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Walking with Mr. Muir

Walking with Mr. Muir

Walking with Mr. Muir

Page Type: Article

Object Title: Walking with Mr. Muir


Page By: dwhike

Created/Edited: Oct 20, 2009 / Oct 14, 2010

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"Keep close to Nature's heart... and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean." -John Muir

The following is my humble tribute to a man whom I consider to be one of history’s greatest figures. It is a story of a man whom I can personally identify with. My love for the wilds, the quiet corners of the world, and natural wonders both great and small draw me to Muir as a common bond. No doubt, many of the places I have visited in my short life owe their existence to the conservation movement which had its beginnings, literally, in Muirs hands. No one before or since seems to have grasped the wonders of the natural world with such insight and clarity as John Muir. Because of all this, I present the following article. I simply invite you to take a few minutes walking with a man who I draw an immeasurable amount of inspiration from…

P.S. I’m certain there are many out there with a greater understanding of Muir’s life that may find certain events omitted or seemingly glossed over…I apologize for this but I did not set out to write a book. I hope you enjoy it anyway...

Early Years...

“When I was a boy I was fond of everything wild.” -Muir
Muir Birthplace
Muir Birthplace

John Muir was born on April 21, 1832 in the small Scottish town of Dunbar, east of Edinburgh. The son of a devout evangelical Presbyterian, John was a typical young Scottish boy. Splitting his time between school, chores, exploration, and fighting John quickly discovered that he was unique in his family. His father was a hard working and successful farmer who, in typical fashion for the time, believed in harsh discipline as the proper way to bring up children. Even as a young child the future naturalist in Muir emerged. He would wander among the lilies in his aunt’s garden imagining them to be worth “an enormous sum of money” or play “voyages around the world” with his cousins. He also began to take a great interest at reading, even from a young age. In particular, the grand natural spectacles described in John James Audubon’s books drew his imagination to the great wilderness of America. It is no surprise then that, when suddenly John’s father announced they would be leaving "on the ‘morrow" for America, the young boy could barely contain his excitement. Within a couple days young John Muir, not yet 10 years of age, set sail for the great adventure that awaited him in America.

“This sudden push into pure wildness-baptism into nature’s warm heart-how utterly happy it made us!”

Indeed, after six weeks aboard a cramped immigrant ship followed by a roundabout journey up the Great Lakes to Wisconsin, John must have felt like he had entered another world. Upon the recommendation of a family friend John’s father, Daniel, picked out a plot of land along the Fox River near the small town of Kingston, Wisconsin. The new wonders of nature in this land were provided no end of amazement and discovery. Birds, wildflowers, frogs, reptiles, and all other variety of creatures previously unknown to the young naturalist were revealed in an ecological display quite unknown to most today. John was in heaven. Soon, however, the excitement of a new land soon gave way to the realities of farming the western frontier of America in the mid-1800’s. Being the eldest male sibling, many of the more undesirable and difficult chores of plowing, rail-splitting, and stump chopping fell to the teenage Muir. “The axe and plough were kept very busy…and in a very short time the new country began to look like an old one.” Corn, wheat, and potatoes were the crops of choice and it wasn’t long before the family was on the move once again looking for a larger and better area to farm. At age 19, Johns father relocated the Muir’s to a larger farm southeast of Fountain Lake, Wisconsin named Hickory Hill.
Rural Wisconsin
Wisconsin Farmlands

John’s dissatisfaction with farm life was not lost on his father. I can imagine the awkward silences that would follow John telling his dad about the habits of the local Blue Jay population or the strange beetles he had collected behind the barn. Inevitably, a rift began to form between the younger and older Muirs as the father grudgingly had to realize that his son was not following in his father’s footsteps. When John would plead that he wanted more time to read his father quickly declared that, instead, the entire family should retire to bed immediately after dinner… if John wanted to read he could do so before chores in the morning. This rule did not have the desired effect. Instead of stunting his son’s love for literature, John would wake himself at 1 a.m. to give himself a good five hours to devote to learning. The writing was on the wall. Not long after his 20th birthday John Muir left home.

John did not immediately set out into the wilds, however. Making his way to Madison he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin where his studies included Latin, Greek, botany, chemistry, and physics. He spent two and a half years at college, spending his summers working back at Hickory Hill. As the Civil War broke out in 1860 John tried to avoid talk by others of joining the fight against the south. To John war was “so ugly a monster” and he wanted nothing to do with it. He managed to avoid the draft in 1863 but when a new, more widespread draft emerged in 1864 John, at the urging of his mother, quietly travelled to Michigan and slipped over the border into Canada.

“I began to doubt whether I was fully born…I was on the world. But was I in it?”
Georgian Bay
Georgian Bay

Not a great deal is known about John Muir’s time north of the border. Normally a very vocal individual through his journals, John is strangely silent for the three years he spent in the wilds of Canada. What is known is that he split his time between wandering the shores of Georgian Bay with hard labor at a woodworking factory in Meaford, Ontario where he was joined by his brother Dan. John was a very conflicted individual at this time. His love of wilderness and the wonders of nature, on one hand, contrasted with the stark reality of making a life for himself in a more conventional manner. He longed for a life that could combine the two but the simple fact was he had to eat. Interestingly, John worked as an inventor during his time at the sawmill, and apparently he was quite successful at this. During the period between 1865-66 he crafted over 32,000 broom, rake, and fork handles. John carefully put the money he earned aside for a future life in the wilds. On March 1, 1866 providence intervened on his behalf. The sawmill burnt to the ground and John suddenly found himself unemployed. With the Civil War now over he returned to Indianapolis, Indiana where he once again found work as an inventor at a local factory. Then tragedy struck…

“My right eye is gone. Closed forever on God’s beauty!”

