Delving one day among miscellaneous papers that had been brought to me from the silent and deserted home of John Muir in the Alhambra Valley, near Martinez, California, I found a sketch of his life which led me to hope that a difficult part of my biographical task had been made easy. Just then my eye caught the laconic comment, “A strange, bold mixture of Muirs!” penciled across the manuscript in his own familiar flowing hand. Apparently the sketch had been sent to Muir by the admiring author, who, finding himself in need of an ancestry worthy of his subject, had made short shrift of facts to get one. Taking a survey of Muirs available in biographical reference works, he selected as father for John Muir a distinguished Scotch Sanscritist of the same name, gave him as an uncle an equally eminent Scotch Arabist, and for good measure added, as a younger brother, a well-known Scotch chemist. Given the conviction that genius must spring from genius, the would-be biographer had done his best to provide his hero with an adequate pedigree.
But while John Muir’s origin was humbler than this invention, the mixture of elements need abate nothing either in strangeness or in boldness. Although unfortunately it is not possible to trace back far the tangled thread of his descent, one feels instinctively that marked ancestral traits and faculties must have gone into the making of a personality so unusual and so fascinating. His name he appears to have taken from his paternal grandfather, a Scotchman by the name of John Muir. Beyond the latter our knowledge of this line of Muirs ceases, and it may be doubted whether a search of Scotch parish records, even, would reveal more than another bare name.
Of this ancestral John Muir we know only that he was a soldier by profession; that he married an English woman by the name of Sarah Higgs; that she bore him two children—Mary and Daniel; that his wife died when the second child was only nine months old; and that he followed her to the grave three months later. The orphaning of Mary and Daniel Muir at so tender an age may account for the fact that the American family tradition of the Muirs has little to report about John Muir, the soldier, and his wife Sarah Higgs Muir, except the tragedy of their untimely deaths. All knowledge of their birthplaces and parentage, tastes, accomplishments, and dispositions is lost in oblivion.
Our detailed knowledge of the family really begins with Daniel Muir, the younger of the two orphans and the only male link in the Muir pedigree atthis point. He it was who in due time became the father of John Muir, the naturalist, and to the latter’s brief sketch of his father’s life, written as an obituary notice, we owe practically all our extant information about the early life of Daniel Muir. The latter was born in Manchester, England, in 1804. His sister Mary Muir was his senior by about eleven years, and when their parents had died she “became a mother to him and brought him up on a farm that belonged to a relative in Lanarkshire, Scotland.” From an aged daughter of Mary Muir, Grace Blakley Brown, the writer ascertained the fact that the above-mentioned farm was situated at Crawfordjohn, about thirty-five miles south-east of Glasgow. If it is true, as alleged, that it was one of his mother’s people to whom the farm belonged, we are probably not far wrong in supposing that John Muir, the elder, also came from this region, and met Sarah Higgs in Crawfordjohn.
How much importance one may attach to ante-natal influences exerted upon one’s forbears by the physical characteristics of a country is a debatable question. “Some of my grandfathers,” John Muir once wrote in playful mood to a friend, “must have been born on a muirland, for there is heather in me, and tinctures of bog juices, that send me to Cassiope, and, oozing through all my veins, impel me unhaltingly through endless glacier meadows, seemingly the deeper and danker the better.” Did he have in mind some family tradition of a Scotch Highland ancestry? We do not know; but if any of his ancestors came from the country of Lanark there is aptness in the hyperbole. The parish of Crawford consists chiefly of mountains and moors. Coulter Fell, Tinto, Green Louther, Five Cairn Louther, and other summits in the immediate vicinity of Crawfordjohn rise grandly out of the high moorlands that constitute most of the area in the eastern and southern parts of the county. Hard by the village flows Duneaton Water, one of the numerous rushing, songful streams that feed the River Clyde. The highest inhabited land in Scotland is said to lie at Leadhills, on the banks of Glengonner Water, not many miles south of Crawfordjohn.
