One evening in 1849, when John and his younger brother David were studying their next day’s lessons at Grandfather Gilrye’s fireside, their father brought the information that they would start together for America the next morning. It was wildly exciting news, for it not only meant delivery from the tyranny of schoolmasters, but a life of adventure in a world full of untrodden wildernesses. Their grammar school reader had already kindled their imaginations with stories of American animal life, especially such as had come from the pen of the Scotch ornithologist Alexander Wilson and the American naturalist John James Audubon. News of the recent discovery of gold in California had run like wildfire over Europe and was the talk of the hour also in Dunbar. It is no wonder that the expectations engendered by such tales, together with the prospect of release from bitter school tasks, rendered the two lads “utterly, blindly glorious.”
The only bitter strain in all this sweetness was the necessity of parting from Grandfather and Grandmother Gilrye. And yet they hardly realized what it meant to their grandparents to be left alone in their darkening old age, never to see their grandchildren again. The rosy anticipations of childhood left no room for the thought that their beloved grandparents might be near their own time of departure—in their case for “the land of the leal.” In three years, as it turned out, both of them were gone. For the time being, however, Grandfather Gilrye exercised some control over the situation by insisting that his daughter and the younger children must not be exposed to the hardships of pioneering in a new country before a comfortable house had been built for their reception. Hence it was decided that only John, David, and Sarah were to accompany their father to America.
In those days large numbers of Scotch emigrants went to the wilds of Upper Canada and Daniel Muir also set out with the intention of joining some Canadian settlement of his compatriots. On shipboard, however, the majority opinion favored the States, especially Wisconsin and Michigan, where according to common report the forests were less dense and consequently more easily cleared. These advantages were bound to weigh heavily with a man who feared to delay the reunion of his family by the choice of a difficult homestead. Before the end of the voyage he had decided in favor of the western United States, resolving to be guided in his final choice by what he might learn on his westward journey. On reaching Buffalo, the reported preeminence of Wisconsin as a wheat-producing State left no further doubt in his mind. From Milwaukee his cumbersome luggage was transported by wagon for a hundred miles over miry roads to the little town of Kingston, where a land-agent helped him to homestead a quarter-section of land amid sunny open woods beside a small lake.* A shanty was hastily erected and the household goods stowed away in it until a more permanent frame house could be built. Before winter came the house was ready for occupancy, and in November, 1849, Mrs. Muir and the rest of the family arrived from Scotland.
The wild nooks about Fountain Lake, and especially the lake itself, at once took a unique place in John’s affections. Its beautiful waterlily pads, its bordering meadows full of showy sedges, orchids, and ferns, the great variety of fish, and the abundant population of ducks and muskrats which it harbored, excited his unbounded curiosity and admiration. It was in this lake that he became an expert swimmer, though on one occasion he nearly lost his life through a momentary lack of self-possession, and punished himself for it afterwards in characteristic Scotch fashion by rowing out into the middle of the lake and diving into deep water again and again, shouting, “Take that!” each time as he did it.
The raptures produced in eleven-year-old John by this sudden transplanting from the North Sea coast of Scotland to this lake and the flowery oak-openings of Wisconsin made an ineffaceable impression and even in retrospect taxed to the utmost his powers of description when he was past three-score and ten. “This sudden plash into pure wildness baptism in Nature’s warm heart—how utterly happy it made us!” he writes in his boyhood reminiscences: “Nature streaming into us, wooingly teaching her wonderful glowing lessons, so unlike the dismal grammar ashes and cinders so long thrashed into us. Here without knowing it we still were at school; every wild lesson a love lesson, not whipped but charmed into us. Oh, that glorious Wisconsin wilderness! Everything new and pure in the very prime of the spring when Nature’s pulses were beating highest and mysteriously keeping time with our own! Young hearts, young leaves, flowers, animals, the winds and the streams and the sparkling lake, all wildly, gladly rejoicing together!”
But it was not to be all joy, this wilderness life. The golden mantle of boyish illusions was soon to be lifted from stern realities. For when the serious work of subduing this wilderness into a farm began, John found frequent occasion to remember the prophecy of Grandfather Gilrye as in boyish exuberance John tried to tell him about all the wonderful things he and David were going to see and do in the new world. “Ah, poor laddies, poor laddies,” he said in a trembling voice, “you’ll find something else ower the sea forbye gold and sugar, birds’ nests and freedom fra lessons and schools. You’ll find plenty of hard, hard work.” Fortunately few forms of work are all toil and drudgery to a pngted lad, and the environment permitted some undesigned good to spring from the iniquity of child labor.
So it happens that the noble part which domestic animals play in the development of an impressionable boy, in this case a future naturalist, is vividly and touchingly reflected in John’s recollections of his four-footed fellow laborers on his father’s farm. Foremost among them were the oxen which in pioneer days did service on Western farms instead of horses or mules. He shrewdly observes that the experience of working with them enabled him and his brother to know them far better than they should had they been “only trained scientific naturalists.” To Muir one ox was not like another, mere animated machines which all reacted alike to any given stimulus or situation. For he had seen one ox learn to smash pumpkins with his head while others awkwardly tried to break into them with their teeth. “We soon reamed,” he writes, “that each ox and cow and calf had individual character.”
