It is two o’clock on a coal-dark Tuesday morning in March, and you are sleeping very soundly high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. There is nothing taking place so far this night to disturb this sleep – the sparse traffic which consisted mostly of the occasional clatter of horse’s hooves and the rumble of wagon wheels on the road passing by your wood frame cabin have died away many hours ago, and your few neighbors in this high mountain valley have long ago drifted off into a sleep just as deep as your own. As this year has thus far progressed only as far as late March and the temperature outside is still well below freezing, your valley, though beautiful, has seen few visitors for the past several months; a state of affairs which is completely to your preference. There are still numerous deer and bear, of course; as well as many wolves and coyotes; they are at home here any time of year. But the human element of this valley – your valley, as you sometimes like to think of it – has mostly migrated to the lower elevations of the mountains and they await the return of warmer air before they once again begin their summer sojourns back to this beautiful place; a valley which was a well-kept secret until just a few short years ago. But you have chosen to spend the winter here in the High Sierra, a prospect which would bring trepidation into the hearts of most, but for you it has instead been an experience which has been found to be challenging, even exciting. You have taken on a job as a winter caretaker for a hotel which is empty of residents on this cold spring night. Watching after the building and its contents takes little of your time, which is worth exactly the little amount of money being paid to you by its owner. In return you get a cabin in which to live, enough food to keep body and soul together, and perhaps just a bit of pocket change left at the end of it all. But that last bit really doesn’t matter all that much as there is no place nearby for you to spend that money; nor is there anything more you need on which you wish to spend it. After all – what more could you possibly want? You already have everything you need – a bit of food (good, even though it is mostly beans and crackers); a roof (true, it leaks in places); and the mountains (splendid!).What most people spend their lives chasing after you find superfluous, even laughable. And so you lay here on your cot in warm contentment; your blanket covering almost all of your long body as it is pulled up past your chin, leaving your sock-clad feet exposed as the fire dies out and you resist getting out of bed to feed into it some of those pieces of wood which lie scattered on the floor near the hearth. The year is 1872. Tuesday, the twenty-sixth day of March, has barely circled into existence on the hands of your pocket watch – if you were to bother to look at your watch, but keeping track of time is very far down, or not even on, the list of things you consider enjoyable. This winter has thus far shown few surprises, but many pleasures, and you sleep on soundly, snoring gently. You are in a rough wood cabin on the floor of Yosemite Valley. Your name is John Muir, and life is good. The hands on your pocket watch, unseen, silently move to show that it is 2:10.
Then the Unexpected suddenly barges into your sleep like some monster of the mountains with giant hands, shaking you violently from your slumber and knocking you off your cot onto the floor, sending your long skinny legs into painful confrontation with the sharp edges of those scattered pieces of firewood which should have been keeping you warm on this heretofore peaceful winter night instead of banging into and bruising your bony shins. You try to get to your feet but the rough plank floor beneath you just won’t cooperate; it keeps shaking and moving and sliding out from beneath your socks as you slip around on all fours. You finally manage to make it to your feet but almost immediately wish you were back on your hands and knees, a much more stable position in this unstable reality which has suddenly overtaken your peaceful valley. As you stand there in the dark with only the red glow of the embers in your fire to cast a dim glow, you see one of the log remnants roll out of the fire and onto the floor. At the same time the door to your cabin flies open letting a rush of cold air inside. But you are oblivious to the brisk March night air and the open door stands as a welcome invitation to quit this shaking cabin and take refuge outside. The irony of the great outdoors offering refuge does not escape you as you kick the smoldering piece of firewood off the floor and outside then quickly follow it through the door as fast as your legs will take you, noting on some distant mental level that getting about has suddenly taken on aspects somewhat similar to navigating oneself along the rocking deck of a sailing ship caught in a storm. Once outside and clear of the cabin by several feet (it would, after all, be an ignoble end to one’s life to be crushed to death by the collapsing detritus of some long lost mountain man’s shack), you pause and look around, your knees bending in time to the swaying of the ground in a sort of primitive dance with the earth itself. Then you come to grips with what is actually taking place and your heart soars with happiness at being able to experience the nature of the High Sierra in all of its violent fury. A smile lights up your face and you raise your hands high at the glory of it all. You run several staggering steps more so that your view of the valley walls is unimpeded by the cabin and turn in circles and take it all in. Then you take a deep breath and shout with joy.
