Muir Family Stories
by Mary Ann Resendes
The Life of John Muir
“When I was a boy in Scotland, I was fond of every thing that was wild, and all my life I’ve been growing fonder and fonder of wild places and wild creatures.” John Muir was a true naturalist from his early childhood days when his grandfather introduced him to the beauty of the natural world. Muir was a man of extraordinary talent, and remarkable intelligence. He traveled the world in search of knowledge of the flora, fauna, and the amazing processes that shape the face of the planet. He was an inventor, a botanist, a geologist, a poet and finally the leader of a new movement that would change the way people view nature. His interests ranged from literature and philosophy to chemistry. He had many paths from which to choose, but it would be years before he would realize his true calling.
Daniel MuirJohn Muir’s father, Daniel was orphaned as an infant, and he and his older sister, Mary, were sent to live with relatives in Lanarkshire, Scotland where they worked hard to earn their keep. He would later impose the same rigorous work ethic upon his children. Daniel was a talented carver. He loved the sound of the violin, but did not have enough money to buy one—so he made one. He turned to religion at the age of when “the ecstasy of the Apostles” came over him. He devoted himself to God, becoming increasingly fanatical as the years passed. He didn’t allow any decorations or pictures to be hung on the walls. He made John work when he was very ill saying, “God and hard work are the best doctors.” Ann Muir In contrast to her husband, Ann Muir was cheerful and loving and had a good sense of humor. She painted and wrote poetry. It’s likely that John inherited his love of nature through his mother’s side of the family, for she too was given to taking long walks in the country. Her friends thought that Daniel Muir was below her in status; her father disapproved of him because he was a religious fanatic who criticized other who did not share his religious intensity. Despite the disapproval, they married and had eight children, the third of whom was John. He was born in Dunbar, Scotland on April 21, 1838 Childhood Scotland His Grandfather Gilrye shared with John his love of the outdoors, and introduced him to the wonders of nature. He also began John’s education at the tender age of three, teaching him the alphabet by pointing out letters in street signs, and helping with his lessons. As they lived near the rocky Dunbar coast, he and his grandfather often went to the nearby shore where John learned about the many creatures that inhabited the shore, and in particular the tide pools. The world was his endless playground. He found adventure at every turn whether it was dangling from the roof by a finger, or playing among the ruins of Dunbar Castle and descending into the pitch darkness of the dungeons beneath the castle. Although his parents warned him and his brother that they should stay in the yard, they couldn’t help themselves. The boys would disappear into the countryside or the shore, knowing that they would later face the consequences. Wisconsin When Muir was 11, his family immigrated to Wisconsin and made their home at Fountain Lake. Muir was enthralled by the Wisconsin wilderness, and fascinated by the flora and fauna that inhabited their new homeland. He especially enjoyed the return of the summer birds that had migrated south for the winter, and took pleasure in the arrival of each new species. He seemed to especially enjoy the arrival of the passenger pigeons, admiring the birds for their beauty. Unfortunately, they became extinct the year Muir died. Inventor When he was fifteen he began to appreciate literature, and used whatever few minutes he had to read a few pages. However, because he worked hard all day and his father insisted that he retire early, he had little time to read. He found that if he woke up 1:00 a.m. he would have five hours to himself. After further thought, he realized that if he worked in the insulated cellar, he would not have to make a fire to keep warm in the sub-zero temperature. It was here that he realized his talent for inventing. He learned about the mechanics of timekeeping from a book, and proceeded to build his own clock. This clock was followed by another, more creative version; it was shaped like a scythe and read “All flesh is grass.” Other inventions include a thermometer, a sawmill, a horse-feeder, and a fire-starter. With encouragement from friends and neighbors, he set out to find his fortune. However, Muir’s father did not share their enthusiasm; he thought that his inventions were a waste of time and that his son would succumb to the sin of pride. Muir took his inventions to the fair of the Agricultural Society in Madison where they were