Later, when the oxen were displaced by horses, he remarked the same difference of sagacity and temperament in them. One was intelligent, affectionate, and teachable, the other balky and dull. Readers of his boyhood memoirs will also recall his sympathetic description of Jack the Indian pony; of its fearlessness, playfulness, and gentleness. The farm was evidently the place where he reamed to appreciate what he called the “humanity” of animals and man’s kinship with them. This sympathetic attitude made it easy for Muir to observe evidence of animal intelligence not only in his humble companions-in-labor on the farm, but when he came to study animals in their wild state he was prepared to look there also for differences of intelligence; and not alone between various types of animals, but between individuals of the same species. In other words, to him much the most interesting thing about an animal was its mind and the use to which it put the same. On this point he differed widely with John Burroughs who seemed to become a more and more outspoken champion of the mechanistic theory of animal behavior which explains the actions of animals in terms of “blind instinct.” “Blind” seemed to be coextensive in meaning with “unreasoning,” thus reducing the actions of all individuals of a given species of animal to the particular brand of instinct characteristic of the species. On one occasion when Burroughs and Muir, meeting at the house of a mutual friend in Berkeley, discussed this issue, Muir in the judgment of those present scored heavily against his opponent. And this was due not to his superior conversational and argumentative powers, but to fact-seasoned conclusions matured amid the observations of a lifetime. It was refreshing and amusing to hear him go after the so-called animal psychologists and behaviorists with their “problem boxes,” etc., bent on making out, in some cases at least, that animals are nothing but “machines in fur and feathers.” On the other hand he had no sympathy with the professional observers of wonders who found it profitable not to distinguish between the imagination of the wild and their own wild imaginations.
Now that so competent and well-informed a naturalist as William T. Hornaday has presented the personal observations of a lifetime in his book The Minds and Manners of Wild Animals, and has set forth therein a point of view substantially in accord with that of John Muir, we may expect the mechanistic interpreters of animal “behavior” to vacate the stage for a time. It ought to be added that Muir as early as 1867 confided to his notebook his belief that one of the greatest hindrances to a fruitful study of the intelligence and individual characteristics of animals was the average human beings insufferable self-conceit; that his egotism magnifies his lordship of creation until he is incapable of seeing that animals “are our earth-loom companions and fellow mortals.” To the fact that the lord-of-creation idea has an abused Biblical origin he attributed the fact that the “fearfully good, the orthodox,” are the first “to cry ‘heresy’ on every one whose sympathies reach out a single hair’s breadth beyond the boundary epidermis of our own species. Not content with taking all of earth, they also claim the celestial country as the only ones who possess the kind of souls for whom that imponderable empire was planned.” To this same effect is an eloquent passage in The Story of My Boyhood and Youth where he touchingly describes the death of his favorite horse Nob, over-driven by his father in going to a church meeting. After remarking that “of the many advantages of farm life for boys one of the greatest is the gaining of a real knowledge of animals as fellow mortals,” worthy of respect and love, he adds: “Thus godlike sympathy grows and thrives and spreads far beyond the teachings of churches and schools, where too often the mean, blinding, loveless doctrine is taught that animals have neither mind nor soul, have no rights that we are bound to respect, and were made only for man to be petted, spoiled, slaughtered, or enslaved.”
That John Muir survived the relentless severity with which his father held him to adult labor when he was a mere boy probably was due less to his physical vitality than to the buoyancy of his temperament. Called at six in the morning in winter-time, he had to begin the usual chores of feeding horses and cattle, fetching water from the spring at the foot of the hill, bringing in wood and sharpening tools—all before breakfast. Immediately afterwards began the heavier work of the day, such as wood-chopping, fencing, fanning wheat, and various other tasks, indoors and out. The only means of warming the house was the kitchen stove, and even in this he was not allowed to kindle a fire before hastening to the chores. With Spartan fortitude he had to squeeze his chilblained feet into wet socks and soggy boots frozen solid. No wonder that in the memoirs of his boyhood he remembered with regret how great heart-cheering loads of oak and hickory were hauled with misguided industry into waste places to rot instead of being laid up for use in a desperately needed large fireplace. It was a very unusual boy who amid this senseless aggravation of the natural hardships of pioneer farm life could find it in his heart “to enjoy the winter beauty—the wonderful radiance of the snow when it was starry with crystals, and the dawns and sunsets and white noons, and the cheery, enlivening company of the brave chickadees and nuthatches.”
The summer chores and field labor were different, but not less exacting. The day began earlier and lasted longer. Among detached jottings under the heading of “Farm Work” in one of his notebooks I find the following:
We had to work very hard on the farm in summer, mowing, hoeing, cradling wheat, hauling it to the barns, etc. No rest in the shade of trees on the side of the fields. When tired we dared not even go to the spring for water in the terrible thirst of the muggy dog-days, because the field was in sight of the house and we might be seen. . . . We had to make ourselves sick that we might lay up something against a sick day, as if we could kill time without injuring eternity. The incessant anxiety and strain of some is a well-nigh incurable disease. . . . A stitch in time saves nine, so we take a thousand stitches to-day to save nine tomorrow.John being the eldest boy, the greater part of the hard work of the farm naturally fell to him. This included the splitting of rails for the zigzag fences, mostly from trees so knotty and cross-grained that the making of a hundred rails a day involved the expenditure of much energy and not a little skill. It was fatiguing work, so much so that his father, after trying rail-splitting with him for a day or two, left it all to John.
