMiddletonMA@gmail.com> or (978) 777-4584

Featured photo credit: jjjj56cp via photopin cc