well received. His inventions were described in the newspapers from Madison to the East Coast. He was able to raise a little money from his inventions, and hoped that he would some day be able to go to the State University. A chance meeting with a student who had admired his inventions gave him the courage to take the first steps toward his goal. Education Muir entered primary school at the age of three, and continued in grammar school until age 11 when they moved to Wisconsin. He did not continue his elementary education. Life on a farm meant hard work. Muir’s father needed him to work on the farm, so there was no time for school, and little time to enjoy nature; fields had to be plowed, and livestock had to be fed. Muir spent several years at the University of Wisconsin, taking the classes that he felt would serve him best rather than the regular course of study. He took courses in chemistry, geology, Latin, and Greek. He was so inspired by his studies that he made a laboratory in his room. Under the instruction of Dr. Carr, Muir developed an interest in glaciation, and immersed himself in the study of the phenomenon. Dr. Carr also exposed him to such writers as Emerson and Thoreau. Another professor, Dr. Butler encouraged him to develop his writing abilities and taught him to keep notebooks, an important part of his later travels. But it was another student, Milton Griswold, who ignited Muir’s interest in botany. From then on, whenever Muir had a free moment, he was off to the woods and meadows to identify plants. Wanderer After leaving the University of Wisconsin, Muir planned to go to the University of Michigan Ann Arbor to study medicine. However, the possibility of being drafted weight heavily on him, and he had left the university without obtaining a degree. He decided that if his number was not called, he would take a botanical trip to Canada. It was here that he began his studies in the “University of the Wilderness.” He traveled along the southern provinces studying the flora. When he depleted his funds, he worked at a broom factory, inventing machinery that increased output. After the factory burned down, he took a job at a carriage factory, where an accident caused him to temporarily lose his sight and rethink his plans for the future. The thought of the loss of the beauty of nature changed the direction of his life. He decided to spend his life studying “the inventions of God.” He began this trip by taking a train from Indianapolis to Kentucky, and from that point he made the trip on foot through “the leafiest, wildest, and least trodden way I could find.” He did little in the way of preparation for his travels. All he did was “throw some tea and bread in an old sack and jump over the back fence.” Armed with nothing but a plant press, he traveled on foot through Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia and Florida, occasionally sleeping in taverns, or enjoying the hospitality of friends he made along the way. But he often made his bed in the tall grasses. After a serious bout with malaria, he took a steamer to Cuba, but was disappointed to learn that he couldn’t get a ship to his final destination. An announcement in New York newspaper was a turning point in his life. There was a ship leaving that port on that very day for California. Upon arrival in California, Muir met an Englishman named Chilwell with whom he traveled to Yosemite. They marveled at the beauty of the flower fields of the Central Valley. After arriving in Yosemite Valley they camped for ten days before exploring the Mariposa Grove. They went to Snelling where they worked on the wheat harvest. At the end of the harvest Chilwel went in search of other adventures while John took a job as a shepherd. This new job allowed him to earn money while exploring the mountain flora. At this point, he was still uncertain about what he should do with his life. Yosemite Muir immersed himself in nature, discovering both himself and the wonders of Yosemite. He wanted to drink in the beauty with body and soul, and prayed for a bigger body with which he could absorb the beauty more thoroughly. He longed to spend the winter in Yosemite, so he took a job as a sawyer with J.M. Hutchings, built himself a cabin, and settled in to enjoy the beauty of a Yosemite winter. He received a number of visitors, including Ralf Waldo Emerson, who came to share his knowledge of the valley. It was the fall of 1871 that Muir began to find direction. He began to study the valley in earnest and learned about its geology. He studied striations and lateral moraines in his search for evidence of the formation of Yosemite Valley. He hypothesized that it was the result of glacial and water erosion. He began writing articles about his theories and published “The Death of a Glacier,” the