Printer-friendly version Share:  Share this page on FacebookShare this page on TwitterShare this page by emailShare this page with other services

The Laird of Skyland: John Muir

by Mary R. Parkman

Excerpted from Heroes of To-Day by Mary R. Parkman (New York: The Century Co., 1917)

John Muir Among HIs Beloved Trees from Heroes of To-day by Mary R. Parkman (1917)

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.
Nature's peace will flow into you
As sunshine into trees;
The winds will blow their freshness into you,
And the storms their energy ;
While cares will drop off like autumn leaves.

John Muir

Illustration: John Muir Among His Beloved Trees

A SMALL Scotch laddie was scrambling about on the storm-swept, craggy ruins of Dunbar Castle. He was not thinking of the thousand years that had passed over the grim fortress, or of the brave deeds, celebrated in legend and ballad, that its stones had witnessed. He was glorying in his own strength and daring that had won for him a foothold on the highest of the crumbling peaks, where he could watch the waves dash in spray, and where, with out- flung arms and face aglow with exultation, he felt himself a part of the scene. Sea, sky, rocks, and wild, boy heart seemed mingled together as one.

Little John Muir loved everything that was wild. The warnings and "skelpings" of his strict father could not keep him within the safe confines of the home garden. The true world was beyond the salt meadows, with nests of skylarks and field-mice, the rocky pools along the shore where one might find crabs, eels, and all sorts of interesting scaly creatures. But above all, there were the rocky heights where one might climb.

Sometimes the truant was sent to bed without his supper. But even then he made opportunities for climbing feats. In company with his little brother David, John played games of "scootchers" (dares) in which the boys crept out of their dormer-windows and found con- genial mountaineering exercise on the slate roof, sometimes hanging from the eaves by one hand, or even for an instant by a single finger.

It was only on Saturdays and during vacations, however, that these lads could taste the delights of roving. Johnnie Muir 's schooldays began when he was not quite three years old. Can you picture the sturdy infant trudging along, with the sea wind blowing out behind him like a flag the little green bag that his mother had hung around his neck to hold his first book? This infant had already learned his letters, however, from the shop signs, and it was not long before he passed the first milestone and spelled his way into the second book. When eight years old, John entered the grammar school. Here he studied Latin and French, besides English, history, geography, and arithmetic. In regard to the methods employed, this doughty Scotchman used to say, with a twinkle: "We were simply driven pointblank against our books like a soldier against the enemy, and sternly ordered: 'Up and at 'em! Commit your lessons to memory!' If we failed in any part, however slight, we were whipped, for the grand, simple, Scotch discovery had been made that there was a close connection between the skin and the memory, and that irritating the skin excited the memory to any required degree."

From the school playground the boys loved to watch the ships at sea and guess where they were bound. In stormy weather, that brought the salt spume from the waves over the wall, they often saw the brave vessels tossed against the rocky shore. Many of John's school-books showed ships at full sail on the margins, particularly the one that stirred his imagination most the reader which told about the forests of America, with their wonderful birds and sugar- maple trees.

One evening, when John and David were loyally trying to forget dreams of voyages to magic lands where brave adventure awaited one at every turn, and master their lessons for the next day, their father came into the room with won- derful news.

"Bairns," he said, "you need na learn your lessons the nicht, for we 're gaen to America the morn!"

How the words sang in their hearts! "America the morn!" Instead of grammar, a land where sugar-trees grew in ground full of gold ; with forests where myriads of eagles, hawks, and pigeons circled about millions of birds' nests; where deer hid in every thicket; and where there was never a gamekeeper to deny a lad the freedom of the woods!

Only their grandfather looked troubled, and said in a voice that trembled more than usual: "Ah, puir laddies! Ye '11 find something else ower the sea forby gold and birds' nests and freedom frae lessons. Ye'll find plenty of hard, hard work."

But nothing could cast a shadow on their joy. "I'm gaen to Amaraka the morn!" they shouted to their envying, doubting schoolmates.

It took six weeks and a half for the old-fashioned sailing-vessel to cross the Atlantic. The father had taken three of the children, John, David, and Sarah, to help him make a home in the wilderness for the rest of the family. The spot selected was near Kingston, Wisconsin, then settled only by a few scattered, hardy pioneers. Here, with the help of their nearest neighbors, they built in a day a cabin of rough, bur oak logs.

