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Personal Recollections of John Muir

A Camp-Fire Talk at Moraine Lake, July 17, 1927.

by Samuel Merrill

From Sierra Club Bulletin, XIII, 1, Feb., 1928, pages 24 - 30, excerpted in Gilliam, Ann, Voices for the Earth: A Treasury of the Sierra Club Bulletin 1893-1977 and reprinted in John Muir: His Life and Letters and Other Writings, ed. by Terry Gifford (The Mountaineers Books, 1996, pg. 892.

Before giving a brief outline of Muir's life and my personal recollections of him, I will speak of an incident which occurred in Giant Forest, Sequoia National Park, as related to me by Judge Stephens, recently presiding judge of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County. About twenty years ago, Judge Stephens and John Muir were visitors in the park at the same time, but were strangers to each other. When Judge Stephens approached the office desk at the lodge in Giant Forest to register his name, he saw the name of John Muir on the line above, and in the column marked residence, Mr. Muir had written "The World." Judge Stephens wrote "Albert Lee Stephens - The Universe'' on the line below, and then seated himself at a table in the dining-room. He observed a smile on the face of the desk clerk as she read what had been written on the hotel register, and noticed that she slipped over to Mr. Muir's table to whisper something in his ear. Mr. Muir left the table and examined the register, and, going to the table where Judge Stephens was seated, introduced himself and insisted that the Judge join his party to see the wonders of the park. Judge Stephens declares that this day spent in the company of the great naturalist proved to be one of the most enjoyable m his life.

As many of you know, John Muir came to this country from Scotland when he was a lad of eleven years. His father settled on a piece of wild land in central Wisconsin Muir received the usual education afforded by the country schools of those days, which was very limited. He educated himself, however, by reading all the books in his father's home and in the homes of neighbours for miles around. With very little financial assistance from his father, he succeeded by his own efforts in putting himself through the University of Wisconsin, at Madison. While in college he became greatly interested in the science of botany, and on leaving the university he made many extensive trips to nearby states and to Canada to study the flora of these regions. In order to carry on these explorations, he secured work from time to time, and in this way he came to Indianapolis in 1866, when he was twenty-eight years old. He found employment in a wagon factory. There he received a serious injury to one of his eyes. While adjusting a belt, a sharp tool slipped in his hand and pierced his eye, causing temporary blindness in both eyes.

It was at this time that John Muir became known to our family. Professor Butler, of Madison, Wisconsin, one of Muir's teachers at the university, hearing of the accident, wrote to my aunt, Miss Catherine Merrill, asking her to do what she could for the young man. Miss Merrill took charge of the case, employing the best oculist in Indianapolis. It was necessary for Muir to remain in a dark room for many weeks. During this enforced imprisonment, Miss Merrill and her sisters, Mrs. Moores and Mrs. Graydon, gave much of their time in reading to him and in keeping his room supplied with flowers; while my cousin, Katherine Merrill Graydon, to whom I am much indebted for material in this sketch, recalls to this day the wonderful stories he used to tell her. This story-telling ability, in later life, culminated in that classic dog story, Stickeen.

When Muir recovered from the injury to his eyes, he made a short excursion on foot to Danville, Illinois, accompanied by one of my cousins, Merrill Moores, a boy of eleven years of age. Five years later this same lad spent six months with Muir in Yosemite Valley, and in later years served his native city of Indianapolis and his country eight years in Congress. While in Congress he asked to be assigned to the committee which considered national park matters, in order that he might advance the causes to which Muir had dedicated his life.

Returning from Danville, Illinois, to Indianapolis, Muir stored the herbarium and notes of his first botanical trips in the attic of my aunt, Mrs. Moores, where they remained for more than a half -century until brought to light and examined by Muir's biographer, Dr. Badè. Saying goodbye to his Indianapolis friends, Muir set out on the famous thousand-mile hike through the South to Florida. It was his intention to continue the journey to South America, but a fever, contracted in the South, caused him to change his mind and his destination to California.

Arriving in San Francisco by water in the spring of 1868, he lost no time in getting out of the city, headed for Yosemite Valley on foot; not that he had any aversion to San Francisco, but. as he puts it, "I care~ not to spend time in a city when I could be in the open and see God making a world. •• Muir describes his tramp to Yosemite in these words:

It was one of those perfectly pure, rich, ripe days of California sun gold, where distant views seem as close as near ones, and I have always thanked the Lord that I came here before the dust and smoke of civilization had dimmed the sky and before the wild bloom bad vanished from the plain. Descending the Pacheco Pass, I waded out into the marvellous bloom of the San Joaquin, when it was in its prime. It was all one sea of golden and purple bloom, so deep and dense that in walking through it you would press more than a hundred blooms at every step. In this flower-bed five hundred miles long, I used to camp by just lying down wherever night overtook me, as if I had sunk beneath the waters of a lake, the radiant heads of compositae touching each other, ray to ray, shone above me like the thickest star clusters of the sky, and in the morning I sometimes found plants that were new, looking me in the face, so that my botanical studies would begin before I was up.

