The Life and Letters of John Muir
by William Frederic Badè
The Sojourn in Canada
When John Muir left the University of Wisconsin in June, 1863, he had number
of warmly worded letters of introduction from Madison friends who wished
to smooth his way at the University of Michigan. "You will find in him
the greatest modesty joined with high moral and religious excellence,"
wrote one of them to James R. Boise, then Professor of Greek in the latter
institution. How far these plans for the definite choice of a profession
had progressed is apparent also in the fact that friends addressed letters
to him at the Medical School and evinced surprise when they were returned
unclaimed. "A draft was being made," he wrote in explanation to one them,
"just when I should have been starting for Ann Arbor, which kept me at
Meanwhile his fellow student, James L. High, later a distinguished lawyer
in Chicago, wound up his affairs at Madison and made a report in November
"Our class," he wrote, "numbers only five, viz., Wallace, Spooner, Salisbury,
Congar, and myself. Leahey has gone into the army, and Lewis is a senior
at Union College, New York. So, as you see, we are small in numbers, but
we are making a brave fight of it nevertheless. The Societies are doing
unusually well this term. Yours numbers about twenty-five members, and
ours over forty." Then follows an account of his efforts to collect small
loans which Muir had made to fellow students. The society referred to as
"yours" was the Athenae Literary and Debating Society of which he was one
of the founders.
Returning from his botanical rambles in July, John spent the autumn
and winter on the old Fountain Lake farm which, some time in 1856, had
passed into the hands of his brother-in-law, David Galloway. "With study
and labor I have scarcely been at all sensible of the flight of time since
I reached home," he writes at the end of February to his friend Emily Pelton.
"In my walks to and from my field work and in occasional rambles I, of
course, searched every inch of ground for botanical specimens which, preserved
in water, were analyzed at night. My task was seldom completed before twelve
or one o'clock. I was just thinking to-day that soon the little anemones
would be peering above ground."
But even at this time, when the new sap was barely beginning to swell
the buds, the young naturalist was pluming his wings for a long flight.
"I have enjoyed the company of my dear relatives very much during this
long visit," he adds, "but I shall soon leave them all, and I scarcely
think it probable that I shall be blest with so much of home again." As
for the study of medicine, he merely remarks that he had "by no means given
up all hope of still finding an opportunity to pursue this favourite study
some other time." But that time never came. Two days later, on March 1st,
1864, he announces, in a parting note to the same friend, "I am to take
the cars in about half an hour. I really do not know where I shall halt.
I feel like Milton's Adam and Eve--'The world was all before them where
to choose their place of rest.'"
It would be impossible now to trace any part of the intricate route
which finally led him to Meaford, County Grey, Canada West, were it not
for one of those fortunate incidents which sometimes occur to gladden the
heart of a biographer. In editing Muir's journal and notes written during
his "thousand-mile walk to the gulf" the writer began to realize how much
easier it would be, at critical points, to follow his wanderings if one
had his herbarium specimens with the identification slips, giving date
and place of collection. But no part of the herbarium gathered during the
sixties seemed to have survived the wanderings of this modern Ulysses.
In looking over some correspondence with Mrs. Julia Merrill Moores,
one of his early Indianapolis friends, the writer found reason to suppose
that Muir had left for safekeeping at her house some of his belongings
when he went South in 1867. Though she had passed on long ago the clue
seemed worth following, and a search in Indianapolis proved successful
beyond all expectations. For the attic of her son, Charles W. Moores, yielded
up large parts of the long forgotten herbarium which Muir had gathered
during the years from 1864 to 1867.
Since no letters or notebooks of Muir from the period between March
and October, 1864, have been found, the little identification slips, though
not precise in giving geographical localities, furnish important clues
to his movements. In April he was already wading about in Canadian swamps,
and by the month of May he had penetrated northward as far as Simcoe County.
On the 18th of that month he started--on a three weeks' ramble through
Simcoe and Grey Counties, walking an estimated distance of about three
hundred miles through the townships of Guillimbury, Tecumseh, Adjala, Mono,
Amaranth, Luther, Arthur, Egremont, Proton, Glenelg, Bentinck, Sullivan,
Holland, and Sydenham. "Much of Adjala and Mono," he notes, is very uneven
and somewhat sandy; many fields here are composed of abrupt gravel hillocks;
inhabitants are nearly all Irish. Amaranth, Luther, and Arthur abound in
extensive Tamarac and Cedar swamps, dotted with beaver meadows. I spent
seven and a half hours in one of these solitudes extraordinary. Land and
water, life and death, beauty and deformity, seemed here to have disputed
empire and all shared equally at last. I shall not soon forget the chaos
of fallen trees in all stages of decay and the tangled branches of the
white cedars through which I had to force my way; nor the feeling with
which I observed the sun wheeling to the West while yet above, beneath,
and around all was silence and the seemingly endless harvest of swamp.
Above all I will not soon forget the kindness shown me by an Irish lady
on my emerging from this shadow of death near her dwelling."
Of memoranda made on this ramble there survives only the following additional
It was with no little difficulty that my object in seeking
"these wilds traversed by few" was explained to the sturdy and hospitable
lairds of these remote districts. "Botany" was a term they had not heard
before in use. What did it mean? If told that I was collecting plants,
they would desire to know whether it was cabbage plants that I sought,
and if so, how could I find cabbage, plants in the bush? Others took me
for a government official of some kind, or minister, or pedlar.