In any case, it was amid these surroundings, according to John Muir’s sketch, that his father “lived the life of a farm servant, growing up a remarkably bright, handsome boy, delighting in athletic games and eager to excel in everything. He was notably fond of music, had a fine voice, and usually took a leading part in the merry song-singing gatherings of the neighborhood. Having no money to buy a violin, when he was anxious to learn to play that instrument, he made one with his own hands, and ran ten miles to a neighboring village through mud and rain after dark to get strings for it.”
In the course of time his sister Mary married a shepherd-farmer of Crawfordjohn by the name of Hamilton Blakley, whereupon her new home became also that of Daniel Muir. A Scottish peasant’s life in a country village, remote from populous centers, must have afforded only narrow opportunities for education and self-improvement. John Muir was accustomed to ascribe the rigidity of his father’s prejudices and convictions to the deficient quality of his early education. But it must be admitted that the making of a violin by a boy, who had grown up amid the handicaps of such surroundings, indicates the possession on his part of uncommon native resources of skill and ingenuity. An achievement of this kind suggests the probability that there were other products of his manual craftsmanship, and the remarkable inventive power and “whittling” skill which his son John developed as a young man doubtless were not unconnected with his father’s example and ability. “While yet more boy than man,” continues the sketch, “he suddenly left home to seek his fortune with only a few shillings in his pocket, but with his head full of romantic schemes for the benefit of his sister and all the world besides. Going to Glasgow and drifting about the great city, friendless and unknown, he was induced to enter the British army, but remained in it only a few years, when he purchased his discharge before he had been engaged in any active service. On leaving the army he married and began business as a merchant in Dunbar, Scotland. Here he remained and prospered for twenty years, establishing an excellent reputation for fair dealing and enterprise. Here, too, his eight children were born, excepting the youngest who was born in Wisconsin.” It is strong evidence of his energy and love of adventure that he closed out his business in Dunbar in 1849 and “emigrated to the wilds of America” at the mature age of forty-five years. His original intention was to go to the backwoods of Upper Canada, but he was diverted from this purpose by fellow emigrants who told him that the woods of Canada were so dense and heavy that an excessive amount of labor was required to clear land for agriculture. From Milwaukee he made his way by wagon into the central part of southern Wisconsin, where he bought, cleared, and brought under cultivation, successively, two large farms. They were situated about ten miles from Kingston and were known respectively as the Fountain Lake and the Hickory Hill farms.
[When the second one also was]. . . thoroughly subdued and under cultivation, and his three sons had gone to seek their fortunes elsewhere, he sold it and devoted himself solely to religious work. As an evangelist he went from place to place in Wisconsin, Canada, and Arkansas, distributing books and tracts at his own cost, and preaching the gospel in season and out of season with a firm sustained zeal.On his mother’s side John Muir was descended from the old Scottish stock of the Gilderoys whose deeds won a place in the Border lore of Scotland. There is, for instance, the fine old ballad “Gilderoy,” but the possibility that its thirteen stanzas may celebrate a member of this branch of the family must remain as remote as it is romantic. In a manuscript copy of the ballad, made for John Muir years ago by a Scotch relative of the Gilroy line, the opening stands run as follows:
Nor was this period of religious activity restricted to those later years, for throughout almost his whole life as a soldier, merchant, and farmer, as well as evangelist, he was an enthusiastic believer and upholder of the gospel and it is this burning belief that forms the groundwork of his character and explains its apparent contradictions. He belonged to almost every Protestant denomination in turn, going from one to another, not in search of a better creed, for he was never particular as to the niceties of creeds, but ever in search of a warmer and more active zeal among its members with whom he could contribute his time and money to the spread of the gospel.
Though suffering always under the disadvantage of an imperfect education, himself overtasked, but by sheer force of will and continuous effort overcame all difficulties that stood in his way. He was successful in business and bestowed much of his earnings on churches and charities.
His life was singularly clean and pure. He never had a single vice excepting, perhaps, the vices of over-industry and over-giving. Good Scripture measure, heaped up, shaken together, and running over, he meted out to all. He loved little children, and beneath a stern face, rigid with principle, he carried a warm and tender heart. He seemed to care not at all what people would think of him. That never was taken into consideration when work was being planned. The Bible was his guide and companion and almost the only book he ever cared to read.