For the next ten years Muir buried himself in the Yosemite Valley and the High Sierra, living much of the time absolutely alone, in close communion with nature, studying the flowers, trees, and rocks of this region. not that he loved man the less but nature more, as Byron expresses it. During these years Muir gathered the material that later appeared in book and periodical form bringing him fame as an author and making him the foremost defender of the beautiful regions of the state which later became national parks. Muir's life in the Sierra was interrupted by an eastern trip to his old home and to Indianapolis. Muir consented to give a talk on the mountains and big trees of California at my father's home before a number of invited guests. Although I was only a boy like my young friend Glen Dawson, Muir's visit and talk at our home made a deep impression upon me. I am sure that we all, both grown-up people and children, realised that John Muir was a great man - unlike any man we had ever known before. His language was simple and easily understood by a child, and yet had a charm for the most highly educated.

Years passed before I saw John Muir again. During the years which had elapsed, he had carried on extensive explorations on the Pacific Coast and in Alaska. On my return to California from India in 1892, I made a pilgrimage to John Muir's ranch near Martinez.

Muir had only recently returned from an expedition to Alaska, and, though but fifty-four years of age at this time be showed by the lines in his face and his general appearance that be bad endured and suffered great hardships and privations. He was glad, however to make the sacrifice that these trips entailed and did not complain, and referred to it once in this way, saying, " I have made a tramp of myself; I have gone hungry and cold; I have left bloody trails on sharp ice peaks to see the wonders of earth."

In spite of the deep lines in his face, Mr. Muir's personal appearance was most attractive. He was above the average in height, slender, lithe, and active as an Indian. His eyes were as clear and blue as California skies; his beard was well shaped and covered with curly brown hair. He was modest in telling of his adventures - adventures which must have tried the soul of the bravest man. No woman could have been more tender than he, particularly to animals. He even went so far as to express regret for having killed a rattlesnake, saying that he hoped the Lord would forgive him for taking the life of a creature loved only by its Maker.

The family at this time consisted of Mr. and Mrs. Muir and their two young daughters, Wanda and Helen. Occasionally at the table were his brother David and wife, who lived on the upper part of the ranch, or friends from San Francisco, Oakland, or Berkeley.

Muir's study, or den, was on the second floor, in the front of the house. He was allowed to have his own way in this particular room and no one dared to put it in order. It was so full of his books, manuscripts, and sketches that it was difficult to find a chair unoccupied. Muir appreciated the best in art, as was evidenced by the pictures on the walls. I particularly recall a fine painting by William Keith on the wall to the right as one entered the study. Mr. Muir showed me many sketches of his recent Alaskan trip, and I realised that he was no mean artist himself. In fact, Muir was very versatile, a man learned in more than one branch of science, particularly in botany and geology, pre-eminent in his specialty of glaciers, a naturalist, a poet who wrote no verse, a great prose writer, a wonderful conversationalist, a natural-born story-teller, a successful farmer and fruit-grower, and an inventor of considerable ability.

Like Dr. Samuel Johnson, John Muir never appeared to better advantage than in conversation, but unfortunately he did not have a Boswell to preserve his sayings for posterity. It was a rare privilege to be included in a group in which Muir was a member. As one friend, describing Muir's descriptive powers, puts it, " Our foreheads felt the wind and rain." Years ago it was my good fortune to be a visitor in the House of Commons,, before Gladstone had retired to private life. An interesting debate was going on. Balfour had spoken on the bill - there was a pause - then the venerable figure of England's great Prime Minister, William E. Gladstone, rose in his place - immediately there was a dead silence. Then on every side I heard, "Hush! The old man is going·to speak." So it was at Muir's table; whenever the great man was willing to talk, we were all glad to be qu1et and listen.

Muir was even more delightful and entertaining in the out-of-doors than he was about the dining-table or in his study. I soon discovered that one must be accurate in statement of facts. One day I told Mr. Muir that 1 was thankful to be in California. to escape the thunder and lightning storms of India. and I described one particular storm in Calcutta where nearly a foot of water fell in one night and one could lie in bed and view the statues to British soldiers and statesmen on the Maidan by flashes of lightning. He replied, ''Then you have never been in the High Sierra, if you think that we have no electrical storms in California." Mr. Muir gave a graphic description of a violent electrical storm which he experienced in the High Sierra when a terrific bolt of lightning struck a lofty pine in front of him, splitting it from top to bottom and throwing out the pieces like spokes of a wagon-wheel.

