Thursday, April 21, 2011

Happy Birthday, John

And thanks.

The following text is from The Writer's Almanac.


Today is the birthday of naturalist, author, and Sierra Club co-founder John Muir (books by this author), born in Dunbar, Scotland, in 1838. As a boy, he occupied himself mainly with fighting and hunting for birds' nests. His father believed that Bible study was the only worthwhile occupation, and young John could recite "by heart and by sore flesh" most of the Bible by the time he was 11.
In 1849, the family immigrated to the States, and bought a farm near Portage, Wisconsin. His father worked him hard on the farm, and wouldn't let him waste valuable daylight on books, although he did agree to let him do so in the predawn hours; John invented an "early rising machine" that dumped him out of bed at one o'clock a.m. so that he could read. He went to college at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he took an eclectic assortment of geology, botany, and chemistry classes. He never followed a traditional program of study, and never graduated. He moved to Indiana in 1866 and took a job as a sawyer in a wagon wheel factory; the next year, he was nearly blinded when a tool slipped and hit him in the eye. He was forced to remain in a darkened room for six weeks while the eye healed, and he emerged with a new sense of purpose. He wrote later, "This affliction has driven me to the sweet fields." He set off on foot on a thousand-mile walk from Indiana to Florida, collecting botanical samples along the way. Though he had planned to continue by boat to South America, he contracted malaria, and went to California instead.
He visited Yosemite for the first time in 1868, and he was overwhelmed with a kind of religious ecstasy, writing, "We are now in the mountains, and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell." He lived in Yosemite for four years — about half of that time in a cabin he built himself on Yosemite Creek. He would go on excursions alone into the wilderness, carrying simple provisions and a volume of Emerson, which he would read next to his campfire in the evenings.
In 1880, he married Louise Strentzel, and they had two daughters, Helen and Wanda. Though he was a loyal husband and a loving father, domesticated life grated on his wild heart; Louise understood this, and would periodically send him back up to the Sierra Nevada. Sometimes he took his daughters with him. His writing led to the creation of Yosemite, Sequoia, Mount Rainier, Petrified Forest, and Grand Canyon National Parks. He co-founded the Sierra Club in 1892, "to make the mountains glad."
Though most of his traditional religious views eventually fell away, he was nevertheless spiritual, and saw the "Book of Nature" as the most primary connection to the mind of God, surpassing any creed or culture. He wrote to his friend Catherine Merrill: "We all flow from one fountain — Soul. All are expressions of one love. God does not appear, and flow out, only from narrow chinks and round bored wells here and there ... but He flows in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless."

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