One day an interesting human discovery is made and recorded thus: "Found
Dunbar people, much to my surprise, far in the dark maple woods; spent
a pleasant day with them in rehearsing Dunbar matters."
During July he was botanizing north of Toronto in the Holland River
swamps, and on highlands near Hamilton and Burlington bays. In August he
is again about the shores of Lake Ontario and in the vicinity of Niagara
Falls. A "wolf forest," mentioned on several slips, is doubtless the place
on the southern shore of Lake Ontario where one night he had an adventure
with wolves. That as well as other incidents form the subject bathe following
fragmentary autobiographical sketch which fortunately covers this period
of Canadian wanderings in some detail:
After earning a few dollars working on my brother-in-law's
farm near Portage, I set off on the first of my long lonely excursions,
botanizing in glorious freedom around the Great Lakes and wandering through
innumerable tamarac and arbor-vitae swamps, and forests of maple, basswood,
ash, elm, balsam, fir, pine, spruce, hemlock rejoicing in their bound wealth
and strength and beauty, climbing the trees, reveling in their flowers
and fruit like bees in beds of goldenrods, glorying in the fresh cool beauty
and charm of the bog and meadow heathworts, grasses, carices, ferns, mosses,
liverworts displayed in boundless profusion.
The rarest and most beautiful of the flowering plants I discovered on
this first grand excursion was Calypso borealis (the Hider of the
North). I had been fording streams more and more difficult to cross and
wading bogs and swamps that seemed more and more extensive and more difficult
to force one's way through. Entering one of these great tamarac and arbor-vitae
swamps one morning, holding a general though very crooked course by compass,
struggling through tangled drooping branches and over and under broad heaps
of fallen trees, I began to fear that I would not be able to reach dry
ground before dark, and therefore would have to pass the night in the swamp
and began, faint and hungry, to plan a nest of branches on one of the largest
trees or windalls like a monkey's nest, or eagle's, or Indian's in the
flooded forests of the Orinoco described by Humboldt.
But when the sun was getting low and everything seemed most bewildering
and discouraging, I found beautiful Calypso on the mossy bank of a stream,
growing not in the ground but on a bed of yellow mosses in which its small
white bulb had found a soft nest and from which its one leaf and one flower
sprung. The flower was white and made the impression of the utmost simple
purity like a snowflower. No other bloom was near it, for the bog a short
distance below the surface was still frozen, and the water was ice cold.
It seemed the most spiritual of all the flower people I had ever met. I
sat down beside it and fairly cried for joy.
It seems wonderful that so frail and lowly a plant has such power over
human hearts. This Calypso meeting happened some forty-five years ago,
and it was more memorable and impressive than any of my meetings with human
beings excepting, perhaps, Emerson and one or two others. When I was leaving
the University, Professor J. D. Butler said, "John, I would like to know
what becomes of you, and I wish you would write me, say once a year, so
I may keep you in sight." I wrote to the Professor, telling him about this
meeting with Calypso, and he sent the letter to an Eastern newspaper [The
Boston Recorder] with some comments of his own. These, as far as I
know, were the first of my words that appeared in print.
How long I sat beside Calypso I don't know. Hunger and weariness vanished,
and only after the sun was low in the west I plashed on through the swamp,
strong and exhilarated as if never more to feel any mortal care. At length
I saw maple woods on a hill and found a log house. I was gladly received.
"Where ha ye come fra? The swamp, that awfu' swamp. What were ye coin'
there?" etc. "Mony a puir body has been lost in that muckle, cauld, dreary
bog and never been found." When I told her I had entered it in search of
plants and had been in it all day, she wondered how plants could draw me
to these awful places, and said, "It's God's mercy ye ever got out."
Oftentimes I had to sleep without blankets, and sometimes without supper,
but usually I had no great difficulty in finding a loaf of bread here and
there at the houses of the farmer settlers in the widely scattered clearings.
With one of these large backwoods loaves I was able to wander many a long
fertile mile in the forests and bogs, free as the winds, gathering plants,
and glorying in God's abounding inexhaustible spiritual beauty bread. Storms,
thunderclouds, winds in the woods--were welcomed as friends.
Only once in these long Canada wanderings was the deep peace of the
wilderness savagely broken. It happened in the maple woods about midnight
when I was cold and my fire was low. I was awakened by the awfully dismal
wolf-howling and got up in haste to replenish the fire. Some of the wolves
around me seemed very near, judging by their long-drawn-out howling, while
others were replying farther and farther away; but the nearest of all was
much nearer than I was aware of, for when I had succeeded in producing
a blaze that lighted up the bushes around me, and was in the act of stooping
to pick up a branch to add to the blaze, a large gray wolf that had been
standing within less than ten feet of me rushed past so startlingly near
that I threw the limb at the wolf. This put an end to sleep for that night.
I watched and listened and kept up a good far-reaching blaze, which perhaps
helped to keep them at bay. Anyhow I saw no more of them, although they
continued their howling conversation until near daylight.
I had to stop again and again in all sorts of places when money gave
out, accepting work of any kind and at any price, and with a few hard-earned
dollars, earned at chopping, clearing, grading, harvesting, going on and
on again, thus coming in contact with the people and learning something
of their lives.