His last years, as he lay broken in body, waiting for rest, were full of calm divine light. Faith in God and charity to all became the end of all his teachings, and he oftentimes spoke of the mistakes he had made in his relation toward his family and neighbors, urging those about him to be on their guard and see to it that love alone was made the guide and rule of every action. . . . His youthful enthusiasm burned on to the end, his mind glowing like a fire beneath all its burden of age and pain, until at length he passed on into the land of light, dying like a summer day in deep peace, surrounded by his children.
"Gilderoy was a bonnie boy,In Thompson’s Orpheus Caledonius (1733) the hero of the poem is represented as contemporary with Mary, Queen of Scots. But a later authority, describing this Gilderoy as “the Robin Hood of Scottish minstrelsy,” identified him with the leader of a band of freebooters that three centuries ago roamed over the Highlands of Perthshire until both he and his band fell victims to the Stewarts of Atholl in 1638.
Had roses till his shoon;
His stockings were of sillken soy,
Wi’ garters hanging coon;
It was, I ween, a comely sight,
To see see trim a boy;
He was my joy and heart’s delight,
My winsome Gilderoy.
"Oh! sic twa charming een he had,
A breath as sweet as rose;
He never ware a Highland plaid,
But costly silken clothes.
He gained the love of ladies gay,
Nane e’er to him was coy.
Ah! wee is me! I mourn this day,
For my dear Gilderoy!” etc.
According to a Muir family tradition John’s maternal great-grandfather, James Gilderoy, had three sons who took respectively the names Gilderoy, Gilroy, and Gilrye. Inquiry of descendants in Scotland has failed to bring to light the first of these. But a James Gilderoy[Also spelled “Gildroy” and “Gilroy” in contemporary documents.] was resident at Wark in Northumberland, on the Border, in 1765. He is known to have had at least two sons—John and David. The former, born in 1765, took the Gilroy form of the family name and was alternately a professional gardener and a “land agent.” David who was born July 15th, 1767, is the “grandfather Gilrye” of Muir’s The Story of My Boyhood and Youth. Both boys appear to have gradually moved northward along the border, and an old Scotch family Bible, in the possession of a granddaughter of John Gilroy, invests with the importance of an event the arrival of David Gilrye at Dunbar, Scotland, on December 20th, 1794.
David was no longer in the first flush of youth when he settled in Dunbar. He was twenty-seven years old, and in his years of wandering, if we knew something about them, we probably should find no lack of hardship and adventure. Love of gardens and of landscapes, not improbably, gave direction sometimes to his footsteps, for John Muir more than a century later told how his earliest recollections of the country were gained on short walks in company with Grandfather Gilrye, who also loved to take him to Lord Louderdale’s gardens. There is something pleasingly suggestive in the picture of seventy-five-year-old David Gilrye leading his three-year-old grandson into the paths that were to bring fame to the one, and rescue from oblivion to the other.
Perhaps it was Margaret Hay who confided to her Bible the date of David’s arrival at Dunbar. She had good reason to remember the event, for six months later he led her to the altar and made her his wife. Through Grandmother Gilrye, John Muir thus shared the good Scotch blood of the Hays, a numerous clan, that has produced men and women of distinction both in Europe and in America. A relative of Margaret Hay is said to have suffered martyrdom in the days when the Covenanters were hunted down for their sturdy opposition to “popery and prelacy.”
A numerous offspring came to enliven the household of David and Margaret Hay Gilrye—three sons and seven daughters. But death, also, was a tragically persistent visitor. All the sons and three of the daughters died between the ages of seventeen and twenty-six—a fearful toll of life exacted by the white plague. Since two other daughters had died at a tenderer age, only Margaret, the eldest, and Ann, the seventh of the Gilrye sisters, lived to survive their parents and round out a good old age. The tragedy of such a series of untimely deaths is likely to have had an intensifying influence upon the religious sensibilities of the family. In 1874, when her sister Margaret died at the ripe age of seventy-eight, Ann Gilrye, then the wife of Daniel Muir, described herself as “the last remnant of a numerous family.” “My mother,” she wrote to her son John, “was just seventy-eight years old when she died, and my father eighty-eight. My parents have mouldered in the dust over twenty years, but Christ is the resurrection and the life, and if we believe in him our souls will never die.”
