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John Muir

by Jeanne C. Carr

From California Illustrated Magazine, vol. 2, pp. 88-94, June, 1892.


I first met John Muir a quarter of a century ago in Madison, the beautiful capital of Wisconsin, where Dr. Carr was for many years Professor fo the Natural Sciences and of Chemistry in the State University.

As one of the Geological Commissioners, he also had much to do in gathering and arranging the extensive collections which illustrate the natural history and resources of the region bordering the great lakes and the Mississippi. Professor James Hall, the eminent geologist, was at the head of the commission, and students employed as assistants have since become eminent in the fields of scientific research and education.

During a fair of the state agricultural society, held at the Capital, the secretary wishing to secure a special premium for the meritorious inventions of a young Scotch friend from Portage, asked me to report them to the proper committee. They were not easy to classify under the society's specifications.

I accompanied him to a part of the grounds where we found John Muir engaged in showing the relation between brains and bedsteads.

The bedstead exhibited was a rude affair over which some blankets were thrown, but was mysteriously connected with a rustic clock, which if set for any desired time of waking, gently raised the occupant of the bed to an upright position with his feet upon the footboard.

He was assisted in this demonstration by two small boys; one a truant belonging to me and the other to the Professor of Greek. The lads soon became perfect in their role, sleeping tranquilly without moving an eyelash, until surprised by the cheers of the spectators. The little side-show attracted many visitors who were entertained by the naive explanations and enthusiasm of the inventor. But these incidents would probably have been forgotten had not Dr. Carr soon after reported Muir's attendance upon his lectures at the University.

A friend happened to be present, a physician from Portage, where the Muir family lived; whose story of piety and patience as exemplified in the lives of John's parents, David and Annie Muir, seemed like a reading from the pages of George McDonald.

And of genius also; for as bidden by the Psalmist, David praised the Lord upon stringed instruments, even upon a violin of his own making; he also practiced the prayer and faith cures as a free gift, and like the Master he strove to imitate, deprecated notoriety. He was reputed to be a severe disciplinarian; not from passion or even justice but because the consequences of sparing the rod were so explicitly stated in the Holy Word. When he was called by the Spirit into the wilderness of towns and cities on religious errands, the brave mother and her loyal sons took up the family burdens uncomplainingly, and waited for his return.

And so this pioneer family took root; became useful and greatly respected by their neighbors in spite of somewhat hard conditions.

They had few books, but these were the best and tales of grandfather, their very own, to fall back upon. David and his Annie were doubtless as happy in their simple belief that the world was made in six literal "days," as if these had been called aeons or crores; but the spirit of inquiry developing in one of their bairns was already leading him to the "Great Stone Book" for a fuller explanation.

In winter the inglenook was not destitute of cheer and thus this budding genius was accounted for in the orderly processes of nature.

When the "twa laddies" who had tested the bedstead heard that Muir was a student of the University, they gave me no peace until we visited him, having planned a course of jack knife studies under this most competent professor. We found his room furnished with several ingenious and useful articles besides the now famous clock and bed.

One of these was a desk, which if en rapport with the clock, moved the text books required in each study to the front, and opened them at the proper place.

But to me the most captivating piece of mechanism was an apparatus for registering the growth of an ascending plant stem during each of the twenty-four hours. The plant he had selected for the purpose was the common Madeira Vine; (Boussingaultia of botanists) which was growing luxuriantly in his sunniest window.

A fine needle, threaded with the long hair of a fellow studentess, when attached to the plant, made the record faithfully upon a paper disk marked to indicate minute spaces with great exactness, while the rustic clock ticked the minutes and hours away.

During the following winter Muir taught a district school in a log building without other apparatus than the water pail and dipper.

but with the help of these he contrived a clock, and by applying his knowledge of chemistry and mechanical powers still farther found a fire and warm schoolroom awaiting him after his long walks through snow drifts in an almost Arctic temperature. A water color painting of that log schoolhouse was long treasured by one of his friends as a proof that the artist's eye and touch were not wanting among his many gifts.

At the beginning of the next University year he was missed, and knowing how eagerly he wished to finish the course, Professor Sterling in behalf of the faculty, invited his return as a free student. The University had not then come into possession of its large endowments.

Dr. Carr had plans for him also in the geological service which we were holding back for a surprise; but

"The best laid plans of mice and men Gang aft aglee,___"

and these letters were never received.