“An earthquake!” But the valley floor is rumbling, drowning out your voice.
“A noble earthquake!”
As you look around you can see that the rocky walls of the valley are also moving violently as they shimmer in the moonlight; shaking from side to side and beginning to flake off here and there like the uneven crust on a loaf of bread which is being handled too roughly. Then the shaking suddenly stops just as quickly as it had begun and you find yourself having difficulty finding a balance for your body in this sudden calm. Your knees still try to bend and twist as they anticipate the next rolling movements of the earth, but the shaking has ceased as the earth itself seems to have found a balance. The night is suddenly silent, completely still; an unnatural peace which seems at best to be an uneasy truce brokered between the gods of the Underworld. As your legs gradually resume a somewhat normal posture you turn and look around, gazing at the high valley walls and wondering how they are still standing in place after all the shaking; why have they not tumbled to the valley floor, filling your beautiful valley and burying it forever. Your gaze comes to rest on Sentinel Rock, a huge outcropping which rises some three thousand feet above the valley floor, and a shiver of anticipation runs down your spine at the thought of what it might do to you and your shack should it become disengaged from the valley wall and arc across the night sky toward you. You watch, looking for any sign of portending instability, but it remains still. You sigh in relief. Then you hear something; just a small sound, and far away. Still, it catches your attention and you try to focus, leaning one ear into the night air to see if you can catch it again. After a few seconds it does indeed repeat and you swivel your gaze to focus on that part of the valley wall from whence you think it came. It comes at you again, but this time the sound does not stop. Instead it increases to a rattle, then to a roar, then to a crescendo. Part of the valley wall is moving. It’s not the part about which you were so worried just a moment ago; not that high outcropping of Sentinel Peak. Instead this roar seems to be coming from a neighboring rock; one almost as high and large; one known to the locals as Eagle Peak. As you stare you can see it moving in the moonlight, shaking from side to side there on the valley wall even though everything around it has come to rest. The roar increases and it moves, slowly at first, but with a definite sinking as it separates from the rest of the valley wall and begins its descent. Then it seems to hang there for a moment, a very long moment, as if it can’t quite make up its mind if it really wants to leave behind the home which has held it in place for unknown millennia. Finally, almost sadly, it gives in to the tug of gravity which proves irresistible after it has now been loosed from its hold on the mountain by the earthquake. It arcs away from the rocky wall and out into the cold night air; Eagle Peak falling silently as the loose rocks below and above it crash down the valley wall in an avalanche which gives every indication of being headed straight towards you. So you run, seeking cover. A large pine tree stands near and you angle toward it, keeping the tumbling rocks in view as you move. You take cover behind the tree and then peer out around it, watching the spectacle unfold before your eyes. It seems to you that the earth itself has found a voice and is shouting in joy at being able to let loose. The rocks themselves, as they tumble toward you like a broad wall of advancing soldiers, seem to light up with a fiery glow as if alive with an inner fire. Eagle Peak is moving closer now, plummeting down to meet the advance guard of house-sized boulders which have raced it to the valley floor. And you laugh at the sheer joy and absurdity of it, knowing that the pine tree behind which you have taken cover, though large in comparison to its neighboring trees, will offer no shelter whatsoever should the mountain of falling rock make its way this far across the valley floor. But you laugh again, because this would indeed be a noble way to end one’s life.