Daniel Muir, coming to Dunbar as a recruiting sergeant, met there his first wife by whom he had one child. She was a woman of some means and enabled him to purchase his release from the army in order to engage in the conduct of a business which she had inherited. Their happiness together was of brief duration, for both she and the child were snatched away by a premature death, leaving him alone.
It seems to have been early in 1833 that Daniel, now a widower with a prospering business, became a familiar caller in the Gilrye family—now also sadly depleted in number. Margaret had been married thirteen years earlier to James Rae and had established her own home. It was Aunt Rae’s precious lily garden that later excited the childish admiration of little Johnny Muir and made him wonder whether, when he grew up, he “should ever be rich enough to own anything like so grand.” Twenty-year-old Ann and her sixteen-year-old brother David were the only ones left under the parental roof. All the rest were lying side by side in the Dunbar churchyard, whither also the last male scion of the family was to be carried the following year.
On the 28th of November, 1833, Ann Gilrye became the wife of Daniel Muir, and moved across the street into the old house which John Muir has described in his boyhood recollections. A lively brood of children soon came to make their home there. Margaret, Sarah, John, David, Daniel, Mary, and Anna were born there in the given order, Joanna being the only one who was born in Wisconsin. John Muir, third in succession and the eldest boy, was born on the 21st of April, 1838.
The bond of affectionate intimacy which always existed between him and his mother would make a characterization of her from his pen of more than ordinary interest. But we have to content ourselves with one sentence from a fragmentary autobiographical sketch. “She was a representative Scotch woman,” he wrote, “quiet, conservative, of pious, affectionate character, fond of painting and poetry.” To this we may add the interesting information, contained in one of his letters, that his mother wrote poetry in her girlhood days.
It is quite apparent from her letters that she shared with him that aesthetic appreciation of nature which is so characteristic an element in his writings. While most of her letters concern home affairs and are full of maternal solicitude for his health and comfort, they are seldom without that additional touch which reveals kinship of soul as well as of blood. Referring to descriptions in one of his early California letters, she writes, “Your enjoyment of the beauties of California is shared by me, as I take much pleasure in reading your accounts.”
Underneath the maternal solicitude for his health and safety one may also detect at times the Scotch Covenanter’s concern for his spiritual welfare. “Dear John,” she writes in 1870, “I hope your health is good—so that you will be able really to enjoy and admire all the vast magnificence with which you are daily surrounded. I know it is far beyond any conception of mine, but we can unite in praising and serving our Heavenly Father who is the maker and supporter of this wonderful world on which we live for a time. But time is short, and we must live forever. I trust we have a good hope, through grace, of spending eternity in mansions of glory everlasting.”
The glacial studies with which her son began to busy himself during the seventies must have tried at times her Covenanter faith in so far as it involved a conception of the age and origin of the world different from that which she had learned in her youth. But she continues to write cheerfully about summers and autumns that make rambles in the woods a deepening joy. “The trees and flowers and plants looked more beautiful to me than ever before. . . . I presume you are quite busy with your studies writing your book. I feel much interested in all that interests you, although in many of your studies you leave me far behind. Yet I rejoice in all your joy, and hopes of future advancement. . . . You were much talked about and thought about at our last Christmas gathering. Many were the kind wishes and loving thoughts wafted to the valley of Yosemite.” Almost to the last year of her life she was accustomed to go to the woods in April in order to gather and send to him with her birthday wishes a few of his favorite Wisconsin spring flowers. These little acts reveal, even more than anything she said, the poetic strain in her blood which kept fresh for her and her eldest boy, until he was nearly sixty and she over eighty, the vernal blossoms they had picked together long ago.