After many fruitless attempts to recover him a characteristic missive reached us from Trouts Mills near Meaford, in West Canada, where there was a manufactory of wooden rakes.

"I am sorry over the loss of Professor Sterling's letter, for I waited and wearied for it a long time, keeping up an irregular course of study but since undertaking, a month ago, to invent new machinery for this mill my mind seems to busy itself in this work to the exclusion of everything else." He had been disappointed and we were grieved as we read. "Oh how frequently, when lonely and wearied, have I wished that like some hungry worm I could creek into that delightful kernel of your house, your library, with its portraits of scientific men upon its walls and such bountiful store of their sheaves into the blossoms and verdure of your little kingdom of plants" (our winter garden,) "luxuriant and happy as if opening their leaves under the open sky of the most flower-loving zone in the world."

He seemed uncertain into which of many alluring ways he might turn his steps, and gain he wrote: "A voice seemed to mock my aspirations towards the study of medicine, that I might do something to alleviate human misery." At another time: "I felt called toward the study of nature among the dells and dingles of Scotland, and all the other, less important parts of our world."

"I would like to invent useful machinery, but the voice answers 'you do not like to spend your life among machines.'"

In spite of the warning of his demon Muir committed himself to rake making, supplying new contrivances for setting the teeth and handles, and by the subtlety of his intuitions and suggestions, impressed his employer with his ability to substitute mind for muscle in a great variety of ways.

His services were substantially rewarded, and on becoming a capitalist, he had decided to invest in a grand walking tour; when the factory was burned, and his money, clothes, books and papers vanished in flames.

Then began the wanderjahre of this meister in nature's greater workshops, whose record for the next ten years were as strange as any recorded in the literature of her lovers.

His first important stopping place was at Indianapolis, where visiting some of the great machine shops, he fell into conversation with a skilful and intelligent operator. Some suggestion of Muir created a discussion of mechanical powers and their applications, which led to an engagement, promising still greater advantages than those he had lost.

In this new work he wrought as faithfully as before, making many friends, but during the following April there came a letter to us, traced by his fingers, with no help from his eyes, which read: "The sunshine and winds are working in all the gardens of God, but I, I am lost! I am shut in darkness. My hard toil-tempered muscles have disappeared; and I am feeble and tremulous as an ever sick woman.

"My friends here are kind beyond what I can tell, and do much to shorten the immense, black days."

The explanation, written by an attendant, told us that while adjusting some delicate machinery, a small file had pierced he right eye on the outer edge of the cornea. Afterwards he wrote: "I felt neither pain nor faintness, the thought was so tremendous that my right eye was gone; that I should never look at a flower again."

Later, during his slow recovery, he wrote: "On some cloudy day, I am promised a walk in the woods, where the spring's sweet first-born are waiting." After many weeks I received his token of recovery in a small package of Climacium, that miniature palm among the mosses.

We were still more encouraged when he concluded a letter by saying: "I have nearly an eye and a half left, and can read a letter with the poorest. I feel if possible more anxious to travel than ever. I read a description of the Yosemite Valley last year, and have thought if it almost every day since."

That he was using both his eyes was proven by a rhapsody upon the mosses.

"The dear little conservative green mosses have elevated their smooth, shining shafts and stand side by side, every cowl properly plaited,and drawn down just far enough, every hood with its dainty slant, their fashions unchanging because perfect."

One may trust a nature-lover to be his own doctor, and soon this one prescribed a walk from Indianapolis to Portage, Wisconsin, accompanied by a lad eleven years old. They were weeks on the way, and appeared at Madison, laden like donkeys, with their burdens of pressed plants. He spoke only once of his trial, saying that "he was very thankful that his affliction had driven him to the sweet fields rather than away from them." This was in June, 1867, when he spent some happy weeks with "the loved of home."

The shock to his nervous system, resulting from his injury, was greater and his recovery slower than had been expected. September found him in Kentucky, among the hills of Bear Creek, after walking from Louisville, a distance of one hundred and seventy miles.

Of his plans and purposes he wrote: "It was a few miles south of Louisville when I planned my journey. I spread out my map under a tree, and made up my mind to go through Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia to Florida; thence to Cuba, and from there to some part of South America. It will be only a hasty walk. I am thankful, however, for so much. I will be glad to receive any advice from you; I am very ignorant of all things pertaining to this journey.

"The lordly trees and scenery of Kentucky are cut into my memory, to go with me forever."

