I relearned an important lesson on Tuesday, March 9 this year. Ruth and I were visiting the John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez, CA. We spoke at length to a ranger named Eric who was very informed about John Muir and the house where he lived for 25 years. When I’m in this situation and want to learn more, I ask the well-prepared ranger or authoritative person I am speaking to if there is a book he or she might recommend that I read about the subject. Eric said I should read A Passion for Nature by Donald Worster.
Later that day I tracked this book down and ordered it. A Passion for Nature is one of those books that I can’t put down. It was published by the Oxford University Press in 2008. I have only read a little over 100 pages of it and have already learned a lot about John Muir, one of the unheralded founders of our National Park Service. He was largely responsible for Yosemite National Park and others being part of the system. I have not yet gotten to the part of the book that talks about this.
What I have read so far is about John Muir’s early life. I did not know that he was born in Scotland. Muir grew up in a town called Dunbar that was far more important when he lived there. I had a hard time finding out where it is because it has receded in stature since he lived there. Dunbar is not too far from Edinburgh on Scotland’s eastern shore. This town is just south of the entrance to the Firth of Forth. At the time Glasgow was a far more important place than Edinburgh, and a Scotsman named James Watt was making great improvements to the steam engine. I thought James Watt was an American. John Muir was the 3rd oldest of 8 children born to Daniel and Ann. Seven of the 8 were born in Dunbar and all survived to become adults, which was unusual in this era. When John was 11, his father decided that the family needed to emigrate to the United States.
The unspoken message at this point in the book is that parents have far more influence on their children than the children realize. As Worster says. “…Ann is almost invisible in Muir’s autobiography…in contrast to her husband”. Daniel had far more influence on his son than either of them realized. They were not much alike and had conflicts. Worster talks about Daniel’s “…conservative approach to fatherhood.” Daniel was a successful grain merchant who shocked the family when he announced that they were moving to the new United States. Muir is described as “..a quarrelsome little rowdy”. One of the many significant passions that father and son shared was a deep pride in growing things. Daniel loved his garden. John Muir later in life became a noted and passionate botanist who loved to grow and crossbreed fruit trees, but early on he seemed to be far more influenced by the Scottish poet Robert Burns than his father who built his own violin and learned to play it well. Daniel bonded with neighbors and played old Scottish airs.
Shortly after they landed in the United States the Muir family traveled to Wisconsin, where they settled. Daniel became a frontier farmer. John Muir eventually got educated and tried to attend the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Disappointing his father, he only lasted for 2 terms.
to be continued probably.