When John Muir left the University of Wisconsin in June, 1863, he had number of warmly worded letters of introduction from Madison friends who wished to smooth his way at the University of Michigan. “You will find in him the greatest modesty joined with high moral and religious excellence,” wrote one of them to James R. Boise, then Professor of Greek in the latter institution. How far these plans for the definite choice of a profession had progressed is apparent also in the fact that friends addressed letters to him at the Medical School and evinced surprise when they were returned unclaimed. “A draft was being made,” he wrote in explanation to one them, “just when I should have been starting for Ann Arbor, which kept me at home.”
Meanwhile his fellow student, James L. High, later a distinguished lawyer in Chicago, wound up his affairs at Madison and made a report in November “Our class,” he wrote, “numbers only five, viz., Wallace, Spooner, Salisbury, Congar, and myself. Leahey has gone into the army, and Lewis is a senior at Union College, New York. So, as you see, we are small in numbers, but we are making a brave fight of it nevertheless. The Societies are doing unusually well this term. Yours numbers about twenty-five members, and ours over forty.” Then follows an account of his efforts to collect small loans which Muir had made to fellow students. The society referred to as “yours” was the Athenae Literary and Debating Society of which he was one of the founders.
Returning from his botanical rambles in July, John spent the autumn and winter on the old Fountain Lake farm which, some time in 1856, had passed into the hands of his brother-in-law, David Galloway. “With study and labor I have scarcely been at all sensible of the flight of time since I reached home,” he writes at the end of February to his friend Emily Pelton. “In my walks to and from my field work and in occasional rambles I, of course, searched every inch of ground for botanical specimens which, preserved in water, were analyzed at night. My task was seldom completed before twelve or one o’clock. I was just thinking to-day that soon the little anemones would be peering above ground.”
But even at this time, when the new sap was barely beginning to swell the buds, the young naturalist was pluming his wings for a long flight. “I have enjoyed the company of my dear relatives very much during this long visit,” he adds, “but I shall soon leave them all, and I scarcely think it probable that I shall be blest with so much of home again.” As for the study of medicine, he merely remarks that he had “by no means given up all hope of still finding an opportunity to pursue this favourite study some other time.” But that time never came. Two days later, on March 1st, 1864, he announces, in a parting note to the same friend, “I am to take the cars in about half an hour. I really do not know where I shall halt. I feel like Milton’s Adam and Eve—’The world was all before them where to choose their place of rest.”
It would be impossible now to trace any part of the intricate route which finally led him to Meaford, County Grey, Canada West, were it not for one of those fortunate incidents which sometimes occur to gladden the heart of a biographer. In editing Muir’s journal and notes written during his “thousand-mile walk to the gulf” the writer began to realize how much easier it would be, at critical points, to follow his wanderings if one had his herbarium specimens with the identification slips, giving date and place of collection. But no part of the herbarium gathered during the sixties seemed to have survived the wanderings of this modern Ulysses.
In looking over some correspondence with Mrs. Julia Merrill Moores, one of his early Indianapolis friends, the writer found reason to suppose that Muir had left for safekeeping at her house some of his belongings when he went South in 1867. Though she had passed on long ago the clue seemed worth following, and a search in Indianapolis proved successful beyond all expectations. For the attic of her son, Charles W. Moores, yielded up large parts of the long forgotten herbarium which Muir had gathered during the years from 1864 to 1867.
Since no letters or notebooks of Muir from the period between March and October, 1864, have been found, the little identification slips, though not precise in giving geographical localities, furnish important clues to his movements. In April he was already wading about in Canadian swamps, and by the month of May he had penetrated northward as far as Simcoe County. On the 18th of that month he started—on a three weeks’ ramble through Simcoe and Grey Counties, walking an estimated distance of about three hundred miles through the townships of Guillimbury, Tecumseh, Adjala, Mono, Amaranth, Luther, Arthur, Egremont, Proton, Glenelg, Bentinck, Sullivan, Holland, and Sydenham. “Much of Adjala and Mono,” he notes, is very uneven and somewhat sandy; many fields here are composed of abrupt gravel hillocks; inhabitants are nearly all Irish. Amaranth, Luther, and Arthur abound in extensive Tamarac and Cedar swamps, dotted with beaver meadows. I spent seven and a half hours in one of these solitudes extraordinary. Land and water, life and death, beauty and deformity, seemed here to have disputed empire and all shared equally at last. I shall not soon forget the chaos of fallen trees in all stages of decay and the tangled branches of the white cedars through which I had to force my way; nor the feeling with which I observed the sun wheeling to the West while yet above, beneath, and around all was silence and the seemingly endless harvest of swamp. Above all I will not soon forget the kindness shown me by an Irish lady on my emerging from this shadow of death near her dwelling.”
Of memoranda made on this ramble there survives only the following additional note:
It was with no little difficulty that my object in seeking “these wilds traversed by few” was explained to the sturdy and hospitable lairds of these remote districts. “Botany” was a term they had not heard before in use. What did it mean? If told that I was collecting plants, they would desire to know whether it was cabbage plants that I sought, and if so, how could I find cabbage, plants in the bush? Others took me for a government official of some kind, or minister, or pedlar.One day an interesting human discovery is made and recorded thus: “Found Dunbar people, much to my surprise, far in the dark maple woods; spent a pleasant day with them in rehearsing Dunbar matters.”