Very different was the attitude which Daniel Muir assumed toward the interests and enthusiasms of his son. Being an extreme literalist as far as the Bible was concerned, he could not look without suspicion upon his scientific studies, because they went “beyond what was written.” Whenever he saw an issue arising between his traditional interpretation of the world’s origin according to Genesis on the one side, and the facts of geology and glaciation on the other, he was accustomed to say, “Let God be true and every man a liar.” John’s passion for exploration, and the adventures incidental thereto, he regarded as little less than sinful. That there were different levels of development within the Bible, involving the displacement of earlier and cruder ideas of God and the world by higher and more intelligent ones, never entered his mind. Nor did it ever occur to him, apparently, that the facts of nature are likewise a part of the manuscripts of God, and that he who endeavors to read them accurately may be rendering his fellow men a religious as well as an intellectual service. He sincerely believed that his son was cheating the Almighty in devoting his time to such interests and enjoyments. “You are God’s property,” he wrote to him once. “You are God’s property, soul and body and substance—give those powers up to their owner!” Even the most painstaking naturalist, he maintained, could not discover anything of value in the natural world that the believer did not see at one glance of the eye. These views went hand in hand with a naive credulity that accepted unquestioningly the pious marvels related in the tracts which he was distributing, and of which he kept sending selected ones, with comments, to his son John.
Perhaps the reader will receive a clearer and truer impression of the differing attitudes of his father and mother toward his nature studies if we offer at this point a typical letter of Daniel Muir in which the underscored words are indicated by italics. A note on the envelope, in John’s handwriting, says “written after reading the account of my storm night on Shasta.”
The meaning of the last paragraph of the letter will be found in some, disquieting news contained in a letter of Mrs. Daniel Muir, Sr., under date of February 26th, 1872. “We were surprised,” she writes, “to hear your father say that he has decided to sell the Hickory Hill farm, and everything he has on it, by auction. So he is at present engaged in putting up bills of sale, the sale to take place on Tuesday, the 5th of March. He says he will not decide on where he will go until the sale is over.” The purpose he had in view in coming to this sudden decision is revealed in one of John’s letters to his brother David. Daniel Muir’s religious fanaticism had in John’s view reached a point where it was necessary to ask his brother and his brother-in-law to interfere in the interest of their sisters and their mother.My Very Dear John
March 19th, 1874
Were you as really happy as my wish would make you, you would be permanency so in the best sense of the word. I received yours of the third inst. with your slip of paper, but I had read the same thing in The Wisconsin, some days before I got yours, and then I wished I had not seen it, because it harried up my feelings so with another of your hair-breadth escapes. Had I seen it to be God’s work you were doing I would have felt the other way, but I knew it was not God’s work, although you seem to think you are doing God’s service. If it had not been for God’s boundless mercy you would have been cut off in the midst of your folly. All chat you are attempting to show the Holy Spirit of God gives the believer to see at one glance of the eye, for according to the tract I send you they can see God’s love, power, and glory in everything, and it has the effect of turning away their sight and eyes from the things that are seen and temporal to the things that are not seen and eternal, according to God ’s holy word. It is of no use to look through a glass darkly when we have the Gospel, and its fulfillment, and when the true practical believer has got the Godhead in fellowship with himself all the time, and reigning in his heart all the time. I know that the world and the church of the world will glory in such as you, but how can they believe which receive honor one of another and seek not the honor that cometh from God only John 5, 44. You cannot warm the heart of the saint of God with your cold icy-topped mountains. O. my dear son come away from them to the spirit of God and His holy word, and He will show our lovely Jesus unto you, who is by His finished work presented to you without money and price. It will kindle a flame of sacred fire in your heart that will never go out, and then you will go and willingly expend it upon other icy hearts and you will thus be blessed infinitely in tribulation and eternally through Jesus Christ, who is made unto us of God wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. I Cor. 1, 30, 31. And the best and soonest way of getting quit of the writing and publishing your book is to burn it, and then it will do no more harm either to you or others. And then, like Paul, look to the cross of Christ and glory in it, and as in the sight of God and in Jesus Christ, my only Lord and Master, I hereby say Amen to it.
I expect, my God willing, to leave Portage City for Hamilton, Toronto, on the last day of this month. I bought a house last October there and without my family, at present, I mean to go in the way of God’s providence to spend all my time in His service and wholly by His grace to glorify Him. I shall be glad to hear from you there any time. I will get your letters at the post-office there.