But the advancing rock does not make it as far as your place of refuge, nor does the head of Eagle Peak find you as it comes crashing to its final resting place amongst the boulders as they slow to a stop. There is still a clatter of smaller stones falling when you deem it safe enough to move from your refuge behind the pine tree and run toward the fallen monolith. You scramble up on top of some of the smaller stones, then leap from rock to larger rock until you stand high enough so that your eyes can now command a view of the entire field of carnage. The moon shines down on you as the fall of rock ceases and a cloud of dust slowly rises like a bank of fog, shutting off your view across the valley and diffusing the moonlight into a soft glow. Then the world falls into total silence once again, just as it had been silent before this all happened – How long ago was that? Just moments, but in those moments you feel as if you have lived a lifetime. You stand there on top of that boulder for a long time, reveling in the unpredictability of nature and the changing beauty of the mountains you love. It might be minutes or hours before you finally leap down from the boulders and make your way back to your shack; you don’t know and you don’t really care; your pocket watch is still in its pocket; still in the shack if the shack is still standing. In years to come many will write of this great earthquake. Seismologists will conjecture that it is one of the largest in all of recorded history; one which gave birth to thousands of aftershocks felt over the following months. Statisticians will count the number of crumbled buildings and the sad toll of fallen bodies. Historians will observe that it was felt all the way out to the Pacific Ocean to the west and to Nevada in the east; all the way to Oregon in the north and to Mexico to the South. But you, John Muir; you in later years will share the most eloquent description of them all. You will write of the feeling that sprang from your heart as the ground shook and the rocks fell, and your pen will once again give voice to those few brief words:
“A Noble Earthquake!”
The Land of Lost Content
“Into my heart an air that kills from yon far country blows . . .”
The decade of the1840’s saw an air that kills blow into California. It was only a breeze at first, a whisper of air that few noticed; a killing air which soon grew to an orgy of violence that swept countless lives away before it. It was a wind that was conjured by the few designed to kill the many; one which accomplished its purpose so effectively and to such a degree that it actually astonished many of its conjurors just as much as it did its victims with the swiftness with which the lethal dose was administered. This killing air was not, as one might at first think, the war of the Bear Flag Revolt against Mexico. Nor was it the result of one of the frequent earthquakes which rocked the state back then even as they do now; nor one of the frequent plagues of flu or dysentery which ravaged the mining and logging camps of the Sierra Nevada. This killing air which moved across the land was carefully planned by very calculating minds, and over the period of just a few decades it effectively buried more than a quarter of a million men, women, and children. This Air That Kills blew from the hearts and minds of greedy immigrants and snuffed out the hearts and souls of almost all of the native Californians who had lived here so peacefully before those interlopers arrived.
It was the mountains in which we live, the Sierra Nevada, which sparked this fire, for beneath their surface lay unimaginable deposits of gold, silver, and other ores, while high upon their mountaintops grew timber in such quantity as to offer the promise of building countless great cities throughout this Golden State. Yet the land was already occupied by almost three hundred thousand peaceful people who did not crave wealth and who showed no interest or enterprise whatsoever when it came to exploiting the land. Instead they looked upon the interlopers with amusement and bewilderment, refusing to help pave the road of progress to a future they could not see; to one which they would not want. These people were very much in the way, blocking the progress of the new Californians and their ambitious plans, and savvy political minds immediately recognized an opportunity just waiting to be exploited. So early in the year of 1850 the first governor of California, Peter Burnett, proudly announced that the state was officially in the business of exterminating the native residents. He and the state legislature authorized funding for numerous private militias to set out and indiscriminately hunt and kill natives. The state would also generously pay for all of the bullets which were necessary. And – as if offering to fund hunting parties comprised of licensed murderers wasn’t enough – the hunters could also collect a cash bounty if they returned to the state capitol with trophies; proofs of their kills. Body parts were preferred - especially hands and heads – but just about any anatomical piece would earn the bearer anywhere from ten to twenty-five dollars. There was virtually no opposition to this widespread murder. Only one lone editor in Humboldt dared to write a front page article about the indiscriminate massacre of Indian women and children. He was run out of town for his un-American sentiments, and was lucky to escape with his life. Over the next ten years the state government paid out about one and one-half million dollars in rewards, while the federal government joined in with another quarter million. Native American body parts had become a political windfall.
