When John Muir left home in September, 1860, the political outlook of the country was far from hopeful. The speeches and debates of Lincoln and Douglas had made clear to the average citizen that some decisive action must soon be taken with respect to slavery; that, as Lincoln had said in 1858, “either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new—North as well as South.” In May, 1860, Lincoln was nominated for the Presidency by the Republican National Convention assembled in Chicago, and was elected by an overwhelming popular vote the following November. A few weeks earlier Governor W.H.Gist of South Carolina had written a letter to each of the cotton States inviting their cooperation in case South Carolina should resolve to secede. The replies were favorable, and before Lincoln was inaugurated in March, 1861, at least seven Southern States had adopted ordinances of secession.
Such were conditions in the world beyond Hickory Hill farm when John Muir went forth with scrip and purse to find his fortune. His purse contained nothing but Grandfather Gilrye’s farewell pngt of a gold sovereign and a few dollars which he had earned by raising grain on a patch of abandoned ground. His scrip was the strangest with which a lad ever went forth from the parental roof—two large clocks whittled out of wood, and a thermometer made out of an old washboard, all tied together in a bundle for convenient transportation on his back. His brother David drove him to Pardeeville, a place he had never seen, though only nine miles distant from his home, and left him with his queer bundle on the station platform. For an account of the sensation which he immediately created with it in the little country town, and afterwards on the train and in Madison, the reader is referred to the vivid closing chapter of The Story of My Boyhood and Youth.
Experience promptly disproved his father’s prediction that once out in the world he would soon meet with severer taskmasters than he had known in the person of his father. On the contrary, he met with marked kindness wherever he went, a fact which warrants the inference that he possessed engaging personal qualities. As his friends had anticipated, the originality and novelty of Muir’s inventions immediately opened all doors for him at the fair of the State Agricultural Society in Madison. Three days before it opened a local newspaper, under the caption of “An Ingenious Whittler,” commented on his clocks and predicted that few articles in the exhibit would attract as much attention as these products of Mr. Muir’s ingenuity.
During the preceding year the Society had held its meeting and fair at Milwaukee and Lincoln delivered on this occasion an address in which he set forth his conception of industrial education among a free people. In the phrase “free labor” he embodied his idea of contrast with the time when educated people did not value manual skill because they scorned to perform manual labor, regarding it as the lot of the uneducated. This divorce between education and creative toil, he maintained, cannot be approved in a democracy. Curiously enough the Scotch lad who the following year was to come under the notice of the same Agricultural Society through products of his manual skill might almost have stood as a concrete illustration of the following passage in Lincoln’s address. “Free labor,” he said, “argues that as the Author of man makes every individual with one head and one pair of hands, it was probably intended that heads and hands should cooperate as friends, and that that particular head should direct and control that pair of hands. As each man has one mouth to be fed and one pair of hands to furnish food, it was probably intended that that particular pair of hands should feed that particular mouth, that each head is the natural guardian, director and protector of the hands and mouth inseparably connected with it: and that being so, every head should be cultivated and improved by whatever will add to its capacity for performing its charge. In one word, free labor insists on universal education.”
John had found a novel way of making his hands serve his head educationally and vice versa. His exhibition of the educational use to which he had been accustomed to put his clocks by harnessing them to his bed brought him the acquaintanceship of Mrs. Jeanne C. Carr, wife of Professor Ezra Slocum Carr, then Professor of Natural Science and of Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin. She was a native of Vermont, an uncommonly pngted woman, and passionately devoted to the study of plants. The Secretary of the State Agricultural Society, desiring to secure a premium for Muir’s inventions, asked Mrs. Carr to report them to the proper committee, since they were not easy to classify under the Society’s specifications. She, therefore, accompanied the Secretary to a part of the grounds where John Muir was engaged in exhibiting a practicable cooperative relation between brains and beds. An improvised bedstead, covered with a few blankets, was mysteriously connected with a home-made wooden clock. The latter, when set for a desired rising time, would tilt up the bed and set the sleeper on his feet upon the footboard. To aid him in his demonstrations Muir had secured the enthusiastic assistance of two small boys, one of them the son of James Davie Butler, Professor of Greek in the University of Wisconsin, and the other a son of Mrs. Carr. The lads pretended to be asleep until the contrivance set them on their feet amid the cheers of the spectators who were attracted quite as much by the young inventor’s artless and humorously enthusiastic explanations as by the novelty of the mechanism. When some time later Professor Carr reported at home Muir’s attendance upon his lectures at the University the two lads, hoping for a course of jack-knife studies, eagerly invited their ingenious friend to their respective homes where he became a frequent and much appreciated guest.