During July he was botanizing north of Toronto in the Holland River swamps, and on highlands near Hamilton and Burlington bays. In August he is again about the shores of Lake Ontario and in the vicinity of Niagara Falls. A “wolf forest,” mentioned on several slips, is doubtless the place on the southern shore of Lake Ontario where one night he had an adventure with wolves. That as well as other incidents form the subject bathe following fragmentary autobiographical sketch which fortunately covers this period of Canadian wanderings in some detail:
After earning a few dollars working on my brother-in-law’s farm near Portage, I set off on the first of my long lonely excursions, botanizing in glorious freedom around the Great Lakes and wandering through innumerable tamarac and arbor-vitae swamps, and forests of maple, basswood, ash, elm, balsam, fir, pine, spruce, hemlock rejoicing in their bound wealth and strength and beauty, climbing the trees, reveling in their flowers and fruit like bees in beds of goldenrods, glorying in the fresh cool beauty and charm of the bog and meadow heathworts, grasses, carices, ferns, mosses, liverworts displayed in boundless profusion.During the winter months of his sojourn in this dell near Meaford he had the companionship Of his youngest brother, Daniel, who also was seeking employment in Canada at this time. A wee letter, one by two inches in size, dated Meaford, October 23rd, 1864, and addressed in playful mood to his sister Mary, gives an account of the people in this “Hollow” where they found employment. “Our family,” he writes, “consists, first of all, of me, a most good man and big boy. Second, Daniel, who is also mostly big and three or four trifles funny. Third, Mr. William Trout, an unmarried boy of thirty summers, who, according to the multiplicity of common prognostications, is going to elect a lady mistress of Trout’s Hollow some day. Fourth, Charles Jay, a bird of twenty-five, who is said to coo to a Trout. . . . This Jay and last mentioned Trout are in partnership and are the rulers of the two Scotch heather Muirs.” He also mentions Mary and Harriet, two very capable sisters of William Trout, one of them the housekeeper and the other a school-teacher. “We all live happily together,” continues the letter. “Occasionally an extra Trout comes upstream or a brother Jay alights at our door, but they are not of our family.” The fears of his sister, lest they work too hard, are met by the declaration that they are working neither hard nor long hours; that they “are growing fatter and fatter, and perhaps will soon be as big as Gog and Magog.”
The rarest and most beautiful of the flowering plants I discovered on this first grand excursion was Calypso borealis (the Hider of the North). I had been fording streams more and more difficult to cross and wading bogs and swamps that seemed more and more extensive and more difficult to force one’s way through. Entering one of these great tamarac and arbor-vitae swamps one morning, holding a general though very crooked course by compass, struggling through tangled drooping branches and over and under broad heaps of fallen trees, I began to fear that I would not be able to reach dry ground before dark, and therefore would have to pass the night in the swamp and began, faint and hungry, to plan a nest of branches on one of the largest trees or windalls like a monkey’s nest, or eagle’s, or Indian’s in the flooded forests of the Orinoco described by Humboldt.
But when the sun was getting low and everything seemed most bewildering and discouraging, I found beautiful Calypso on the mossy bank of a stream, growing not in the ground but on a bed of yellow mosses in which its small white bulb had found a soft nest and from which its one leaf and one flower sprung. The flower was white and made the impression of the utmost simple purity like a snowflower. No other bloom was near it, for the bog a short distance below the surface was still frozen, and the water was ice cold. It seemed the most spiritual of all the flower people I had ever met. I sat down beside it and fairly cried for joy.
It seems wonderful that so frail and lowly a plant has such power over human hearts. This Calypso meeting happened some forty-five years ago, and it was more memorable and impressive than any of my meetings with human beings excepting, perhaps, Emerson and one or two others. When I was leaving the University, Professor J. D. Butler said, “John, I would like to know what becomes of you, and I wish you would write me, say once a year, so I may keep you in sight.” I wrote to the Professor, telling him about this meeting with Calypso, and he sent the letter to an Eastern newspaper [The Boston Recorder] with some comments of his own. These, as far as I know, were the first of my words that appeared in print.
How long I sat beside Calypso I don’t know. Hunger and weariness vanished, and only after the sun was low in the west I plashed on through the swamp, strong and exhilarated as if never more to feel any mortal care. At length I saw maple woods on a hill and found a log house. I was gladly received. “Where ha ye come fra? The swamp, that awfu’ swamp. What were ye coin’ there?” etc. “Mony a puir body has been lost in that muckle, cauld, dreary bog and never been found.” When I told her I had entered it in search of plants and had been in it all day, she wondered how plants could draw me to these awful places, and said, “It’s God’s mercy ye ever got out.”
