John Muir’s Wild Years

Written by Paul Wilson.

“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…”  – John Muir on his time in Meaford, Ontario. Excerpted from The Life & Letters of John Muir.

Big ideas never arrive fully formed; they evolve, like everything else in the natural or man-made world. So it was with John Muir’s crusading ideas about protecting the wild places on earth: they came out of a lifetime of rambling in the out-of-doors, studying plants and glaciers and watersheds, and writing about his experiences, first in his private journals and letters to friends, later in magazine articles and bestselling books. Over time, Muir came to recognize a fundamental tenet of modern ecology: that everything is connected. “When we try to pick out anything by itself,” he wrote toward the end of his life, “we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” He didn’t come to that conclusion by reading books; he got it by putting himself out there, in the wild, looking around him, and contemplating what he saw in the light of his powerful belief that God was in all things. He got it by “going to the mountains.”

John Muir (Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress).

Muir’s accounts of his walks on the wild side, into the swamps of Florida, the high sierras of California and among the glaciers of Alaska, made him a superstar in his day. That status enabled him and his allies to persuade politicians to create three large national parks in the High Sierras, which in turn led to the designation, in the early 1890s, of about 300 million square acres of US territory as national parks and forests – almost half a million square miles. That astonishing achievement, which some have called the crowning glory of American democracy, was followed by the creation, with Muir’s help, of the granddaddy of all environmental watchdogs, the Sierra Club, which is still a powerful influence today. If the Green movement had a patron saint, John Muir would probably be it.

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The most recent comprehensive Muir biography, A Passion for Nature, by American eco-historian Donald Worster, takes Muir off his pedestal and turns him into a flesh-and-blood man, filled with great contradictions and grand passions. It’s full of surprising insights, such as the fact that Muir’s skills as a woodsman were rather dubious. A close friend of Muir’s observed that he “knew less about camping than almost any man I have ever camped with.” And Worster writes: “Often [Muir] set off into the backcountry without sufficient gear, or left too late in the day for common sense. He had to endure long periods with little food.” Almost every picture of Muir in the wilderness shows him wearing a jacket, vest, and tie, as though he’d just stepped out of his office for a stroll in the back yard.

Muir’s journey began in Dunbar, Scotland where he was born in 1838, the third of eight children. Eleven years later, his domineering father uprooted the whole family, emigrated to the United States, and established a farmstead in Wisconsin. By the time Muir was in his twenties, he had acquired a college education of sorts and two great loves: botany and mechanics. His fascination with plants was encouraged by his professor’s wife, Jeanne Carr, with whom he maintained a lifelong friendship. His fascination with machines led him to construct an array of weird, labour-saving devices, like an alarm-clock bed, an unintentionally comic device that literally tossed its occupant out of bed at a given hour, or a Rube Goldbergian study desk that automatically selected and opened books at a specified time. These interests pulled him in opposite directions, and although the love of nature finally triumphed, he carried that tension with him to the end his days. In a sense, he bequeathed this tension to the environmental movement, which is still struggling to find a balance between human and natural needs.

In 1864, a couple of years after the American Civil War broke out, Muir and his brother Dan fled to Canada to avoid conscription. The evidence suggests that John, at least, came up through what is now the Holland Marsh, near Lake Simcoe, where he discovered a specimen of the rare Calypso orchid. Later that year Muir joined his brother in the Bighead Valley near Meaford. They found work with a local farmer, William Trout, making broom and rake handles at a mill Trout owned on the Bighead River a couple of miles upstream from town. Muir set up his alarm-clock bed in a small, windowless cabin near the mill, which he shared with two mill managers and two of the Trout children. For the next year and a half, he worked 18-hour days, inventing a special lathe that would turn out eight handles a minute.

John Muir lived in this cabin near Meaford between 1864 and 1866.
John Muir lived in this cabin near Meaford between 1864 and 1866.

Muir liked the Trout family, but he had less respect for the “hard-working, hard-drinking, stolid Canadians” he met in the area. This was a time when the grain market in the US was booming, thanks to the Civil War, and settlers couldn’t clear the forests fast enough to replace them with cash crops. “In vain is the glorious chart of God in nature spread out before them,” he wrote to Mrs. Carr. “So many acres chopped is their motto, so they grub away amid the smoke of magnificent forest trees.”