A form of labor which he remembered with special aversion was the hoeing of corn before the days of cultivators. Under his father’s relentless drive the haying and harvest season bore down hard upon the growing boy. A natural ambition to excel made him vie with the hired men in mowing and cradling, and at the age of sixteen John was accustomed to lead the line. He was no doubt right in thinking that this very severe labor so far exceeded his strength that it checked his growth. But there was no one in those days to warn him of the dangers of overwork, least of all his father. The latter’s unnatural severity, toward his children made so indelible an impression that when John recorded the memories of his boyhood he treated with great frankness an aspect of family life which ordinarily autobiographers veil in silence. But since he had, as will appear later, a humane purpose in exposing to public view this aspect of his early home experience, it is clearly a biographer’s duty not to ignore a situation already created, though some might question the filial propriety of introducing it in the first place.
What John describes as “the old Scotch fashion of whipping for every act of disobedience or of simple, playful forgetfulness” was continued by Daniel Muir in the Wisconsin wilderness. Most of the whippings fell upon John and were “outrageously severe, and utterly barren of fun.” But in telling about the occasion on which he was to receive a beating for having lost his father’s ox-whip by tying it to the dog’s tail, John makes no concealment of the fact that he was often a wilful and exasperating boy. For when he had escaped a thrashing because David, commanded to find a switch, had brought an unmanageable burr-oak sapling, he engaged in the same sort of mischief the moment his father was out of sight.
But the whippings, however severe, were less serious in their consequences than the excessive grind of work demanded. “Even when sick,” writes John, “we were held to our tasks as long as we could stand. Once in harvest-time I had the mumps and was unable to swallow any food except milk, but this was not allowed to make any difference, while I staggered with weakness and sometimes fell headlong among the sheaves. Only once was I allowed to leave the harvest-field when I was stricken down with pneumonia. I lay gasping for weeks, but the Scotch are hard to kill and I pulled through. No physician was called, for father was an enthusiast and always said and believed that God and hard work were by far the best doctors.”
Though more excessively industrious than any of his neighbors, Daniel Muir was by no means peculiar in his addictedness to the vice of over-industry. It was a common failing of settlers from England and Scotland, and John Muir doubtless was right in attributing it to their suddenly satisfied land-hunger and the desire to keep their large farms as neat and well tilled as the little garden patches which they had left behind them overseas. But, whatever the cause, there was no doubt about the frenzied manner in which the Muir household was held to the tasks of the farm. To quote John’s memoirs again:
We were all made slaves through the vice of over-industry. . . . It often seemed to me that our fierce, over-industrious way of getting the grain from the ground was too closely connected with grave-digging. The staff of life, naturally beautiful, often-times suggested the grave-digger’s spade. Men and boys, and in those days even women and girls, were cut down while cutting the wheat. The fat folk grew lean and the lean leaner, while the rosy cheeks brought from Scotland and other cool countries across the sea faded to yellow like the wheat. . . . We were called in the morning at four o’clock and seldom got to bed before nine, making a broiling, seething day seventeen hours long loaded with heavy work, while I was only a small stunted boy; and a few years later my brothers David and Daniel and my older sisters had to endure about as much as I did. In the harvest dog-days and dog-nights and dog-mornings; when we arose from our clammy beds, our cotton shirts clung to our backs as wet with sweat as the bathing-suits of swimmers, and remained so all the long, sweltering days. The losses sustained by John, both in bodily vigor and in intellectual growth, under the severe farm regime of his father were the subject of frequent reflection by him in afteryears. “Pondering on the number who have died and crumbled into dust,” he writes in one of his journals, “the farmer may say that he is farming the dust of his ancestors and compelling these ancestors to take refuge in turnips and apples. . . . We might live free, rich, comfortable lives just as well as not. Yet how hard most people work for mere dust and ashes and care, taking no thought of growing in knowledge and grace, never having time to get in sight of their vast ignorance.”
This wearing labor of cleaning and setting in order the Fountain Lake farm continued uninterruptedly for eight years. By that time it had been fully brought under the plough, fenced and provided with stables for cattle and horses. The original rude burr-oak shanty had been replaced with a more roomy frame house. Its former site on the hill overlooking the lake now is marked only by a depression and by a few stones that may have formed part of the foundation. In 1856 Sarah Muir was married to David Galloway, who bought the Fountain Lake farm [It has It has changed ownership several times since then and been subdivided. David Galloway sold it to James Whitehead and he in turn to Samuel Ennis. In 1920 the particular tract on which the Muir house stood I was owned by Howard McGwinn.] from his father-in-law. Thus Sarah succeeded her mother as mistress of the Fountain Lake home, where a warm welcome always awaited John when he returned from his wanderings.
