Wednesday, January 18, 2017

John Muir

The final stage of our memorable trip of a few months ago began with catching a train bound for King’s Cross, London, at the coastal town of Dunbar in southeast Scotland.  We found ourselves with a spare hour or so to take in some of the sites.  I had not been there in more than fifty years and the chief mental association I had with the town, if I had one at all, was with the poet William Dunbar (1459?-1530?), a brilliant writer scarcely known today except among academic experts, who may have had connections with the place.  I now discovered that the town was the birthplace of John Muir (1838-1914), the great American naturalist, and as we say today, environmentalist, and that his old family house on the High Street, from which his father operated a feed store, was now the “John Muir Birthplace” Museum run by the East Lothian Council.

The house is an old up-and-down framed thing with steep and awkward stairways.  As is typical of so many houses in the old centers of British market towns the Muir house is built cheek by jowl to a roadway never intended for motor vehicles but long since overwhelmed by them.  Visiting it requires the exercise of the mind’s eye no less than that of the body’s.  We make something of a specialty of the museumized residences of long dead writers, some of which—those of Balzac, Victor Hugo, and Kipling being fairly recent and fresh in the memory—really can add an increment to the understanding of the written work.  The holdings of the Muir House are modest but imaginatively deployed.  It is not the Victoria and Albert, but as a place to wait for a train it was vastly superior to a station waiting room with uncomfortable benches and cracked cement floors.

In my experience a good museum visit is one that teaches you a little but whets your appetite to learn a lot more.  That hour in Dunbar was an excellent visit.  I knew a little bit about Muir, as most Americans must; and we are rather Low Church members of the Sierra Club (founded by Muir) among a few other “nature” organizations.  Years ago I had read some pages of My First Summer in the Sierra, but I had no idea how Muir had gotten from East Lothian to the West Coast of America or when he had done it.  Now I wanted to find out.  Fortunately there is a Library of America volume (John Muir, Nature Writings) designed especially with me in mind, that begins with his charming short autobiography: The Story of My Boyhood and Youth (1913).  Its opening sentence typifies the frankness of the man’s prose style even as it summarizes the plot of his most consequential life.  “When I was a boy in Scotland I was fond of everything that is wild, and all my life I’ve been growing fonder and fonder of wild places and wild creatures.”

Muir’s father Daniel, the grain dealer, was a grim and inflexible Puritan of the sort whose version of Christ’s love was mediated by rawhide whips and hardwood paddles, freely administered in recompense for his wicked son’s proclivities toward long country rambles.  In 1849, before John Muir had achieved his eleventh birthday, Daniel abruptly decided to emigrate to America and set off with his son in the family vanguard, with the mother and other children to follow when a property had been secured and readied.  Daniel’s first thought had been Canada, but influenced by the fake news of a proposed grand canal linking the Lakes and the Gulf Coast, he went instead to Marquette County in the middle of Wisconsin, where he acquired a beautiful eighty-acre lakeside plot.  There, John Muir later reflected, “I was set down in the midst of pure wildness where every object excited endless admiration and wonder.”   From the agricultural point of view what every object chiefly excited was brutal labor, sometimes for sixteen hours a day.  Does anyone still read Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth or Cather’s O, Pioneers?  Perhaps the titles alone are enough to provide some hint of “immigrant life” on the plains.

I chose today’s antiquarian subject in part to avoid more obvious political topics that must dominate every American’s mind this week.  But they have a way of intruding nonetheless.  The radio has been on in the background, with occasional snatches of the Senate hearings for Ms. DeVos, the nominee for Secretary of Education, and of prolusions upon them by various political commentators, educational experts, and union officials.  The horror!  The absolutely bipartisan horror!  What is it reasonable to ask of our public schools?  In America John Muir’s formal education, achieved in provincial Scottish schools of the 1840s, went into a ten-year hiatus when he was twelve.  But by that time he was a competent reader and writer of Standard English, and a fluent speaker of his native Northumberland dialect, sometimes called “Scots”.  He knew quite a lot of Latin and French.  His life’s work would incline toward practical technology and the natural sciences, but he had already inculcated a lifelong love for the beauty of language and literature—the plays of Shakespeare, the romantic narrative poems of Southey.  Long pages he had committed to memory.  He reports that he had the entire New Testament off by heart! 

His was not the profile of a Goody Two-Shoes, however.  Young Muir was as antinomian as any of his fellow reprobates, a schoolyard scrapper, a daredevil, risk-taker, and rule-breaker.  And if ever there was one who “followed his bliss,” it was he.  “With red-blooded playmates, wild as myself, I loved to wander in the fields to hear the birds sing, and along the seashore to gaze and wonder at the shells and seaweeds, eels and crabs in the pools among the rocks when the tide was low; and best of all to watch the waves in awful storms thundering on the black headlands and craggy ruins of the old Dunbar Castle when the sea and the sky, the waves and the clouds, were mingled together as one.”