Among the farmers in the region between Toronto and the Georgian Bay
I found not a single American. They were Scotch, English, and Irish, mostly
Scotch. Many of them were Highlanders who had been driven from their little
farms and garden patches in the glens by the Duke of Sutherland when he
cleared his estates of these brave home-loving men to make room for sheep.
Most of the old folks, by the time of my visit, had gone to rest in their
graves, and the farms they had so laboriously cleared were in the possession
of their children, who were living in good brick houses in comparative
affluence and ease.
At one of those Highland Scotch farms I stopped for more than a month,
working and botanizing. The family consisted of the mother, her daughter,
and two sons. Here I had a fine interesting time. Mrs. Campbell could hardly
have been kinder had I been her own son, and her two big boys [In
a marginal note Muir gives their names as "Alexander and William," with
a question sign. In letter of a correspondent, marked "W. E. Sibley of
early Canada botanical days," occurs the following sentence: "I saw D.
and A. Campbell and was at their house. They were all quite well and said
they intended writing to you." (February 28, 1865.)], twenty and
twenty-five years of age, were also very kind and fonder of practical jokes
than almost anybody I ever met. In the long summer days I used to get up
about daylight and take a walk among the interesting plants of a broad
marsh through which the Holland River flows. I had not been feeling very
well and motherly Mrs. Campbell was somewhat anxious about my health. One
morning the boys, finding my bed empty and knowing that I must have gone
botanizing in the Holland River swamp, and knowing also the anxiety of
their mother about my health, put a large bag of carpet rags, that was
kept in the garret, in my bed and pulled the blankets over it. When Mrs.
Campbell met the boys before breakfast and inquired for John, they with
solemn looks replied that "Botany," as they called me, was sick. When she
anxiously inquired what ailed me they said they didn't know because they
could not get me to speak; they had tried again and again to arouse me
but I just lay still without saying a word as if I were dead, though I
seemed to be breathing naturally enough. Mrs. Campbell, greatly alarmed,
first called me from the foot of the stairs, and, getting no reply, walked
half way up and again called, "John, John, will you not speak to me?" The
continued dead silence corresponded with the boys' cunning story and made
her doubly anxious, so she climbed to the bed and shook as she supposed
my shoulder, saying, "John, John, will you not speak?" Finally, pulling
down the cover, she cried in glad relief, "Oh, those boys again, those
Soldiers from the British army occasionally deserted and hid in the
woods and swamps. For a certain deserter a considerable reward was offered
and the Campbell boys told the officers that they had seen a suspicious
character creeping out of the woods and swamps of the Holland River early
in the morning, and that they thought he must be getting food from the
neighbors and hiding in the swamp. A watch was, therefore, set and when
they captured me I had some difficulty in explaining that I was only a
Here is another of the practical jokes of these irrepressible Highlanders:
on frosty moonlight nights in winter when the sleighing was good, many
of the young men from the neighboring village of Bradford took their girls
out sleigh-riding. The Campbell boys dressed themselves in white bed sheets
and, just before the sleigh-riding began at dusk, they climbed to the roof
of a schoolhouse which stood at the crossroads, a mile or so from their
farm, and commenced vigorously trying to saw off the chimney with a fence
rail. Their reward was in hearing the boys and girls scream and rush back
to the village. The people in that neighborhood were devoted believers
in good old-fashioned ghosts.
These boys were capital story-tellers. One of their neighbors had a
nose thus described by the elder of the two, "Mr. So-and-so has a big nose.
Oh! a very big nose! So big and heavy that it shakes when he walks; and
his shaking nose shakes his whole body, and makes the ground shake, and
you would think there was an earthquake!"
Farther west were large wooded areas still perfectly wild, on the edges
of which homeseekers were laboriously plying their heavy axes, making clearings
for fields. At first only a few acres would be slashed down--oak, ash,
elm, basswood, maple, etc., of several species. On account of the closeness
of the growth these trees were tall and comparatively slender, and the
roots formed a net-work that covered the ground so closely that not a single
spot was to be found in which a post-hole could be dug without striking
roots. These beautiful trees were simply slashed down, falling upon each
other and covering the ground many trees deep, cut usually in winter and
left to dry.
As soon as the branches were dry enough to burn well, fire was set and
they were consumed, leaving only the blackened boles and heavier branches.
These were then chopped into manageable lengths of from ten or twelve to
fifteen feet, and the neighbors were called to a logging bee. Plenty of
whiskey was said to make the work light. The heavier logs were drawn by
oxen alongside of each other; the next heavier drawn alongside were rolled
up on top of the large ones by means of hand-spikes, the next on top of
the Second tier, and so on, and the smaller tops and heavy branches were
peaked on top of all. A fire was then started on top of these piles which
ate its way downward. Soon all the clearing was covered with heavy, deep,
glowing fires and the thickest logs after smouldering for days were at
last consumed. Next the ashes were leached, boiled down and roasted for
potash, which found a market in Europe, and yielded the first saleable
crop of the farm.
Next, pains were taken to scrape little hollows between the roots where
a few potatoes could be planted, without any reference to placing them
in rows. Occasionally separate little pits were made among the roots for
a few grains of wheat, which was cut with a sickle and thrashed with flails.
