Gateway to the Classics: Stickeen by John Muir
Stickeen by  John Muir

Front Matter

John Muir

John Muir was born April 21, 1838, at Dunbar, Scotland, about twenty-five miles from Edinburgh. He was the third child and eldest son of Daniel and Anne (Gilrye) Muir. In his Story of My Boyhood and Youth  he has given a vivid account of his childhood there on the shore of the North Sea,—of his schooling and the schoolboy fights which were so common as to seem almost a regular part of the curriculum, of rambles in the woods and along the shore, and deeds of daring known as "scootchers" in which the boys vied with one another in the most reckless performances.

John Muir was born with even more than the usual boy's love of wildness, and when, at the age of eleven, his father emigrated to America, he looked forward with eagerness to the new life in the American forests. It was in Wisconsin that Daniel Muir settled, in Marquette County, about a dozen miles north of Portage, the nearest town, and there he cleared the land for a farm, which became the family home for eight years, at the end of which time he moved four or five miles to the eastward and cleared another farm there. The boy delighted in the birds and other wild creatures of the woods and waters, but he had little time for roaming, for his father believed in hard work for himself and others, and, indeed, hard work was a necessity in subduing the wilderness. John was set at ploughing when he was only twelve years old, and for many years he did most of the ploughing required on the farm. He split rails for fences, too, like Abraham Lincoln, and came to be able to split a hundred oak rails in a day. By the time he was sixteen he led all the hired men on the farm in mowing and cradling.

When he was about fifteen he began to feel a hunger for knowledge. He borrowed books of the neighbors and saved up and bough some for himself. He read till bedtime, which came all too soon after supper, and as much longer as he could. His father, who, though a kind-hearted man, was a strict disciplinarian and as an old-fashioned Calvinist believed that the only knowledge good for man was contained in the Bible, insisted on his going to bed with the rest of the family, but once unwarily added: "If you will  read, get up in the morning and read. You may get up in the morning as early as you like." After that early rising was the order of the boy's day, much to the dismay of the father. In these early morning hours he worked on various ingenious machines of his own invention,—such as a wooden clock to tip one out of bed when the time for rising came,—and after he had accumulated a number of these, he followed the advice of a neighbor and took them to the State Fair at Madison, where they attracted much attention. He was then twenty-two years old. At Madison he received and accepted an offer of work in a machine-shop at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, but after a short time there he returned to Madison to work his way through the State University. This he accomplished by harvesting and teaching and in other ways.

He spent four years at the University, but did not take the regular course, specializing instead in chemistry, mathematics, physics, botany, and geology, with a little Latin and Greek, and when he left it, it was, as he expressed it, "only leaving one University for another, the Wisconsin University for the University of the Wilderness." He was, indeed, always learning, and only a few years before his death, in filling out a paper of biographical information, he described himself as a "student."

Students, like other people, must be fed and clothed, and John Muir's mechanical ingenuity was soon turned to account to earn him a living. From 1865 to 1867 he was employed in a woodworking factory at Trout's Mills, near Medford, Ontario, on the shore of the Georgian Bay of Lake Huron, but all this while his heart was set on travel and natural science, and in 1866, in a letter to a botanist friend, he exclaimed, "How intensely I desire to be a Humboldt!" The job that started him on his career came in March, 1867, in the form of a serious accident to one of his eyes from an implement in his own hand. This forced him to stop work for a time. During his convalescence he went to Indianapolis, where he had lived for a year or so after leaving college, and thence he started out in June on a botanizing trip to Illinois and Wisconsin. He returned to Indianapolis in August, but early in September began a long walking trip, which took him through Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida. In Florida he was seized with a severe attack of malarial fever, and while recovering, he visited Cuba, where he spent four weeks in January and February, 1868. Still desiring to be a Humboldt, he had planned an exploration of the upper waters of the Amazon, but his weakened condition forbade, and he took the less hazardous trip from Cuba to California, crossing the Isthmus by rail and taking ship to San Fransicso, where he arrived in April. Thence he proceeded on foot to the Yosemite, there to find his life work and the home of his spirit, though it was not till the following year that he took up his residence there.