The elder Muir, after relinquishing the farm to his son-in-law, bought half a section of uncleared land about four miles southeast of the original homestead. This new farm was situated twelve and a half miles northeast of Portage and four miles from the Fox River. The summit of a gentle slope covered with an open stand of fine hickory trees was selected as a site for a new house. Its erection in 1857 marked the beginning of another period of hard and exhausting labor. John at this time was nineteen years old and somewhat stunted in his growth, but he prided himself on his physical hardihood and his ability to endure all that was put upon him.
The Hickory Hill house was a simple two-story frame structure, which is still in existence, though veneered with brick and shorn of a lean-to shown in Muir’s sketch published in The Story of My Boyhood and Youth. It is surrounded by wide-spreading box elders, willows, and apple trees which are said to date from the days of the Muirs. The local tradition is rendered plausible by the age and size of the trees. Especially striking among them is a willow near the well around which by dint of sober necessity the life of the farm revolved. For unlike the first farm, there was on it “no spring or stream or meadow or lake.” Yet water was indispensable and to John was assigned the task of finding it.
Long before he struck water by sinking a ninety-foot shaft he had entered experience of those “who passing through the valley of weeping make it a well.” After the first ten feet he struck a stratum of fine-grained stone through which he laboriously chipped his way for eighty feet with mason’s chisels. Day after day for months he chipped away from dawn until dark. His father, apparently entirely ignorant of the dangers of choke-damp, would lower him by means of a bucket in the morning and draw him up again with the loosened chips at noon. Immediately after the noonday meal he was lowered again and left until night. One morning, as he was putting some left-over chips into the bucket with which he had just been lowered, he began to sway and sink under the effect of carbonic-acid gas that had settled at the bottom of the shaft during the night. His father, alarmed by his silence, and finding that John was not in the bucket when he heard his feeble-voiced request to be taken out, roused him from his stupor sufficiently by his shouted commands to make him get into the bucket. He was unconscious and all but suffocated when he reached the surface. But after a few days of rest and recovery he was lowered again, with some precautions against choke-damp, to chip down another ten feet, when water was struck. That was more than sixty years ago and ever since then the well has furnished an adequate supply of water for the farm. But one shudders to reflect how much of the imperishable wealth of the human spirit might have been sunk forever in that Wisconsin well.
In the month of August, 1858, during the Hickory Hill farm period, there occurred an event which made a deep impression upon John’s memory. It was the death of a poor feeble-minded man who on account of his physical frailty, and some engaging social accomplishments, was both pitied and beloved among the neighbors. Many deemed him an entertaining singer of folk-songs and he had a pngt of impromptu rhyming. It was generally reported and believed in the neighborhood that his brother, a blacksmith preacher with whom he was making his home, often beat him and forced him to work beyond his strength, and that one morning he pitched forward and died on a pile of stovewood which he was chopping.
When fifty-five years later Muir was writing the story of his boyhood, the incident was still vivid in his memory and he gave a peculiarly moving account of it such as he only could write when his feelings were deeply stirred. Appearing first in the Atlantic it fell under the eye of the blacksmith preacher’s son, a boyhood friend of John’s of whom he had lost all trace. While no names were given he recognized in the person pilloried by Muir none other than his own father, and wrote John a dignified, friendly letter, pointing out certain mistakes and the fact that it conveyed an erroneous impression concerning his father’s character. “I desire in conclusion,” said the writer, “to emphasize the respect and admiration I have always entertained for you, beginning with the day we met where the road from your Father’s place intersected with what was known as the ‘River road,’ following the holidays of ‘63 and ‘64, when in company we walked twelve miles to Portage and I listened to your conversation, your life and experience at the University to which you were returning. The advice and counsel given caused you to enter into and become a potent factor in my life. Though you did not know it, and have forgotten the circumstances with me it remains an abiding memory and in the years that followed proved a stimulus and incentive to untiring effort. I mention this to assure you that my esteem and faith in you remain unchanged, and that you may also know father was not the blot upon the landscape of that glorious wilderness you believe and have pictured him to be.” Muir’s reply is of unusual interest and biographical value, because it reveals ruling motives of his life and furnishes the reason why he disregarded customary reserve in presenting the disciplinary side of his boyhood training.
Martinez, CaliforniaDear Friend:
February 13th, 1913
Your painful letter came to me in my lonely library writing den while hard at work on an Alaska book which should have been written a score of years ago. Seldom, if ever, have I received a letter that has given me so much mingled pleasure and pain—pleasure in hearing from a friend of my boyhood, and learning from you, the best and final authority, that the reports on the use of the Solomonic rod in your father’s household, gleaned half a century ago from neighbors, including my sisters, brothers, and brothers-in-law were to say the least, grossly exaggerated; and pain from having been led to write by my lifelong hatred of cruelty that which has given you pain.