Perhaps a sack of grain, for the family bread, could thus be raised from
an acre or so.
Gradually the roots nearest the surface decayed and were laboriously
chopped and grubbed out, wheat sown and covered with very small strong
V-shaped harrows, which bounced about among the stumps. Still larger roots
and some of the smallest stumps were grubbed out of the way, and at last
the big stumps were laboriously dug out or pulled out with machines worked
by oxen. These first small clearings were enlarged from year to year, but
a whole lifetime was usually consumed before anything like an ordinary
size farm was brought under perfect cultivation and fitted for the use
of reaping and sowing machines.
Besides the difficulty of clearing away these dense woods, the first
small farms, opening the ground to the light, were subject to late and
early frosts, on account of the ground being so covered with humus and
leaves that it could absorb but little heat. While surrounded with a dense
forest wall the winds could not reach them with heat brought from afar,
and the day temperature fell rapidly.
One morning when I was on my way through the woods I came to a little
clearing where there was a crop of wheat beginning to head. Frost had fallen
on it the night before, and a poor woman was walking along the side of
the field weeping, wiping her eyes on her apron, and crying "Oh! the frost,
the frost, the weary frost. We'll hae na crop this year and we had nane
the last. We'll come to poverty. We'll come to poverty." After a great
part of the forest was cleared, the stumps removed, the humus plowed under,
and the soil opened to the sunshine and equalizing winds these frosts disappeared.
In the spring, when the maple sap began to flow, all the young people
had merry, merry times, shared by their elders who remembered their own
young days. The sap was boiled in the woods, and when sugaring off at a
certain stage it made wax which was cooled in the snow. A big fire was
made and the evening spent around it eating maple "wax," and, later on
in the "sugaring off," the sugar also. Other amusements were meeting for
song singing and general merry-making, but dancing was seldom indulged
in, being frowned on by their pious elders.
Most of the settlers were pious and faithfully attended church. All
were exceedingly economical on account of the necessity, long continued,
of saving while making a living in the wilderness. There was good reason
for the scarcity of Americans in that community because of the far greater
ease with which a living could be made on the prairies and oak openings
of the Middle and Western States.
When I came to the Georgian Bay of Lake Huron, whose waters are so transparent
and beautiful, and the forests about its shores with their ferny, mossy
dells and deposits of boulder clay, it seemed to be a most favorable place
for study, and as I was also at this time out of money again I was eager
to stay a considerable time. In a beautiful dell, only a mile or two from
the magnificent bay, I fortunately found work in a factory where there
was a sawmill and lathes for turning out rake, broom, and fork handles,
During the winter months of his sojourn in this dell near Meaford he had
the companionship Of his youngest brother, Daniel, who also was seeking
employment in Canada at this time. A wee letter, one by two inches in size,
dated Meaford, October 23rd, 1864, and addressed in playful mood to his
sister Mary, gives an account of the people in this "Hollow" where they
found employment. "Our family," he writes, "consists, first of all, of
me, a most good man and big boy. Second, Daniel, who is also mostly big
and three or four trifles funny. Third, Mr. William Trout, an unmarried
boy of thirty summers, who, according to the multiplicity of common prognostications,
is going to elect a lady mistress of Trout's Hollow some day. Fourth, Charles
Jay, a bird of twenty-five, who is said to coo to a Trout. . . . This Jay
and last mentioned Trout are in partnership and are the rulers of the two
Scotch heather Muirs." He also mentions Mary and Harriet, two very capable
sisters of William Trout, one of them the housekeeper and the other a school-teacher.
"We all live happily together," continues the letter. "Occasionally an
extra Trout comes upstream or a brother Jay alights at our door, but they
are not of our family." The fears of his sister, lest they work too hard,
are met by the declaration that they are working neither hard nor long
hours; that they "are growing fatter and fatter, and perhaps will soon
be as big as Gog and Magog."
Mr. Trout, who was still living in 1916, at my request furnished me
with an account of the coming of the Muirs to Meaford. It seems that John
and Daniel occasionally traveled independently in their search for work,
meeting by arrangement at stated times and places, or, if they had lost
connection, found each other again by means of letters from home. One midsummer
day in l864 Daniel appeared in search of work at the Trout sawmill. He
remained there six weeks until his brother John had been located through
home communications. The two then resumed their botanical journeyings until
the approach of winter.
Scenting a possible chance to exercise his inventive genius, John was
persuaded that the Hollow might be a good place in which to pass the long
Canadian winter. One evening in autumn, 1864, they both arrived at the
mill, outlined their plans, and were engaged to assist in building an addition
to the rake factory. John's mechanical ability soon proved so advantageous
for his employers that they entered into a contract with him to make one
thousand dozen rakes and thirty thousand broom handles.
When John Muir made his rake and broom handle contract with
us [wrote Mr. Trout], he also made a proposition to be given the liberty
of improving the machinery as he might determine, and that he should receive
therefore half the economical results of such improvement during a given
period. An arrangement of this kind was entered into, and he began with
our self-feeding lathe which I considered a nearly perfect instrument for
turning rake, fork, and broom handles and similar articles. By rendering
this lathe more completely automatic he nearly doubled the output of broom
handles. He placed one handle in position while the other was being turned.