The manner in which Muir became a student at the University of Wisconsin a few months after the close of the fair need not be retold here, since he has done it himself in his published memoirs. The intervening months were spent at Prairie du Chien whither he went at the invitation of a Mr. Wirad who offered him employment in his machine-shop. The opportunity proved a disappointment, though his intercourse with the Pelton family at the Mondell House, where he gave service for his board, became the starting-point of a lifelong friendship, not without profit to the art of letters as will appear later. In short, John was not to win success at a canter. This was impressed upon him even during the first exciting weeks in Madison. A youth whose father had refused to promise assistance in need, and whose paltry hoard of savings was soon spent, had need of all his wits. “A body has an extraordinary amount of longfaced sober scheming and thought to get butter and bread,” he writes, in a nostalgic letter to his sister Sarah before the close of the Fair. “Practice economy in all that you do.”
"See that all that you do is founded upon Scripture,” was the response he got from his father—surely a futile admonition to a penniless, struggling, homesick lad a month after he has left home! “The folks think it funny that you never date your letters, nor write your name at the end,” complains his brother David, in allusion to a habit which John was long in outgrowing.
In January 1861, his mother acknowledges a letter from Madison, expresses surprise that he has left Prairie du Chien, and desires to know what he wants to study. She is still further surprised when a month later she learns that he is “batching at the University.” She hopes his health, which has not been good lately, will not suffer under the new mode of living. He is having a hard time and she thinks his father will assist him a little, but does not know when. Meanwhile he must not be discouraged but make the best of his circumstances. Two months later his father does send him ten dollars with the admonition to be temperate, to love God more than making machines, and not to forget the poor destitute heathen! John, meanwhile, had no choice but to be temperate, for he occasionally had to cut his expenses for food to fifty cents a week. Daniel Muir’s strangely perverted piety was equal to four “protracted meetings” a week and liberal gifts of money to vague and distant causes, while his own son was starving to obtain an education. “Let me know,” he wrote, in sending the ten dollars, “when you are in great distress and I will try what I can do.” The paternal letters are affectionate in tone at the beginning and the end, but this does not disguise the singular and baffling stolidity with which he holds out to John a doubtful possibility of assistance when his troubles shall have assumed the proportions of really great distress. With religious exhortation he was liberal enough, for practically every letter, from the first to the last, is a farrago of pious admonition.
When Muir came to the University of Wisconsin there was attached to the institution a preparatory department that served the purpose of a modern accredited high school. John began his studies in this department, but his proficiency and maturity were such that he was admitted to the Freshman class in a few weeks. After a summer of farm work at home he returned to Madison in the autumn of that year, occupying again his old room in North Hall. The expenses of tuition, books, and board, though extremely reasonable when judged by present standards, speedily reduced him to financial straits again, and he decided to earn some money by teaching a country school, a makeshift to which many students resorted, alternating their terms of study with terms of school-teaching. John, however, did not wish to interrupt his studies, so he arranged to carry forward his University studies by night work during the spring term of 1862. A fellow student of the previous year, Harvey Reid, who had to discontinue his University work on account of similar difficulties, applauded his decision to teach. “Not only will it be of benefit to yourself,” he wrote, “in giving you a thorough review of the common English branches, but the profession of teaching needs your kindness of heart, depth of principle, and courage in the right, to aid in making the youth of our country what a free people ought to be.” The following letter exhibits him in his new role as teacher and “district school philosopher":
To Mr. and Mrs. David M. Galloway
McKeeley’s District, Oak Hall, Wisconsin
February 9th, 1862
Dear Sarah and David
I got your letter a good long while ago, but I have been so busy I have hardly known where I was. Mother wrote me that you were all pretty well. I am well as usual; the blessings attending district school-teaching do not seem to yield the injurious consequences which I had anticipated. The Monday morning that I commenced I did not know where to look, nor what to say, nor what to do, and I’m sure I looked bashful as any maid. A mud-turtle upside down on a velvet sofa was as much at home. I heard a scholar declare that the teacher didn’t seem to know bran, but all moves with regularity and ease now.
