John Muir, Antoine Saunier and the Perception of Mountains in Past Times

I recently had the chance to visit Twenty Hill Hollow and environs with a couple dozen Yosemite naturalists, following in the footsteps of John Muir. It was in and around Twenty Hill Hollow that Muir spent much of his first year and a half in California and he dubbed that “delightful Hollow” the “Merced Yosemite of the plain” for its staggering scenic beauty. It’s difficult for us to imagine what it could mean for something to be a Yosemite of the plain and indeed, that seems to have been the case for most of Muir’s contemporaries. Muir lamented that traveler accounts of California were mostly written by “literary racers who annually make a trial of their speed here” as they race past jewels like Twenty Hill Hollow on their way to the more staggering attractions of “Yosemite, Geysers and Big Trees.” Muir, on the other hand, considered the whole of the Central Valley, from Siskiyou to San Diego to be “a grander Yosemite than that to which they are going.” He almost dismissively labels the incomparable Valley (another Muir label) “Yosemite the less” [Muir, “Twenty Hill Hollow,” Overland Monthly, vol. 9, n. 1, July, 1872, pp. 80-81]

Pencil drawing of rolling hills of Twenty Hill Hollow
Sketch of Twenty Hill Hollow by John Muir

In reading this account and in taking in the beauty of Twenty Hill Hollow, I couldn’t but be struck by the fact that already in Muir’s day, the captivating beauty of the plains was lost to most people. In in the sixteenth century the beauty of Twenty Hill Hollow would have immediately struck most people, whereas the beauty of craggy Yosemite would have been more elusive. The pleasure of a green verdant field is, I think, deeply encoded in the human character and that immediate pleasure is always there, but as remarkable sites, tourist attractions and scenes of iconic beauty, we mostly prefer mountains in our times. On the one hand, this shift, it strikes me, is a measure of the degree to which we moderns have conquered nature, despite the occasional violent reminders of nature’s power. We no longer fear mountains and the ferocious creatures that live there. As far as I can see, the only creatures that most hikers truly seem to fear these days are giardia and e. coli. Muir’s comments also remind me that most of us are so distant from the pressing annual need for a successful crop that we don’t have the visceral and emotional response to a fertile plain that would have been the normal reaction for most of human history. Muir was fast becoming rare in his appreciation of the plain, though not in his appreciation of the mountain. He arrived in Twenty Hill Hollow only a decade after the formation of what was probably the first mountaineering club in the world, the Alpine Club, founded in Britain in 1857. Love of the mountains was beginning to replace a love of the plains in the Western mind.

The Ordre & maniere d’enseigner en la Ville de Geneve au College avec la description de la Ville de Geneve is reprinted in E.A. Betant, Notice sur le Collège de Rive (Geneva: Fick, 1866). The work is not paginated, but the Description de la Ville constitutes the final part.

All of this put in mind a prospectus for the Genevan schools, published anonymously in 1538, though almost certainly from the pen of Antoine Saunier, then recently hired to take over the schools in the wake of the Reformation. Under Theodore Beza, first rector of the Académie de Genève, founded in 1559, Geneva would become a center for Reformed learning, but that was still many years away when Saunier set to the task of attracting students. In addition to the fact that Geneva did not have a reputation as a center of learning, Saunier feared people’s perception of the city itself. Geneva had the misfortune to find itself not on a great and fertile plain, but in among the foothills of the Alps. The rolling and sometimes craggy hills of the Salève and the Jura chain, give way on a clear day to a view of Mount Blanc itself, towering 4437 meters (14,557 feet) above Geneva and Lac Léman. Today, for most students, this would be a selling point: a bustling city, center of trade and international fairs, nestled in among mountains with skiing, climbing and hiking close at hand. Saunier didn’t expect Geneva’s location to sell many foreigners on study in Geneva.

He began his sales pitch by detailing the curriculum, focussed on learning Latin, Greek and Hebrew. He hoped that as students progressed, the school would add instruction in rhetoric and dialectic. He detailed the spiritual training his students would receive and enumerated the many opportunities to hear sermons in Geneva: five times on Sunday and twice each weekday. But then at the end, he felt the need to include a description of the city of Geneva, fearing that those who knew the city only by rumor would not want to send their children there:

Mais il nous a semblé bon d’ayder en cest endroit à gens qui ne cognoissent pas les pais & lieux: lesquels imaginans en eulx-mesmes que Geneve soit quelque ville hideuse & quasi inhabitable, estant entre des rochiers steriles & desers, plus enserree que bastie, ont horreur mesme d’en approcher. But it seems good to us at this point to help people who do not know the region and the place, who, imagining that Geneva is some sort of hideous city, almost uninhabitable, being surrounded by sterile and deserted rocks, more enclosed than built, are afraid even to draw near.

