This last week I read John Muir: The story of my boyhood and youth.
Many photos of Muir show him with a long beard reclining on a rock looking contemplative. I’ve pictured his life as akin to the ideals of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Turns out that Muir spent several years living in a tiny cabin in Yosemite, communing with nature, doing science and reading Emerson. Perhaps my one-dimensional view of the Muir has a basis in fact.
You may be wondering exactly what the great John Muir is known for. Here’s the ultra-short version before I share some stories from his boyhood and youth. He was a writer, naturalist and preservationist of our American wilderness. Muir was an ardent promotor for the idea of National Parks and is credited with the creation of Yosemite and Sequoia NP. He co-founded the Sierra Club and lead it until his death.
John Muir was born in Scotland in 1838. He went to school, lived in a large house with servants and enjoyed the attention of his loving grandparents. He describes flowers, a robin’s nest and many other early nature experiences.
What ran against my image of Muir as a peaceful philosopher was that Muir fought everyday of his boyhood. “After attaining the manly, belligerent age of five or six years, very few of my school days passed without a fist fight, and half a dozen was no uncommon number. When any classmate of our own age questioned our rank and standing as fighters, we always made haste to settle the matter at a quiet place on the Davel Brae. To be a “gude fechter” was our highest ambition, our dearest aim in life in or out of school. (p. 24-25, boyhood and youth) Perhaps such a fighting spirit might have helped Muir to accomplish all he did. He certainly had exceptional grit. Fearlessness in the face of dangers and challenges would have helped him to live alone in the woods or with writing articles about the wilderness.
When John was 11, he and his father and two younger brothers set out of America. His mother and sisters stayed in Scotland and joined them later. His father decided to migrate for religious reasons because he didn’t find the Church of Scotland strict enough. John and his brothers were excited about migrating. Once in Wisconsin, the 4 of them — one man, an 11 year old and two younger brothers set about clearing the wilderness homestead in Wisconsin, planting the first crops and building a house for the family of 10. It was grueling work for the three young boys no doubt.
Author Amy Marquis notes that he began his “love affair” with nature while young, and implies that it may have been in reaction to his strict religious upbringing. I saw it exactly thus in reading his autobiography.
There are chapters of Muir’s writing describing in rich detail the flora and fauna of Wisconsin as well as his labour on the farm. In between the poetic observations of nature, he slips in a paragraph here and there about the strictness of his father or how he worked 16-17 hours a day from the age 11 until he left home at age 19.
Once his father’s demands almost killed John when he had John dig a water well with some mason’s chisels. The well takes weeks and months to dig as the bottom is sandstone and he has to dig it out painstakingly with tiny tools. It seems like nature is John’s solace, his escape and entertainment for his bright and curious mind while his muscles and body are compelled to complete endless labor.
The third and last surprising fact from Muir’s youth was that as much as he loved nature, his first or other area of interest was engineering. As an older teen, Muir starts rising at 1 AM in the morning to work on engineering projects of his own design such as a clock, a barometer, a thermometer, etc. His father isn’t happy that he is giving up sleep to build things, but doesn’t stop him either. He seems to secretly have been pleased with John’s creations. When John does leave home at 19, it’s these inventions carved from hickory wood that open doors for him. On a neighbor’s suggestions he takes his wooden inventions to the Wisconsin State Fair and connections made there enable him to find his first jobs and gain entry into the University of Madison, Wisconsin.
For someone who found writing difficult, Muir wrote a surprising number of books. (I think many find writing difficult, even those who enjoy it.) He wrote 12 books and 300 articles. The book jacket says that “this portion of his autobiography is one of the classic accounts of pioneering, and of the heartbreaking toil demanded of those who would make cultivated fields out of wild land.” I found the book John Muir: The story of my boyhood and youth fascinating on multiple levels from its accounts of pioneer life to the events and places that shaped John Muir.
Photos in this article are all from the Steep Ravine Trail, Marin, CA with one exception. The photo immediately above with the close-up of the mossy rock with the running water is from the nearby Matt Davis Trail. Taking photos of moss and forests is my greatest joy and interest and has been for several years. While you are here check out the shop with jewelry for nature-lovers associated with this blog. If you find something there you love, I’d be delighted and thank you for supporting this moss photography project.