I couldn’t get my clocks out with me at first, and, as I had not a watch, I set to work and made a clock to keep time until I had an opportunity of getting my other one from Madison. It cost about two hours’ work and kept time by water passing in a fine jet through a three cent piece. I have a big wheel set on the wall which tells the different classes when and how long to recite, and a machine, too, for making me a fire in the morning at any hour I please, so that when I go to the old log schoolhouse these cold biting mornings, I find everything warmed and a good fire. I sometimes think of a “fixin"’ to box the boys’ ears, for at first the cry of “He don’t half whip,” came loud and angrily from all parts of my parish, and, indeed, I did think it an awful thing to skelp the little chaps, even though so many did give proofs in rich abundance at times of being mischief to the end of the toes. My voice would shake for hours after each hazel application. But now they cause precious little agitation or compunction of soul. My scholars, however, nearly all mean to behave themselves. They are neither good nor bad, certainly not such children as Pollock speaks of, so good and guileless as to seem “made entire of beams of angels’ eyes.”
Sarah, how would you like to have a new home every five or six days? I often wish I could come home among you all a day or two, but, by the bye, you told Mrs. Parkins that you were coming down some day. I hope you will. The sleighing is good now. Ask for Oak Hall, which is about ten miles from Madison, south, then ask for McKeeley’s district, or if you don’t wish to come to school I will be in Madison any day you set. You had better come to school, though, and I will give you a lecture. I lecture every Saturday evening on Chemistry or Natural Philosophy, sometimes to sixty or seventy. You know it does not require much sapience to be a district school philosopher. Dave hasn’t visited my school, nor I his. But I saw him once, and he said he was infinitely happy among his generous Dutch. He has singing schools, and sabbath schools, and writing schools. I hope Maggie and John are happy, and the wee body. May you all be always blest. Good-bye.John Muir
His term of school-teaching came to an end early in March and a sheaf of letters acknowledging gifts and expressing affectionate appreciation of the training received survive to tell of the deep impression he made upon his pupils. He now devoted his entire time to his university work, improvised a chemical laboratory in his room in North Hall, and continued to indulge his inventive proclivities. Muir’s room, in fact, speedily became a show place, a museum, to which both professors and students were accustomed to bring visitors, particularly on Saturdays and Sundays.
One delicate bit of mechanism that especially attracted the attention and admiration of Mrs. Carr was an apparatus for registering the growth of an ascending plant stem during each of the twenty-four hours. The plant he had selected for this purpose was a Madeira Vine (Boussingaultia baselloides) which was growing luxuriantly in his sunniest window. A fine needle threaded with the long hair of a woman fellow student made the record upon a paper disk divided into minute spaces with great exactness. One of his wooden clocks applied and controlled the motive power. An invention in lighter vein was what he called his “loafer’s chair.” It was a wooden chair with a split bottom over which an awkward crosspiece had been nailed in front, apparently to cure the split, but really to make the sitter spread his knees. As soon as the supposed loafer settled down on the chair and leaned back, he pressed a concealed spring which fired a heavily charged old pistol directly under the seat. The leaps of the victims are said to have been worth seeing. These and other contrivances made John’s room such a place of wonders to Pat the janitor that for decades afterwards he was accustomed to relate its marvels and point it out to newcomers.
In the autumn of 1916 the writer secured from surviving fellow students at the University of Wisconsin some personal impressions and recollections of John Muir as a student in Madison. Among those consulted were J. G. Taylor, Philip Stein, and Charles E. Vroman, and they all agreed in describing Muir as an extraordinary type of student. The account of Mr. Vroman, who became Muir’s room-mate upon entering the University in the spring of 1862, is given as nearly as possible in his own words:
My acquaintance with John Muir began when a tutor, John D. Parkinson, took me in tow and led me to the northeast corner room of North Hall on the first floor. It was my first impression that the tutor was showing me a part of the college museum, for it was a strange-looking place to be the room of a college student. The room was lined with shelves, one above the other, higher than a man could reach. These shelves were filled with retorts, glass tubes, glass jars, botanical and geological specimens, and small mechanical contrivances. On the floor around the sides of the room were a number of machines of larger size whose purposes were not apparent at a glance, but which I came to know later. A young man was busily engaged sawing boards and presently the tutor introduced him as John Muir. I was much younger than he and was entering the preparatory department, but it was the beginning of a close and delightful college friendship. When telling me stories of his early life, or reading Burns, he often dropped into a rich Scotch brogue, although he wrote and spoke English perfectly. The only books which I remember seeing him read were his Bible, the poems of Robert Burns, and his college textbooks. It was a very hard and dreary life which he had been compelled to live on his father’s farm, but in spite of all he was the most cheerful, happy-hearted man I ever knew.The summer of 1862 Muir spent for the most part at the old Fountain Hill farm with his sister and brother-in-law. The following letter written after his return to Madison reflects the then prevailing uncertainty regarding the continuance of the University. It had no Chancellor at this time and was seriously short of funds. The affairs of the University were administered by the faculty under the chairmanship of Professor John W. Sterling, whose unselfish devotion and unquestioned ability entitled him, in the opinion of the most distinguished alumni, to be made Chancellor. But the strangely myopic regents of this period let him do the work of holding the University together from 1859 to 1867 without even the title of Vice-Chancellor and without extra salary.