He says that he will not belabor her antiquity and renown, for it is well-attested and easy to verify.

Seulement nostre intention est de monstre oultre ladicte situation, combien elle a de commodité tant en aisance de vivres, qu’en air bien temperé & aussi en trafiques & train de marchandise Our only intention is to show aside from her location, how comodious she is, both in plenty of foodstuffs and in temperate air and also in the traffic and commerce of merchandise.

He goes on to describe the Rhône Bridge, formerly of stone, but now of wood and housing many mills and says that Geneva does not lack for beautiful buildings. The streets are broad and well-maintained and there are several well-apportioned public squares. He says there is ample residential space to house the population, which must be considered a bit disingenuous given that one third of all houses were razed only a few years earlier when the city needed to clear the ramparts to defend against new foes in the aftermath of achieving independence from the duke of Savoy. The author also notes that the main street has roofs over the walkways such that one stays covered and dry even in a rainstorm, glossing over just how frequent these are when weather backs up against the Alps and hovers over Geneva. Then he answers parents’ true fears:

Davantage ladicte ville n’est point à mespriser quand à son assiette. Car combien qu’elle soit environnee d’un continuel circuit de montaignes, neantmoins elle a de toutes pars grand pais de plaine estendue en forme de quelque grand theatre. Et la montaigne qui semble en estre le plus pres en est loing d’une lieue de Savoye. Et se n’est point des plus haultes, sinon par sa grand rondeur elle abuse la veue. Icelle montaigne prend son commencement environ l’Orient d’hyver, mais en tirant vers le Mydi elle va en abaissant petit à petit tellement que ce qui suyt jusques au destroit du Rhosne (lequel on dict le pertuis de l’Ecluse) n’est que moennement elevé audessus de la vallee.
Depuis cest endroit-là qui tend à l’Occident, la dicte ville du costé du Septentrion[al] a le regard vers la montaigne du Jura qu’on appelle maintenant le mont Sainct-Claude. Apres vient une montaigne quelque peu plus basse, tirant vers l’Orient, laquelle neantmoins approchant du pied des Alpes s’eleve plus haut. Mais cela est loing de Geneve.Tant y a qu’il n’y a nulle montaigne (excepté celle que nous avons premierement descripte) qui n’en soit eslongnee de trois lieues pour le moins, qui vallent sept milles d’Italie ou plus.”
Furthermore, the city is not to be scoffed at regarding its location. For even though she is surrounded by a continual circle of mountains, she nevertheless has everywhere in the surrounding countryside an extended plain in the form of a great theater. And the mountain that seems to be the closest [the Salève] is a Savoy league* away. And it is not among the highest peaks, though by its great round form, it ruins the view. This mountain starts in the Winter Orient [east-northeast] and runs to the Midi [south], decreasing little by little until the Rhône Narrows (which is called the Pertuis de l’Ecluse) and rises only moderately above the valley [roughly 1000 meters].From that point, moving to the Occident [west], to the Septentrional [north] the city looks toward the Jura mountain which we now call Mount Saint-Claude. After that comes a mountain a bit lower, going toward the Orient [east], which increases in height as it extends toward the foot of the Alps. But this is far from Geneva.

Be that as it may, there is no mountain (except the first one we described) which is closer than three leagues at the least, which is seven Italian miles or more.

*The “common league” or “great mile” of Savoie was 2500 trabucs, or 7,706 meters [Pierre Charbonnier, Les anciennes mesures locales du Centre-Est, d’après les tables de conversion (2005), p. 321].

Having managed to downplay the proximity of Geneva to any mountains save the one that ruins the view, he goes on to sing the praises of the lake (Lac Léman) and the many benefits it provides the city. Finally we get to a long description of the fertile farmland surrounding Geneva with its vines and fruit trees and other crops. Then, anticipating Muir’s praises of Twenty Hill Hollow, he writes:

Oultre la grand fertilité, il y a pareillement de la plaisance qui n’est pas petite & principalement quant à la commoditié de si belle veue que cest cité a de toutes pars, mais specialement du costé de Midi et soleil couchant. De quelles parties, incontinent qu’on est sorty de la porte, il se present devant les yeux tous endroits une plaine longue & large de troys lieue de Savoye, ou ung peu d’avantage. Et tellement se presente qu’on la peut tout ensemble distinctement contempler d’une veue comme qui seroit monté en une haulte tour qui est propre à espier et faire le guet. In addition to the great fertility, there is also a not inconsiderable pleasure, principally from the handsomeness* of such a beautiful view that this city has everywhere, especially to the Midi [south] and sunset [west]. From those parts, as soon as one exits the gates, there appears before the eyes everywhere a long, wide plain of three leagues of Savoy or a bit more. And it appears such that you can take in the whole of it in a single view as though you had climbed a high tower, perfect for looking out and keeping the watch.