In pursuance of this plan, he reached Georgia, where, from a camping place near Savannah - the famous Buenaventura - his letter was an exquisite prose poem on the "natural beauty of death."

"I gazed at this peerless avenue as one newly arrived from another planet, without a past or a future, alive only to the presence of the most adorned and living of the tree companies I have ever beheld. Buenaventura is called a graveyard, but its accidental graves are powerless to influence the imagination in such a depth of life. The rippling of living waters, the song of birds, the cordial rejoicing of busy insects, the calm grandeur of the forest, make it rather one of the Lord's elect and favored field of clearest light and life. Few people have considered the natural beauty of death. Let a child grow up in nature, beholding their beautiful and harmonious blendings of death and life; their joyous, inseparable unity, and Death will be stingless indeed to him."

Having no doubt that Muir's persistence would lead him to the Andes and the Amazon, we addressed to friends in Buenas Ayres and to President Surmiento letters which we hoped would ensure his comfort and safety. Meanwhile he lay sick with a fever in Florida, and a lady friend and admirer informed us of the perils he had incurred,and the interest felt in his behalf by all who had listened to his glowing descriptions of the scenes still fresh in his mind. On the eighth of NOvember, he wrote from Cedar Keys that he was getting plants and strength, and about to go to New Orleans for a passage to South America; not quite sure as to what point.

Then occurred a break in a correspondence, so fully shared with others that the letters are far more travel worn than the writer of them, next heard from - Near Snelling, Merced County, California, July 26th, 1868:

"I have had the pleasure of but one letter from any source since leaving Florida, and of course am very lonesome and hunger terribly for the communion of friends. Fate and flowers have carried me to California, where I have reveled nearly four months. I am well again, and were it not for loneliness and isolation, the joy of my existence would be complete. I saw little of the beauty during the journey across the Isthmus of Panama, for my body was still a wreck, and was borne with cruel speed through the gorgeous Eden of vines and palms. I could only gaze from the car platform and weep and pray that the Lord would sometime give me strength to see it better."

The prayer seems to have been answered at once and strength given to improve his opportunities in California, for he says: "Florida is indeed a land of flowers, but for every flower creature dwelling in its most delightsome places, more than a hundred are living here. Here is Florida. Not scattered, with grass between as on our prairies; but the panicled grasses are sprinkled among the flowers; not as in Cuba, piled and heaped into glowing masses; but side by side, flower to flower, petal to petal, touching but never entwined, each free and separate, yet making one smooth earth garment, mosses next the ground, grasses above, petaled flowers between.

"Before studying the flowers of this valley, their sky and all of the furniture sounds and adornments of their homes, one can scarcely believe that their vast assemblies are permanent, but rather that actuated by some great plant purpose, they had convened from every plain, mountain and meadow of their kingdom; and that the different coloring of the patches, acres and miles marked the bounds of the various tribe and family encampments."

He reached San Francisco in April, and at once struck out into the country, following the foothills along the San Jose Valley to Gilroy; thence into the San Joaquin Valley by the Pacheco Pass, and down to the mouth of the Merced. "This walking (?) trip included the Mariposa forest of Sequoias, and the Yosemite Valley, then in primeval freshness; Lemon's Log Cabin; Hutching's original hotel and the smaller one at Blacks being the only houses, did not mar the impression of 'a sacred solitude.'

"One week from the burning plains of the San Joaquin, and I was lost in the blinding snows of the Arctic winter. The winter scales are shut fast upon the buds of the oaks and alders; the grand Nevada pines wave solemnly; my horse is plunging in snow ten feet in depth. Wonderful indeed is the meeting and blending of the seasons of the mountains and plains, beautiful as the joinings of lake and land, or the bands of color in the rainbow."

A letter dated February 24th, 1869, written from Snellings, showed how much he had felt the human hunger for friends and fellowship.

"Your two California notes from San Francisco and San Mateo reached me last evening, and I rejoice at the glad tidings they bring of your arrival in this magnificent land. Of all my friends, you are the only one who understands my motives and enjoyments.

"Only a few weeks ago a true and liberal-minded friend sent me a sheet -full of the most terrible blue-steel orthodoxy, calling me from clouds and flowers to the walks of politics and philanthropy. I thought that you had never lectured me thus,and were coming to see and read for yourself these glorious lessons of sky, plain and mountain, of which no mortal lips can adequately speak.