To form any conception of what the Yosemite Valley and the high Sierra above it meant to John Muir, the reader must go to his books. No geologist and botanist who is also a naturalist, can appreciate it fully. Here at Yosemite Muir spent five whole years and five more summers. At first he earned his living superintending a flock of sheep, then he built a sawmill and worked it, sawing fallen trees only, for he loved the forest too dearly to dismember it. But his wants were few. On a little bread and a little tea he would make long foot journeys alone over the Sierra, sometimes for weeks at a time without returning to his base. He slept out without a tent where night found him, and it is related that once, over-taken by a sudden snowstorm, he made a bed in a drift and lived there for three days like a bear in his den, with only a few crackers, some cheese, and, by luck, a bit of bacon for sustenance.

At first he devoted himself cheifly to botany, but the great problem of the geological formation of the valley forced itself upon his attention and soon became his principal study. On one glorious day, when he found a living glacier among the surrounding mountains, he realized that the problem was solved. It was some time before he succeeded in convincing the professional geologists that Yosemite had been formed by glacial action, but the day came when they all admitted it. Agassiz, famous for his work in proving the existence of the vast continental glaciars, said, "No man living understands glacial action in the formation of scenery as that young Muir in California."

Many well-known men, philosophers and scientists and poets, visited John Muir at Yosemite. Agassiz, to Muir's disappointment, was unable to go there when he visited California. Emerson came, and the two men delighted in each other's company, though it was a source of lasting regret to Muir that Emerson's companions would not allow the philosopher, who was then old and in delicate health, to sleep in the forest.

From 1876 to 1878 Muir was a member of an exploring party on the geodetic survey of the Great Basin, and in 1879 he made the first of his trips to Alaska, the one in which he discovered the huge glacier which is now known by his name. It was on his second visit to Alaska, in the following year, that the incident occurred which is related in his story of Stickeen.  He visited the glaciers of Alaska again in 1890, and in 1899 he was a member of the Harriman Expedition, which explored the coast of Alaska, the Aleutian Islands, and Behring Sea. Mr. John Burroughs and other noted men were also of the Harriman expedition, which was financed and conducted by Mr. E. H. Harriman, the "railroad king." Meanwhile, in 1881, John Muir had accompanied in the capacity of botanist the Corwin expedition through the Behring Sea and the Arctic explorer De Long and his ship the Jeannette. In 1880 he had married Louise, the daughter of Dr. John Strenzel, of California, and the ranch at Martinez, California, which she inherited was his home for many years before his death.

John Muir made occasional trips to the Eastern States, and in 1893 he went to Europe, visiting his birthplace in Scotland and treveling through the Alps and Norway. In 1897 he was a member of the United States Forest Commission. He went around the world in 1903-04, traveling in Russia, Siberia, Manchuria, india, Australia, and New Zealand, and he visited South America in 1911 and South Africa in 1911-12. These extensive travels were chiefly for the study of the trees of these countries. When he was not traveling, Mr. Muir devoted himself during these later years to the management of his fruit ranch at Martinez and to his writing. His first book, The Mountains of California, was published in 1894, and this was followed by Our National Parks  in 1901, Stickeen  in 1909, My First Summer in the Sierra  in 1911, The Yosemite  in 1912, and The Story of My Boyhood and Youth  in 1913. A posthumous volume, Travels in Alaska, was published in 1915. He was active till within a short time of his death, and among the last of his activities was the losing fight he conducted against the alienation of the Hetch-Hetchy Valley from the Yosemite National Park. The loss of this battle and the delivery of that beautiful valley to form a part of San Francisco's water-system was a great blow to him, physically as well as in spirit. He caught a severe cold while away from home, and was taken to Los Angeles, where his malady developed into pneumonia, from which he died, December 24, 1914.

John Muir will always rank as one of the greatest of American writers on nature. He has been called the Thoreau of the West, and he has been likened to John Burroughs, but he was neither a Thoreau nor a Burroughs. He was very different from either of those two men, a sincere and whole-souled love of nature being about all he had in common with them. In Muir this love of nature took the form of a high and reverent enthusiasm. His father was a religious enthusiast of the old Scotch Presbyterian type. It was a stern and rather gloomy enthusiasm for the most part with him, though a wonderful aurora awoke him to exclamations on the glory of God. The son had all the enthusiasm, and more, with none of the gloom of the traditional Scottish theology. He was intensely religious, but his view of life was broadened by his sceintific education and interests, and his temperament was buoyant.