This hut was in the midst of the woods which fringed a flowery meadow and a lake where pond-lilies grew. The boys had not been at home an hour before they discovered a blue- jay's nest with three green eggs, and a wood- pecker's hole, and began to make acquaint ince with the darting, gliding creatures of springs and lake.

"Here," said John Muir, "without knowing it, we were still at school; every wild lesson a love lesson, not whipped but charmed into us."

Soon farm life began in earnest. Fields were cleared and plowed ; a frame house was built on the hill; and the mother with the younger chil- dren came to join these pioneers. It would seem that the long days of unceasing toil planting, hoeing, harvesting, splitting rails, and digging wells that retarded the growth of the active lad would have completely quenched the flickerings of his wild, eager spirit. But he managed to absorb, in the most astonishing way, the lore of woods and fields and streams, until the ways of birds, insects, fishes, and wild plant- neighbors were as an open book to him.

It was not long before his alert mind began to hunger for a real knowledge of the books which in his childish days he had studied with- out understanding. He read not only the small collection of religious books that his father had brought with him from Scotland, but also every stray volume that he could borrow from a neigh- bor.

When John was fifteen, he discovered that the poetry in the Bible, in Shakespeare, and in Mil- ton could give something of the same keen joy that a Sunday evening on a hilltop made him feel, when sunset and rising moon and the hushed voices of twilight were all mingled in one thrilling delight. All beauty was one, he found.

The noble lines echoed in his memory as he cradled the wheat and raked the hay. The pre- cious opportunities for reading were stolen five minutes at a time when he lingered in the kitchen with book and candle after the others had gone to bed. Night after night his father would call with exasperated emphasis : " John, do you expect me to call you every night I You must go to bed when the rest do."

One night as he descended on the boy with more than usual sternness his anger was somewhat disarmed when he noticed that the book in question was a Church history. "If you will read," he added, "get up in the morning. You may get up as early as you like."

That night John went to bed wondering how he was going to wake himself in order to profit by this precious permission. Though his was the sound sleep of a healthy boy who had been splitting rails in the snowy woods, he sprang out of bed as if roused by a mysterious reveille long before daylight, and, holding his candle to the kitchen clock, saw that it was only one o'clock.

" Five hours to myself !" he cried exultingly. "It is like finding a day a day for my very own!"

Realizing that his enthusiasm could not suffice to keep him warm in the zero weather, and that his father would certainly object to his making a fire, he went down cellar, and, by the light of a tallow dip, began work on the model of a self-setting sawmill that he had invented.

"I don't think that I was any the worse for my short ration of sleep and the extra work in the cold and the uncertain light," he said; "I was far more than happy. Like Tam o' Shanter I was glorious 'O'er all the ills of life victorious."

When his sawmill was tested in a stream that he had dammed up in the meadow, he set himself to construct a clock that might have an at- tachment connected with his bed to get him up at a certain hour in the morning. He knew nothing of the mechanism of timepieces beyond the laws of the pendulum, but he succeeded in making a clock of wood, whittling the small pieces in the moments of respite from farmwork. At length the "early-rising machine" was complete and put in operation to his satis- faction. There was now no chance that the weary flesh would betray him into passing a precious half-hour of his time of freedom in sleep.

"John," said his father, who had but two absorbing interests, his stern religion and his thriving acres, "John, what time is it when you get up in the morning?"

"About one o'clock," replied the boy, trem- blingly.

"What time is that to be stirring about and disturbing the whole family?"

"You told me, Father --" began John.

"I know I gave you that miserable permis- sion," said the man with a groan, "but I never dreamed that you would get up in the middle of the night."

The boy wisely said nothing, and the blessed time for study and experimentation was not taken away.

Even his father seemed to take pride in the hickory clock that he next constructed. It was in the form of a scythe to symbolize Time, the pendulum being a bunch of arrows to suggest the flight of the minutes. A thermometer and barometer were next evolved, and automatic contrivances to light the fire and to feed the horses at a given time.

One day a friendly neighbor, who recognized that the boy was a real mechanical genius, advised him to take his whittled inventions to the State Fair at Madison. There two of his wooden clocks and the thermometer were given a place of honor in the Fine Arts Hall, where they attracted much attention. It was generally agreed that this farm boy from the backwoods had a bright future.