It required great activity for him to put away the turned handle and place
the new one in position during the turning process. When he could do this
eight broom handles were turned in a minute. Corresponding to this lathe
I had on the floor immediately above him a machine that would automatically
saw from the round log, after it was fully slabbed, eight handles per minute.
But setting in the log and the slabbing process occupied about three eighths
of the time. This, with keeping saws and place in order, cut the daily
output to about twenty-five hundred. John had his difficulties in similar
ways and at best could not get ahead of the sawing. It was a delight to
see those machines at work. He devised and started the construction of
several new automatic machines, to make the different parts of the hand
rakes, having previously submitted and discussed them with me.
Daniel returned to Wisconsin after a time, but John continued at Meaford
for about a year and a half. During the spring and summer he pursued his
favorite study of botany with increasing enthusiasm and industry. Sundays
and the long summer evenings were invariably devoted to the plants and
the rocks. The lack of a comprehensive manual of the Canadian flora was,
of course, a serious disadvantage and many herbarium sheets bear testimony
to difficulties he encountered. They also testify to expeditions, made
in 1865 of which no other record remains, for here, among numerous specimens
from the "garden of J. Lufthorn" and the forests of Owen Sound and Georgian
Bay, are trophies from the "Devil's Half Acre, forty miles northeast from
Hamilton" and from the vicinity of Niagara Falls.
In Canada, as at the University of Wisconsin, Muir was his own severest
taskmaster. His bed, mounted on a cross axle and connected with an alarm
clock, was so contrived that it set him on his feet at five o'clock. If
he happened to lie in it diagonally he sometimes was thrown out sharply
on the floor. "The fall of John's bed," according to Mr. Trout, "was a
wake-up signal for every one in the house. If we heard a double shock,
caused by a roll-out, we had the signal for a good laugh on John, of which
he had further jolly reminders at the breakfast table." His conversational
powers already made him a marked member of any company, and he was never
loath to engage in a friendly argument at meal time. But a book was always
kept within reach for snatches of reading, and his studious habits kept
him at work till far into the night.
His young sisters at this time had in him an interesting correspondent.
Apparently they did not give him sufficiently detailed information about
home affairs to satisfy his curiosity, for he complains to one of them
that, while her letter gave pleasure, "it was not great enough in any of
its dimensions, minute enough in its details, or sufficiently knick-knacky
in its morals." "Here," he writes, "is a form for a small letter from your
locality, though as regards style I by no means commend it to your exact
Hickory Dale, 1000 ft. above the sea
January 1st, 1865
We are pretty well, but are fast growing weary of the many changes
which now seem to be of daily occurrence. We now live in a room made in
the upper part of the barn next the orchard.
We reach it by an outside stair. It is hard carrying up the wood and
water. Once I slipt and fell with an armful of burr oak firewood and sprained
my weeping sinew. The cattle live in the house now--the cows in the cellar,
the horses on the first floor, and the sheep upstairs. Nan will not go
past the cellar door, but we do the best we can.
The apple trees are dug up and planted upon the cold rocky summit of
the observatory where I am sure they will not grow well. The cattle do
not stand the severe weather well this winter. They stand drawn together
like a dog licking a pot.
Aunt Sally is married, and Lowdy Grahm has the whooping cough. Write
soon or sooner.
From your Sis
P.S. Carrie Muir has enlisted and David is very angry.
There, Mary, you should put some grit and bone of that kind in your
letters. I scribble that nonsense only to show you that these small matters
which occur in the neighborhood and which you do not think worthy of note
are still of interest to us when so far from home . . . Affectionately
To his friend Emily Pelton he writes under date of May 23rd, 1865:
We live in a retired and romantic hollow . . . Our social advantages
are, of course, few and, for my part, I do not seek to extend my acquaintance,
but work and study and dream in this retirement . . . Our tall, tall forest
trees are now all alive, and the ocean of mingled blossoms and leaves waves
and curls and rises in rounded swells farther and farther away, like the
thick smoke from a factory chimney. Freshness and beauty are everywhere;
flowers are born every hour; living sunlight is poured over all, and every
thing and creature is glad. Our world is indeed a beautiful one, and I
was thinking, on going to church last Sabbath, that I would hardly accept
of a free ticket to the moon or to Venus, or any other world, for fear
it might not be so good and so fraught with the glory of the Creator as
our own. Those miserable hymns, such as
" This world is all a fleeting show
For man's delusion given,"
do not at all correspond with my likings, and I am sure they do not with
The following letter, addressed to three of his sisters, is of interest
because it exhibits his love of fun from another angle. The proposed sale
of the Hickory Hill farm was not consummated at this time. The Fountain
Lake farm, however, to which he had become so deeply attached, was sold
about this time by his brother-in-law, David Galloway.
Trout's Hollow, C.W.
Dear Sisters Mary, Anna, and Joanna:
December 24th, 1865
I feel that I owe you a long apology for not replying to your long
good letters. I have been exceedingly busy, but this is not a sufficient
excuse. My bed sets me upon my feet at five, and I go to bed at eleven,
and have to do at least two days' work every day, sometimes three. I sometimes
almost forget where I am, what I am doing, or what my name is. I often
think of you and wish with all my might that I could see and chat with
you. Were it not that I have no time to think, I would grow homesick and
die in a day or two. My picture of home is in my room, and when I see it
now I feel sorry at the thought of its being sold. Fountain Lake, Oak Grove,
Little Valley, Hickory Hill, etc., with all of their long list of associations,
pleasant and otherwise, will soon have passed away and been forgotten.
