Saturday, December 3, 2011

John Muir

As I was browsing through The Magic Catalog of Gutenberg E-Books on my Kindle for Christmas books to download, I came across the name 'John Muir'.

John Muir, 1912, courtesy of Wikipedia

I'm embarrassed to say I've lived in California for almost twenty years and the only thing I knew about him is that he was some sort of naturalist who had national parks and trails named after him.

I probably would have left it at that except that the title of one of his books The Story of My Boyhood and Youth caught my attention. It couldn't hurt to find out what inspired a naturalist as a boy and it didn't cost a thing so I downloaded it and started reading.

I was surprised to find he was originally from Scotland and even more so that I could hardly put the book down! Here are a couple excerpts:

With red-blooded playmates, wild as myself, I loved to wander in the fields to hear the birds sing, and along the seashore to gaze and wonder at the shells and seaweeds, eels and crabs in the pools among the rocks when the tide was low; and best of all to watch the waves in awful storms thundering on the black headlands and craggy ruins of the old Dunbar Castle when the sea and the sky, the waves and the clouds, were mingled together as one.
To me the best story of all was 'Llewellyn's Dog,' ... It so deeply interested and touched me and some of my classmates that we read it over and over with aching hearts, both in and out of school and shed bitter tears over the brave faithful dog ... We have to look far back to learn how great may be the capacity of a child's heart for sorrow and sympathy with animals as well as with human friends and neighbors.
One of our best playgrounds was the famous old Dunbar Castle, to which King Edward fled after his defeat at Bannockburn [I believe it's the battle featured in the movie Braveheart]. It was built more than a thousand years ago, and though we knew little of its history, we had heard many mysterious stories of the battles fought about its walls, and firmly believed that every bone we found in the ruins belonged to an ancient warrior. We tried to see who could climb highest on the crumbling peaks and crags, and took chances that no cautious mountaineer would try. That I did not fall and finish my rock-scrambling in those adventurous boyhood days seems now a reasonable wonder.

Among our best games were running, jumping, wrestling, and scrambling. I was so proud of my skill as a climber that when I first heard of hell from a servant girl who loved to tell its horrors and warn us that if we did anything wrong we would be cast into it, I always insisted that I could climb out of it. I imagined it was only a sooty pit with stone walls like those of the castle, I felt sure there must be chinks and cracks in the masonry for fingers and tows. Anyhow the terrors of the horrible place seldom lasted long beyond the telling; for natural faith casts out fear.

I read a bit of the book to my husband today who is interested in reading it himself now. Wikipedia says of him: Because of the spiritual quality and enthusiasm toward nature expressed in his writings, he was able to inspire readers, including presidents and congressmen, to take action to help preserve large nature areas.

As I read about his hands-on boyhood, I couldn't help but wonder what he would think of park rangers telling our children that if everyone took a stick there would be "no more sticks". I wonder if that's what he really envisioned with his preservation efforts.

I look forward to reading his writings on the Sierra Nevada Mountains, an area we have yet to visit, and being inspired to personally explore them, freely, with our kids some day.

1 comment:

  1. "no more sticks" reminds me of "no more petrified wood" warnings prolific in the petrified forest... they even posted warnings that they might search your car before you leave!

    I'm so glad you linked to the Muir book. I've read several naturalists' books in the last couple of years that have totally made me want to be one myself!