Muir boarded himself during his stay at the University, as did other students. His fare was very simple, consisting chiefly of bread and molasses, graham mush, and baked potatoes. Being on good terms with Pat, he had access to the wood furnaces in the basement where he could boil his mush on the coals and bake his potatoes in the hot ashes. For exercise he played wicket, walked, and swam. Muir’s course of study, while irregular, corresponded closely to what was then called the modern classical. The last two years of his course were devoted to chemistry and geology. There were no laboratory facilities in the University at that time, so Muir built a chemical laboratory in his own room. He was by common consent regarded as the most proficient chemical student in the college. In disposition Muir was gentle and loving—a high minded Christian gentleman, clean in thought and action. While he was not a very regular attendant at church, he read his Bible regularly, said his morning and evening prayers each day, and led the kind of life which all this implies. He was, however, in no respect austere or lacking in humor, but bubbling over with fun, and a keen participant in frolics and college pranks, especially when Pat the janitor needed to be taken down.
On July 2nd, 1862, President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, which marks one of the greatest advances in the history of American education. By this Act each State was given for educational purposes thirty thousand acres of land for each of its Senators and Representatives in Congress. The conditions attached to the grant were easily fulfilled, but the authorities of the University of Wisconsin allowed four years to elapse before they effected the reorganization that entitled them to claim the benefit of the Act. Even the prospect of this aid, however, had a heartening effect upon the little group that kept the University alive in hope of better times.
Muir’s letter is of interest, too, because it shows that he was training himself in the art of crayon sketching, an art in which he was later to gain great proficiency, and one that proved invaluable to him in the keeping of his exploration journals.
To Mr. and Mrs. David M. Galloway
Madison, Autumn, 1862Dear Brother and Sister:
Perhaps you begin to think it long since I wrote last. After leaving the sheaves and thrashing machine, the merry sound of our old bell made me all crazy with joy. I think I love my studies more and more, and instead of the time for dismissing them coming nearer, as one term after another passes, it seems to go farther and farther away.
We live in changing times, and our plans may easily be broken, but if not I shall be seeking knowledge for some years, here or elsewhere.
Our University has reached a crisis in its history, and if not passed Successfully, the doors will be closed, when of course I should have to leave Madison for some institution which has not yet been wounded to the death by our war demon.
If John Reid can spare me money I shall not teach this winter, for though it seems an easy way of making a hundred dollars every winter, yet the time for acquiring as much as I desire would in that way be too much prolonged. That money will likely be spent, as the Catholics say, for the benefit of my soul.
Those pictures are framed and I need not tell you that they are prized a good deal. Our tutor takes a great liking to the lake, and wishes it in his room. If more time could be spared for drawing I would send you a picture once or twice in a while, as I know you have a taste for them . . . .
This war seems farther from a close than ever. How strange that a country with so many schools and churches should be desolated by so unsightly a monster. “Leaves have their time to fall,” and though indeed there is a kind of melancholy present when they, withered and dead, are plucked from their places and made the sport of the gloomy autumn wind, yet we hardly deplore their fate, because there is nothing unnatural in it. They have done all that their Creator wished them to do, and they should not remain longer in their green vigor. But may the same be said of the slaughtered upon a battle field? If you might be successful you would go far to bring the millennium to get love into those leopards and lambs, would you not?
But good-bye, I wish God’s blessing for yourselves and little ones. Come and see me if you can, as possibly I may have to go farther from home.Give me a letter, each of you soon.
It was to be expected that a young man of Muir’s sensitive nature and rigid religious training would find the Civil War an agonizing problem. Camp Randall, where about seventy thousand men were drilled and mobilized in the course of four years, was situated half a mile west of the University and within full view of the campus. Often he went there to look after the comfort of friends or to bid them farewell.
Fragments of an extensive correspondence show that he became a tender and solicitous religious adviser to numerous enlisted men who craved this service. Among them are former students of the University whose names, apparently, were lost from the alumni records. The fearful toll of life exacted by unsanitary conditions in the military camps weighed heavily upon his mind and probably had something to do with his long-cherished purpose to enter the profession of medicine.