I never did intentional injustice to any human being or animal, and I have directed my publishers to cancel all that has so grievously hurt you. For a full understanding of the matter I wish to inform you that the four articles that have appeared in the November, December, January, and February numbers of the Atlantic were taken from the manuscript of a book entitled, My Boyhood and Youth, being the first volume of my autobiography, soon to be published. I corrected the last of the galley proofs several weeks ago and wrote the publishers that they need not send me the page proofs since their proof-readers were so careful and able. I have not seen any of them, and am unable to tell how far the work has progressed. Possibly part or all of this first volume may be stereotyped, or even printed. If not printed, the unfortunate page will be cut out of the plate at whatever cost.[His correspondent disclaimed all desire to have the offending account omitted, so it has been allowed to stand.] And at the worst, only a comparatively small first edition may have been printed, and the part that has caused so much trouble will not appear in the ten or twenty following editions. I have good reason, as doubtless you know to hate the habit of child-beating, having seen and felt its effects in some of their worst form in my father’s house; and all my life I have spoken against the habit in season and out of season. But you make a great mistake in taking what I have written as a judgment or history of your father’s character, as I hope to show in another volume. You doubtless know that character is made up of many particulars, and that it is grossly unfair to try the whole general character of any man by one particular, however striking and influential it may be. I was far from doing so in sketching the evil of child-beating from which we both have so bitterly suffered.
When the rod is falling on the flesh of a child, and, what may oftentimes be worse, heartbreaking scolding falling on its tender little heart, it makes the whole family seem far from the Kingdom of Heaven. In all the world I know of nothing pathetic and deplorable than a broken-hearted child, sobbing itself to sleep after being unjustly punished by a truly pious and conscientious misguided parent. Compare this Solomonic treatment with Christ’s. King Solomon has much to answer for in this particular, though I suppose he may in some measure be excused by the trying, irritating size of his family.
Your father, like my own, was, I devoutly believe, a sincere Christian, abounding in noble qualities, preaching the Gospel without money or price while working hard for a living, clearing land, blacksmithing, able for anything, and from youth to death never abating one jot his glorious foundational religious enthusiasm. I revere his memory with that of my father and the New England Puritans—types of the best American pioneers whose unwavering faith in God’s eternal righteousness forms the basis of our country’s greatness.
Come and see me, and let us become better acquainted after all these eventful years. . . . You must now be nearing three score and ten. I will be seventy-five in a few months, and in the sundown of life we turn fondly back to the friends of the Auld-lang-syne. So I am now doing, and am wishing that you may be assured that I am,Faithfully your friend
In accordance with a fairly common custom among God-fearing pioneers of earlier days morning and evening family worship was regularly observed in the Muir household. But how easily morning prayers may become a devastating substitute for a day of real religion was apparently exemplified glaringly in both these households. Under such circumstances children often react sharply, not only against the external forms, but also against the substance of religion. The religious convictions of a shallower nature than John Muir’s would never have survived the bigotry and rigor of his father’s training. The latter, soon after moving to the Hickory Hill farm, conceived the notion of devoting all his time to Bible study, leaving to John and his brother David all the heavy work of the farm. John in the meantime, after much brooding, had evolved the plan of a clock which, when attached to his bed, would set him on his feet at any desired time in the morning. Having thought it out clearly he employed his meager spare time, and any odd moments he could snatch from work, to carve and whittle this novel clock in wood. To keep it hid from his father he concealed it in a spare bedroom upstairs. One day, however, his father accidentally discovered it and the bad news was promptly conveyed to John by one of his sisters. He had good season to fear that his father would immediately commit his machine to the fire, for the employment of even his scant spare time upon such tasks was severely disapproved by his father. But nothing happened until some days later when his father introduced the subject at dinner time. “John,” he inquired, “what is that thing you are making upstairs?” Meal-times to Daniel Muir were sacramental occasions when no light conversation was permitted, and where every one was expected to cultivate an attitude of mind more befitting the Lord’s supper than a family meal. Neither the time nor the subject boded any good for John, so in confusion and despair he replied that he did not know what to call it. But after some heckling John suggested that it might be called “an early-rising machine.”
To appreciate the effect of this remark upon the elder Muir we must remind the reader that during the preceding winter John had been getting up at one o’clock to gain time for reading and for the construction of a miniature self-setting sawmill. His father had involuntarily given occasion for this extravagantly early rising, for one evening when ordering John to bed at eight o’clock as usual, as he was lingering a few minutes in the kitchen to read church history, he added conciliatingly that if he was set on reading he might get up in the morning as early as he liked. John rose at one o’clock that very night, feverishly and pathetically elated over the possession of five hours of time that were his own. The cold would not let him read, so during the winter he invested his new “time-wealth” in contriving and making all kinds of mechanical inventions. His workshop was in the cellar underneath his father’s bedroom and he must often have disturbed his sleep. But having given his word he stood to it with Scotch fortitude although he remonstrated against the unreasonable use which John was making of the permission granted. It does not seem to have occurred to him that a boy so eager to learn was entitled to some margin of leisure for self improvement during normal working hours.
Such in brief was the background of the occasion on which Daniel Muir the sacramental silence of the noonday meal with an inquiry about the strange contrivance John was whittling. To learn that it “might be called an early-rising machine” was almost too much even for his gravity. But he quickly recovered his usual solemnity of face and voice and asked in a stern tone, “Do you not think it very wrong to waste your time on such nonsense?” John meekly replied that he did not think he was doing any wrong. “Well,” replied his father, “I assure you I do; and if you were only half as zealous the study of religion as you are in contriving and whittling these useless, nonsensical things, it would be infinitely better for you. I want you to be like Paul, who said that he desired to know nothing among men but Christ and Him crucified.