*commodité is translated in the Cotgrave dictionary (1611) as utility, benefit, ease, handsomeness and several related terms.

Keep in mind, that on a clear day, looking to the south beyond this plain, one sees Mount Blanc, which to Saunier would have detracted, not added, to the view. He closes his description of the city by noting that none of the city gates has an “ill smell” (apparently speaking metaphorically, in the sense of ill repute) because they are all frequented by people, horses and carts.

Mait tout incontinent à la sortie de chacune d’icelles, il se monstre ung beau plain pais & descouvert, qui n’est aucunement infect de boue ou d’autre ordure. Mesme il y a pour la plus grand part un pasturage et preirie spacieuse dont l’usage est commun. But as soon as one has left through any of these [gates], there appears before you beautiful flat and open country, free of mud and other dirt. There is even in large part pasture and prairie for common use.

With a brief summary of his main points, Saunier ends his sales pitch. Saunier’s love of the plain perhaps matched Muir’s. But Muir was a singular soul who could appreciate both purple mountains majesty and the beauty of the plain, fruited or not. In the twenty-first century, most of us tend to share the sensibilities of the “literary racers” that Muir denigrated. Saunier, however, was writing for another crowd, one that could only see the beauty in the fruited plain, but saw little to appreciate or admire even in the gentle round mountains rising slowly above the Genevan plain. Even in the early nineteenth century, this mountain that ruined the view, the Salève, figures in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It is on the craggy slopes of the Salève that Dr. Frankenstein, lodged at the foot of the mountain awaiting the opening of the city gates in the morning, first sees his monster when the Salève is lit by a flash of lightning. Though by Shelley’s day the times were changing — humans had stood on top of Mont Blanc — it was not by accident that the monster first appears in the mountains above Geneva rather than on the plains.

Saunier was, of course hardly alone in his preference for plains over mountains. Chaucer had earlier written (cited in Simmler, p. XXV):

Ther is at the west ende of Itaile,
Down at the root of Vesuvius the colde,
A lusty playn, abundaunt of vitaile.

The cold mountain and the lusty plain. That was the view that predominated. In past times, when most people saw mountains, they saw hardship, poverty, danger and baleful forces. Learned authors of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries still affirmed confidently that in the high mountains of Western Europe lurked dragons and Wild Men. The latter was a character much like Saskwatch in modern popular myth, with the difference that no learned man of the Middle Ages would have doubted that the Wild Man of the mountains existed and posed a danger to those who would hazard the high passes alone [See Richard Bernheimer, Wild Men in the Middle Ages: A Study in Art, Sentiment, and Demonology (Cambridge, Mass., 1952)].

Aside from the demonic forces that inhabited the mountains, the main reason for their ugliness was simply the hardship of the cold mountain. Fernand Braudel, perhaps the greatest historian of the twentieth century, writes [Braudel, Mediterranean, vol. I, p. 43] of medieval and early-modern mountain culture in the Mediterranean basin (including the Alpes, Pyrennees, Atlas mountains and others):

Life there is possible, but not easy. On the slopes where farm animals can hardly be used at all, the work is difficult. The stony fields must be cleared by hand, the earth has to be prevented from slipping down hill…. It is painful work and never-ending; as soon as it stops, the mountain reverts to a wilderness.

Right-thinking people avoided the mountains and sought the plains. According to a Catalan proverb, “Always go down, never go up” (ibid, p. 44). Think how different that is from the self-help motivational claptrap foisted upon us in our age that counsels “Always go up, never go down.”