One day in the spring of 1863 his fellow student, M. S. Griswold, accidentally detained him for a moment on the steps of North Hall with questions about a locust blossom that he picked from a branch overhead. It was a fateful moment for Muir. He professed to know nothing about botany, so Mr. Griswold proceeded to tell him about the family relationship of the locust tree, and before the conversation was ended, Muir had caught an entrancing vision of a science new to him. “This fine lesson,” he wrote in his memoirs, “charmed me and sent me flying to the woods and meadows in wild enthusiasm. . . . I wandered away at every opportunity, making long excursions round the lakes, gathering specimens and keeping them fresh in a bucket in my room to study at night after my regular class tasks were reamed; for my eyes never closed on the plant glory I had seen.” By such chance occurrences are the destinies of men determined. Had it not been for this new enthusiasm coming into his life he would undoubtedly have entered the medical profession. The following letter is the first to reflect the consequences of his new passion. The “Somewhere much farther away” refers to incipient plans to enter the Medical School of the University of Michigan.
To Mr. and Mrs. David M. GallowayMadison, June 1st, 1863Dear Sarah and David:
Unless hindered by circumstances not seen now, I shall be at Watson’s Thursday, [June] 18th. I am sorry that you have not been able to visit me, as I will not return to Madison, but will go somewhere much farther away, so that you will not be so able to reach me, as now.
I cannot do anything toward analyzing your plant, Sarah, without the flower. I mean to be happy for a few days around Fountain Lake in collecting specimens for my herbarium. I returned last Saturday evening from a long ramble of twenty-five miles through marshes, mud, and brushwood with a heavy basketful of flowers, weeds, moss and bush-twigs, having made five or six visits besides, and pressed thirty specimens or more. So you need not cry over my sober face. I am not so feeble you see.
You would like the study of Botany. It is the most exciting thing in the form of even amusement, much more of study, that I ever knew. Very unlike the grave tangled Greek and Latin, but I will see you soon. Good-bye.Affectionately yours[P.S.] I had almost forgotten, Sarah, to tell you that I was elected judge one of the debating clubs a short time ago, also President of the Young Men’s Christian Association. You say that you expect something great by and by! Am not I great now?
Within a week he withdrew the appointment to be met at Watson’s, saying that he was going on a long botanical and geological tour down the Wisconson River valley and into Iowa. “I am not so well as I was last term,” he writes “I need a rest. Perhaps my tour will do me good, though a three or four hundred mile walk with a load is not, at least in appearance, much of a rest “He went with two companions and an account of the excursion was subsequently communicated to Miss Emily Pelton, then of Prairie du Chien, in a series of letters predated as if they had been written “during the ramble,” but actually written six months later, just before he went botanical tour into Canada.
To Miss Emily Pelton
Fountain Lake, February 27th, 1864
Dear Friend Emily
You speak in your last letter of the pleasure which a letter written during the ramble would have given, but it is not yet too late."Backward, turn backward, O Time, in your flight!"
Recess in the Bluffs near McGregor, Iowa
July 7th, 1863
Dear Friend Emily
This evening finds us encamped near McGregor. We have spent a toilsome day, but it has not been without interest. In the morning we were directed to a romantic glen down which a little stream sought a path, turning the mosses to stone as it went, and watering many interesting flowers. “The road that leads to it,” said the man, “lies close along the river brink. It is not very far and a log house marks the glen’s narrow entrance.” We remarked that in following our directions, when we had inquired more particularly about the exact position of the log house after we had proceeded some distance on our way, the person we inquired of gave us some very curious glances which we could not understand. As we proceeded on our way we could not withstand the temptation to climb the bluffs that beetled so majestically overhead, and after many vain attempts we at last found a place where the ascent was practicable. We had to make many a halt for rest, and made as much use of our hands as of our feet, but the splendid view well repaid the toil.
After enjoying the delightful scenery and analyzing some specimens which we gathered on our way, we began to wish ourselves down again, as the afternoon was wearing away and we wished to visit the glen before night, but descending was still more difficult, and we several times reached an almost unstoppable velocity. We found the first specimen of Desmodium in this vicinity and several beautiful Labiatae.
After traveling a good way down the river we began to fear that we had already passed the object of our search, but, when the sun’s rays were nearly level and we had just emerged from a mass of low leafy trees, we were suddenly struck with the most genuine astonishment at the unique and unexpected sight so full before us. We expected that a log house in such a place would be a faultless specimen of those pioneer establishments with outside chimney, the single window, and door overrun with hop vines or wild honeysuckle, the dooryard alive with poultry and pigs, and the barnyard at hand with its old straw-stack and street of dilapidated stables and sheds, with cows, dirty children, and broken plows sprinkled over all.