first of many articles, in the New York Tribune. His research led him to find a small “living glacier” on Black Mountain. He climbed Mounts Lyell and McClure to further study glaciation. His studies took him to Alaska in 1879. But before John left for his trip to Alaska, he had an important piece of business to attend to—he asked Louie Strentzel to marry him. Alaska In 1979 Muir made the first of seven trips to Alaska. He was not only going as a scientific explorer, but also as a writer—composing articles for the San Francisco Daily Bulletin. The beauty of the fiords amazed him, “No written words, however bonded together, can convey anything like an adequate conception of its sublime grandeur.” He described Glacier Bay as “a stern solitude of ice and snow and raw, newborn rocks, dim, dreary, mysterious”. And he wondered at the beauty of ice rivers that “poured down from their spacious fountains on either hand.” Muir was not only in awe of the natural beauty of Alaska, he was also very taken with the indigenous people who were the few remaining members of the Tlingit Indians. These people lived in a way that impressed him. They lived a simple life, taking whatever they needed from the environment, but also enjoying a rich culture and heritage. The trip also made him reflect on his own prejudices, and the injustices that had been borne by the California Native Americans. Conservationist For a good part of his life, Muir had distanced himself from the outside world, looking to nature as a refuge, a place where he could find himself. But the encroachment of progress on his sanctuary eventually lead him to take action. He saw the destruction that resulted from overgrazing of cattle and sheep, and clear-cutting. Through his writings, referred to as wilderness journalism, he shared his love of nature with his readers, and created visions of the mountains, streams and meadows in his reader’s minds. He worked with Robert Underwood Johnson, editor of Century Magazine, to introduce a bill to make Yosemite a national park. Although it was initially rejected by congress, President Harrison later signed the bill. They drew up a bill to protect Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park. He organized the Sierra Club to help gain support for the protection of the forests of the Sierra Nevada, and to educate the public. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt requested a private visit with Muir. The main topic of conversation was the need to save the forests. When the four days were over, Muir had convinced Roosevelt that he should take immediate action. His most daunting challenge was the fight to stop the construction of a dam at Hetch Hetchy. It was inconceivable to him that something so beautiful could be so easily destroyed. In 1909 President Taft went to Yosemite for a meeting with Muir. He studied Muir’s plans to develop the park, and came away from the meeting opposing the project. But despite the efforts of Muir and the Sierra Club, the Hetch Hetchy project went forward. In 1914, during a visit with his daughter in the desert, he caught pneumonia. He was taken to a hospital in Los Angeles where he began to improve. On Christmas Eve, he quietly slipped away while working on his Alaska manuscript. Bibliography Batè, W.F. 1924. The Life and Letters of John Muir. The Riverside Press, Cambridge, MA. Barrus, C. 1912. In the Yosemite with John Muir. The Craftsman 23(3):324-335. Cohen, M. 1988. The History of the Sierra Club 1892-1970. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, CA. Douglas, W.O. 1994. John Muir’s Public Service. John Muir Exhibit. http://www.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/life/muir_publicservice_douglas.html Engberg, R. and Wesling, D. 1980. John Muir to Yosemite and Beyond. Writings from the Years 1863 to 1875. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, WI. Engberg, R. 1981. John Muir: From Poetry to Politics. Pacific Historian 25(2):11-19. Limbaugh, R.H. 1993. Introduction: John Muir’s Life and Legacy In: John Muir: Life and Work. Sally M. Miller. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, NM. Merritt, J.I. 1979. Turning Point: John Muir in the Sierra, 1871. American West 16(4):4-15, 62-63. Muir, J. 1913. The Story of My Boyhood and Youth. The Riverside Press, Cambridge, MA. Muir, J. 1993. Letters from Alaska. R. Engberg and B. Merrell. The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison WI. Teale, E.W. 1954. The Wilderness World of John Muir. The Riverside Press, Cambridge, MA. Winkley, J.W. 1959. John Muir, Naturalist. A Concise Biography of the Great Naturalist. Parthenon Press, Nashville, Tennessee. Wolfe, L.M. 1946. Son of the Wilderness. The Life of John Muir. Alfred Knopf, New York.
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