Oftentimes I had to sleep without blankets, and sometimes without supper, but usually I had no great difficulty in finding a loaf of bread here and there at the houses of the farmer settlers in the widely scattered clearings. With one of these large backwoods loaves I was able to wander many a long wild fertile mile in the forests and bogs, free as the winds, gathering plants, and glorying in God’s abounding inexhaustible spiritual beauty bread. Storms, thunderclouds, winds in the woods—were welcomed as friends.
Only once in these long Canada wanderings was the deep peace of the wilderness savagely broken. It happened in the maple woods about midnight when I was cold and my fire was low. I was awakened by the awfully dismal wolf-howling and got up in haste to replenish the fire. Some of the wolves around me seemed very near, judging by their long-drawn-out howling, while others were replying farther and farther away; but the nearest of all was much nearer than I was aware of, for when I had succeeded in producing a blaze that lighted up the bushes around me, and was in the act of stooping to pick up a branch to add to the blaze, a large gray wolf that had been standing within less than ten feet of me rushed past so startlingly near that I threw the limb at the wolf. This put an end to sleep for that night. I watched and listened and kept up a good far-reaching blaze, which perhaps helped to keep them at bay. Anyhow I saw no more of them, although they continued their howling conversation until near daylight.
I had to stop again and again in all sorts of places when money gave out, accepting work of any kind and at any price, and with a few hard-earned dollars, earned at chopping, clearing, grading, harvesting, going on and on again, thus coming in contact with the people and learning something of their lives.
Among the farmers in the region between Toronto and the Georgian Bay I found not a single American. They were Scotch, English, and Irish, mostly Scotch. Many of them were Highlanders who had been driven from their little farms and garden patches in the glens by the Duke of Sutherland when he cleared his estates of these brave home-loving men to make room for sheep. Most of the old folks, by the time of my visit, had gone to rest in their graves, and the farms they had so laboriously cleared were in the possession of their children, who were living in good brick houses in comparative affluence and ease.
At one of those Highland Scotch farms I stopped for more than a month, working and botanizing. The family consisted of the mother, her daughter, and two sons. Here I had a fine interesting time. Mrs. Campbell could hardly have been kinder had I been her own son, and her two big boys [In a marginal note Muir gives their names as “Alexander and William,” with a question sign. In letter of a correspondent, marked “W. E. Sibley of early Canada botanical days,” occurs the following sentence: “I saw D. and A. Campbell and was at their house. They were all quite well and said they intended writing to you.” (February 28, 1865.)], twenty and twenty-five years of age, were also very kind and fonder of practical jokes than almost anybody I ever met. In the long summer days I used to get up about daylight and take a walk among the interesting plants of a broad marsh through which the Holland River flows. I had not been feeling very well and motherly Mrs. Campbell was somewhat anxious about my health. One morning the boys, finding my bed empty and knowing that I must have gone botanizing in the Holland River swamp, and knowing also the anxiety of their mother about my health, put a large bag of carpet rags, that was kept in the garret, in my bed and pulled the blankets over it. When Mrs. Campbell met the boys before breakfast and inquired for John, they with solemn looks replied that “Botany,” as they called me, was sick. When she anxiously inquired what ailed me they said they didn’t know because they could not get me to speak; they had tried again and again to arouse me but I just lay still without saying a word as if I were dead, though I seemed to be breathing naturally enough. Mrs. Campbell, greatly alarmed, first called me from the foot of the stairs, and, getting no reply, walked half way up and again called, “John, John, will you not speak to me?” The continued dead silence corresponded with the boys’ cunning story and made her doubly anxious, so she climbed to the bed and shook as she supposed my shoulder, saying, “John, John, will you not speak?” Finally, pulling down the cover, she cried in glad relief, “Oh, those boys again, those boys again!”
Soldiers from the British army occasionally deserted and hid in the woods and swamps. For a certain deserter a considerable reward was offered and the Campbell boys told the officers that they had seen a suspicious character creeping out of the woods and swamps of the Holland River early in the morning, and that they thought he must be getting food from the neighbors and hiding in the swamp. A watch was, therefore, set and when they captured me I had some difficulty in explaining that I was only a botanist.
Here is another of the practical jokes of these irrepressible Highlanders: on frosty moonlight nights in winter when the sleighing was good, many of the young men from the neighboring village of Bradford took their girls out sleigh-riding. The Campbell boys dressed themselves in white bed sheets and, just before the sleigh-riding began at dusk, they climbed to the roof of a schoolhouse which stood at the crossroads, a mile or so from their farm, and commenced vigorously trying to saw off the chimney with a fence rail. Their reward was in hearing the boys and girls scream and rush back to the village. The people in that neighborhood were devoted believers in good old-fashioned ghosts.
These boys were capital story-tellers. One of their neighbors had a nose thus described by the elder of the two, “Mr. So-and-so has a big nose. Oh! a very big nose! So big and heavy that it shakes when he walks; and his shaking nose shakes his whole body, and makes the ground shake, and you would think there was an earthquake!”
Farther west were large wooded areas still perfectly wild, on the edges of which homeseekers were laboriously plying their heavy axes, making clearings for fields. At first only a few acres would be slashed down—oak, ash, elm, basswood, maple, etc., of several species. On account of the closeness of the growth these trees were tall and comparatively slender, and the roots formed a net-work that covered the ground so closely that not a single spot was to be found in which a post-hole could be dug without striking roots. These beautiful trees were simply slashed down, falling upon each other and covering the ground many trees deep, cut usually in winter and left to dry.
