I was at the home of John Muir, one of my favorite modern historical figures whom I would file right next to Theodore Roosevelt. I was excited. Before me stood his Italiante Victorian mansion in the Alhambra Valley of Martinez, California. It was a tall boxy white house with palm trees in front. Behind it lay orchards and a giant sequoia. I thought I was coming to this National Park site the summer before, but I found myself at Muir Woods National Monument, a pocket of forest named after John Muir, instead. I was confused, for I couldn’t find his house, but now I was here. I made it!
I first came across the name John Muir on a small leather pocket-sized journal that had the overused quote on it, “The mountains are calling, and I must go.” I went on to learn a lot about him through the Ken Burns documentary: The National Parks. Later I couldn’t help but learn more about him at Yosemite National Park. My intrigue was sparked. I bought his book “A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf,” at the visitor center of the Big South Fork in East Tennessee, and then listened to a number of his books in audio. His eloquent descriptions of nature and his ability to engulf the reader (or listener in this case) in his words, removed me from my troubles and lulled me to sleep pleasantly many nights.
Upon reflection, I have found I esteem and value John Muir for primarily four reasons: his perspective, his contribution to conservation, his writings, and his simple intrigue. I thought before describing his home, it is worthwhile to explore what John Muir means to me, so I will unpack each of these reasons.
In regard to perspective, John Muir viewed nature in such a meaningful and profound way. No other person has been able to influence my view of nature and add such unique meaningful perspective as John Muir. He beheld great wonders of nature as “cathedrals,” spiritual, soul enriching places crafted by God, direct artistry by Him. The Yosemite Valley was perhaps his favorite of cathedrals and he advocated tirelessly for its preservation. “No temple made with hands can compare to the Yosemite,” he’d write. He believed these sacred places were means of healing and restoration for man. “They will kill care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free…” His sacred view of nature has helped me to approach nature in such a manner as to silence myself, step lightly with wonder, and appreciate the brushstrokes of the Creator.
In addition to his perspective on large areas as sacred temples and cathedrals, he also gave a great deal of thought to the small minor details in nature. He studied plants meticulously out of sheer joy and interest. He saw consistencies in design elements among even the most diverse of things, what he found to be trademarks of a common designer. He believed everything in nature was connected by this craftsmanship. His thrill of a small flower or treasure in a droplet of dew, has influenced my ability to find beauty, appreciate the small details, and look for those signatures of God even in the commonplace occurrences of nature. “Nowhere will you see the majestic operations of Nature more clearly revealed beside the frailest, most gentle and peaceful things.”
These perspectives of course are evident through his writing, and I value his writing beyond even these unique perspectives, for he writes intriguing and daring tales of adventure in all climates and terrains. He tells us about his thousand-mile walk from northern Kentucky to the Gulf of Mexico on foot, his days of pasturing in the Sierra Nevada, his trekking up glaciers in Alaska, and so much more. His writing is eloquent, clear, and descriptive. He is an excellent writer, a fine craftsman with his words. I also delight in his personification of the elements of nature. In a storm he once described trees as “excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship… No wonder the hills and groves were God’s first temples.” And when describing the winds, they were “singing in wild accord playing on every tree and rock, surging against the huge brows and domes and outstanding battlements.”
It was largely through his writing he was able to persuade efforts toward conservation. Whether through direct plea or exhibiting the value of nature through his wondrous descriptions, his goal was to get people out in nature and discover its value for themselves. Although not founded until two years after his death, John Muir is considered the father of the National Park Service because the principals of the park service were so profoundly rooted in Muir’s ideals and advocacy. Although his legacy runs through the whole National Park Service, Muir is most largely connected with California and with Yosemite National Park. He once guided Theodore Roosevelt on a famous camping trip in Yosemite. Camping beneath a giant sequoia, he convinced Roosevelt to preserve this national treasure as federal land. Without Muir, many of our national park treasures may have been lost to industry and manufacturing. Muir set the stage and started the conversation for the conservation of our public lands. He did so with such fervent passion, often most exhibited behind the pen.