At another time, while walking with Muir in his cherry orchard, I ventured the remark that all the cherries are alike on these trees and are Royal Anne cherries. "No, I would not say that. True, they are known commercially as Royal Anne cherries, but in reality the cherries on no two trees in the orchard are alike. They all differ to some extent in size, colour, texture shape, and flavour, as you will discover when you examine them closely." '

While a party of us were walking over the ranch one day with Muir, some one called his attention to a vigorous young oak tree in the vineyard which was robbing the grapevines near it of necessary nourishment. The vines were sickly in appearance and bearing poorly. Muir stood looking at the tree and vines for a few moments and then said, "As a farmer, I think that I would be justified in removing this tree.'' Knowing Muir's love of trees, we were all just a little shocked to hear him say this. It proved to us all, however, that Muir was eminently sane in these matters and by no means fanatical in his love of the beautiful in nature. I may add for the benefit of all tree-lovers that, so far as I know, Mr. Muir never carried out his threat of digging out that offending oak tree.

The poetry in Muir's soul constantly expressed itself in his writings and conversation. My cousin, Katherine Merrill Graydon, spent several months on Mr. Muir's ranch teaching his children, Wanda and Helen. Later she secured a position in the Oakland High School, living at the home of Professor McChesney, principal of the school. While planning a party one day, she decided to surprise her guests with some of the delicious peaches from the Muir ranch. She wrote to Mr. Muir for the peaches. The peaches came, but with them a note from Mr. Muir in which he said, " Why, Katherine, you might as well have asked me to send you a box of dewdrops as to send you ~ a box of peaches and expect them to arrive in the same condition that you had them on the ranch."

In speaking of India, I told Mr. Muir of the great banyan tree in the botanical gardens of Calcutta, under the boughs of which a regiment of soldiers could assemble without crowding, of the mango and jackfruit trees, of the deodar and teak wood - of the hundreds of varieties of orchids shown in every winter in the annual flower show in Calcutta. I asked Mr. Muir if he had ever seen any orchids on his travels up and down the coast. "Yes," he replied; "I met two very rare and beautiful species of orchids in the wilds of British Columbia." ' I asked him to to tell me their names. Mr. Muir answered, "Hush! we won't mention their names, for so rare were they, so delicate, so fragile, and so altogether lovely, that even to pronounce their names might frighten them away."

1 am sure that you will pardon me for being proud of the fact that 1 was a member of Mr. Muir's household when the Sierra Club was born. I recall the day in the summer of 1892 when Mr. Muir returned from San Francisco and announced to us all at the supper table that the sierra Club had been organised and that he had been chosen its first president. I had never seen Mr. Muir so animated and happy before.

According to the testimony of Lincoln himself, he admits that the happiest day in his life was not, as one might think, when he was elected to Congress, or became President of the United States, or signed the emancipation proclamation, or when he brought the Civil War to a successful conclusion, but, on the contrary, it dated back to the Black Hawk War, w hen Illinois was on our western frontier. The settlers had gathered together from far and near to take steps to protect their homes from attack by the Indians. The question of a leader came up, and, without a word being said or a vote being taken, the the sturdy pioneers formed a circle about the tall form of the future war President, and Lincoln realised that he had been elected captain.

1 know not how the election of John Muir as President of the Sierra Club was conducted, but doubtless it was quite as informal and unanimous as that of Lincoln as captain of his company. As in Lincoln's case, it was not Muir's success as an author, or the honours that were conferred upon him in this country and abroad, that gave him the keenest pleasure, but the happiest day in his life, I venture to say, was the day in San Francisco in the summer of 1892, when he found himself the centre of a devoted and loyal group of citizens who organised themselves into the Sierra Club and made him President.

Up to that time, Muir had been waging a continuous war against selfish commercial interests which would exploit and destroy the forests and beautiful regions of our state and nation, fighting in his early years in the state, almost alone, with his back to the wall - yes, with his back against the granite walls of the Sierra which he loved so well. Is it any wonder, then, that Muir saw in the Sierra Club, the crystallization of the dreams and labour of a lifetime, an organisation which would carry on the good work for generations yet to come? But an organisation is only what its members make it. Our great leader, after a long life of public service and self-sacrifice, has fallen, like some giant Sequoia sempervirens which has gone down before the storm. But, as there springs up around the base of the redwood a circle of vigorous young trees to take its place, so, my friends and fellow members, it devolves upon us to close in and fill up the breach in our ranks caused by the loss of our gallant leader. As we are gathered here about the campfire under the stars and beneath the shadow of these lofty lodgepole pines, let us here and now resolve to be more worthy disciples of this inspiring man.


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