In the period Braudel focuses on, which includes that in which Saunier was writing, the mountains had become even less hospitable. The favorable climate of the High Middle Ages began to give way in about 1150 to cooler weather, noticeable after 1250 when famines reappear in Europe, and especially after 1580 when things cooled significantly. This cooler and wetter weather devastated mountain economies with shorter growing seasons, persistent fungus in Switzerland that destroyed crops and outbreaks of disease, most notably the Black Death which hit weakened populations and killed perhaps one third of all Western Europeans. Cooler and wetter weather lowered the maximum elevation of arable land by hundreds of meters. This meant that even the low mountains became places of misery and extreme poverty. Glaciers advanced and forced some populations out of their mountain valleys. They were seen as animated, demonic beings. In Argentière, just up the valley from Chamonix, the local curé performed an annual exorcism of the glacier. Now miles outside of town, by the late eighteenth-century it threatened structures in the village but, thanks to the apparently effective exorcisms of the priests, the village was saved in the end. Still, it was only through the power of the Church Thaumaturge that the malificent forces of the mountains could be held in check.

Shakespeare had his own view of who dwelt, or should dwell, in the mountains. In Twelfth Night (Act IV, scene I), Olivia screams:

“Ungracious wretch!
Fit for the mountains and the barbarous caves,
Where manners ne’er were preach’d. Out of my sight!”

The mountains are the place without manners and, though the context is not religious, without preaching. The context could have been religious though. Braudel (ibid., p. 34), writes “The mountains are, as a rule, a world apart from civilizations… Their history is to have none.” The mountains were where the Moslems of Aragon, Granada and Valencia and the Waldensiens of the Lubéron both held on against the Catholic Church. After the initial violent persecution that killed many, the Cathars in France became a small sect of mountain herdsmen. And in later years the hill towns of the Lubéron were home to foxes, wolves, boars and, that other beastly creature in the French mind, Protestants (ibid). In the sixteenth century, one commentator lamented that though the hill people were “cristianos viejos” and “in their veins runs not one drop of heathen blood” nevertheless “for lack of instruction and following the oppression to which they have been subjected, they are so ignorant of what they should know to obtain eternal salvation that they have retained only a few vestiges of the Christian religion” (ibid., p. 35). In the sixteenth century, the great missionary territory of Europe was, in fact, the mountain villages not distant foreign lands.

The mountains were also sheltered from interfering central goverments. They were thus a place of both political liberty and neglect by the central authorities as they were both a place of spiritual liberty and neglect. Mountain populations were notoriously difficult to conquer and medieval and early-modern writers noted that while despotism reigned on the plains of Syria and Morroco, the mountain populations lived independently. Much the same was true in Italy and Sardinia. When Braudel writes of the “freedom of the hills,” he means not the spiritual freedom of the mountaineer, but the political freedom of the mountain dweller, cut off from civilization. “As we have seen,” wrote Braudel, “the mountains resist the march of history, with its blessings and its burdens, or they accept it only with reluctance” [ibid., vol. I, p. 40-41].

Of course, not all Europeans had a negative opinion of the mountains and some, despite their preconceived fears and negative opinions, could not help but notice their beauty. The great Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner (1516–1555) was one of the exceptions of the age. Gesner was perhaps the John Muir of the sixteenth century, though in his own time he was known as “the German Pliny.” In addition to his botanical work and his landmark four-volume zoological study, Gesner also published an account of his voyage to the Gepfstein (6299 feet), the lowest point in the Pilatus chain. He traveled the mountains below the snow line mostly as a botanist. In Descriptio Montis Fracti sive Montis Pilati, Gesner “explains at length how each of the senses of man is refreshed in the course of a mountain excursion” [Enc. Brit, 11th ed (1910-1911), v. 11, p. 910; “Gesner, Konrad von”].

In a 1541 letter to J. Vogel, Gesner tells his friend,

When the power of all the elements and all of nature manifest themselves here [in the mountains] in such an intense way, it isn’t suprising that the ancients saw in the mountains a certain divinity and then imagined a crowd of mountaineer gods, like Fauns, Satyrs [and] Pan…. They also saw them as sources of their fear, because contemplation of these high and wooded places evokes in souls a stupor that hits us harder than that evoked by human things.” [Josias Simmler, Alps, p. XI; from the French translation by Coolidge].

This remarkable passage occurs in the midst of Gesner’s rumination on why gravity does not simply pull down the mountains over time. He likens the natural forces at work to those at work in a tree that loses leaves and then adds new ones. Gesner posited that geological forces tear down parts of a mountain and throw up others, but at such slow rates and over such long time scales that humans can’t readily see them (p. XIII). At roughly the same time that Copernicus was formulating his theories of celestial motion and Vesalius revolutionizing the study of anatomy, Gesner was establishing the fundamental mindset for the study of geology — extreme long-term thinking. Gesner closes his letter with an expression of his pure joy in the mountains, mild patriotism, and a love of botany (p. XVII): “For many other reasons the spectacle of the mountains grabs me beyond all measure, and since those of our country are very high and, they tell me, richer in plants than all the others, I was taken with a strong desire to visit them.”

