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Book of the month: Muir and More

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Yosemite Valley by John Muir.

A naturalist, environmental philosopher and author, John Muir was one of our most influential and outspoken proponents of wilderness conservation. His books, essays and letters have been read by millions and helped create a profound and lasting desire to protect our natural environments. He wrote twelve books in total, eight that were published during his lifetime and four that were published posthumously.

During the last few weeks we've been busy converting four of these into ebooks – Our National Parks, Steep Trails, The Mountains of California and Travels in Alaska – to preserve his legacy so that they can be shared and read by future generations. 

In Muir and More, author Ronald Turnbull writes about the man and his legacy while exploring two very different John Muir walks: California’s John Muir Trail and East Lothian’s John Muir Way. This month, with every sale of the book, we'll give away a copy of one of our other beautiful Millrace titles, A Measure of Munros.

In this extract, Ronald opens a window into Muir's early life ...

If you want your offspring to grow into a really interesting person, one way is to give them a really interesting name—Tallulah Bankhead, or Oliver Wendell Holmes, or Theodore Roosevelt. But by the time Daniel Muir had that one worked out, the kid was called John and that was that. The other way, though, is a really interesting and unusual childhood. John Muir’s childhood was interesting and unusual. Some of it was also enjoyable. The playground fights between streeties and shories— town kids and kids from the fishing community. The running wild in the Lammermuir Hills. The Dunbar shoreline with the dulse seaweed and the rock pools and the Bass Rock against the silver skyline. Muir loved
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.

Some of it, on the other hand, was not enjoyable. The silent mealtimes. The nightly beatings. The backup beatings from the village schoolmaster. The reading and learning by heart of the whole of the New Testament and 75 per cent of the Old. (The 25 per cent left out would include the ‘Song of Solomon’, which is lyrical and slightly sexy.) The not reading of anything else at all.

Thirty years later, John Muir had a wild time on Mount Shasta, an ice-covered volcano only slightly lower than Mount Whitney and, being 300 miles further north, a much more serious mountain. Trapped on the summit in a blizzard, in his shirtsleeves, Muir spent the night warming himself at a volcanic fumarole. He wrote what was presumably a self-deprecating letter about his discomforts and the tough job of being a pretty successful outdoor writer. His Dad’s reply has survived.

‘If it had not been for God’s boundless mercy you would have been cut off in the midst of your folly.’ Daniel Muir doesn’t say so, but one gets the impression that God’s judgement and mercy wouldn’t have been Daniel’s, if it had been Daniel deciding life or death on Mount Shasta, God sitting at home in Wisconsin and getting the letter about it afterwards. As for the outdoor writing: ‘And the best and soonest way of getting quit of the writing and publishing your book is to burn it, and then it will do no more harm either to you or others.’

Dunbar is a handsome town built of Old Red Sandstone with pantiled roofs. In its high street, a bronze boy Muir gazes rapturously upwards at the Christmas lights. Muir is East Lothian’s man of the millennium; East Lothian’s John Muir Way is in direct competition with the same-named Trail in California’s Sierra Nevada.

On a Tuesday morning in December, I’d expected the Muir Birthplace cottage to be bleak. Actually, until I checked, I’d expected it to be shut. But open it was, and full of schoolchildren with clipboards and a photocopied project. Boisterous in their blue jerseys, not one of them (we believe and hope) bore the scars of a nightly parental flogging. But neither did they have young Johnnie’s total enthusiasm for the natural world.

‘This to me was a wonderful discovery,’ Muir writes of a field mouse and her hairless pink young found in the foot of a corn stook. ‘No hunter could have been more excited on discovering a bear and her cubs in a wilderness den.’

‘Ooh, that’s mingin!’ exclaimed one small school-girl of today at their resin reproduction.

Mounted on orange card is a bedraggled feather, the remains of a genuine John Muir pen. The Birthplace Trust has yet to determine the species of its pen. For preference, Muir gathered his quills from the wild, and dipped if possible an eagle in his ink. That’s when he was using ink. One impassioned letter to Mrs Professor Ezra Carr was written in sequoia sap.

A small glass screen is mounted on one wall, with a step below for small children. Here, says the sign, see the house where John lived from the age of three until he left Scotland. But instead of a video display, the screen is actually a small window, across the narrow alley, to the wind-scoured stone wall of the next-door house a metre away. (Austere Presbyterians make effective entrepreneurs, and Muir Senior expanded his premises and moved his family across.)

But the room’s next corner has a genuine video screen, where I can sit aloof from the school kids and watch the great Yosemite waterfall, then see Half Dome, and the Merced River sparkling among its stones. And recall those trees almost as tall as wind turbines, that great bare granite. And here’s a good resting place, the rucksack dumped in the reception area downstairs, Muir’s pen a few feet away, the week’s Muir quote on the wall reminding that: ‘Cold writing is a feeble medium for heart-hot ideas.’ The walls around me recapitulate the story I’d been told two months before, below those tall Sierra pines, on the trail to Tuolumne Meadow.

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