But judge, Emily, of our surprise when, upon a piece of ground where the bluffs had curved backward a little from the river, we at once saw the ruinous old house with four gaudily dressed females in an even row in front, with two idle men seated a little to one side looking complacently upon them like a successful merchant upon a stock of newly arrived goods. Not a broken fence, dirty boy, or squealing pig was to be seen, but there on such a background the old decaying logs and the dark majestic hills on which the soft shades of evening were beginning to fall—there, in clothes which had been dipped many times in most glaring dyes, sat the strange four. It was long before I could judge of the character of the establishment, but I saw at once there was something very strange about it, and instinctively fell behind my companion. He was equally ignorant, but boldly marched forward and asked for the glen where fossils were found. This was a subject of which they knew but little. They told us that the path went no further, that the hills were unclimbable, etc. We then took the alarm, gained the summit of the bluffs after an hour’s hard labor, built our campfire, congratulated each other on our escape, and spoke much from the first chapter of Proverbs.You will perhaps soon hear from us again. Truly your friend
To Miss Emily Pelton
Camp below the junction of the Wisconsin with the Mississippi
July 8th, 1863
Dear Friend Emily
When morning had dawned after our evening log house adventure, we found ourselves upon the brink of one of the highest points overhanging the river. It seemed as though we might almost leap across it. The sun was unclouded, and shone with fine effect upon the fleecy sea of fog contained by its ample banks of bluffs. Later it flowed smoothly away as we gazed and gave us the noble Mississippi in full view.
Breaking the spell which bound us here so long, we leisurely proceeded to explore the pretty glen which we had passed before in the dark. Here we spent some hours of great interest and added some fine plants and fossils to our growing wealth, and soon found ourselves upon the shore of the great river. The genuine calm of a July morning was now master of all. The river flowed on, smooth as a woodland lake, reflecting the full beams of the dreamy light, while not on all the dark foliage which feathered its mountain wall moved a single breeze. We stood harnessed and half asleep with the settled calm, looking wishfully upon the cool waters, when suddenly the thought struck us, “How fine it would be to purchase a boat and sail merrily up the Wisconsin to Portage.” We would read and work the oars by turn as our heavy packs would be stowed snugly away beneath the seats, and every few miles we would land at an inviting place and gather new spoils. And so in a few minutes we had our effects packed snugly, as I have described, in a pretty boat, and were joyfully floating on the bosom of the Father of Waters.
But, alas, how vain our large hopes of promised bliss! We reached the mouth of the Wisconsin River and soon our bright faces grow less and less bright till gloomy as a winter’s day, as we paddle with all our might, shooting bravely on against the current at the fearful velocity of ten rods per two hours. At last, completely exhausted, we give up, for a moment, in despair and are instantly returned to the Mississippi by the boiling current. But we were not yet beaten, for holding a council of war against the bustling stream, we determined to “Try, try again.”
So, landing, we procured a pair of boards, by the necessitous act of self-appropriation, and proceeded to make two pair of oars. They were nearly made before dark. We found a new camping ground and sought repose with hearts again trimmed with fresh hope. . . .
I shall write you again and give you the result of to-day’s labor. I wish you would write immediately on receiving this. Address Wauzeka [Wisconsin.] I shall pass near that place in a few days. Truly your friendJ. Muir
Apparently the trio of young naturalists had difficulty in finding the wherewithal to satisfy their healthy outdoor appetites. The following narrative poem, which accompanied the foregoing letters to Miss Pelton, describes the difficulties they encountered while searching for a breakfast:To Miss Emily PeltonFarmhouse near Wright’s Ferry
July 9th, 1863
Dear Friend Emily:
We started, in good spirits again, this morning, with our long oars manufactured by our hatchet. We applied them to our little boat and soon were again at the mouth of the Wisconsin which came tumbling down rapid and restless as ever. At each pull of the oars our little fairy almost leaps from the water, but we were now in the very midst of the boiling waters. We shoot now to this side, now to that, making very acute angles, and almost capsizing several times. Again we pull harder than ever—again are baffled. We are drenched thoroughly with streaming sweat but we have strength remaining and have already conquered fifteen or twenty rods. The combat is prolonged amid splashing and boiling, now drifting back, now gaining a few rods, now fast on a sand-bar on this side, now aground on the other, fill the victory was again wrenched from us, and, drawing our boat up on a large sand bank we disembarked, laid our packs at our feet, and with uncovered heads, thus addressed the culprit boat, each in turn:
"O Boat, heretic and perverse, why persist in this obstinate and unprofitable determination of opposition to the reasonable demands of thy lords and masters?. . . Shame be thy portion! Thou art small and light as a baby’s cradle, but obstinate and unsteerable as Noah’s ark. . . . Depart from my service to that of another upon thy parent whom thou seemest to love, and may’st thou serve her better than thou hast served me.”