We are all well. Your dear mother sends her love to you.Your affectionate father in ChristDaniel Muir
Their efforts were successful. A new home was established in Portage, Wisconsin, and from there Daniel Muir went alone on prolonged evangelistic trips to Canada and parts of the central West. Laid low by old age and a broken limb, he died in Kansas City, at the home of one of his daughters, in 1885. His last years were calm and peaceful as John had foreseen. Eleven years later his wife also followed him into the land of the leal.To David Gilrye MuirYosemite ValleyDear Dave:
March 1st, 1873
I answer your letter at once because I want to urge you to do what you can in breaking up that wild caprice of father’s of going to Bristol and Lord Muller. You and David Galloway are the only reliable common-sense heads in our tribe, and it is important, when the radical welfare of our parents and sisters is at stake, that we should do all that is in our power.
I expected a morbid and semi-fanatical outbreak of this kind as soon as I heard of his breaking free from the wholesome cares of the farm. Yet I hoped that he would find ballast in your town of some Sabbath-school or missionary kind that would save him from any violent crisis like the present. That thick matted sod of Bristol orphans, which is a sort of necessary evil induced by other evils, is all right enough for Muller in England, but all wrong for Muir in America
The lives of Anna and Joanna, accustomed to the free wild Nature of our woods, if transplanted to artificial fields and dingy towns of England, would wilt and shrivel to mere husks, even if they were not to make their life work amid those pinched and blinking orphans.
Father, in his present feeble-minded condition, is sick and requires the most considerate treatment from all who have access to his thoughts, and his moral disease is by no means contemptible, for it is only those who are endowed with poetic and enthusiastic brains that are subject to it.
Most people who are born into the world remain babies all their lives, their development being arrested like sun-dried seeds. Father is a magnificent baby, who, instead of doe dozing contentedly like most of his neighbors, suffers growing pains that are ready to usher in the dawn of a higher life.
But to come to our work, can you not induce father to engage in some tract or mission or Sabbath-school enterprise that will satisfy his demands for bodily and spiritual exercise? Can you not find him some thicket of destitution worthy of his benevolence? Can you not convince him that the whole world is full of work for the kind and willing heart? Or, if you cannot urge him to undertake any independent charity, can you not place him in correspondence with some Milwaukee or Chicago society where he would find elbow room for all his importance. An earnest man like father, who also has a little money, is a valuable acquisition to many societies of a philanthropic kind, and I feel sure that if once fairly afloat from this shoal of indolence upon which he now chafes, he would sail calmly the years now remaining to him. At all events, tell mother and the girls, that whether this side the sea or that, they need take no uneasiness concerning bread . . . .John Muir
Into this parental and ancestral background, sketched in its more significant outlines, was born at Dunbar, Scotland, April 21st, 1838, the subject of this biography. Fleeting glimpses of his earliest childhood reveal Johnny Muir as a vivid, auburn-haired lad with an uncommonly keen and inquiring pair of blue eyes. His boyhood in Scotland extended over only the first eleven years of his life (1838-49), but the fifty and more pages which he devotes to memories of these years in his autobiography reveal the deep impression they made upon his mind. His school education began early before he had completed his third year. But even before that time he had, like his fellow Scotchman Hugh Miller, learned his letters from shop Signs across the street. In this as in other matters Grandfather Gilrye was his earliest teacher and guide.
Scotch pedagogical methods in those days were an uncompromising tyranny. So much is clear from Muir’s feeling allusions to the inevitable thrashing, in school and at home, which promptly followed any failure to commit assigned lessons to memory. The learning of a certain number of Bible verses every day was a task which his father superimposed upon the school lessons, and exacted with military precision. “By the time I was eleven years old,” wrote the victim of this method, “I had about three-fourths of the Old Testament and all of the New by heart and by sore flesh. I could recite the New Testament from the beginning of Matthew to the end of Revelation without a single stop.” Records both written and oral testify to John’s phenomenal feats of memory in reciting chapters from the Bible and the poetry of Robert Burns.
Whatever may be thought of the wisdom of this educational method, there can be no doubt that it resulted in forming the boy’s literary taste and in giving him a rare training in the use of English undefiled. The dignity and rich quality of his diction, and his arrestingly effective employment of Biblical metaphors disclose the main sources of his literary power in familiarity with the King James Version, the only one available in his boyhood.
The severest kind of pedagogical weather was encountered when he left the old Davel Brae school for the grammar school. Old Mungo Siddons, who presided over the former, seems to have been a man possessed of human sympathies, for he managed to make himself gratefully remembered for the gooseberries and currants, at least, with which he sweetened the closing exercises when vacation days arrived. But Mr. Lyon, the master of the grammar school, was a disciplinarian of the most inflexible kind. “Under him,” Muir writes, “we had to get three lessons every day in Latin, three in French, and as many in English, besides spelling, history, arithmetic, and geography. Word lessons in particular, the wouldst-couldst-shouldst-have-loved kind, were kept up, with much warlike thrashing, until I had committed the whole of the French, Latin, and English grammars to memory, and in connection with reading-lessons we were called on to recite parts of them with the rules over and over again, as if all the regular and irregular incomprehensible verb stuff was poetry. ”
Some of the textbooks he used have survived the accidents of time and travel and furnish illuminating examples of the severe demands that were made upon children in the Dun bar grammar school. One of these is Willymot’s Selections from the Colloquies of Corderius, which he began to study when he was nine years old, and which would be a severe tax on the wits of most Freshmen of our day. It must have seemed little less than mockery to the pupils that the “Argumentum” of the very first “Colloquium” calls it an "exemplum ad parvulos blande et comiter in schola tractandos, ne severitate disciplinae absterreantur.” “Kind and gentle treatment of youngsters lest they be frightened away by severity of discipline"—that was no serious concern of schoolmaster Lyon. “Old-fashioned Scotch teachers,” wrote Muir in describing his school days, “spent no time in seeking short roads to knowledge, or in trying any of the new-fangled psychological methods so much in vogue nowadays. There was nothing said about making the seats easy or the lessons easy. We were simply driven point-blank against our books like soldiers against the enemy, and sternly ordered ‘Up and at ‘em. Commit your lessons to memory.’ If we failed in any part, however slight, we were whipped; for the grand, simple, all-sufficing Scotch discovery had been made that there was a close connection between the skin and the memory, and that irritating the skin excited the memory to any required degree.”
Though John was compelled at this time to store his memory with many things which in his mature judgment were mere “cinders and ashes,” the mental discipline at least was a permanent gain. His knowledge of French was sufficient to open for him the treasures of French literature. A considerable section of his library was composed of French works on travel, exploration, and natural science. The Latin he had acquired so drastically from Corderius’ Colloquies and Turner’s Exercises to the Accidence, etc., proved useful in botanical and paleontological studies. Besides, the habit, formed early, of committing to memory choice passages from English literature was kept up by him till far into middle life and was commended to his children as a valuable means of education. In a letter to his daughter Wanda, on the occasion of his first visit to Dunbar, forty-four years after he had left his native town, he wrote: “You are now a big girl, almost a woman, and you must mind your lessons and get in a good store of the best words of the best people while your memory is retentive and then you will go through life rich. Ask mother to give you lessons to commit to memory every day, mostly the sayings of Christ in the gospels, and selections from the poets. Find the hymn of praise in Paradise Lost, ‘These are thy glorious works, Parent of good, Almighty!’ and learn it well.”
If in these formal elements of John’s early education profit and loss were often doubtfully balanced, it was not so with the lessons he learned from Nature. He would have agreed with Henry Adams that life was a series of violent contrasts which gave to life their relative values. Winter and summer, cold and heat, town and country, school and vacation, force and freedom, marked two widely different modes of life and thought. What is more, they all registered their effects in the sum total of what we call education. On the one hand was the wintry, storm-beaten town with its restraint, confinement, and school discipline; on the other, the country with its penetrable hedges, daisied fields, bird-song, and nest hunting expeditions. There, in particular, were skylarks and mavises, the most universally beloved of all the birds of Scotland. John tells how he and his companions used to stand for hours on a broad meadow near Dunbar listening to the singing of the larks; or how they lay on their backs in competitive tests of keensightedness, each trying to outdo the other in keeping a soaring singer in sight.