As soon as the branches were dry enough to burn well, fire was set and they were consumed, leaving only the blackened boles and heavier branches. These were then chopped into manageable lengths of from ten or twelve to fifteen feet, and the neighbors were called to a logging bee. Plenty of whiskey was said to make the work light. The heavier logs were drawn by oxen alongside of each other; the next heavier drawn alongside were rolled up on top of the large ones by means of hand-spikes, the next on top of the Second tier, and so on, and the smaller tops and heavy branches were peaked on top of all. A fire was then started on top of these piles which ate its way downward. Soon all the clearing was covered with heavy, deep, glowing fires and the thickest logs after smouldering for days were at last consumed. Next the ashes were leached, boiled down and roasted for potash, which found a market in Europe, and yielded the first saleable crop of the farm.
Next, pains were taken to scrape little hollows between the roots where a few potatoes could be planted, without any reference to placing them in rows. Occasionally separate little pits were made among the roots for a few grains of wheat, which was cut with a sickle and thrashed with flails. Perhaps a sack of grain, for the family bread, could thus be raised from an acre or so.
Gradually the roots nearest the surface decayed and were laboriously chopped and grubbed out, wheat sown and covered with very small strong V-shaped harrows, which bounced about among the stumps. Still larger roots and some of the smallest stumps were grubbed out of the way, and at last the big stumps were laboriously dug out or pulled out with machines worked by oxen. These first small clearings were enlarged from year to year, but a whole lifetime was usually consumed before anything like an ordinary size farm was brought under perfect cultivation and fitted for the use of reaping and sowing machines.
Besides the difficulty of clearing away these dense woods, the first small farms, opening the ground to the light, were subject to late and early frosts, on account of the ground being so covered with humus and leaves that it could absorb but little heat. While surrounded with a dense forest wall the winds could not reach them with heat brought from afar, and the day temperature fell rapidly.
One morning when I was on my way through the woods I came to a little clearing where there was a crop of wheat beginning to head. Frost had fallen on it the night before, and a poor woman was walking along the side of the field weeping, wiping her eyes on her apron, and crying “Oh! the frost, the frost, the weary frost. We’ll hae na crop this year and we had nane the last. We’ll come to poverty. We’ll come to poverty.” After a great part of the forest was cleared, the stumps removed, the humus plowed under, and the soil opened to the sunshine and equalizing winds these frosts disappeared.
In the spring, when the maple sap began to flow, all the young people had merry, merry times, shared by their elders who remembered their own young days. The sap was boiled in the woods, and when sugaring off at a certain stage it made wax which was cooled in the snow. A big fire was made and the evening spent around it eating maple “wax,” and, later on in the “sugaring off,” the sugar also. Other amusements were meeting for song singing and general merry-making, but dancing was seldom indulged in, being frowned on by their pious elders.
Most of the settlers were pious and faithfully attended church. All were exceedingly economical on account of the necessity, long continued, of saving while making a living in the wilderness. There was good reason for the scarcity of Americans in that community because of the far greater ease with which a living could be made on the prairies and oak openings of the Middle and Western States.
When I came to the Georgian Bay of Lake Huron, whose waters are so transparent and beautiful, and the forests about its shores with their ferny, mossy dells and deposits of boulder clay, it seemed to be a most favorable place for study, and as I was also at this time out of money again I was eager to stay a considerable time. In a beautiful dell, only a mile or two from the magnificent bay, I fortunately found work in a factory where there was a sawmill and lathes for turning out rake, broom, and fork handles, etc.
Mr. Trout, who was still living in 1916, at my request furnished me with an account of the coming of the Muirs to Meaford. It seems that John and Daniel occasionally traveled independently in their search for work, meeting by arrangement at stated times and places, or, if they had lost connection, found each other again by means of letters from home. One midsummer day in l864 Daniel appeared in search of work at the Trout sawmill. He remained there six weeks until his brother John had been located through home communications. The two then resumed their botanical journeyings until the approach of winter.
Scenting a possible chance to exercise his inventive genius, John was persuaded that the Hollow might be a good place in which to pass the long Canadian winter. One evening in autumn, 1864, they both arrived at the mill, outlined their plans, and were engaged to assist in building an addition to the rake factory. John’s mechanical ability soon proved so advantageous for his employers that they entered into a contract with him to make one thousand dozen rakes and thirty thousand broom handles.