Later that same year of 1850 the state legislature decided to provide an alternative to licensed murder and passed the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians. This sounded benevolent and innocent – even beneficial – but in an excellent demonstration of political doublespeak the law allowed any white person to kidnap and enslave any native child, purportedly for the child’s own protection. They were soon being abducted by the thousands for the purpose of slave labor and sexual use. This proved so popular that the terms of the law were expanded a few months later to allow for the kidnapping of Native American adults as well. Upon the testimony of any white man, any native could now be immediately declared a vagrant and then bound into slavery to any white landowner for permanent indenture. It was now also illegal for any native to carry a weapon, own real estate, attend white schools, testify in court, or intermarry with whites. Drinking alcohol in public was still allowed, for the beneficial reason that it would lead to an obvious charge of vagrancy and hence to indentured slavery.
This management of the native population didn’t completely begin with the white settlers in the mid-eighteen hundreds – they just proved themselves to be much more efficient at it than their predecessors. The real beginning can be traced back to the year of 1769 when a Spanish padre by the name of Junipero Serra accompanied a group of Spanish soldiers on an expedition north from Mexico into California and initiated his construction of a long string of twenty-one Catholic missions throughout the length of this new Spanish territory. He found himself thrown into a state of constant amazement at the sight of the thousands of natives whom he saw wherever he went; quiet people who were living in peaceful contentment. He condemned their lifestyle as lazy, slothful, and godless, and set about saving them.
“When I saw their general behavior, their pleasing ways, and engaging manners,” he wrote, “my heart was broken to think they were still deprived of the light of the Holy Gospel.”
So he immediately set into motion a series of plans to save their souls. This included rounding them up, dressing them in uniforms and shoes, and requiring them to work as closely guarded slaves on the mission farmyards and vineyards. They were also forced to make bricks, tend livestock, make soap, and do whatever other manual labor as was deemed necessary for the glory of god. If they disobeyed, the good padre introduced them to whippings and execution. Yet the Spaniards were intent on using the natives for their value as labor, and that entailed the necessity of keeping most of them alive. It was the whites who were now intent on their complete elimination. Even so, the Spanish brought death to thousands of natives through the unconscious introduction of smallpox, malaria, venereal disease, and even the common cold. It was only in the brief period of Mexican rule that the natives were relatively safe; those years which began when Mexico won independence from Spain in 1834 and lasted until Mexico lost California to the Americans in 1848; a very few, very brief, fourteen years of peace and safety.
“What are those blue remembered hills; what spires, what farms are those?”
When men seek to kill other men, it has often been the great height and the remoteness of mountains which has offered the hope of refuge for the victims who have fled there for sanctuary. But in California it was ironically those very mountains which were the reason for the killing; the mountains and the treasures held within. So the Sierra Nevada became the first killing ground for the natives as the white settlers, drunken with the lust for quick wealth, flooded into the mountains from the north, east, and west and pushed the natives to the south. As the number of immigrants grew and the gold fields spread out from Sutter’s Mill the natives were pushed farther and farther away. If they paused to look back they could see in place of their once peaceful, beautiful mountains the horror of deep shafts now being sunk into the ground, the tall framework of giant stamp mills erected to crush ore, and rivers of mud flowing downward as hydraulic pumps were flushing away entire mountainsides in the search for mere ounces of gold. The mud flowed into the streams where yet more men lined the banks to swirl it in their pans, then it washed down into the great central valley to water and fertilize the growing acres of farmland where once great herds of elk had roamed. Their ancestral home was being washed away before their very eyes as they had to run before the invaders; and it was to become their death knell as well if they lingered too long before fleeing. Farther and farther they went until they suddenly encountered the armies of loggers coming at them from the south, cutting down the mountainsides of great trees; leaving most of the shattered remains of the great behemoths in waste where they fell as small pieces were tugged to the mills by belching donkey engines, cut up in the sawmills by giant whirling blades, and floated down to the valley floor in miles-long flumes that spanned the canyons and gorges. There was nowhere left in the mountains for the Native Californians in which to take refuge. They were forced down into the San Joaquin Valley where they were hunted for bounty, and for sport.