Aside from his perspective, his writings, and his contributions to conservationism, I also am a fan of John Muir, because he is simply an intriguing individual. He once climbed up a tree in the middle of a storm to feel what the trees feel and write about it. He peered over Yosemite Falls to see what the waters see when they are about to fall. He camped in a graveyard on the moss, for there was nowhere else to go, and he tells us about it. I do not aspire to be like him in this regard. He is a little too much for my liking to model after. Even he himself advised people not to follow in his daring ways. He was self-aware and knew he was on the fringes of sanity, but this makes him all the more interesting to follow in writing. He takes people to places no one else will go.
So here I was at his home in California. How did such an eccentric man live at home? I thought. John Muir wasn’t always from California. His family was from Scotland. He immigrated with his family at age eleven and settled on a lot of land in northern Wisconsin. They toiled and formed that land into a farm. As a young man he moved to Indianapolis and was working in a factory until a metal blade punctured his cornea. Per doctor’s order, he remained blind-folded in a dark room for four weeks, dreaming and longing to see the beauty of the natural world. He thought his sight was gone, but it recovered, and Muir was a changed man. He adopted as he would call it, the life of a “tramp” traveling the nation from one pocket of wilderness to another. He wound up in California, and after extensive exploration, he married Luisa Strentzel. Together they started a family and inherited the house here in Martinez from her parents.
At this home he’d fully engage in agriculture, planting and harvesting in his orchards. Here he’d also write many books and articles and embark on more explorations, and here he would live up until his death on Christmas eve 1914.
Given that Muir was such a nature loving, versatile man, who often was found camping out in the wild, it is peculiar to imagine him in such a fine Victorian style mansion. But the inside was not overly lavish nor pompous. The well-versed park ranger led a small group of us on a tour. On the main floor in the dining-room he explained how Muir would often tell whimsical and colorful stories to children at the dinner table. One in particular, remembered by his children, was about a kangaroo who would carry a leprechaun around in her pouch. Oh how I wish that story was written down! Muir did not write down his childrens stories, except one about their dog Stickeen in Alaska.
When we proceeded to the second floor, there I saw the “Scribble Den,” his study, his desk where he penned all his famous works, and reached out to politicians and publishers and the public to save America’s wild lands. I nearly got goosebumps- knowing from this room came such influential writings.
Despite how satisfying it was to see the “Scribble Den,” perhaps the highlight of my visit was the plum orchard out back. The park ranger said, feel free to pick any of the fruit off the trees.”
What?! These trees were planted by John Muir himself! I can eat an actual John Muir Plum?! As I walked around the orchard, I read little placards about the plants. John Muir introduced us to new variations of fruit, cross bread and cultivated. I picked three plums and revelled in the novelty of such an experience.
Upon leaving the yard I examined the sequoia tree. Muir planted it over a hundred years from a sapling of the Sierra Nevada. To this day it still stands. From there I returned to the visitor center where I browsed the John Muir books for sale. I bought “The Story of My Boyhood and Youth,” which is a great and surprisingly at times, comical read; and a copy of his children’s story “Stickeen.” I also bought two post cards, the ones featuring Muir and Roosevelt standing at heights in front of Yosemite Falls. I’d write my parents and older brother and sister-in-law about my experience.
I often wish more people knew about John Muir and could approach nature and wild places with his perspective. I despise obnoxious music being blasted by fellow hikers or camping in a park amongst loud and rowdy drunkards, or seeing people littering our forests and defacing our rocks. If more people would approach nature like Muir, with reverence, curiosity, and sacred wonder, I think it would do them and everyone an immeasurable good. I certainly owe a debt of gratitude to Muir for the way he has shaped my view and appreciation of nature.
Read the previous entry “Whiskeytown and Shasta” here: Whiskeytown and Shasta – on the verge (joshthehodge.com)
Check out my book Canyonlands: my adventures in the national parks and the beautiful wild here: https://www.amazon.com/Canyonlands-adventures-National-Parks-beautiful/dp/1711397873