Such attempts to set religion at variance with the boy’s innocent and commendable desire to develop by his own efforts his manual skill and mechanical ingenuity would have broken the spirit of most lads similarly situated. It is a typical instance of how religiousness, warped out of all semblance to real religion by bigotry and ignorance, may do grievous harm to its victims. But though he experienced a sense of injury and rebellion at the time, he lacked the knowledge and maturity to unravel the complex of fictitious dilemmas which his father propounded. Fortunately, the difficulties thrown in his way only increased his tenacity of purpose and in later years he saw the way out clearly enough. “Strange to say,” he wrote in The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, “father carefully taught us to consider ourselves very poor worms of the dust, conceived in sin, etc., and devoutly believed that quenching every spark of pride and self-confidence was a sacred duty, without realizing that in so doing he might at the same time be quenching everything else.”
Luckily, as all his readers know, he escaped the type of reaction which under like circumstances has carried other strong characters into lifelong antagonism to religion. It had no such effect upon John. Indeed, one letter at least, which survives from this period of his boyhood, shows that he did his best to be an Apostle Paul to his own youthful generation, writing long, appealing letters to other boys of the vicinity, urging them to make a “decision for Christ.” Their own letters are laden with phrases about the glories of heaven, the shortness and uncertainty of life, the appalling length of eternity, and the importance of being prepared for the fearfully searching inquiries of the day of judgment. Much of this is no doubt a part of the conventional religiousness of the time, fanned into flame seasonally by camp meetings and traveling evangelists. It must, however, be reckoned among the actions and reactions that went into the making of John Muir.
The invention and construction of his first wooden clock was, as we have seen, the outgrowth, in part, of a desire to secure more time for reading. “You say in your letter,” writes a friend in March, 1858, “that time to stow wisdom-bins is precious.” So it was for a boy who by his own testimony, had to consider himself fortunate if he got five minutes’ reading after supper before his father would notice the light and order him to bed. “Night after night,” he writes, “I tried to steal minutes. . . and how keenly precious those minutes were, few can nowadays know. Father failed perhaps two or three times in a whole winter to notice my light for nearly ten minutes, magnificent golden blocks of time, long to be remembered like holidays or geological periods.”
In this connection the following entry, taken from one of his notebooks, tells more between the lines than in them, being a reflection of the remembered intensity with which the lad pursued his aims. “Many try to make up time,” he writes, “by wringing the slumber out of their pores. Not so when I was a boy, springing out of bed at one o’clock in the morning, wide-awake, without the shadow of a yawn. no sleep left in a finale fiber of me humane and bright as a tiger springing on its prey.”
John mentions his fifteenth year as the probable time when he began to relish good literature with enthusiasm. Certain it is that about the time of the family’s removal to Hickory Hill farm this enthusiasm was a steady flame. One can only guess at the length of the strides he might have made could he have had the advantages of a first-class school. But such an opportunity was not to fall to his lot. Between the time of his departure from Scotland and the year in which he entered the University of Wisconsin he obtained only two months of additional schooling. Where this was received is uncertain, but it probably was in the old Fox River School No. 5 which then stood in a patch of dense forest not far from the first farm. In an undated letter of the fifties, evidently from a schoolmate, the writer expresses the wish that they might meet again “at the schoolhouse and speak pieces and sing our old ‘Press Onward’ song as we used to last winter.” The same correspondent wonders what has become of the teacher, whether he still occasionally thinks of his pupils and the merry times they used to have. “I wish we might meet him again in the old schoolhouse and hear him call us to order and listen to some of his wonderful speeches.”
Among John’s papers of this period is the manuscript of a juvenile poem of some length entitled “The Old Log Schoolhouse,” and a memorandum, apparently of the same date as the poem, declares that it was “written in 1860.” Since that was the year in which he left home, it is quite possible that it refers to the above-mentioned school. Of more interest than the local color in these lines of blank verse is the young author’s ability to detach himself from his environment and to indulge in seriocomic criticism of its defects and crudities. First comes a word-picture of the school, as follows:
An enumeration of what the old school has heard within its walls includes some humorous arithmetic and the hatchet of George Washington that
Old log schoolhouse, warped, and gnarled, and leaky;
Opening thy crooked ribs and seams and knots
To rain and snow and all the winds of heaven
To keep thee sweet and healthy! Many a storm
Hath played wild music beating on roof and gable,
Loosely boarded, telling all the weather,
As if some wondrous instrument thou wert,
Speaking aloud, through all times and seasons,
Thy parts of speech so strangely varied, mixing
With stranger speech within, called English grammar.
While yet the trunks of which thy walls are built
Stood on the hills with outspread leaves and branches,
A shelter, then, thou wert for gladsome birds,
That made sweet music ring about their nests.
And still a noisy nest thou art and shelter
For callow, birdlike children soft and downy,
Logs woven about them, piled and jointed,
Crossed like sticks and straws, and roughly plastered
With clay and mud like nests of mason robins.