This enthusiasm of John Muir's as he writes of the mountains and forests and glaciers which he loves is catching and is an important element in the charm of his books. It is not all, however. There is sincerity besides, and keenness of perception, an eye for color and form, an ear for the elemental sounds of nature, a faculty for desciption. He was not an easy writer, we are told. He labored over his literary work, revising and polishing till it suited him, but the reader does not suspect this, for his sentences seem always to flow as freely as the streams run down his mountain valleys.

Delightful as he was, and is, as a writer, Mr. Muir was, if anything, still more delightful in conversation. He had the simplicity which belongs to men who have lived much alone out of doors, and his enthusiastic habit of mind carried him along in a stream of talk which his hearers were generally only too glad to allow to become a monologue. He could entertain a roomful of strangers with accounts of his mountaineering adventures with perfect simplicity and with no more self-consciousness than one would feel in a private conversation with a friend or two by one's own fireside. In more intimate relations he was a "born tease," and he delighted to take his friends "down a peg" when he thought it advisable, all with the greatest good humor. In his Story of My Boyhood and Youth  he tells how, at the age of two and a half, he once bit his tongue severely, and when, in his sleep, he had swallowed the wad of medicated cotton the doctor had pushed into his mouth, he imagined he had swallowed th tongue too. Afterwards, when his sisters thought he was talking too much, they would remind him of the incident and express regret that he had not swallowed at least half of that long tongue of his when he was little. Few, however, who were privileged to hear his conversation after he had grown up would have echoed that sentiment, though it cannot be denied that his tongue was always a long one, and sharp too at times.

John Muir was early interested in birds and birds' nests, as, indeed, the other little Scotch boys were, and when he first found himself birds'-nesting in the woods of Wisconsin, he was "utterly happy." He never lost this interest, and one of his best essays—one of the most delightful bird-sketches in all literature—is his chapter on the water-ousel, or dipper, in The Mountains of California.  He made no deliberate study of birds, however, and, as Theodore Roosevelt has said, he paid little attention to them unless some unusual trait or habit attracted his notice. When President Roosevelt visited him at Yosemite and remarked on the thrushes which were singing all about them at the time, he found to his surprise that Muir had not even heard them and did not know to what species they belonged.

John Muir loved and respected all wild life. He bore no grudge even against venomous reptiles, and when he found a rattlesnake in his path, he walked round it and left it undisturbed in the enjoyment of its existence. In his view all the animals led happy lives. When he saw the great whales ploughing the Pacific, he thought of the joy they must feel as each beat of their mighty hearts sent the warm blood coursing through their bodies by the barrelful. With his feeling of comradeship with animals of all kinds he had no desire to take life. He was never a hunter nor a fisherman, and flesh-eating was distasteful to him. His books are full of the beauty and joy that he found in nature.

To communicate to his readers so much of the beauty and joy of life in the woods and on the mountains would have been service enough to his fellow men, but this was by no means all that John Muir's service to his country and the world. His discoveries in glacial geology were important contributions to science, and his successful work in the conservation of forests and scenery should make his name glorious among the Americans who love their country. It was he who saved the Big Trees of the General Grant National Park, and it was largely his work that the Yosemite National Park was established in 1890. He was one of the founders in 1892 of the Sierra Club, a potent influence in conservation, and was its president as long as he lived. He was also at the time of his death president of the Society for the Preservation of National Parks and vice-president of the California Associated Societies for the Conservation of Wild Life.

John Muir's love of wildness—and no man ever loved wild nature better—was no selfish passion. He hated the trivialities that many tourists take with them into the wilderness, but his written and spoken words were a constant invitation to all thoughtful persons to come into the mountains and see—come and see!

Stickeen  is one of the best dog stories ever written. It is not merely a story of adventure with a dog for hero. (Indeed, in a strict sense, the little dog is no great hero after all.) But it opens a window into the heart and soul of a dog, so that we can see how much like a man he is in some respects and can sympathize with him. It is a great thing, sympathy. Without it we cannot understand our fellow creatures, human or animal, and the more we have of understanding and sympathy, the richer are our lives. With sympathy and understanding we are never alone and lonely in this world so long as other living creatures are about us. If you feel inclined to think that any dog you know—or any person—is cold and heartless, or tiresome and uninteresting, remember Stickeen.

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