Skip to content

Feeling very American at John Muir’s birthplace

Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean. – John Muir

The Muirs must have been a pretty sorry sight when they first arrived in New York in 1849. The father Daniel, two young girls, and a young boy carried their belongings off the ship that had left Glasgow six weeks earlier. And the 11-year-old son, John, may have been the most bedraggled of the lot. Tall, skinny, in old clothes, his sharp, gray eyes observing everything. And, if anyone asked him a question, his Scottish brogue would have clouded this shy boy’s answer. He probably watched everything keenly during the family’s next leg of the journey to Marquette County, Wisconsin: the oak trees, the meadows, the sunflowers, fields of wheat, and water lilies in the glacial lakes. His mother and younger siblings had been left behind in Dunbar, awaiting word to travel to the New World.

In 2011, my companions and I drove into the town of Dunbar, southeast of Edinburgh. This American was looking for John Muir’s birthplace. Identified with the American conservation ethic and a co-founder of the Sierra Club, Muir is an icon in the United States, but his Scottish origins were not well known to me. Driving along Dunbar’s main street, the American flag gave the site away.

The four-story stone townhouse on High Steet was quite humble. Father Daniel had been a “meal dealer” and John’s mother Ann was Daniel’s second wife. John was born in 1838, the third of eight children, His father harshly beat him for any infraction of family rules and any activity not based on Biblical teachings. John was forced to recite long passages from the Old and New Testaments.

Grandfather Gilrye, John Muir’s mother’s father, had first introduced his young grandson to the wonders of nature in walks throughout Dunbar. When grandpa wasn’t available, John would escape out of his second story bedroom window, letting himself down by rope to the street. Returning home meant more lashings from his father.

But even the Church of Scotland was not strict enough for Daniel Muir. Selling off the grain and feed business he had inherited from his first wife, Daniel took the family to America, first landing in New York and then on to the “oak openings” (oak trees and prairie) of central Wisconsin. Their Fountain Lake Farm is now a National Historic Landmark.

In 1863, John followed his brother Daniel into Canada to avoid getting drafted into America’s Civil War. John then returned to the United States, worked several jobs, and started writing. Throughout his many travels and illustrated books and articles, he became an eminent voice of nature and conservation.

He championed the protection of wild places, but mainly as of value to white men, using wilderness as an escape. That value of escape prompted Muir to advocate clearing natural spaces of indigenous peoples.  One outcome of that viewpoint we see today is the low number of people of color that visit our national parks. As Erin Monahan writes, Muir’s racism complicates his legacy.

“’Separate the art from the artist.’ ‘Everybody is complicated.’ ‘They were a product of their time.’ ‘He was a complicated guy.’ ‘It’s complicated.’ These comments come up frequently when we talk about the truth of those who our society has lauded and held in high esteem as heroes or geniuses. These are all white-centering sentiments that are triggered by white fragility. We see this trend of protecting men like John Muir, Louis C.K., or Harvey Weinstein, or Edward Abbey, or Charles Bukowski, to name only a few . . .” –from the essay “Stop Glorifying John Muir”

Muir was the first president of the Sierra Club, founded in 1892 by a group of Californians in San Francisco. Former Sierra Club President Michael Brune wrote,

“The Sierra Club was basically a mountaineering club for middle and upper-class white people who worked to preserve the wilderness they hiked through—    wilderness that had begun to need protection only a few decades earlier, when white settlers violently displaced the indigenous people who had lived on and taken care of the land for thousands of years.”

John Muir was also famous for his minimalist preparation for his trips into the wild. Muir wrote, “I rolled up some bread [dried French, sourdough, or soda] and tea in a pair of blankets with some sugar and a tin cup and set off.” He never hunted or fished, but he did forage for wild foods such as berries, flower nectar, pine nuts, and even pine sap. Perhaps Muir’s austere upbringing informed his diet of self-denial. In Dunbar, breakfast was typically oatmeal porridge with milk or treacle (a sugar syrup), mutton and vegetable broth at noon, and boiled potatoes, barley scones and tea again for supper. “We were always hungry,” Muir wrote. “About as hungry after as before meals.” Comparing Teddy Roosevelt (5’ 10”) and Muir in the 1903 Yosemite photo, I’d say Muir was about 6 feet tall. According to Muir biographer William O. Douglas, the most John Muir ever weighed was 148 pounds.

Muir’s father Daniel had also had a harsh beginning. His parents died in England when he was a baby, and he was taken in by an older sister in Scotland to work as a relative’s servant on their farm. Were Daniel Muir and John Muir indeed “men of their time” and valued for their achievements? Certainly. Is it worth challenging the conventions regarding their missteps and mistreatment of fellow human beings? Absolutely. As I made my way up and down the stairs in that humble home in Dunbar and looked out at the thrashing North Sea, I could certainly understand the pull of wild places. John Muir wrote,

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 pool 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.

The Story of My Boyhood and Youth

Muir continued writing and traveling throughout the world even as he settled in northern California with his wife Louisa, helping to manage her family’s 2,600-acre fruit farm. That farm, his gravesite, an old adobe,* orchards, and the family mansion are all now public sites. California and Scotland celebrate John Muir Day on April 21, his birthday. The Sierra Club also operates treks throughout Scotland.

* As of June 2021, California’s Vicente Martinez Adobe, a two-story ranch house built in 1849, is closed due to earthquake stabilization work. The Muir-Strentzel mansion remains open.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *