Journal of Writing & Environment

It happened in early December 1874 as Muir stood in this very spot on a clear, crisp evening and watched the falling sun turn Tule Lake a slow purple. Something about the place gave Muir the willies. The yawning fissures and somber pits of the Lava Beds so compelled his eye that Muir pronounced their prospect “uncanny” as well as “forbidding and mysterious.” Amazingly, the earth prophet who would save Yosemite Valley, found the Sierra Club, and become a touchstone of modern environmentalism, never realized that his goose bumps came from beholding, unknowingly, the very starting point of creation.

Not that there was anyone here to tell him. Only the Modoc Indians knew that the world had begun right where Muir was looking. By the time he climbed this bluff and shivered at its cosmic overlook, the Modocs and their stories had been swept away.

That happened a little over a year earlier, in these same Lava Beds, where the Indians who bolted the reservation under the headman whites called Captain Jack sought sanctuary. Jack was hanged with three other warriors in October 1873, and the 151 Modoc men, women, and children who survived the rebellion were soon packed onto cattle cars, shipped by train across half the country, and dumped on a corner of the Shawnee reservation in Oklahoma. Besides their blankets and the clothes on their backs, they took their stories with them, leaving newly unstoried land where they had lived for millennia and where they knew it all began.

Creation, as the Modocs narrated their myth of the first days, started on the far side of Tule Lake, near the prominence now named Petroglyph Point for its ancient rock carvings. The creator Kamookumpts was all alone in those days but for the lake itself. The god reached down to the bottom—Tule Lake was shallow then, too, as it was in Muir’s time—and fetched up mud to fashion an island he could sit on. Seated, he dredged more mud to form land around the lake and heap up mountains. He scratched the course of high-desert rivers with his fingernail, drew juniper, mountain mahogany, and yellow pine trees from the new earth, and fashioned the same material into birds and four-legged animals. All this creating left him mightily tired. Kamookumpts dug a hole, lay down, and pulled the last of the mud on top of himself like a rumpled blanket. It dried to form Petroglyph Point. He was still sleeping when Muir arrived, and he sleeps even today, right over there.

No one knows what the sleeping god is dreaming; even awake, Kamookumpts is little given to judgment and intervention. It is hard to imagine that he would be happy, however. Even as recently as Muir’s time, Tule Lake covered some 100,000 acres, swelled even larger in wet years, drew migrating waterfowl by the tens of millions. Now it has been drawn down to well under 15,000 acres, and the numbers of geese and ducks are but a trace of their former magnitude. It’s not even officially called a lake anymore but a sump, a catch basin for runoff from Bureau of Reclamation irrigation projects. Early last century, when the American frontier had run out of the virgin land Manifest Destiny required, Tule Lake was drained to allow homesteading of the old lakebed. These days farmers grow potatoes, horseradish, alfalfa, and barley on Kamookumpts’s mud and irrigate their crops with the primal water of creation.

Things might have gone differently if the stories of the Modocs and their cousins, the Klamaths, were still being told around campfire and hearth. These myths reach far back, recount long-forgotten events, open a deep mine of understanding about this land and its animals, plants, and people.

An example: The Modocs and the Klamaths say that the gods once fought a vicious battle around the volcano now called Mount Mazama, whose extinct caldera lies some sixty miles north in modern Oregon. The god of the demonic spirits living under the mountain grew angry with the ancestral Indians and set upon their destruction by fire. He showered down hot rock and burning ash from the exploding volcano and drove the people into Upper Klamath Lake for refuge. Sure that the evil of their tribe had caused this catastrophe, two old shamans sacrificed themselves by leaping into the mountain’s flaming belly. Their offering gave the gods of the sky the power to drive the archdemon and his rampaging spirits back underground, where the mountain collapsed around them. Then the storm god sent so much rain and snow for so many years that clear, clean water filled the cavity left by the shattered mountain and created a lake of stunning clarity and great power.

The Indians’ narrative of the formation of Crater Lake uses nonscientific language, yet it accurately retells geological events beginning around 5700 B.C.E. Mount Mazama blew its top in an explosion to dwarf Mount St. Helens in our time, filled the nearby valleys with three hundred feet of pumice and ash, and raised a column of ash and smoke that reached all the way to Greenland, according to dust deposits in the ice sheet. So much magma escaped from the mountain that its summit collapsed, leaving a bowl-like caldera that slowly filled with rain and snowmelt.

The accuracy of the Crater Lake story lends a kind of credence to the creation tale of Kamookumpts and Tule Lake. We and most everything else on land did, indeed, arise from some mix of water and mud. Even the biblical account in Genesis 2:6–7 tells of God forming the first man from dust. With the Modocs shipped off to poverty and tuberculosis in Oklahoma, Muir had no way of learning the local edition of this ancient myth from a people whose lineage here stretched back to Mount Mazama and the retreat of the last ice age.

That loss came at a crucial time in Muir’s career. Just a few months earlier, he had concluded his extended hermitage in Yosemite, committed himself to a public mission, contracted with San Francisco’s Daily Evening Bulletin for a series of articles, and headed north to the Mount Shasta country to report on what he found—an environmental reporting trip, one of the first.

On a mountain only a few miles south and west of here, Muir accompanied a band of hunters and gathered the material that grew into “Wild Wool.” That stunning essay, like much of Muir’s writing, helped instill in Americans a sacred sense of their landscape and its inhabitants, as well as a need to protect it and them as they would any sanctuary. To Christians, Muir knew, this was a hard sell. It still is. With the Judeo-Christian Holy Land two continents and one ocean away, the America West lies too far from the sacred center of that Old World tradition to share in its notion of holiness.

To value our land for what it is, we need stories like the Modocs’ creation myth as much as Muir did. It makes a difference to discover that the world began right here, that a god walked this place, that he made mountains and rivers like a kid in a mud puddle, that he still sleeps just over there, where that twisted prominence serves as his blanket. Through the myth, amazing grace descends upon the landscape.

I have this dream of heading back through time to December 1874, standing on this magnificent overlook alongside John Muir, and telling him the Modoc story. At first he would find it fanciful, as enchanting as a fairy tale. Then, slowly, the truth of the old myth would enter him, and he would understand. At that moment, we could really get to work.