A Passion for Nature (Magill's Literary Annual 2009)
One of the great figures in the nineteenth century American conservation movement, John Muir is most often identified with California, where he spent most of his adult life and where he came to be identified so closely with the Sierra Nevada and Yosemite Park that his formative years tend to be neglected. Now environmental historian Donald Worster has written A Passion for Nature, sure to become the definitive Muir biography, in which he chronicles Muir’s childhood and early years that helped to shape his deep passion for the natural world. The first Muir biography to meet modern standards of scholarship, this book makes use of Muir’s hitherto unavailable private correspondence. Worster describes how Muir’s love of the outdoors grew out of a rebellion against his strict, fundamentalist upbringing, his early interest in botany, the natural beauty of the Wisconsin frontier, and his strong desire to explore exotic places, including Florida and California.
Muir was born in Dunbar, Scotland, on April 21, 1838, the third of eight children of a zealous and restless Scotsman, a successful grain merchant who impulsively decided to immigrate to America in 1849 to enjoy greater freedom to practice his extremely fundamentalist Campbellite beliefs and try his hand at homesteading in the Midwest. As the oldest son, Muir suffered from his father’s heavy-handed patriarchal rule, with its strict work ethic, harsh physical punishments, and many prohibitions, based on his Calvinistic view of human nature. He later remembered the Scottish countryside as his one escape from the oppressiveness of his home life.
Arriving in the frontier of central Wisconsin, the Muir family homesteaded in a sandy tract of land in Marquette County near the confluence of the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers. The eleven-year-old Muir was at first exhilarated by “that glorious Wisconsin wilderness,” as he later called it, but he was soon worn down by the physical rigors of pioneer life and his father’s expectation that his sons would bear the brunt of clearing the land and removing the stumps. The frequent whippings and sermons Muir endured as an adolescent strengthened his rebellion and his determination to leave home as soon as possible. Though the Muir children were obviously bright, they received little formal schooling beyond scriptural readings, so with his meager earnings Muir bought himself a small private library and developed an interest in travel narratives.
Muir showed an early mechanical aptitude that promised an escape from the drudgery of farm work. His exhibition of his homemade inventions at the Wisconsin State Fair led to an invitation to study at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, though he could not afford to stay to finish his degree. Instead, he left for Canada to avoid the Civil War draft and worked in Ontario for two years before returning to the United States.
An unfortunate industrial accident in an Indianapolis carriage factory left Muir temporarily blinded and in 1867 motivated him to embark on a thousand-mile botanizing walk through the South to Florida, where he stopped in Key West to recuperate after contracting malaria and then sailed for Cuba. He had hoped to follow Alexander Von Humboldt’s footsteps and explore the Amazon, but instead he changed his plans and sailed to California in 1868. After arriving in San Francisco, Muir headed for Yosemite Valley and spent his first summer in the Sierras as a shepherd. That experience awakened in him a deep passion for the California mountains, and he recorded in his journals: “I am hopelessly and forever a mountaineer.” Though he hated the destructiveness of the sheep, Muir appreciated the freedom to wander in and explore Yosemite Valley and its surroundings. He had enormous physical strength and vitality, and he could hike all day on nothing but bread and water. He often risked life and limb in scaling perilous cliff faces and glacier fields. Once he climbed a tall sugar pine to swing back and forth, experiencing the exhilaration of a Sierra windstorm. Muir settled in Yosemite and worked as a tour guide as he began to ponder the geology of these mountains and how they had been shaped. He took part in several scientific surveys and gradually became a knowledgeable, self-taught field geologist. An accomplished mountaineer, he climbed most of the high peaks in California, including Mount Ritter, Mount Whitney,...
(The entire section is 1802 words.)
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