“Wildness was ever sounding in our ears, and Nature saw to it that besides school lessons and church lessons some of her own lessons should be learned, perhaps with a view to the time when we should be called to wander in wildness to our heart’s content.” (p. 28)
Having just returned from a family vacation in the Eastern Sierras and Yosemite, I thought it would be appropriate to write about the education of one of my favorite people . . .
John Muir had a rough and tumble boyhood growing up in the strict Calvinist community of Dunbar, Scotland. He and the other boys played soldier like their heroes William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. To be a good fighter was their highest ambition, but the boys also found amusement roaming the seashore and countryside, climbing walls and trees looking for birds’ nests, playing with toy boats, competing in running and wrestling matches, and experimenting with gunpowder and homemade guns.
John started grammar school at the age of 3 but his grandfather had already taught him a few letters. He progressed through a series of readers featuring heroic stories and poems, and remembered the sense of pride he felt in moving up to the next level. But this was not as important as maintaining a reputation for toughness:
“After attaining the manly, belligerent age of five or six years, very few of my schooldays passed without a fist fight, and half a dozen was no uncommon number. When any classmate of our own age questioned our rank and standing as fighters, we always made haste to settle the matter at a quiet place at the Davel Brae. To be a ‘gude fechter’ was our highest ambition, our dearest aim in life in or out of school. To be a good scholar was a secondary consideration, though we tried hard to hold high places in our classes and gloried in being Dux.” (p. 16)
At the age of seven or eight, John moved up to grammar school where he had three lessons each in Latin, French and English every day. The pupils also covered spelling, history, arithmetic and geography in the form of memorization and thrashings if they failed to perform. In addition to his schoolwork, John’s father made him memorize so many Bible verses that by the time he was eleven, he had memorized three fourths of the Old Testament and all of the New Testament.
Reflecting on his boyhood, John did not regret his tough experiences: “All these various thrashings, however, were admirably influential in developing not only our memory but fortitude as well. For if we did not endure our school punishments and fighting pains without flinching and making faces, we were mocked on the playground, and public opinion on a Scotch playground was a powerful agent in controlling behavior; therefore we at length managed to keep our features in smooth repose while enduring pain that would try anybody but an American Indian.” (p. 19)
At the age of eleven, John was overjoyed to learn that he would be sailing to America with his father and two of his siblings to start a new life. After finding land in Wisconsin and setting up a rudimentary house, his father sent for the rest of the family to join them.
John was in raptures over his new home: “This sudden plash into pure wilderness – baptism in Nature’s warm heart – how utterly happy it made us! Nature streaming into us, wooingly teaching her wonderful glowing lessons, so unlike the dismal grammar ashes and cinders so long thrashed into us. Here without knowing it we were still at school; every wild lesson a love lesson, not whipped but charmed into us.” (p. 36)
The country may have been beautiful, but the work of setting up a homestead and clearing fields was backbreaking; there was no more time for school. As the oldest son, John worked 16-17 hour days plowing, splitting rails, caring for animals, building and digging. His father made him chip away stone in a 90 ft deep well for months. At times he almost died from “choke damp” in the process, but once his father put him down in the well in the morning he would not bring him up again until the day’s work was finished.
John’s father grew increasingly religious and strict, ruling his family with an iron fist. He would only allow his children to read religious books, so John had to secretly borrow books from the neighbors. In this way, he was able to read Sir Walter Scott’s novels, Shakespeare, Milton, Cowper and others. Eventually, John convinced his father to buy a copy of Plutarch’s Lives, but he was only allowed 5 to 10 minutes of reading after family worship time before he was ordered to bed.
In desperation for some time to himself, John learned to wake at 1 am so that he could work in the cellar workshop inventing water wheels, door locks and latches, thermometers, hygrometers, pyrometers, clocks, a barometer, horse feeder, alarm clock and a self-setting sawmill.
He also yearned to complete his education. He claimed not to have ever really understood the arithmetic he learned in Scotland, though he learned the rules by heart: “But when I was about fifteen or sixteen years of age, I began to grow hungry for real knowledge, and persuaded father, who was willing enough to have me study provided my farm work was kept up, to buy me a higher arithmetic. Beginning at the beginning, in one summer I easily finished it without assistance, the short intervals between the end of dinner and the afternoon start for the harvest-and-hay-fields, accomplishing more without a teacher in a few scraps of time than in years in school before my mind was ready for such work.” (p. 134)
John’s gentle mother tried to be obedient to her husband but she sometimes contrived to save her son from a thrashing, and she pursued her own interests in drawing, painting and writing poetry in secret because her husband considered such things frivolous and sinful. She took long walks in the woods with John hunting for berries. It must have been a welcome relief from the oppression at home.
In those days, boys were not emancipated from their fathers until the age of 21 and John’s father kept him working hard right up to that fateful birthday. As soon as he was able, John left his father’s home, never to return. As his siblings grew up and married, finding homes of their own, John visited them and his mother, but he never saw his father again.
After attaining freedom, his first step was to exhibit his clocks and thermometer at the Wisconsin State Fair, which earned him enough recognition and acclaim to find various jobs. With this money, he put himself through four years of University at Madison. Here he picked his own course of study, selecting classes in chemistry, physics, math, Greek/Latin, botany and geology.
After college, he used his mechanical skills working in two different factories, but he was restless, and felt that perhaps he was in the wrong place. After an accident temporarily blinded him in one eye, it became clear to him that his greatest regret would be missing the beauty of nature. When his vision returned, he promptly left his job and headed out in pursuit of wilderness.
From there, John Muir’s legacy begins. His observations and travels filled eleven books, which continue to inspire people around the world, and his political activism was critical to the creation of Yosemite and other National Parks.
His childhood was undoubtedly tough, and perhaps that helped John become the person he was, but he was gentler with his own children. He taught them to love plants, animals and people. He thought “More wide knowledge, less arithmetic and grammar, keeps the heart alive.” (p. 97 Wadsworth)
I labeled the quotes above with the page numbers I found them in John Muir’s autobiography The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, published by Sierra Club Books in San Francisco, 1988.
The last quote was found in Ginger Wadsworth’s book John Muir: Wilderness Protector, published by Lerner Publications Company in Minneapolis, 1992.