When John Muir made his rake and broom handle contract with us [wrote Mr. Trout], he also made a proposition to be given the liberty of improving the machinery as he might determine, and that he should receive therefore half the economical results of such improvement during a given period. An arrangement of this kind was entered into, and he began with our self-feeding lathe which I considered a nearly perfect instrument for turning rake, fork, and broom handles and similar articles. By rendering this lathe more completely automatic he nearly doubled the output of broom handles. He placed one handle in position while the other was being turned. It required great activity for him to put away the turned handle and place the new one in position during the turning process. When he could do this eight broom handles were turned in a minute. Corresponding to this lathe I had on the floor immediately above him a machine that would automatically saw from the round log, after it was fully slabbed, eight handles per minute. But setting in the log and the slabbing process occupied about three eighths of the time. This, with keeping saws and place in order, cut the daily output to about twenty-five hundred. John had his difficulties in similar ways and at best could not get ahead of the sawing. It was a delight to see those machines at work. He devised and started the construction of several new automatic machines, to make the different parts of the hand rakes, having previously submitted and discussed them with me.Daniel returned to Wisconsin after a time, but John continued at Meaford for about a year and a half. During the spring and summer he pursued his favorite study of botany with increasing enthusiasm and industry. Sundays and the long summer evenings were invariably devoted to the plants and the rocks. The lack of a comprehensive manual of the Canadian flora was, of course, a serious disadvantage and many herbarium sheets bear testimony to difficulties he encountered. They also testify to expeditions, made in 1865 of which no other record remains, for here, among numerous specimens from the “garden of J. Lufthorn” and the forests of Owen Sound and Georgian Bay, are trophies from the “Devil’s Half Acre, forty miles northeast from Hamilton” and from the vicinity of Niagara Falls.
In Canada, as at the University of Wisconsin, Muir was his own severest taskmaster. His bed, mounted on a cross axle and connected with an alarm clock, was so contrived that it set him on his feet at five o’clock. If he happened to lie in it diagonally he sometimes was thrown out sharply on the floor. “The fall of John’s bed,” according to Mr. Trout, “was a wake-up signal for every one in the house. If we heard a double shock, caused by a roll-out, we had the signal for a good laugh on John, of which he had further jolly reminders at the breakfast table.” His conversational powers already made him a marked member of any company, and he was never loath to engage in a friendly argument at meal time. But a book was always kept within reach for snatches of reading, and his studious habits kept him at work till far into the night.
His young sisters at this time had in him an interesting correspondent. Apparently they did not give him sufficiently detailed information about home affairs to satisfy his curiosity, for he complains to one of them that, while her letter gave pleasure, “it was not great enough in any of its dimensions, minute enough in its details, or sufficiently knick-knacky in its morals.” “Here,” he writes, “is a form for a small letter from your locality, though as regards style I by no means commend it to your exact imitation.”
To his friend Emily Pelton he writes under date of May 23rd, 1865:Hickory Dale, 1000 ft. above the seaDear John:
January 1st, 1865
We are pretty well, but are fast growing weary of the many changes which now seem to be of daily occurrence. We now live in a room made in the upper part of the barn next the orchard.
We reach it by an outside stair. It is hard carrying up the wood and water. Once I slipt and fell with an armful of burr oak firewood and sprained my weeping sinew. The cattle live in the house now—the cows in the cellar, the horses on the first floor, and the sheep upstairs. Nan will not go past the cellar door, but we do the best we can.
The apple trees are dug up and planted upon the cold rocky summit of the observatory where I am sure they will not grow well. The cattle do not stand the severe weather well this winter. They stand drawn together like a dog licking a pot.
Aunt Sally is married, and Lowdy Grahm has the whooping cough. Write soon or sooner.From your SisP.S. Carrie Muir has enlisted and David is very angry.
There, Mary, you should put some grit and bone of that kind in your letters. I scribble that nonsense only to show you that these small matters which occur in the neighborhood and which you do not think worthy of note are still of interest to us when so far from home. . . AffectionatelyJohn
We live in a retired and romantic hollow. . . Our social advantages are, of course, few and, for my part, I do not seek to extend my acquaintance, but work and study and dream in this retirement. . . Our tall, tall forest trees are now all alive, and the ocean of mingled blossoms and leaves waves and curls and rises in rounded swells farther and farther away, like the thick smoke from a factory chimney. Freshness and beauty are everywhere; flowers are born every hour; living sunlight is poured over all, and every thing and creature is glad. Our world is indeed a beautiful one, and I was thinking, on going to church last Sabbath, that I would hardly accept of a free ticket to the moon or to Venus, or any other world, for fear it might not be so good and so fraught with the glory of the Creator as our own. Those miserable hymns, such asThe following letter, addressed to three of his sisters, is of interest because it exhibits his love of fun from another angle. The proposed sale of the Hickory Hill farm was not consummated at this time. The Fountain Lake farm, however, to which he had become so deeply attached, was sold about this time by his brother-in-law, David Galloway.” This world is all a fleeting showdo not at all correspond with my likings, and I am sure they do not with yours.