A student from the university persuaded the young inventor that he might be able to work his way through college. Presenting himself to the dean in accordance with this friendly advice, young Muir told his story, explaining that except for a two-month term in the country he had not been to school since he had left Scotland in his twelfth year. He was received kindly, given a trial in the preparatory department, and after a few weeks transferred to the fresh- man class.

During the four years of his college life John Muir made his way by teaching school a part of each winter and doing farm work summers. He sometimes cut down the expense of board to fifty cents a week by living on potatoes and mush, which he cooked for himself at the dormi- tory furnace. Pat, the janitor, would do anything for this young man who could make such wonderful things. Years afterward he pointed out his room to visitors and tried to describe the wonders it had contained. It had, indeed, looked like a branch of the college museum, with its numerous botanical and geological specimens and curious mechanical contriv- ances.

Although he spent four years at the State University, he did not take the regular course, but devoted himself chiefly to chemistry, physics, botany, and geology, which, he thought, would be most useful to him. Then, without graduating, he started out "on a glorious botanical and geological excursion which has lasted," he said, in concluding the story of his early life, "for fifty years and is not yet completed."

He journeyed afoot to Florida, sleeping on the ground wherever night found him. "I wish I knew where I was going," he wrote to a friend who asked about his plans. "Only I know that I seem doomed to be ' carried of the spirit into the wilderness.'"

Because he loved the whole fair earth and longed to know something of the story that its rocks and trees might tell, he wandered on and on. After going to Cuba, a siege of tropical fever, contracted by sleeping on swampy ground, caused him to give up for a time a cher- ished plan to make the acquaintance of the vegetation along the Amazon.

"Fate and flowers took me to California," he said. He found there his true Florida (Land of Flowers), and he found, also, what became the passion of his life and his life work the noble mountains, the great trees, and the mar- velous Yosemite. Here he lived year after year, climbing the mountains, descending into the canons, lovingly, patiently working to decipher the story of the rocks, and to make the wonder and beauty which thrilled his soul a heritage for mankind forever.

He lived for months at a time in the Yosemite Valley, whose marvels he knew in every mood of sunshine, moonlight, dawn, sunset, storm, and winter whiteness of frost and snow. He would wander for days on the heights without gun or any provisions except bread, tea, a tin cup, pocket-knife, and short-handled ax.

Once, on reading a magazine article by an enthusiastic young mountain-climber, who dilated upon his thrilling adventures in scaling Mount Tyndall, Mr. Muir commented dryly: "He must have given himself a lot of trouble. When I climbed Tyndall, I ran up and back before breakfast."

At a time when trails were few and hard to find, he explored the Sierra, which, he said, should be called, not the Nevada, or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light. When night came, he selected the lee side of a log, made a fire, and went to sleep on a bed of pine-needles. If it was snowing, he made a bigger fire and lay closer to his log shelter.

"Outdoors is the natural place for man," he said. "I begin to cough and wheeze the minute I get within walls. "

Never at a loss to make his way in the wilderness, he was completely bewildered in the midst of city streets.

"What is the nearest way out of town?' he asked of a man in the business section of San Francisco soon after he landed at the Golden Gate in 1868.

"But I don't know where you want to go!" protested the surprised pedestrian.

"To any place that is wild," he replied.

So began the days of his wandering in pathless places among higher rocks "than the world and his ribbony wife could reach." "Climb the mountains, climb, if you would reach beauty," said John Muir, the wild, eager spirit of the lad who had braved scoldings and "skelpings" to climb the craggy peaks of Dunbar shining in his eyes.

When his friends remonstrated with him because of the way he apparently courted danger, he replied: "A true mountaineer is never reckless. He knows, or senses with a sure instinct, what he can do. In a moment of real danger his whole body is eye, and common skill and fortitude are replaced by power beyond our call or knowledge."

It was not entirely the passion for beauty that took this lover of the sublime aspects of nature up among the mountains and glaciers "up where God is making the world." It was also the passion for knowledge the longing to know something of the tools the Divine Sculptor had used in carving the giant peaks and mighty canons.

"The marvels of Yosemite are the end of the story," he said. "The alphabet is to be found in the crags and valleys of the summits."