I was glad to hear that Dan was visiting so long with you. I suppose
that he told you many a surprising and funny tale of Canada. I think that
he can make and enjoy a joke very well indeed. I had a letter from him,
and he says that he has plenty of money, clothes, and hope for the future.
I wish you were here. You would find queer things. We have queer trees,
queer flowers, queer streams, queer weather, queer customs, and queer people
with queer names. One man is called Lake, another Jay, Eagle, Raven, Stirling,
Bird. Mr. Jay married Miss Raven a few weeks ago. One day at the table
we were speaking about names and Mr. Trout said that "Rose" was a fine
name, and I said that Muir was better than Trout, or Jay, or Rose, or Eagle,
because that though a Jay or Eagle was a fine bird, and a Trout a good
fish, and Rose a fine flower, a Scottish Muir or Moor had fine birds, and
fine fishes in its streams, and fine wild roses together with almost every
other excellence, but above all "the bonnie bloomin' heather." We may well
be proud of our name.
Another story. One Sunday I returned from meeting before the rest and
was in the house alone reading one of the "Messengers" mother sent, when
a little bird flew into the house and the cat caught it. I chased the cat
out of the house, and through the house, till I caught her, to save the
bird's life, but she would not let it go, and I choked her and choked her
to make her let it go until I choked her to death, though I did not mean
to, and they both lay dead upon the floor. I waited to see if she would
not receive back one of her nine lives, but to my grief I found that I
had taken them all, so I buried her beside some cucumber vines in the garden.
When the rest came home I told what had occurred, and Charley Jay, who
is as full of wit and jokes as the pond was of cold water one night, said,
"Now John is always scolding us about killing spiders and flies but when
we are away he chokes the cats," and they kept saying "poor kitty," "poor
puss," for weeks afterwards to make me laugh.
I will write you all a long letter some day.
The more serious side of his nature and the aspirations he cherished at
this time come to expression in a letter which marks the beginning of a
long and remarkable correspondence with Mrs. Jeanne C. Carr, whose acquaintance
with John Muir, as stated in an earlier chapter, began when he exhibited
his wooden clocks at the Wisconsin State Fair in 1860. How much her friendship
was to mean to the budding naturalist appears clearly even in the earliest
of his letters to her.
From the time of Chancellor John Hiram Lathrop's resignation in July,
1859, to the choice of Paul A. Chadbourne as head of the University of
Wisconsin eight years later, Professor John W. Sterling was virtually president.
When John Muir failed to return to the University in the autumn of 1864
the faculty, knowing how eager he was to continue his studies, invited
him to return as a free student and Professor Sterling was instructed to
communicate this decision to him. Whether this invitation was for the autumn
of 1864 or 1865 is not entirely clear. Unfortunately the letter never reached
him and the opportunity could not be improved. This is the letter of which
he writes that he "waited and wearied for it a long time."
Dear Mrs. Carr:
Trout's Mills, near Meaford
September 13th, 
Your precious letter with its burden of cheer and good wishes has come
to our hollow, and has done for me that work of sympathy and encouragement
which I know you kindly wished it to do. It came at a time when much needed,
for I am subject to lonesomeness at times. Accept, then, my heartfelt gratitude--would
that I could make a better return.
I am sorry over the loss of Professor Sterling's letter, for I waited
and wearied for it a long time. I have been keeping up an irregular course
of study since leaving Madison, but with no great success. I do not believe
that study, especially of the Natural Sciences, is incompatible with ordinary
attention to business; still, I seem to be able to do but one thing at
a time. Since undertaking, a month or two ago, to invent new machinery
for our mill, my mind seems to so bury itself in the work that I am fit
for but little else; and then a lifetime is so little a time that we die
ere we get ready to live.
I would like to go to college, but then I have to say to myself, "You
will die ere you can do anything else." I should like to invent useful
machinery, but it comes, "You do not wish to spend your lifetime among
machines and you will die ere you can do anything else." I should like
to study medicine that I might do my part in lessening human misery, but
again it comes, "You will die ere you are ready to be able to do so." How
intensely I desire to be a Humboldt! but again the chilling answer is reiterated.
Could we but live a million of years, then how delightful to spend
in perfect contentment so many thousand years in quiet study in college,
so many amid the grateful din of machines, so many among human pain, so
many thousands in the sweet study of Nature among the dingles and dells
of Scotland, and all the other less important parts of our world!
Then perhaps might we, with at least a show of reason, "shuffle
off this mortal coil" and look back upon our star with something of satisfaction.
I should be ashamed--if shame might be in the other world--if any of
the powers, virtues, essences, etc., should ask me for common knowledge
concerning our world which I could not bestow. But away with this aged
and we are back to our handful of hasty years half gone, all of course
for the best did we but know all of the Creator's plan concerning us. In
our higher state of existence we shall have time and intellect for study.
Eternity, with perhaps the whole unlimited creation of God as our field,
should satisfy us, and make us patient and trustful, while we pray with
the Psalmist, "So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts
I was struck with your remarks about our real home as being a thing
of stillness and peace. How little does the outer and noisy world in general
know of that "real home" and real inner life! Happy indeed they who have
a friend to whom they can unmask the workings of their real life, sure
of sympathy and forbearance!