For man’s delusion given,”
The more serious side of his nature and the aspirations he cherished at this time come to expression in a letter which marks the beginning of a long and remarkable correspondence with Mrs. Jeanne C. Carr, whose acquaintance with John Muir, as stated in an earlier chapter, began when he exhibited his wooden clocks at the Wisconsin State Fair in 1860. How much her friendship was to mean to the budding naturalist appears clearly even in the earliest of his letters to her.Trout’s Hollow, C.W.Dear Sisters Mary, Anna, and Joanna:
December 24th, 1865
I feel that I owe you a long apology for not replying to your long good letters. I have been exceedingly busy, but this is not a sufficient excuse. My bed sets me upon my feet at five, and I go to bed at eleven, and have to do at least two days’ work every day, sometimes three. I sometimes almost forget where I am, what I am doing, or what my name is. I often think of you and wish with all my might that I could see and chat with you. Were it not that I have no time to think, I would grow homesick and die in a day or two. My picture of home is in my room, and when I see it now I feel sorry at the thought of its being sold. Fountain Lake, Oak Grove, Little Valley, Hickory Hill, etc., with all of their long list of associations, pleasant and otherwise, will soon have passed away and been forgotten.
I was glad to hear that Dan was visiting so long with you. I suppose that he told you many a surprising and funny tale of Canada. I think that he can make and enjoy a joke very well indeed. I had a letter from him, and he says that he has plenty of money, clothes, and hope for the future.
I wish you were here. You would find queer things. We have queer trees, queer flowers, queer streams, queer weather, queer customs, and queer people with queer names. One man is called Lake, another Jay, Eagle, Raven, Stirling, Bird. Mr. Jay married Miss Raven a few weeks ago. One day at the table we were speaking about names and Mr. Trout said that “Rose” was a fine name, and I said that Muir was better than Trout, or Jay, or Rose, or Eagle, because that though a Jay or Eagle was a fine bird, and a Trout a good fish, and Rose a fine flower, a Scottish Muir or Moor had fine birds, and fine fishes in its streams, and fine wild roses together with almost every other excellence, but above all “the bonnie bloomin’ heather.” We may well be proud of our name.
Another story. One Sunday I returned from meeting before the rest and was in the house alone reading one of the “Messengers” mother sent, when a little bird flew into the house and the cat caught it. I chased the cat out of the house, and through the house, till I caught her, to save the bird’s life, but she would not let it go, and I choked her and choked her to make her let it go until I choked her to death, though I did not mean to, and they both lay dead upon the floor. I waited to see if she would not receive back one of her nine lives, but to my grief I found that I had taken them all, so I buried her beside some cucumber vines in the garden. When the rest came home I told what had occurred, and Charley Jay, who is as full of wit and jokes as the pond was of cold water one night, said, “Now John is always scolding us about killing spiders and flies but when we are away he chokes the cats,” and they kept saying “poor kitty,” “poor puss,” for weeks afterwards to make me laugh.
I will write you all a long letter some day.[John Muir]
From the time of Chancellor John Hiram Lathrop’s resignation in July, 1859, to the choice of Paul A. Chadbourne as head of the University of Wisconsin eight years later, Professor John W. Sterling was virtually president. When John Muir failed to return to the University in the autumn of 1864 the faculty, knowing how eager he was to continue his studies, invited him to return as a free student and Professor Sterling was instructed to communicate this decision to him. Whether this invitation was for the autumn of 1864 or 1865 is not entirely clear. Unfortunately the letter never reached him and the opportunity could not be improved. This is the letter of which he writes that he “waited and wearied for it a long time.”
Brought up in the strictest tenets of traditional orthodoxy, John Muir’s scientific studies gradually forced him to reconstruct the factual basis of his religious beliefs. Darwin’s Origin of Species had appeared in 1859, and a fierce conflict was raging between champions of the theory of special creation and what now came to be known as the theory of organic evolution. Even at the university he had become aware of the chasm that was opening between the old biblical literalism and the more comprehensive interpretations of religion. A certain prominent clergyman of Madison, who was an advocate of a neighboring sectarian college, had often assailed what he was pleased to call the atheistic views of certain members of the faculty. Without relaxing his hold on the essentials of his Protestant faith, John Muir’s sympathies were unmistakably enlisted on the side of liberalism. He promptly and quite naturally adopted the view that the Bible is not authoritative in the realm of natural science, but that in its explanations of the facts and phenomena of the universe it exhibits the same gradual unfolding of human knowledge which has marked man’s progress in other spheres of thought.Dear Mrs. Carr:
Trout’s Mills, near Meaford
September 13th, 
Your precious letter with its burden of cheer and good wishes has come to our hollow, and has done for me that work of sympathy and encouragement which I know you kindly wished it to do. It came at a time when much needed, for I am subject to lonesomeness at times. Accept, then, my heartfelt gratitude—would that I could make a better return.
I am sorry over the loss of Professor Sterling’s letter, for I waited and wearied for it a long time. I have been keeping up an irregular course of study since leaving Madison, but with no great success. I do not believe that study, especially of the Natural Sciences, is incompatible with ordinary attention to business; still, I seem to be able to do but one thing at a time. Since undertaking, a month or two ago, to invent new machinery for our mill, my mind seems to so bury itself in the work that I am fit for but little else; and then a lifetime is so little a time that we die ere we get ready to live.