While repairing a machine one evening a piece flew up and struck him in the right eye, blinding him. He immediately visited a local physician who told him that with rest he may regain his sight. Muir, no doubt shaken to the core at the prospect of a life without full sight, immediately retired to his apartment and spent the next four weeks in darkness. His mind wandered. He imagined himself in exotic places across the globe. The Amazon, the Pacific, and a little known place called Yosemite Valley in the majestic Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. Ironically, his temporary loss of sight had brought him the clarity of vision he had been longing for. After his eye had healed he quit his job. “God has to nearly kill us sometimes, to teach us lessons,” he wrote to a friend. Lesson learned, John Muir packed his meager belongings, turned his back on civilization, and stepped out in to the woods…

The 1,000-mile Walk & the Amazon Dream...

“All drawbacks overcome…joyful and free…I chose to become a tramp.”
Cave Entrance, Mammoth Cave NP
Mammoth Caves

After a brief return to Wisconsin to say his goodbyes to his family Muir hopped a train to Jeffersonville, Indiana from where he set out on his journey south. In his own words he travelled the “wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way” through the Deep South. He crossed the Ohio River and journeyed into eastern Kentucky noting all the wonderful richness of nature along the way. Soon he found himself in the Mammoth Caves area and did a little bit of spelunking. He commented that the immense caverns were “magnificent halls in the natural kingdom.” From Mammoth Caves he walked the Cumberland hills south through Tennessee and into Georgia where each morning revealed new plant life or wild hills to explore. Muir was also likely one of the original 'go-lite' hikers. He carried with him only a plant press, a novel entitled Paradise Lost, and a copy of the New Testament. He foraged his own food and relied on the kindness of strangers for lodging. He was also quite the hiker. Considering his writings, one might imagine John would hardly have had the energy to walk with all the time he spent immersing himself in local plant and wildlife. This wasn’t the case; most days Muir would cover 20 miles or more.

Upon reaching the Atlantic coast at Savannah, Muir caught a ship heading to Florida. He arrived at Cedar Key and was dumbfounded at the exotic subtropical diversity of life at this latitude. He soon found, however, that travel in this region was not to his liking as it was “so watery and vine-tied that pathless wanderings are not easily possible in any direction.” He immediately made plans to depart for Cuba. While waiting for a boat to take him there, Muir was hired on briefly at a local sawmill where he replenished his dwindling travel funds. Unfortunately, the tropics quickly took their toll on young John and he came down with malaria. Sickness hardly slowed him, though. He still made a point of wandering the shoreline near Cedar Key taking in palm-lined beaches and watching waterfowl playing in the surf. Soon, while still quite unwell, he found a place aboard ship and headed for Havana.
Yellow Iris
Invaluable Beauty

For whatever reason, perhaps finding Cuba too similar to Florida, John turned his sights southward again. South America’s Amazon rain forest, in Muir’s mind, was the botanical paradise where he could truly live out his life of natural oneness. It was not to be. Fate once again intervened and no ship could be found to take him there. Instead, he returned north, this time to New York City, to reconsider his future plans. One can hardly be surprised that New York and John Muir did not agree with each other. He sums his feelings up nicely in the following quote: “I felt completely lost in the vast throngs of people, the noise of the streets, and the immense size of the buildings.” With a touch of humor he adds, “I once thought I would like to explore the city, if like a lot of wild hills and valleys, it was clear of inhabitants!” I’m sure many of us could share in that sentiment! Before long Muir had come up with a ‘Plan B’ of sorts. He would travel west, to California, resupply, and then once again proceed south to the Amazon. California was to be just a brief lay-over…if he only knew…

A Mountain Calling...

“When we dwell with mountains, see them face to face, every day, they seem as creatures with a sort of life-friends subject to moods, now talking, now taciturn, with whom we converse…”
Half Dome and Yosemite Valley

Hardly had his feet left the docks of San Francisco before Muir was asking someone to take him “anywhere that is wild.” His intended destination was Yosemite Valley. Now step back and take a moment to consider what was about to happen. This young man, well traveled though he was, had never experienced a land more rugged than the southern Appalachians or the mountains of his native Scotland. Journals and sketches of the time were certainly helpful in teasing the imagination of a would-be traveler but pictures of far-off lands were largely created in the mind of the individual. Even someone as well read and in tune with nature as John Muir could not have envisioned the spectacle which opened up before him as he entered the great valley. The sound of his wonder is evident in the deafening silence his first visit produced. No writings exist from the time he first spent at Yosemite. Could it have been that even the exceptionally expressive John Muir was struck speechless? Was he so overwhelmed by the power of nature in this place that words could not have expressed what he felt? For anyon