“That is the land of lost content; I see it shining plain . . .”
Life in the Sierra Nevada Mountains had been good for the Native Californians. Up in the higher elevations they could pass the hot summer months in cool contentment. Game was plentiful and the streams ran full of fresh trout. There were blackberries, gooseberries, elderberries, and acorns to be had for the picking. Wild herbs were plentiful. If they dug in the ground it wasn’t for yellow nuggets but rather for a variety of tasty mushrooms. When they rested beneath the giant Sequoias it was in awe of the age these giants had achieved and in appreciation of the shade which they offered; it wasn’t to name them after a favorite general or to sell their shattered remnants for curious pieces of paper with pictures of other favorite generals. Life was easy; life was good. Yet it was that ease of accepting what life had to offer which led to them being labeled as lazy; and it was the natural richness of their life from which it was deemed that they needed to be saved. But saving was work. It was easier to kill.
“The happy highways where I went, and can not come again.”
By the late 1860’s reservations were being established around California – and all over the country – to house Native Americans in confinement upon less desirable land while the mountains and valleys upon which they had once roamed freely were appropriated for more profitable use. The survivors of the extermination were not given a choice, and internment in a reservation usually became a sentence of death by starvation. There was no game to hunt and no food to gather, so the state of California grudgingly allowed them to slowly waste away on a daily diet of only 200 to 400 calories of cheap food provided by their captors. This was so effective at eliminating the natives who had not already been murdered that, by the year 1900, the population of Native Americans in California had declined from some five hundred tribal groups containing almost 300,000 people to a mere 16,000 ragged survivors. Ninety-five per cent had been killed, and four hundred of those tribal groups had been completely eliminated. One biographer of Adolph Hitler later wrote that upon reading of the American government’s solution to the Indian problem, Hitler was inspired to design similar camps for his campaign of genocide against those whom he wished to exterminate. Yet, ironically, Hitler was much more generous in giving food to his prisoners. Although adopting the same blueprint for extermination as his California mentors, he allowed inmates at Auschwitz a daily allotment of a relatively generous 1300 calories.
Today the population of Native Californians stands at about 725,000. Many of them still live on reservations. Many of those reservations can now be visited by you. They are called casinos, and when you arrive on these new reservations you can sometimes even see genuine Native Americans as they once again gaze upon their captors with amusement and bewilderment; watching the white invaders drink alcohol in excess and play games of chance for curious pieces of paper with pictures of generals on them. As you visit, you might ponder the curious twisted path which has brought them here. And if you later find yourself high in the mountains resting in the shade beneath a giant Sequoia, then close your eyes and listen. Perhaps, within the sounds of the forest, you might also hear the whispered words of the poet. It is doubtful that he held the natives of California in his thoughts as he wrote, yet perhaps there was something; some great feeling of pain and anguish that traveled halfway around the world and took root in his heart without his even knowing, and which then guided his pen to write these words:
“Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows;
What are those blue remembered hills;
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain.
The happy highways where I went,
And can not come again.”
A.E. Housman; 1896
With a degree in Anthropology and an avid interest in history, Tim Christensen has lived in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for many years. He has no cell phone or television, but manages, when not chopping firewood or shoveling snow, to keep himself entertained with a library of several thousand books.
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