Here he wandered about, comparing canon with canon, following lines of cleavage, and finding the key to every precipice and sloping wall in the blurred marks of the glaciers on the eternal rocks. Every boulder found a tongue; "in every pebble he could hear the sound of running water. " The tools that had carved the beauties of Yosemite were not, he concluded, those of the hidden fires of the earth, the rend- ing of earthquake and volcanic eruption, but the slow, patient cleaving and breaking by mighty glaciers, during the eons when the earth's sur- face was given over to the powers of cold the period known as the Ice Age.

"There are no accidents in nature," he said. "The flowers blossom in obedience to the same law that keeps the stars in their places. Each bird-song is an echo of the universal harmony. Nature is one."

Because he believed that Nature reveals many of her innermost secrets in times of storm, he often braved the wildest tempests on the heights. He spoke with keen delight of the times when he had been "magnificently snow- bound in the Lord's Mountain House." He even dared to climb into the very heart of a snow-cloud as it rested on Pilot Peak, and it seemed that the experience touched the very springs of poetry in the soul of this nature-lover. He found that he had won in a moment "a harvest of crystal flowers, and wind-songs gathered from spiry firs and long, fringy arms of pines."

Once in a terrible gale he climbed to the top of a swaying pine in order to feel the power of the wind as a tree feels it. His love for the trees was second only to his love for the moun- tains. His indignation at the heedless destruc- tion of the majestic Sequoias knew no bounds. " Through thousands and thousands of years God has cared for these trees," he said: "He has saved them from drought, disease, ava- lanches, and a thousand straining and leveling tempests and floods, but He cannot save them from foolish men."

It was due mainly to his untiring efforts that the "big trees" of California, as well as the wonderful Yosemite Valley, were taken under the protection of the Nation to be preserved for all the people for all time.

He discovered the petrified forests of Arizona, and went to Chile to see trees of the same species which are no longer to be found any- where in North America. He traveled to Australia to see the eucalyptus groves, to Siberia for its pines, and to India to see the banyan trees. When asked why he had not stopped at Hong Kong when almost next door to that interesting city, he replied, "There are no trees in Hong Kong."

In order to make a livelihood that would permit him to continue his studies of nature in the mountains, Mr. Muir built a sawmill where he prepared for the use of man those trees "that the Lord had felled." Here during the week he jotted down his observations or sketched, while he watched out of the tail of his eye to see when the great logs were nearing the end of their course. Then he would pause in his writing or sketching just long enough to start a new log on its way.

Sometimes he undertook the work of a shepherd, and, while his "mutton family of 1800 ranged over ten square miles," he found time for reading and botanizing.

A very little money sufficed for his simple needs. Indeed, Mr. Muir once declared that he could live on fifty dollars a year.

"Eat bread in the mountains," he said, "with love and adoration in your soul, and you can get a nourishment that food experts have no conception of."

He spoke with pitying scorn of the money- clinking crowd who were too "time-poor" to enjoy the keenest delights that earth can offer.

"You millionaires carry too heavy blankets to get any comfort out of the march through life," he said; "you don't know what it is you are losing by the way."

When there was a home and "bairnies" to provide for, he managed a fruit-ranch; but he was often absent in his beloved mountains weeks at a time, living on bread, tea, and the huckleberries of cool, glacial bogs, which were more to his taste than the cherries or grapes that he had to return in time to harvest.

Mr. S. Hall Young, in his interesting narrative "Alaska Days with John Muir," gives a graphic account of the way John o' Mountains climbed:

Then Muir began to slide up that mountain. I had been with mountain-climbers before, but never one like him. A deer-lope over the smoother slopes, a sure instinct for the easiest way into a rocky fortress, an instant and unerring attack, a serpent glide up the steep; eye, hand, and foot all connected dynamically; with no appearance of weight to his body as though he had Stockton's negative-gravity machine strapped on his back.

In all his mountain-climbing in the Sierras, the Andes, and the high Himalayas, he never knew what it was to be dizzy, even when stand- ing on the sheerest precipice, or crossing a crevasse on a sliver of ice above an abyss of four thousand feet. He said that his simple laws of health gave him his endurance and his steady nerves; but when we think of the wee laddie in Scotland, hanging from the roof by one finger, or balancing himself on a particu- larly sharp crag of the black headland at Dun- bar, we believe that he was born to climb.