I would like to go to college, but then I have to say to myself, “You will die ere you can do anything else.” I should like to invent useful machinery, but it comes, “You do not wish to spend your lifetime among machines and you will die ere you can do anything else.” I should like to study medicine that I might do my part in lessening human misery, but again it comes, “You will die ere you are ready to be able to do so.” How intensely I desire to be a Humboldt! but again the chilling answer is reiterated. Could we but live a million of years, then how delightful to spend in perfect contentment so many thousand years in quiet study in college, so many amid the grateful din of machines, so many among human pain, so many thousands in the sweet study of Nature among the dingles and dells of Scotland, and all the other less important parts of our world! Then perhaps might we, with at least a show of reason, “shuffle off this mortal coil” and look back upon our star with something of satisfaction.
I should be ashamed—if shame might be in the other world—if any of the powers, virtues, essences, etc., should ask me for common knowledge concerning our world which I could not bestow. But away with this aged structure and we are back to our handful of hasty years half gone, all of course for the best did we but know all of the Creator’s plan concerning us. In our higher state of existence we shall have time and intellect for study. Eternity, with perhaps the whole unlimited creation of God as our field, should satisfy us, and make us patient and trustful, while we pray with the Psalmist, “So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”
I was struck with your remarks about our real home as being a thing of stillness and peace. How little does the outer and noisy world in general know of that “real home” and real inner life! Happy indeed they who have a friend to whom they can unmask the workings of their real life, sure of sympathy and forbearance!
I sent for the book which you recommend. I have just been reading a short sketch of the life of the mother of Lamartine. These are beautiful things you say about the humble life of our Savior and about the trees gathering in the sunshine.
What you say respecting the littleness of the number who are called to “the pure and deep communion of the beautiful, all-loving Nature,” is particularly true of the hard-working, hard drinking, stolid Canadians. In vain is the glorious chart of God in Nature spread out for them. So many acres chopped is their motto, so they grub away amid the smoke of magnificent forest trees, black as demons and material as the soil they move upon. I often think of the Doctor’s lecture upon the condition of the different races of men as controlled by physical agencies. Canada, though abounding in the elements of wealth, is too difficult to subdue to permit the first few generations to arrive at any great intellectual development. In my long rambles last summer I did not find a single person who knew anything of botany and but a few who knew the meaning of the word; and wherein lay the charm that could conduct a man, who might as well be gathering mammon, so many miles through these fastnesses to suffer hunger and exhaustion, was with them never to be discovered. Do not these answer well to the person described by the poet in these lines:"A primrose by the river’s brim,I thank Dr. Carr for his kind remembrance of me, but still more for the good patience he had with so inapt a scholar. We remember in a peculiar way those who first give us the story of Redeeming Love from the great book of revelation, and I shall not forget the Doctor, who first laid before me the great book of Nature, and though I have taken so little from his hand, he has at least shown me where those mines of priceless knowledge lie and how to reach them. O how frequently, Mrs. Carr, when lonely and wearied, have I wished that like some hungry worm I could creep into that delightful kernel of your house—your library—with its portraits of scientific men, and so bountiful a store of their sheaves amid the blossom and verdure of your little kingdom of plants, luxuriant and happy as though holding their leaves to the open sky of the most flower-loving zone in the world!
A yellow primrose was to him,
And nothing more."
That “sweet day” did, as you wished, reach our hollow, and another is with us now. The sky has the haze of autumn and, excepting the aspen, not a tree has motion. Upon our enclosing wall of verdure new tints appear. The gorgeous dyes of autumn are too plainly seen, and the forest seems to have found out that again its leaf must fade. Our stream, too, has less cheerful sound and as it bears its foambells pensively away from the shallow rapids in the rocks it seems to feel that summer is past.
You propose, Mrs. Carr, an exchange of thoughts for which I thank you very sincerely. This will be a means of pleasure and improvement which I could not have hoped ever to have been possessed of, but then here is the difficulty: I feel that I am altogether incapable of properly conducting a correspondence with one so much above me. We are, indeed, as you say, students in the same life school, but in very different classes. I am but an alpha novice in those sciences which you have studied and loved so long. If, however, you are willing in this to adopt the plan that our Savior endeavored to beat into the stingy Israelites, viz. to “give, hoping for nothing again,” all will be well, and as long as your letters resemble this one before me, which you have just written, in genus, order, cohort, class, province, or kingdom, be assured that by way of reply you shall at least receive an honest “Thank you.”
Tell Allie that Mr. Muir thanks him for his pretty flowers and would like to see him, also that I have a story for him which I shall tell some other time. Please remember me to my friends, and now, hoping to receive a letter from you at least semi-occasionally, I remain,Yours with gratitude
It is not easy to trace the steps by which he broke away from the narrow Biblicism of his training, but he would from this period onward have subscribed at any time to the statement of Louis Agassiz that “a physical fact is as sacred as a moral principle.” Lyell, who since 1830 had prepare the way for Darwin by showing that the world is very old and the outcome of a long development, excited Muir’s enthusiastic interest. Later he became a warm friend of J. D. Hooker and Asa Gray, two of Darwin’s earliest supporters.