This said, a card was nailed upon a conspicuous place and directed to Mrs. Goodrich [Note by Mrs Emily Pelton Wilson: “A friend he met in our house in Prairie du Chien."], Dubuque, Iowa, and two three cent stamps placed on it as it was overweight. Then pushing it into the current we watched it a few minutes as it sailed away, now appearing and now lost, as it passed the willows upon the bank. Then we again placed our old companion packs, and soberly marched away with unequal steps through the tall grass, like good AEneas with his Penates when cast upon Queen Dido’s coast.
After a very wearisome walk over wet places and fallen trees we reached the house where I now write. We did not intend to stop here, but only called for our fifth meal, as we had but one yesterday, and we wished to make a fair average. But the old lady of the mansion gave us so good a welcome that we entered and she made us supper. She has invited us to stay all night. She, we had observed from the first, was possessed of a lasting fund of everyday benevolence, and just a few minutes ago she told us her reason. “I have,” she said, “a son who was some years in New Mexico. Many times he was refused shelter from storm and compelled to pass long nights in rain and sleet. I was determined that though I should be occasionally imposed upon I should never refuse the rites of hospitality to any.” This, I think, is as noble a sentiment as ever came from mortal lips, and if I live, she shall know some time that I have not forgotten her. My companion, as I write, is listening to the narration of this son’s adventures. This is the only place where we have met with a really cordial reception.
Good-bye. You may hear from me again when I reach a convenient point.Write soon. [John Muir]
IN SEARCH OF A BREAKFAST
Dedicated to the
"Patron of all those luckless brains,
Which to the wrong side leaning,
Indite much metre with much pains
And little or no meaning.”
The early breeze of morning falls
Upon the trembling chamber walls,
The hour of evening, one by one,
Retreat before the joyful sun.
Our heroes’ task of resting o’er,
They leave their ever-open door
And yawn, and stretch, and view the sky
With looks and garments much awry;
Then seek, with faltering steps and slow
The bustling stream that winds below,
Where, like wet poultry after rain,
That trim disordered plumes again,
They wash, and rave, and dress their hair,
And for the breakfast search prepare.
All harnessed now, in rambling style,
With bounding glee they march a while;
The gen’rous grass and twigs bestow
Their dewy honors as they go,
Till we might deem the stranger three
All night had drifted in the sea.
Minutely now each sheltered shade,
Soft sedgy pool and waving glade,
Is searched throughout with patient eye,
If stranger plant they might descry.
If such be found, no golden treasure
May bring so much of honest pleasure.
But smoke curls on that mountain brow,
And breakfast is the question now.
The house is gained—with air half bold
Their tale of morning hunger’s told;
They ask no bun of prickly taste,
No pie complex with frosty paste,
No fiery mixture striped with candy,
No slimy oysters boiled in brandy,
But bread and milk, at any time
Purchased with a paper dime.
But ah! How marred was breakfast then.
How lost the plans of “mice and men"!
For bread—”I’ve none,” good mother cries,
"Because my risings did not rise.
I’ve biscuit, but a pair at most,
And as for milk, the cow is lost.
But, three miles farther on your way
You’ll come to Dick and Simon Day.”
With tardy steps they leave the door
And more a hungered than before,
And slow, the lengthened miles they tread
Which lead to Simon’s timber shed.
With growing emphasis they tell
How ‘neath a cotton sheet they dwell,
And ‘mid the hills all daylight hours
Roam near and far for weeds and flowers.
But growling want still pressing sore
Compels to seek the farmer’s door,
And add with deeply serious brow,
How much they feel of hunger now.
But Simon has no bread to spare,
The milk is soured by sultry air.
But Jacob Wise at Fountain well
"Has heaps of cows, and milk to sell.”
Then from a fallen log they rise
And gravely steer for Farmer Wise.
Meanwhile the day of sultry June
Approaches fast the hour of noon.
Our heroes, faint and fainter still,
Toil on with braced unfaltering will,
Till on a ridge of thistly ground
The home of Master Wise is found,
And, waxing bold, our starving men
Bestow their tale of want again.
But Jacob with commanding air
Presents on each a Yankee stare,
And slowly, in dull angry tone,
Assures them they “had best be gone.”
But stanchly fixed with needful will,
Till fed with milk and bread their fill,
And, wiser grown, they know their task
And kindly divers questions ask:
How long beside this darkened wood
His house and handsome barn have stood?
How old himself and curly dog?
How much had weighed his fattest hog?