"I love the heights," he said, "where the air is sweet enough for the breath of angels, and where I can feel miles and miles of beauty flow- ing into me."

He never ceased to marvel at the people who remained untouched in the presence of Nature 's rarest loveliness. "They have eyes and see not," he mourned, as he saw some sleek, com- fortable tourists pausing a moment in their con- cern about baggage to point casually with their canes to the Upper Yosemite Falls, coming with its glorious company of shimmering comets out of a rainbow cloud along the top of the cliff, and passing into another cloud of glory below.

All of Mr. Muir's books "The Mountains of California," "Our National Parks," "My First Summer in the Sierra," and "The Yosemite" are splendid invitations to " climb the moun- tains and get their good tidings." " Climb, if you would see beauty!" every page cries out. "If I can give you a longing that will take you out of your rocking-chairs and make you willing to forego a few of your so-called comforts for something infinitely more worth while, I shall have fulfilled my mission."

Read his story of his ride on the avalanche from a ridge three thousand feet high, where he had climbed to see the valley in its garment of newly-fallen snow. The ascent took him nearly all day, the descent about a minute. When he felt himself going, he instinctively threw himself on his back, spread out his arms to keep from sinking, and found his "flight in the milky way of snow-stars the most spiritual and exhilarating of all modes of motion."

In "The Yosemite," also, we learn how a true nature-lover can meet the terrors of an earth- quake. He was awakened at about two o'clock one moonlit morning by a "strange, thrilling motion," and exalted by the certainty that he was going to find the old planet off guard and learn something of her true nature, he rushed out while the ground was rocking so that he had to balance himself as one does on shipboard dur- ing a heavy sea. He saw Eagle Rock fall in a thousand boulder-fragments, while all the thun- der he had ever heard was condensed in the roar of that moment when it seemed that ' ' the whole earth was, like a living creature, calling to its sister planets."

"Come, cheer up!" he cried to a panic- stricken man who felt that the ground was about to swallow him up; "smile and clap your hands now that kind Mother Earth is trotting us on her knee to amuse us and make us good."

He studied the earthquake as he studied the glaciers, the scarred cliffs, and the flowers, and this is the lesson that it taught him:

All Nature's wildness tells the same story : the shocks and outbursts of earthquakes, volcanoes, geysers, roaring waves, and floods, the silent uprush of sap in plants, storms of every sort each and all, are the orderly, beauty-making love-beats of Nature's heart.

Read about his adventure in a storm on the Alaska glacier with the little dog, Stickeen. You will note that he had eyes not only for the ice-cliffs towering above the dark forest and for the mighty glacier with its rushing white fountains, but also for the poor "beastie" who was leaving blood-prints on the ice when the man stopped to make him moccasins out of his handkerchief. As you read you will not won- der that this man who could write about Na- ture 's loftiest moods could also write that most beautiful and truly sympathetic of all stories of dog life.

The last years of John Muir's long career were, like the rest, part of "the glorious botanical and geological excursion," on which he set out when he left college. The names that he won "John o' Mountains," "The Psalmist of the Sierra," "The Father of the Yosemite" all speak of his work. Remembering that he found his fullest joy in climbing to the topmost peaks, we have called him "The Laird of Skyland." Going to the mountains was going home, he said.

The Muir Woods of "big trees" near San Francisco and Muir Glacier in Alaska are fit- ting monuments to his name and fame. But the real man needs no memorial. For when we visit the glorious Yosemite, which his untiring ef- forts won for us and which his boundless enthusiasm taught us rightly to appreciate, we somehow feel that the spirit of John Muir is still there, in the beauty that he loved, bidding us welcome and giving us joy in the freedom of the heights.

Also available:

Return to The Life and Contributions of John Muir

Home | Alphabetical Index | What's New  

Comments/Questions · About the Exhibit · Alphabetical Index · What's New

John Muir Exhibit

sponsored by Sierra Club John Muir Education Project

Hosted by the Sierra Club

Sierra Club® and "Explore, enjoy and protect the planet"® are registered trademarks of the Sierra Club. © 2024 Sierra Club.
The Sierra Club Seal is a registered copyright, service mark, and trademark of the Sierra Club.