Nathaniel S. Shaler, who passed through the same period of readjustment as Muir, confessed [The Interpretation of Nature (1896), Preface, p. iv.] that his first contact with natural science in his youth and early manhood had the not uncommon effect of leading him far away from Christianity and that in later years a further insight into the truths of nature had gradually forced him back again to the ground from which he had departed. It is interesting to find that Muir, probably in spite of his upbringing, had no such experience. He saw that the alleged antagonism between natural science and the Bible was due to the accumulated lumber of past generations of faulty Bible teaching. By promptly discarding the crudities of this teaching and adopting a more rational historical interpretation of the Bible he saved his faith both in religion and in science.
In a letter from “The Hollow,” written to Mrs. Carr toward the end of January, 1866, we get a glimpse of his mental workings. To the statement that she was writing her letter in the delicious quiet of a Sabbath evening i the country, “with cow bells tinkling instead of steeple chimes, the drone and chirp of myriad insects for choral service, depending for a sermon upon the purple bluffs and flowing river,” he responds as follows:
I was interested with the description you gave of your sermon. You speak of such services like one who appreciates and relishes them. But although the page of Nature is so replete with divine truth it is silent concerning the fall of man and the wonders of Redeeming Love. Might she not have been made to speak as clearly and eloquently of these things as she now does of the character and attributes of God? It may be a bad sympton, but I will confess that I take more intense delight from reading the power and goodness of God from “the things which are made” than from the Bible. The two books harmonize beautifully, and contain enough of divine truth for the study of all eternity. It is so much easier for us to employ our faculties upon these beautiful tangible form than to exercise a simple, humble, living faith such as you so well describe as enabling us to reach out joyfully into the future to expect what is promised as a thing of tomorrow.On another occasion, in describing to a friend his discovery of Calypso borealis, he wrote:
I cannot understand the nature of the curse, “Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee.” Is our world indeed the worse for this thistly curse? Are not all plants beautiful, or some way useful? Would not the world suffer by the banishment of a single weed? The curse must be within ourselves.He was at this time in the full flush of his inventive activity and working hard to complete the contract into which he had entered with his employers.
I have been very busy of late making practical machinery [he writes]. I like my work exceeding well, but would prefer inventions which would require some artistic as well as mechanical skill. I invented and put in operation a few days ago an attachment for a self-acting lathe which has increased its capacity at least one third. We are now using it to turn broom handles, and as these useful articles may now be made cheaper, and as cleanliness is one of the cardinal virtues, I congratulate myself on having done something, like a true philanthropist, for the real good of mankind in general. What say you? I have also invented a machine for making rake teeth, and another for boring for them, and driving them, and still another for making the bows, still another used in making the handles, still another for bending them—so that rakes may now be made nearly as fast again. Farmers will be able to produce grain at a lower rate, and the poor to get more bread to eat. Here is more philanthropy, is it not? I sometimes feel as though I was losing time here, but I am at least receiving my first lessons in practical mechanics and as one of the firm here is a millwright and as I am permitted to make as many machines as I please and to remodel those now in use, the school is a pretty good one.The thirty thousand broom handles were all turned and stored in every available place about the factory for final seasoning when one stormy night about the first of March, 1866, the building took fire. There was no means of fire control and soon the sawmill and factory with all their laboriously manufactured contents were reduced to a pile of ashes. Since there was no insurance, the owners having lost practically everything, John Muir made as equitable a settlement as possible, taking notes bearing neither interest nor date of payment. He always took pride in the thought that his employers justified his confidence, for every cent was ultimately paid. Leaving some of his books to his Sunday School class of admiring boys, and some of his textbooks on botany to friends whom he had interested in this study, he turned his face toward the States. The motives which influenced him to go to Indianapolis and what he found there are the subject of autobiographical notes which follow in the next chapter.
How warm a place he had made for himself in that Meaford circle of friends we learn from a sheaf of kindly letters that followed him southward on his departure soon after the fire. “Was there ever more freedom of speech, thought, and action felt on earth than in that Hollow?” wrote one of the Trout sisters. “We were all equal; every one did as he chose. Ah me! I hope that the happy days will return; that we may be there again, and that you might be one of our number for at least a short time. The circle would be incomplete without you.” “John,” wrote another, “you don’t know how we missed the little star you used to have in the window for us when we would be coming home after night, and the cheerful fire. And not least, we missed the pleasant welcome you had for us.”
But the disaster which led John to resume his wanderings also scattered the members of the Meaford circle far and wide over Canada and the United States. In more than the literal sense he had put a star in the window for many of them, and for several decades grateful letters tell of their progress in the new interests which he had brought into their lives. One of the last to survive was William H. Trout, and with a paragraph from the last letter that Muir wrote to him, in 1912, we conclude the account of his Canadian sojourn:
I am always glad to hear from you. Friends get closer and dearer the farther they travel on life’s journey. It is fine to see how youthful your heart remains, and wide and far-reaching your sympathy, with everybody and everything. Such people never grow old. I only regret your being held so long in mechanical bread-winning harness, instead of making enough by middle age and spending the better half of life in studying God’s works as I wanted you to do long ago. The marvel is that in the din and rattle of mills you have done so wondrous well. By all means keep on your travels, since you know so well how to reap their benefits. I shall hope to see you when next you come West. And don’t wait until the canal year. Delays are more and more dangerous as sundown draws nigh.
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