Son Of The Wilderness: The Life Of John Muir Essay, Research Paper
Son of the Wilderness:
The Life of John Muir
by Linnie Marsh Wolfe
Published in 1978 in Wisconsin, US
Daniel G. Hughes
John Muir is the subject of Linnie Marsh Wolfe s Son of the Wilderness: The Life of John Muir. A great deal of personal specifics, professional accomplishments, and philosophical viewpoints are presented, all the while providing a plethora of interesting details concerning the life and times in both Scotland and Wisconsin during the late 1800s. John was Born in Dunbar, Scotland, on April 21st 1838, where he spent his first 11 years attending the local schools of that small coastal town. He was the third child born to his parents Ann and Daniel Muir, following sisters Margaret and Sarah. Three additional siblings followed young John including Daniel Jr., and twins Mary and Annie. In 1849, the Muir family emigrated to the United States, settling first at Fountain Lake and then later building Hickory Hill Farm near Portage, Wisconsin. Here, John spent 11 years in the backwoods, working through the daylight hours, clearing the forest, holding a plow to a straight furrow behind a team of oxen, digging wells through hard bedrock, and taking an adult’s part in taming the wild nature.
Muir’s father was a harsh disciplinarian and worked his family from dawn to dusk. Whenever they were freed briefly from their duties with the plow and hoe, Muir and his younger brother would explore the fields and woods of the lush Wisconsin countryside. John became more and more the loving observer of the natural word. He also became an inventor, a carver of curious but practical mechanisms in wood. He made clocks that kept accurate time and created a wondrous device that at the appointed time, tipped up his bed and dumped him on the floor long before the dawn. He called it an “early-rising machine.” He created a thermometer so sensitive that it would react to the heat radiated by the body of a person standing up to five feet away.
In 1860, these machines, and his desire to escape from his overbearing father, led Muir to show his inventions at the state fair in Madison, Wisconsin, where he won both admiration and prizes. This brought him to the attention of several people from the University of Wisconsin, and though he had spent only a few months in school after the age of 11, he was admitted. In the following two and a half years, he followed an electic course of study, heavy on Natural Science, and left in 1863 to travel the northern United States and Canada.
In 1867, while working at a carriage parts shop in Indianapolis, Muir suffered a blinding eye injury that would change his life. He was adjusting some machinery with a file when his hand slipped. A point of the file pierced one eye. He lost the use of that eye. It was the darkest moment of his life for his spirit, as well as his sight. As his sight gradually returned, over a period of months, Muir resolved to turn his eyes to the fields and woods. There began his years of wanderlust. He walked a thousand miles from Louisville, Kentucky to the Savannah, Georgia. From there, he hoped to travel to the headwaters of the Amazon and work his way to the sea. But a case of malaria laid him low in Florida and, after sailing to Cuba, and later to Panama, where he crossed the Isthmus and sailed up the West Coast, he ended up in San Francisco in March, 1868. From that moment on, though he would travel around the world, California became his home.
It was California’s Sierra Nevada and Yosemite that truly claimed John Muir. In 1868, he walked across the San Joaquin Valley and into the high country for the first time and changed the world. Muir had just turned 30 that year. His first summer in Yosemite, he worked as a shepherd. Then he ran a sawmill near the base of Yosemite Falls. He became a guide for some of the most famous of Yosemite’s visitors, including one of his idols, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson tried to entice Muir away from Yosemite, telling him the world was waiting to hear him teach the lessons he had learned. But Muir chose to follow the ideal Emerson had set forth in “The American Scholar.” He stayed in his mountains, working, studying and learning. Eventually, he did leave the Valley. First for only a few months at a time. He would live with friends in San Francisco or Oakland and write about his glorious mountains, the scenery that drew tourists and the science behind the scenery. Gradually, he spent more time in the Bay Area and less time in Yosemite, applying his love of plants and fruitful imagination to the task of raising Bartlett pears and Tokay grapes. He became fairly wealthy, but seemingly discontented. Each trip to the mountains presented him with more proof that, unless something was done, the glorious wilderness he had found in 1868 would soon be only a memory.
By 1871 he had found living glaciers in he Sierra and had conceived his controversial theory of the glaciation of Yosemite Valley. He began to be known throughout the country. Influential men of the time such as Joseph LeConte, Asa Gray and Ralph Waldo Emerson made their way to his pine cabin. Beginning in 1874, a series of articles by Muir entitled “Studies in the Sierra” launched his successful career as a writer.
In 1880, he married Louie Wanda Strentzel and moved to Martinez, California, where they raised their two daughters, Wanda, born March 25th 1881, and Helen, born January 23rd, 1886. Settling down to some measure of domestic life, Muir went into partnership with his father-in-law and managed the family fruit ranch with great success. But ten years of active ranching did not quell Muir’s wanderlust. His travels took him to Alaska many more times, to Australia, South America, Africa, Europe, China, Japan, and of course, again and again to his beloved Sierra Nevada.