Hath hacked small readers voices and the nerves“Players, preachers, showmen, singers, sinners” have all taken their-turn in shaking the school’s old oaken ribs, but never have its walls rung with stranger sounds than
Of teachers, in tones strident, rough, and rusty,
In lessons never-ending, never-mending
With grammar, too, old schoolhouse, thou hast suffered,
While Plato, Milton, Shakespeare, have been murdered,
Torn limb from limb in analytic puzzles
And wondrous parsing, passing comprehension,
The poetry and meaning blown to atoms—
sacrifices in the glorious cause
Of higher all-embracing education.
Class-meeting converts’ speeches; low, tearful,
Sobbing promises to walk the narrow way
Henceforward, and prayers for light and strength,
Conscious of weakness and they know not what.
Not so the brawny fighting backwoods brother.
With jaw advanced, and bulging muscles rigid,
He shouts and stamps and makes thy old logs rattle
With rough defiance, calling ‘Hither come
Ye men or devils, come all together,
Ye who would bar the narrow way to heaven.
Armed for the fight with Christ, my Captain, leading,
I fear no foe earthborn or from the pit.
Come on! come on!’ as though he were addressing
Some foe in sight, yet maybe semi-conscious
The foe was far away, and like to stay far.
Every ism and doxy hath been sounded
On every key within thy patient walls
Old schoolhouse; blasts of strong revival,
Enough to blow thy dovetailed logs asunder,
While souls were being saved, and pulled, and twisted
All out of shape, till they no longer fitted
The frightened bodies that to each belonged.
Playing at judgment day in lightsome humor,
Calling, ‘Ho! all ye saints that love the Lord,
Rise up now quickly and take these benches
On the right side there. And now ye sinners
Cross over to the left, and stand in row,
And be ye separate as sheep and goats
That I may count ye, and get the true statistics
To give the Master and myself some notion
How fare these flocks supernal and infernal
In this section of his backwoods pastures.’
Then halting suddenly to blow his nose
And spit, and bite some fresh tobacco,
He waves his hand and cries, ‘Now all be seated,
And mix up as ye will, but pray remember
When all your hardened cases come to trial
In the upper court, I fairly warned ye
To settle here with me as Heaven’s agent,
To get a ticket by the gospel route,
The only route through our denomination.”
In conclusion the young poet foresees the time when the schoolhouse will have fallen under the doom of “dust to dust. . . perchance to sift and drift in vapor, far and wide o’er hill and dale and grassy plain, to take new forms of beauty.” And on this passage down the ages “with Nature” he bids it a fond farewell.
To the discerning reader these excerpts will reveal at once the fact that he was saturated with the rhythm of Miltonic verse, that he was developing his critical faculty and his sense of word values, and that he had achieved a considerable degree of mental independence in a strongly repressive environment.
These gains had obviously not been accomplished by the only two months of additional schooling which he received between the ages of eleven and twenty-two, for he had during this period been wholly dependent upon his own efforts for his further education. What ways and means did he employ?
In his memoirs Muir has told how in one summer he worked through a higher arithmetic without assistance by using the short intervals of time between the noonday meal and the afternoon start for the fields. Algebra, geometry, and trigonometry were taken up in the same manner. Even the shorthand of that day excited his practical interest. But a broad training in literature and science was more difficult to secure in a backwoods farming community because of the lack of suitable books. Such raw materials of English literature as the neighborhood afforded were faithfully used by him. Through acquaintanceship and correspondence with boys on neighboring farms he arranged for the exchange of such books as their homes afforded. Reading became a consuming passion with him, and he seems to have had a marked preference for poetry of which he was accustomed to learn favorite passages by heart, rolling them like sweet morsels under his tongue. Nor were the practical aspects of such study neglected, for in extant correspondence with his young friends they acknowledge the receipt of rhymed letters and poems. Interestingly enough one of the poems was an elegy on the death of an enormous tree whose felling on a neighboring farm had been described to him by one of his correspondents as a very laborious task.
John has named the age of fifteen as the time when the realm of poetry began to open to him like the dawn of a glorious day, and to the same period of his youthful development he assigns the “great and sudden discovery that the poetry of the Bible, Shakespeare, and Milton” is a source of “inspiring, exhilarating, uplifting pleasure.” When the book supply of the neighborhood was exhausted he had to find other ways of meeting his intellectual wants. Farm products in the backwoods were mostly taken in trade and money was scarce. But by careful saving of pennies and small sums which John secured in one way or another he managed to buy such longed-for books as were not ruled out by the rigid censorship of his all-Bible father. In the course of a few years he was able to count among his treasures “parts of Shakespeare’s, Milton’s, Cowper’s, Henry Kirk White’s, Campbell’s, and Akenside’s works, and quite a number of others seldom read nowadays.” Wood’s Natural History, and the once famous Ancient History of the French historian, Charles Rollin, seem also to have made memorable additions to the furniture of his mind.
Included in the slender stock of books accessible to him among the neighbors were the novels of Sir Walter Scott. But these he had to read in secret because his father strictly forbade the reading of novels as a sinful indulgence. The latter was, however, induced to buy Josephus’s Wars of the Jews and d’Aubigne’s History of the Reformation, and John vainly did his best to get him to buy Plutarch’s Lives, until he contrived to circumvent paternal prejudices by suggesting that the old Greek writer might throw valuable light upon the food question. For Daniel Muir had taken up vegetarianism and was seeking to convince his family that the Creator never intended man to eat flesh. It mattered little to John that the old pagan could render no decision on the subject of man’s proper diet. The main point, as he says, was that “so at last we gained our glorious Plutarch.”