"I though, when in the Yosemite Valley last Spring, that the Lord had written things for you to read some time. I have not made a single friend in California, and you may be sure I strode home last evening from the postoffice feeling rich, indeed.

"I am engaged at present in the very important and patriarchal business of keeping sheep. I am a gentle shepherd. The gray box in which I reside is distant about seven miles northeast from Hopeton. The Merced pours past me on the south, from the Yosemite. Smooth, downy hills and the tree fringes of the Tuolumne bound me on the north; the lordly Sierras join sky and plain on the east, and the far coast mountains on the west. My mutton family of eighteen hundred range over about ten square miles, and I have abundant opportunities for reading and botanizing. In about two weeks I shall be engaged in sheep-shearing between the Tuolumne and Stanislaus, from the San Joaquin to the Sierra foothills, for about two months. I will be in California until next November, when I mean to start for South America.

"You must prepare for your Yosemite baptism in June."

Thus I did with the utmost zeal and earnestness. Just before starting another letter came from Muir, telling me that he "would be 'at Black's' until the end of June." In my own or others' ignorance that there were two localities of the same name, one near Coulterville and one in the valley, a blunder was made which prevented my meeting Mr. Muir that summer. I inquired of every dusty herder that we passed on our horseback ride from Mariposa to the Yosemite until the curiosity of a fellow traveler, not of our party, was aroused. Riding alongside of me she asked, "is the feller you're huntin' herdin' sheep!"

"That is his present calling," I replied. "Well, you're darned lucky to miss him; that's my experience with sech as them;" and she rode complacently away. What had befallen John Muir, especially in the regards of this female, or what there could be in a calling of which so many poetic things have been said since shepherds watched their flocks by night, to offend the most fastidious, I could not imagine.

Many of his letters about this time were dateless, thrown off as if to relive the tension of his unshared enjoyment.

"My studies have increasing rewards of truth, and I will seek to be true to them, although all the rest of the world of beauty besides these mountains burn and nebulize back to star smoke." He becomes more and more in love with ice.

"I know how you love this purple and yellow and green - these warm sun songs of color, but I must edge in a kind word for ice. Glaciers are paper manufacturers, and they pulped these mountains and made the meadowy sheets on which this leaf music is written."

"Are you pluming for our mountain better land? I was on Cloud's Rest yesterday, and enjoyed a very vigorous snowstorm. Did you not hear a shout? Three avalanches of ice and snow started from the summit of Cloud's Rest ridge, one after the other in glorious gestures and boomings; I was within a few yards of them.

"It will probably be late in June before we can get on to the summits, snow is very abundant. Nevada and Vernal and the strip of glory between were in full gush of spirit life as I passed them yesterday.

"I will be glad to know your friend Stoddard. He wrote about the Lord's making Yosemite, and I want him to write an entirely different version of the affair.

"Sunday night I was up in the moon among the lumined spray of the upper falls. The lunar bows were glorious, and the music Godful as ever. You will yet ;mingle amid the forms and voices of this peerless fall.

"I wanted to have you spend two or three nights up there in full moon, and planned a small hut for you, but since the boisterous waving of the rocks (slight earthquake tremor on the coast) the danger seems forbidding, at least for you. We can go up there in the afternoon, spend an hour or two and return.

"I had a grand ramble in the deep snow outside the valley, and discovered one beautiful truth concerning snow structure,and three concerning the forms of forest trees.

"These earthquakes have made me immensely rich. I had long been aware of the life and gentle tenderness of the rocks, and instead of walking upon them as unfeeling surfaces, began to regard them as a transparent sky. Now they have spoken with audible voice, pulsed with wave-like motion - this very instance, just as my pen reached the spot indicated on the third line above, my cabin creaked with a sharp shock and the oil waved in my lamp. We had several shocks last night. I would like to go somewhere on the west coast to study earthquakes. I think I could invent some experimental apparatus whereby their complicated phenomena could be separated and read, but I have some years of ice on hand.

"'Tis most ennobling to find and feel that we are constructed with reference to these noble storms so as to draw unspeakable enjoyment from them. Are we not rich when our six-foot column of substance sponges up heaven above and earth beneath into its pores. AYE, we have chambers in us the right shape for earthquakes!"

John Muir of to-day everyone knows - one of the most delightful writers in the West, a word colorist in every sense, who, it is hoped, will not lay down the pen for many a day to come.


Source: California Illustrated Magazine, vol. 2, pp. 88-94, June, 1892.


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