In later years he turned more seriously to writing, publishing 300 articles and 10 major books that recounted his travels, expounded his naturalist philosophy, and beckoned everyone to “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.” Muir’s love of the high country gave his writings a spiritual quality. His readers, whether they be presidents, congressmen, or plain folks, were inspired and often moved to action by the enthusiasm of Muir’s own unbounded love of nature. Muir died of pneumonia in a Los Angeles hospital in January, 1914. It was an unexpected end for a man who had repeatedly faced death on rocky crags and icy glaciers, and braved Alaskan storms with only a crust of bread in his pocket.
John Muir was perhaps this country’s most famous and influential naturalist and conservationist. He taught the people of his time and ours the importance of experiencing and protecting our natural heritage. His personal and determined involvement in the great conservation questions of the day was and remains an inspiration for environmental activists everywhere. Muir drew attention to the devastation of mountain meadows and forests by sheep and cattle through a series of articles appearing in Century magazine. With the help of Century’s associate editor, Robert Underwood Johnson, Muir worked to remedy this destruction. In 1890, due in large part to the efforts of Muir and Johnson, an act of Congress created Yosemite National Park. Muir was also personally involved in the creation of Sequoia , Mount Rainier , Petrified Forest and Grand Canyon national parks. Muir deservedly is often called the “Father of Our National Park System “.
Another fruit of the budding friendship between Muir and Johnson was the creation, in 1892, of the Sierra Club, with Muir as President, apostle, guide, and inspiration. The purpose of the Club was to preserve and make accessible the Sierra Nevada. In Muir s own words: Do something for wildness and make the mountains glad.” Muir served as the Club’s president until his death in 1914. The Club grew slowly and quietly for a few years, then a little faster after 1901 with the start of the High Trips. But not until the City of San Francisco began its push for a dam on the Tuolumne at the mouth of Hetch Hetchy Valley was the whole idea of preservation vs. use articulated on the front and editorial pages of the nation’s newspapers.
In 1901, Muir published Our National Parks, the book that brought him to the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1903, Roosevelt visited Muir in Yosemite. There, together, beneath the trees, they laid the foundation of Roosevelt’s innovative and notable conservation programs. Muir and the Sierra Club fought many battles to protect Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada, the most dramatic being the campaign to prevent the damming of the Hetch Hetchy Valley within Yosemite National Park. In 1913, after years of effort, the battle was lost and the valley that Muir likened to Yosemite itself was doomed to become a reservoir to supply the water needs of a growing San Francisco.
A few of my observations concerning Mr. Muir s reflections of basic American values and ideals include the pursuit of freedoms, the education and self improvement of self and society, and the opportunity to carve one s own destiny. He believed strongly in the quest for the preservation of the forests and the natural scenery of our mountains. Over the years, Muir developed from a guide for select individuals to a guide for the Sierra Club to a guide for the whole nation. Not just to Yosemite or any other specific place, but to the inner regions of the emotional response to Nature, especially Wild Nature.
John Muir was many things — son, father, and husband; inventor, geologist, farmer, naturalist, lecturer, writer, and lobbyist. Through all his wanderings, Muir retained a close affection and responsibility for his mother, his brothers and sisters, and his wife and daughters. His battles against the encroachment of civilization were actually born of his love for civilization, for he was one of the few to realize that the destruction of the wilderness would diminish man himself.
Based in large part on her personal interviews with those who knew and worked with Muir, Linnie Marsh Wolfe had obviously put a great deal of time and effort in to acquiring knowledge about John Muir. Not only are Mr. Muir s activities discussed in specific detail, but also those of apparently every friend, colleague, and activist with which he crossed paths! For many reasons, I appreciated the detail of presenting the feelings of Mr. Muir from many sources of letters, speeches, and memoirs. Working closely with Muir’s family and with his papers, Wolfe was able to paint a full portrait of her subject, not only as America’s firebrand conservationist and founder of the national park system, but also as husband, father, and friend. Tracking the family’s emigration to Wisconsin, the author describes Muir’s stern boyhood life on his father’s farm at Fountain Lake, where his love of nature was fostered.
As the second biography read in my lifetime, and taking a refresher course in American History, I am starting to piece everything together. Son of the Wilderness: The Life of John Muir was authored in the mid 1940 s by what appears to be a quite well-educated woman. Too, the author quoted Mr. Muir and other characters in the book providing an additional lesson of deciphering the translation of the Old Scottish Style of Speech. As stated earlier, I am by no means a qualified source for the recommendation of the attributes of biographies. But if cornered, I may want to suggest a more modern book written for a more casual reader.