I sent for the book which you recommend. I have just been reading a
short sketch of the life of the mother of Lamartine. These are beautiful
things you say about the humble life of our Savior and about the trees
gathering in the sunshine.
What you say respecting the littleness of the number who are called
to "the pure and deep communion of the beautiful, all-loving Nature," is
particularly true of the hard-working, hard drinking, stolid Canadians.
In vain is the glorious chart of God in Nature spread out for them. So
many acres chopped is their motto, so they grub away amid the smoke of
magnificent forest trees, black as demons and material as the soil they
move upon. I often think of the Doctor's lecture upon the condition of
the different races of men as controlled by physical agencies. Canada,
though abounding in the elements of wealth, is too difficult to subdue
to permit the first few generations to arrive at any great intellectual
development. In my long rambles last summer I did not find a single person
who knew anything of botany and but a few who knew the meaning of the word;
and wherein lay the charm that could conduct a man, who might as well be
gathering mammon, so many miles through these fastnesses to suffer hunger
and exhaustion, was with them never to be discovered. Do not these answer
well to the person described by the poet in these lines:
"A primrose by the river's brim,
I thank Dr. Carr for his kind remembrance of me, but still more for the
good patience he had with so inapt a scholar. We remember in a peculiar
way those who first give us the story of Redeeming Love from the great
book of revelation, and I shall not forget the Doctor, who first laid before
me the great book of Nature, and though I have taken so little from his
hand, he has at least shown me where those mines of priceless knowledge
lie and how to reach them. O how frequently, Mrs. Carr, when lonely and
wearied, have I wished that like some hungry worm I could creep into that
delightful kernel of your house--your library--with its portraits of scientific
men, and so bountiful a store of their sheaves amid the blossom and verdure
of your little kingdom of plants, luxuriant and happy as though holding
their leaves to the open sky of the most flower-loving zone in the world!
A yellow primrose was to him,
And nothing more."
That "sweet day" did, as you wished, reach our hollow, and another is
with us now. The sky has the haze of autumn and, excepting the aspen, not
a tree has motion. Upon our enclosing wall of verdure new tints appear.
The gorgeous dyes of autumn are too plainly seen, and the forest seems
to have found out that again its leaf must fade. Our stream, too, has less
cheerful sound and as it bears its foambells pensively away from the shallow
rapids in the rocks it seems to feel that summer is past.
You propose, Mrs. Carr, an exchange of thoughts for which I thank you
very sincerely. This will be a means of pleasure and improvement which
I could not have hoped ever to have been possessed of, but then here is
the difficulty: I feel that I am altogether incapable of properly conducting
a correspondence with one so much above me. We are, indeed, as you say,
students in the same life school, but in very different classes. I am but
an alpha novice in those sciences which you have studied and loved so long.
If, however, you are willing in this to adopt the plan that our Savior
endeavored to beat into the stingy Israelites, viz. to "give, hoping for
nothing again," all will be well, and as long as your letters resemble
this one before me, which you have just written, in genus, order, cohort,
class, province, or kingdom, be assured that by way of reply you shall
at least receive an honest "Thank you."
Tell Allie that Mr. Muir thanks him for his pretty flowers and would
like to see him, also that I have a story for him which I shall tell some
other time. Please remember me to my friends, and now, hoping to receive
a letter from you at least semi-occasionally, I remain,
Yours with gratitude
Brought up in the strictest tenets of traditional orthodoxy, John Muir's
scientific studies gradually forced him to reconstruct the factual basis
of his religious beliefs. Darwin's Origin of Species
in 1859, and a fierce conflict was raging between champions of the theory
of special creation and what now came to be known as the theory of organic
evolution. Even at the university he had become aware of the chasm that
opening between the old biblical literalism and the more comprehensive
interpretations of religion. A certain prominent clergyman of Madison,
who was an advocate of a neighboring sectarian college, had often assailed
what he was pleased to call the atheistic views of certain members of the
faculty. Without relaxing his hold on the essentials of his Protestant
faith, John Muir's sympathies were unmistakably enlisted on the side of
liberalism. He promptly and quite naturally adopted the view that the Bible
is not authoritative in the realm of natural science, but that in its explanations
of the facts and phenomena of the universe it exhibits the same gradual
unfolding of human knowledge which has marked man's progress in other spheres
It is not easy to trace the steps by which he broke away from the narrow
Biblicism of his training, but he would from this period onward have subscribed
at any time to the statement of Louis Agassiz that "a physical fact is
as sacred as a moral principle." Lyell, who since 1830 had prepare the
way for Darwin by showing that the world is very old and the outcome of
a long development, excited Muir's enthusiastic interest. Later he became
a warm friend of J. D. Hooker and Asa Gray, two of Darwin's earliest supporters.