How great the price of meadow hay?
How far from here his clearing lay?
These chords so struck resounding well,
With kindling eye he’ll warely tell
How first this woodland farm he found
When all was Indian hunting ground.
And coons and herds of fallow deer
Were tame as sheep or broken steer,
And howling wolf and savage yell
Mixed all the echoes up the dell.
Thus poulticed he, inflamed before,
Is calm as Boss, and all her store
Uncreamed, with bread and Sally’s pie,
Bestows with kindly beaming eye.
"Nor aught,” said he, “will I deny
To honest folks as good as I;
But strolling men of Wiley looks,
A peddlin’ clothes and dirty books,
Howe’er so lamed or big they be
Much comfort ne’er shall get from me.”
The following letter, bearing no indication of place or date, probably was written toward the end of July, 1863, shortly before he left Madison to assist his brother-in-law in harvest work on the Fountain Lake farm. If so, it describes, perhaps, the last botanical excursion he made from Madison.
To Mr. and Mrs. David M. Galloway
Since writing last we have been on many a hill, and walked “o’er moors and mosses many o,” but the best of all our rambles was one which was completed last Friday. We took the train from here Thursday morning for Kilbourn, a small town on the Wisconsin River towards LaCrosse, rambled all day among the glorious tangled valleys and lofty perpendicular rocks of the famous Dells, stayed over night in Kilbourn, and voyaged to Portage next day upon a raft of our own construction. The thousandth part of what we enjoyed was pleasure beyond telling. At the Dells the river is squeezed between lofty frowning sandstone rocks. The invincible Wisconsin has been fighting for ages for a free passage to the Mississippi, and only this crooked and narrow slit has been granted or gained.
At present all is peace, but the river, though calm, does not appear contented. Only a few foam-bells are seen, but they float with an air of tardy settled sullenness past the black yawning fissures and beetling, threatening rock-brows above. But when winter with its locking ice has yielded to the authoritative looks of the high summer sun, just at the darkest of the year before any flowers are overhead or any of the rock ferns have unrolled their precious bundles, then the war is renewed with the most terrific, roaring, foaming, gnashing fury. Fierce legions come pouring in from many an upland swamp and lake, in irresistible haste, through broken gorge and valley gateways. All in one they rush to battle clad in foam—rise high upon their ever-resisting enemy, and with constant victory year by year gain themselves a wider and straighter way.
Kilbourn station is about two miles below the Dells. We went to the riverside and at once began to find new plants. The banks are rocky and romantic for many miles both above and below the Dells. On going up the river we were delightfully opposed and threatened by a great many semi-gorge ravines running at right angles to the river, too steep to cross at every point and much too long to be avoided if to wish to avoid them were possible. Those ravines are the most perfect, the most heavenly plant conservatories I ever saw. Thousands of happy flowers are there, but ferns and mosses are the favored ones. No human language will ever describe them. We traveled two miles in eight hours, and such scenery, such sweating, scrambling, climbing, and happy hunting and happy finding of dear plant beings we never before enjoyed.
The last ravine we encountered was the most beautiful and deepest and longest and narrowest. The rocks overhang and bear a perfect selection of trees which hold themselves towards one another from side to side with inimitable grace, forming a flower-veil of indescribable beauty. The light is measured and mellowed. For every flower springs, too, and pools, are there in their places to moisten them. The walls are fringed and painted most divinely with the bright green polypodium and asplenium and mosses and liverworts with gray lichens, and here and there a clump of flowers and little bushes. The floor was barred and banded and sheltered by bossy, shining, moss-clad logs cast in as needed from above. Over all and above all and in all the glorious ferns, tall, perfect, godlike, and here and there amid their fronds a long cylindrical spike of the grand fringed purple orchis.
But who can describe a greenhouse planned and made and planted and tended by the Great Creator himself. Mrs. Davis wished a fernery. Tell her I wish she could see this one and this rock-work. We cannot remove such places to our homes, but they cut themselves keenly into our memories and remain pictured in us forever.[John Muir]
Muir had lingered in Madison after the close of the University session, partly to botanize amid its lovely natural surroundings, partly because of his attachment for the place where his eyes had been opened to a greater world of knowledge and of beauty. But the time of departure finally came. “From the top of a hill on the north side of Lake Mendota,” he writes in the closing paragraph of The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, “I gained a last wistful, lingering view of the beautiful University grounds and buildings where I had spent so many hungry and happy and hopeful days. There with streaming eyes I bade my blessed Alma Mater farewell. But I was only leaving one University for another, the Wisconsin University for the University of the Wilderness.”
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