With an impending hike on his namesake trail back in 2009, it was over ten years ago when I first attempted to read The Mountains of California.
Familiar only with his wonderful quotations, my first impression of Muir’s true writing was that it felt laborious. It seemed he waxed on and on about the smallest details of the flora and fauna of the area. It soon bored me and I put the book down, failing to pick up anything else by Muir for a long time.
Eventually I picked up this lovely anthology of Muir’s best works. Determined to have a little more patience this time, I vowed to read the entire volume from cover to cover. The first book within it is The Story of My Boyhood and Youth. Presumably lacking reference to the outdoors that I so enjoy, I assumed that it would be even more dry than the opening pages of Mountains of California.
How wrong I was! This relatively short little read is fascinating, impressive, and captivating. The writing in this short volume is approachable and moves at a good pace.
Some sections get encyclopedic in nature, specifically detailing the various species of birds in Wisconsin, for example. But even these are interspersed with great anecdotes and language that kept me engaged. The writing here is equally frank and poetic, and more welcoming than other classic works of its age.
Most casual observers have noted that Muir was born in Scotland and later raised and schooled in Wisconsin. That simple, dry phrase sums up the entirety of this book, but its pages describe so much more.
Imagine a detailed account of a childhood in Scotland in the 1840s and 50s. Muir describes it as violent, with beatings and thrashing as a means of discipline, complete with endless schoolyard brawls.
It’s made clear that Muir’s father was a religious zealot, bent on raising God-fearing children, – but John seems to take it all in stride. He claims to have been able to recite the New Testament by memory in one sitting, at the age of twelve, along with about two-thirds of the Old Testament!
One day, with seemingly little to no warning, his father takes the two eldest sons on a ship to America:
One night, when David and I were at grandfather’s fireside solemnly learning our lessons as usual, my father came in with news, the most wonderful, most glorious, that wild boys ever heard. “Bairns,” he said, “you needna learn your lessons the nicht, for we’re gan to America the morn!” …next morning went by rail to Glasgow…
The book goes on to describe traveling to America via ship and haphazardly landing in Wisconsin. His father and two young sons scratch a living out of the dirt, beginning a farm and building a frame house within a few short years. His mother and sisters soon followed, once the homestead was established.
Muir’s eye for nature adeptly describes the wild creatures of the American frontier. Amusing stories focus on the personalities of the animals around the family farm, and their wild counterparts. For example, Muir manages to stun and capture a loon from their lake – he brings it into the house, where the loon has a most hilarious meeting with their old tom-cat.
Some later takeaways involve his work ethic and self-taught, intuitive genius.
At one time as a young man he was forced to dig a well for their secondary farm. Muir describes being lowered into the well and chipping away at sandstone by hand for 17 hours a day. At one point he struck upon some noxious gas and nearly died, but resumed the work a short time later.
His father enforced a strict bed time, which Muir found to be disappointingly restrictive – especially once he discovered a love of reading. Then one day his father stated that if he must spend extra time reading, he’d be allowed to get up as early in the morning as he wished.
So Muir started waking up at 1am every day! It sounds as though he was one of the lucky few super-humans in our population that can function just fine on very little sleep.
Muir was a genius for creating inventions as a young man. In his stolen time (and hidden in secret from his father), he managed to create several unique devices from scratch, including a barometer, clock, and more. One example is a sort of alarm clock that would lift up the top end of his bed at a preordained time, forcing him up onto his feet.
Most of these inventions were beautifully hand-carved from wood, gaining recognition for him at a Wisconsin State Fair. These inventions played no small part in his later acceptance into a local university.
Completed in 1913, The Story of My Boyhood and Youth is the last book Muir finished before he caught pneumonia and died the following year at age 76.
No writing about Muir is complete without one of his lovely quotations, so I’ll leave you with this one, from the book’s final pages:
I wandered away on a glorious botanical and geological excursion, which has lasted nearly fifty years and is not yet completed, always happy and free, poor and rich, without thought of a diploma or of making a name, urged on and on through endless, inspiring, godful beauty.