John’s father, as indicated in the opening chapter, was a type of the old traditionalist for whom the Bible’s authoritativeness was all of one piece and, like many another biblical literalist, he became an easy victim of his own theory. Blinded by his presuppositions, his Bible study plunged him only into deeper mental confusion. John, possessing a thorough knowledge of the Bible himself, was quick to take advantage of the weakness of his father’s bibliolatry After the Plutarch had been secured, he went to the rescue of his mother against his father’ s vegetarian fad by pointing out that when the Lord commanded the ravens to feed Elijah in hiding by the brook Cherith “the ravens,” according to the Scriptures, “brought him bread and flesh in the morning, and bread and flesh in the evening.” That ended the discussion. Daniel Muir acknowledged himself mistaken, for the Bible was his final arbiter in everything, and since the ravens were divinely commanded bring flesh to the prophet it could not be otherwise than legitimate food.
A similar argument ensued when John was caught reading Thomas Dick’s The Christian Philosopher. This book, by a Scotch contemporary written in a popular and engaging style, was very influential in its time. The aim of the author, in his own words, was “to illustrate the harmony which subsists between the system of nature and the system of revelation, and to show that the manifestations of God in the material universe ought to be blended with view of the facts and doctrines recorded in the volume of inspiration.” John, to his great disappointment, found that the word “Christian” in the title was not sufficient to overcome in his father’s mind the suspicions aroused by the word “Philosopher.” Timothy, he reminded John, had been warned to avoid “oppositions of science falsely so called,” and the Colossians had been warned, “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit.” John ventured to defend philosophy and science on the ground of their practical usefulness, but his father insisted that the Bible contained the science and philosophy needed for the conduct of life. “But your spectacles,” interposed John, “without which you cannot read the Bible, cannot be made without some knowledge of the science of optics.” “Oh!” replied his father, “there will always be plenty of worldly people to make spectacles.” “Here, again, John found an opportunity to score on his father’s literalism by quoting from Jeremiah a passage referring to the time when “all shall know the Lord from the least of them to the greatest of them,” “and then,” he asked, “who will make the spectacles?” But this time his l” refused to acknowledge his discomfiture and ordered him to return the book to its owner. Daniel Muir remained inflexibly hostile to anything that savored of a “harmony” or compromise between “nature” and “revelation” such as this book offered. John’s mind, however, was beginning to trend in precisely that direction, and while for the time being he respected his father’s ban of the book, he also records the fact that he “managed to read it later.”
An estimate of the influence and importance of the farm period upon Muir’s future career would not be complete without considering what he did cellar workshop. If the propriety of linking his love of reading with his love of “whittling” were not already sufficiently justified by the practical use to which he put his wooden clock, his own title “Knowledge and Inventions” for chapter seven of The Story of My Boyhood and Youth would satisfy the need of further warrant for so doing. By means of the early-rising attachment, which he perfected more and more, his clocks not only measured but created time and opportunity for him, so that knowledge and inventions were jointly furthered by the skill of his hands.
The invention of the self-setting sawmill and the wooden clock was speedily followed by other mechanical contrivances. One of these was a hickory clock shaped like a scythe to symbolize the scythe of Father Time. the handle bore the legend “All flesh is grass,” and the pendulum in the form of a bunch of arrows, suggested the flight of time. This clock excited much admiration both at home and among the neighbors. It indicated the days of the week and the month as well as the diurnal time, and was still capably performing its functions fifty years later.
The success of this contrivance encouraged him to invent a still more ambitious clock, one with four dials, like a town clock, designed to be placed on the peak of the barn roof so that it could be read from the fields. But before it was finished his father stopped him, interposing the objection that it would attract too many people to the barn. Neither would he for the same reason allow him to put it in the top of an oak tree near the house where the two-second fourteen-foot pendulum would have had room to swing. He was, therefore, regretfully compelled to lay away the work uncompleted.
Another invention was a large thermometer with a dial on which the expansion and contraction of an iron rod, multiplied about thirty-two thousand times by a series of levers, was indicated by means of a hand operating against a counter-weight. So sensitive was it to variations of temperature that in cold weather the dial hand would move upon the approach of a person. This instrument was regarded as a great wonder by all the neighbors and extant letters show that a Mr. Varnel was seriously thinking of acquiring the right to manufacture it commercially.
While all the world now knows John Muir as a naturalist, his gifts and capacities in that sphere were as yet unrevealed and unrecognized. It was his skill and ingenuity as an inventor that focused the eyes and the interest of his rural friends upon him. They encouraged him to think that he would have no difficulty in securing employment in some machine shop, especially if he took some of his inventions to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Fair. The suggestion appealed to him, and when the Fair was convened in Madison, in the autumn of 1860, he reluctantly prepared to leave the parental roof. The diffident, bashful, home-loving youth, who now stood hesitatingly at the opening of a fateful new chapter of his life, bears little resemblance to the dauntless explorer and world traveler which he was ultimately destined to become.
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