Among the sublimer aspects of Nature that made an indelible impression upon the boy’s mind were those of the stormy North Sea. Answering the letters of some Los Angeles school children in 1904, he tells how the school which they described brought to mind the two schools which he attended when he was a boy in Scotland. “They,” he wrote, “were still nearer the sea. One of them stood so near that at high tide on stormy days the waves seemed to be playing tag on our playground wall, running up the sandy shore and perhaps just touching the base of the wall and running back. But sometimes in wild storms the tops of the waves came flying over the wall into the playground, while the finer spray, carried on the wild roaring flood, drenched the schoolhouse itself and washed it fresh and clean. These great roaring storms were glorious sights. But we were taught to pity the poor sailors, for many ships were driven ashore on the stormy coast almost every year, and many sailors drowned. From the highest part of the playground we could see the ships sailing past, and often tried to guess whence they came, where they were bound for, and what they were carrying.” The numerous drawings of ships that decorate the fly-leaves of John’s schoolbooks may be regarded as tell-tale of what he saw from the windows and the playground of the Davel Brae school.
But there were many other thrilling experiences for the by-hours of a boy like Johnny Muir. He drank in by every pore the sombre wildness of the rugged seashore about his native town, explored the pools among the rocks where shells, seaweeds, eels, and crabs excited his childish wonder when the tide was low, and found adventurous recreation by climbing the craggy headlands. Yet most impressive of all was the roar of North Sea tempests that, mingling sea and sky, hurled mountainous waves against the black headland crowned by the ruins of Dunbar Castle. All this he saw and felt and explored with intense delight.
How ineffaceably these scenes and early experiences engraved themselves upon his memory is revealed by a passage in one of his notebooks. He was a day’s journey from the Gulf of Mexico, on his thousand-mile walk through the South, when he suddenly caught a whiff of the sea, borne upon the wind. It was “the first sea-breeze,” he writes, “that had touched me in twenty years. I was plodding along with my satchel and plants, leaning wearily forward. . . when suddenly I felt the salt air, and before I had time to think, a whole flood of long-dominant associations rolled in upon me. The Firth of Forth, the Bass Rock, Dunbar Castle, and the winds and rocks and hills came upon the wings of that wind, and stood in as clear and sudden light as a landscape flashed upon the view by a blaze of lightning in a dark night.”
It is not surprising that John Muir, reflecting upon his Scotch boyhood, should in his later years have reamed to regard the natural environment of Dunbar as a source of a valuable part of his early education. The heroic origins of the town are lost in dim traditions that reach back at least a thousand years. Not the least of its romantic associations are represented by such names as Black Agnes of Dunbar, Joanna Beaufort, Earl Bothwell and Mary, Queen of Scots. Just southeast of the town was fought the Battle of Dunbar in which Cromwell won a decisive victory over Leslie. All this, no less than the legends, superstitions, and folklore, which clung like moss about the surviving ruins of other days, could not but exert a strong influence upon the imagination of this active-minded boy.
But the fields and woods exerted by far the strongest attraction upon him. In spite of sure and severe punishments he and his companions regularly managed to slip away into the country to indulge their love of that open “wildness” which, he says, “was ever sounding in our ears. Nature saw to it that besides school lessons and church lessons some of her own lessons should be reamed, perhaps with a view to the time when we should be called to wander in wildness to our hearts’ content. Oh, the blessed enchantment of those Saturday runaways in the prime of spring! How our young wondering eyes revelled in the sunny, breezy glory of the hills and sky, every particle of us thrilling and tingling with the bees and glad birds and glad streams! Kings may be blessed; we were glorious, we were free,—school cares and scoldings, heart thrashings and flesh thrashings alike, were forgotten in the fullness of Nature’s glad wildness. These were my first excursions,—the beginnings of lifelong wanderings.”
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