It is perhaps not surprising to find a mountain lover by the mid-sixteenth century. Europeans were brimming with a new-found confidence. 1492 was a watershed year not simply because of the voyage to America. It was also the year that the Spanish finally conquered the last Moslem armies in what is now Spain and succeeded in expelling both Moslems and Jews. And it was also the year that Charles VIII of France ordered his vassal Antoine de Ville to climb to the top of “Mount Inaccessbile”, better known to us as Mont Aiguille. This is generally seen as the birth of modern technical alpinism and marked the beginning of a major shift in the way Europeans thought of mountains.

That said, we need to recall that attitudes change slowly and people like Gesner (and his friend Josias Simmler, another Swiss mountain lover) would be lonely voices for another few centuries yet. In the late seventeenth century, Thomas Burnet was a Cambridge don on extended sabbatical shepherding young aristocrats around the continent for their cultural edification. In 1672, he and one of his charges crossed the Alps at Simplon Pass. Knowing that mountains were ugly and dangerous places, something to be crossed, not visited, Burnet was surprised by his own reaction. He wrote: “There is something august and stately in the air of these things that inspires the mind with great thoughts and passions…. They fill and overbear the mind with their excess and cast it into a pleasing kind of stupor and imagination.” It was once again this simple and direct experience of mountains that, one could say, founded the field of geology. Burnet was puzzled by these mountains and why they were not in Genesis. He also knew that they could not have been covered over in forty days of rain and that they therefore must have been formed after the flood. This implied, to him, that the earth was far more than six thousand years old [Beattie, Alps, p. 4–5]. It was the logical extension of Gesner’s observation that change in the mountains took place too gradually for humans to notice. Without this observation, we can say there would be no Huxley, no Darwin and no Muir.

Burnet lost his academic appointment at Cambridge University for his views on the age of the earth and his belief that the mountains were not part of the original Creation. But only a bit more than a century later, Balmat and Paccard would summit Mont Blanc and de Saussure would have scientific instruments carried to the top. From that point on, more and more people became literary racers, bent on crossing the plains as fast as possible in order to go into the mountains. Alpine Clubs were formed. Wealthy Englishmen sending postcards back to London from the Alps virtually created the iconic White Christmas which was previously never something that British or Americans dreamed of and sang about. Meanwhile, the plains became something to cross as fast as possible by train and interstate highway. The appreciation of the plains is perhaps part of what Peter Laslett calls “the world we have lost,” that is the good things that time has left behind. That appreciation, however, is not unretrievable. Muir found it when he settled near Twenty Hill Hollow. And I think everyone I was with that day at Twenty Hill Hollow, lush from winter rains, also felt the primeval pleasure of a green and rolling landscape. Most, however, probably did not know that they were connecting not just with a primeval experience, but with a medieval and early-modern experience as well.

Thanks to Bob Bauer, Dean Shenk and Erik Westerlund for making the trip possible!

Update: some more on the location of Twenty Hill Hollow (since Moses asked).

I was taken with a group by Bob Bauer who did his master’s thesis on Muir’s early ramblings, particularly to Twenty Hill Hollow: Shepherd of the Plains: John Muir at Twenty Hill Hollow

Dan Styer has used Bauer’s work to create a map

View Twenty Hill Hollow in a larger map

6 Responses to “John Muir, Antoine Saunier and the Perception of Mountains in Past Times”

  1. Gregory Crouch

    Hell of a post, TL. Can you post us a photo of Twenty Hill Hollow? Or one taken from it?

  2. I didn’t bring a camera, I’m sorry to say. So no picture of the burrowing owls we saw on the way there. But I’ll go back one of these days, because Theresa wants to see it too.

  3. Moses


    For the past several years I have been trying to locate and visit Twenty Hill Hollow. My wife and I grew up in nearby Winton, CA. I love the idea that John Muir spent such an important part of his life right in my own back yard. Combined with the fact that this site has effectively remained unchanged and unknown, I have been dying to visit. There isn’t much information out there on the exact location of Twenty Hill Hollow – which I prefer. It wasn’t until I read Robert Bauer’s essay that I found the spot. I have driven out there and gotten close but it seems every entrance contains a “No Trespassing” sign. I was wondering if you know of a group which occasionally makes the trip or if the property owners allow visitors? How were you able to make it out there? If you can send me a personal email with any information to help me visit the site I would greatly appreciate it.

    Thank you so much.

  4. Moses – sorry this took so long. I added an update at the very bottom of the post that includes a map.

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