Muir’s sojourn in Canada led, over a century later, to the creation of a modest cottage industry in the area. The Canadian Friends of John Muir, one of several Muir clubs around the world, has worked closely with the local Meaford Museum, which contains Muir artifacts and the originals of letters Muir wrote to the Trouts. In the late ’90s, a grant enabled the Canadian Friends to conduct an archaeological study near the Bighead River where the cabin Muir lived in (see sketch, above) once stood. They turned up a few artifacts, but nothing that had obviously belonged to Muir. 

One of the founding members of the Canadian Friends, historian Scott Cameron, believes that Muir’s experiences in and around Meaford were crucial in shaping his ideas. He has evidence of a strong emotional bond between Muir and Harriet Trout, though from his letters to her, it seems the relationship, on the surface, at least, was somewhat strained. “I was peevish and irritable when living in the Hollow,” Muir wrote to Harriet from Indianapolis in January, 1867. “[I] said some cruel words that have often pained me since and do so more and more when I see that you are so warmhearted and good.”

The Trout Hollow trail, where you can hike past the site of Muir's cabin.
The Trout Hollow trail, where you can hike past the site of Muir’s cabin and the sawmill where he worked.

One night in late February 1866, Muir looked out to see the mill on fire. His stockpile of wooden handles, along with his notebooks, went up in flames and he was out of a job. Since the Civil War was over, he decided to return to the United States, this time to Indianapolis, where he landed another mill job. In March, 1867, while repairing a broken transmission belt, a freak accident almost cost him his eyesight. During the long convalescence, he came to a life-changing decision to abandon industrial work and set out to explore the wider world. Botany had finally trumped mechanics.

On March 28, 1868, Muir sailed through the Golden Gates and landed in San Francisco. Almost immediately, he set out by foot to visit Yosemite Valley, a place he’d dreamed about seeing for years. Muir was instantly enthralled by the sweetness of the air and the grandeur of the scenery, which seemed to him what the Garden of Eden must have been like before the Fall of Man. He concluded that he had found his true home here, and from then on, despite many trips further afield, to Alaska, Arizona, and ultimately around the world, California became his permanent home.

And yet the California John Muir fell in love with was not entirely pristine. Yosemite Valley had already been declared a protected park by President Lincoln the same year Muir had gone to Canada, and when Muir arrived in 1879, it was already a popular tourist destination, with a hotel and facilities for horseback riding and hikes into the surrounding mountains. In fact, mountain tourism was a booming industry. The travellers were mostly men and women of wealth who could afford the long, arduous journeys by boat and train and horseback. Worster’s book reminds us these privileged people were the original eco-tourists, drawn by the beauties of the place and concerned to see them preserved. It was surely their influence and connections, as much as the work of men like Muir, that drove the golden age when the major American national parks and forests were created.

The Yosemite Valley, California. Via Wikimedia Commons.
The Yosemite Valley, California. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Even then, the depredations of the modern world were clearly visible. In his travels, Muir had seen rivers clogged with the silt from mining operations, and tracts of wilderness laid bare by logging. He had no objection to logging or mining per se, but damned if he would let it happen in his sacred landscapes. He was quick to see the connection between destructive resource extraction and the decline in salmon stocks, already evident by the mid-1880s.

Paradoxically, although Muir is remembered as a crusader, activism was not in his nature. His main weapon was the written word, and despite his role in founding the Sierra Club, he took part in running it with some reluctance, not because he had any doubts about the cause, but because he knew his own temperament. The only serious environmental campaign he got involved in happened toward the end of his life, when he engaged in the struggle to stop a mega-dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley, north of Yosemite, intended to create a reservoir of water to supply the Bay Area. The fight divided the Sierra Club, and was ultimately lost shortly before Muir’s death in 1914. The dam was built in the 1920s, but as anyone familiar with the environmental movement knows, there are no absolute wins or losses in such struggles – only lessons learned and incremental advances and retreats. Muir would be delighted to know that there is now a powerful movement in California to tear down the Hetch Hetchy dam and restore the valley to something resembling its original splendour.

In the end, Muir was less an eco-warrior than he was a spokesman for nature. He believed that nature existed for the use and pleasure of all species, including humans. It’s a point of view that is still at odds with those who believe that nature is there to be exploited for human development, and with those who believe people should be excluded from wild places altogether. But his legacy was gigantic. Muir was, Worster concludes, “an eloquent prophet of a new world that looked to nature for its standard and inspiration. Looking back at the trail he blazed, we must wonder how far we have yet to go.”

The Meaford Museum is commemorating the 150th anniversary of Muir’s time in the region with events this year and next.