Nathaniel S. Shaler, who passed through the same period of readjustment
as Muir, confessed
[The Interpretation of Nature (1896),
Preface, p. iv.] that his first contact with natural science in
his youth and early manhood had the not uncommon effect of leading him
far away from Christianity and that in later years a further insight into
the truths of nature had gradually forced him back again to the ground
from which he had departed. It is interesting to find that Muir, probably
in spite of his upbringing, had no such experience. He saw that the alleged
antagonism between natural science and the Bible was due to the accumulated
lumber of past generations of faulty Bible teaching. By promptly discarding
the crudities of this teaching and adopting a more rational historical
interpretation of the Bible he saved his faith both in religion and in
In a letter from "The Hollow," written to Mrs. Carr toward the end of
January, 1866, we get a glimpse of his mental workings. To the statement
that she was writing her letter in the delicious quiet of a Sabbath evening
i the country, "with cow bells tinkling instead of steeple chimes, the
drone and chirp of myriad insects for choral service, depending for a sermon
upon the purple bluffs and flowing river," he responds as follows:
I was interested with the description you gave of your sermon.
You speak of such services like one who appreciates and relishes them.
But although the page of Nature is so replete with divine truth it is silent
concerning the fall of man and the wonders of Redeeming Love. Might she
not have been made to speak as clearly and eloquently of these things as
she now does of the character and attributes of God? It may be a bad sympton,
but I will confess that I take more intense delight from reading the power
and goodness of God from "the things which are made" than from the Bible.
The two books harmonize beautifully, and contain enough of divine truth
for the study of all eternity. It is so much easier for us to employ our
faculties upon these beautiful tangible form than to exercise a simple,
humble, living faith such as you so well describe as enabling us to reach
out joyfully into the future to expect what is promised as a thing of tomorrow.
On another occasion, in describing to a friend his discovery of Calypso
, he wrote:
I cannot understand the nature of the curse, "Thorns and thistles
shall it bring forth to thee." Is our world indeed the worse for this thistly
curse? Are not all plants beautiful, or some way useful? Would not the
world suffer by the banishment of a single weed? The curse must be within
He was at this time in the full flush of his inventive activity and working
hard to complete the contract into which he had entered with his employers.
I have been very busy of late making practical machinery [he
writes]. I like my work exceeding well, but would prefer inventions which
would require some artistic as well as mechanical skill. I invented and
put in operation a few days ago an attachment for a self-acting lathe which
has increased its capacity at least one third. We are now using it to turn
broom handles, and as these useful articles may now be made cheaper, and
as cleanliness is one of the cardinal virtues, I congratulate myself on
having done something, like a true philanthropist, for the real good of
mankind in general. What say you? I have also invented a machine for making
rake teeth, and another for boring for them, and driving them, and still
another for making the bows, still another used in making the handles,
still another for bending them--so that rakes may now be made nearly as
fast again. Farmers will be able to produce grain at a lower rate, and
the poor to get more bread to eat. Here is more philanthropy, is it not?
I sometimes feel as though I was losing time here, but I am at least receiving
my first lessons in practical mechanics and as one of the firm here is
a millwright and as I am permitted to make as many machines as I please
and to remodel those now in use, the school is a pretty good one.
The thirty thousand broom handles were all turned and stored in every available
place about the factory for final seasoning when one stormy night about
the first of March, 1866, the building took fire. There was no means of
fire control and soon the sawmill and factory with all their laboriously
manufactured contents were reduced to a pile of ashes. Since there was
no insurance, the owners having lost practically everything, John Muir
made as equitable a settlement as possible, taking notes bearing neither
interest nor date of payment. He always took pride in the thought that
his employers justified his confidence, for every cent was ultimately paid.
Leaving some of his books to his Sunday School class of admiring boys,
and some of his textbooks on botany to friends whom he had interested in
this study, he turned his face toward the States. The motives which influenced
him to go to Indianapolis and what he found there are the subject of autobiographical
notes which follow in the next chapter.
How warm a place he had made for himself in that Meaford circle of friends
we learn from a sheaf of kindly letters that followed him southward on
his departure soon after the fire. "Was there ever more freedom of speech,
thought, and action felt on earth than in that Hollow?" wrote one of the
Trout sisters. "We were all equal; every one did as he chose. Ah me! I
hope that the happy days will return; that we may be there again, and that
you might be one of our number for at least a short time. The circle would
be incomplete without you." "John," wrote another, "you don't know how
we missed the little star you used to have in the window for us when we
would be coming home after night, and the cheerful fire. And not least,
we missed the pleasant welcome you had for us."
But the disaster which led John to resume his wanderings also scattered
the members of the Meaford circle far and wide over Canada and the United
States. In more than the literal sense he had put a star in the window
for many of them, and for several decades grateful letters tell of their
progress in the new interests which he had brought into their lives. One
of the last to survive was William H. Trout, and with a paragraph from
the last letter that Muir wrote to him, in 1912, we conclude the account
of his Canadian sojourn:
I am always glad to hear from you. Friends get closer and dearer
the farther they travel on life's journey. It is fine to see how youthful
your heart remains, and wide and far-reaching your sympathy, with everybody
and everything. Such people never grow old. I only regret your being held
so long in mechanical bread-winning harness, instead of making enough by
middle age and spending the better half of life in studying God's works
as I wanted you to do long ago. The marvel is that in the din and rattle
of mills you have done so wondrous well. By all means keep on your travels,
since you know so well how to reap their benefits. I shall hope to see
you when next you come West. And don't wait until the canal year. Delays
are more and more dangerous as sundown draws nigh.
to Chapter 3 |
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