WHEN John Muir left home in
September, 1860, the political outlook of the country was far from hopeful.
The speeches and debates of Lincoln and Douglas had made clear to the
average citizen that some decisive action must soon be taken with respect to
slavery; that, as Lincoln had said in 1858, "either the opponents of slavery
will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind
shall rest in the belief that it is in course of ultimate extinction; or its
advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the
States, old as well as new - North as well as South." In May, 1860, Lincoln
was nominated for the Presidency by the Republican National Convention
assembled in Chicago, and was elected by an overwhelming popular vote the
following November. A few weeks earlier Governor W. H. Gist of South
Carolina had written a letter to each of the cotton States inviting their
cooperation in case South Carolina should resolve to secede. The replies
were favorable, and before Lincoln was inaugurated in March, 1861, at least
seven Southern States had adopted ordinances of secession.
Such were conditions in the
world beyond Hickory Hill farm when John Muir went forth with scrip and
purse to find his fortune. His purse contained nothing but Grandfather Gil-
rye's farewell gift of a gold sovereign and a few dollars which he had
earned by raising grain on a patch of abandoned ground. His scrip was the
strangest with which a lad ever went forth from the parental roof - two
large clocks whittled out of wood, and a thermometer made out of an old
washboard, all tied together in a bundle for convenient transportation on
his back. His brother David drove him to Pardeeyule, a place he had never
seen, though only nine miles distant from his home, and left him with his
queer bundle on the station platform. For an account of the sensation which
he immediately created with it in the little country town, and afterwards on
the train and in Madison, the reader is referred to the vivid closing
chapter of "My Boyhood and Youth."
Experience promptly disproved
his father's prediction that once out in the world he would soon meet with
severer taskmasters than he had known in the person of his father. On the
contrary, he met with marked kindness wherever he went, a fact which
warrants the inference that he possessed engaging personal qualities. As his
friends had anticipated, the originality and novelty of Muir's inventions
immediately opened all doors for him at the fair of the State Agricultural
Society in Madison. Three days before it opened a local newspaper, under the
caption of "An Ingenious Whittier," commented on his clocks and predicted
that few articles in the exhibit would attract as much attention as these
products of Mr. Muir's ingenuity.
During the preceding year the
Society had held its meeting and fair at Milwaukee and Lincoln delivered on
this occasion an address in which he set forth his conception of industrial
education among a free people. In the phrase "free labor" he embodied his
idea of contrast with the time when educated people did not value manual
skill because they scorned to perform manual labor, regarding it as the lot
of the uneducated. This divorce between education and creative toil, he
maintained, cannot be approved in a democracy. Curiously enough the Scotch
lad who the following year was to come under the notice of the same
Agricultural Society through products of his manual skill might almost have
stood as a concrete illustration of the following passage in Lincoln's
address. "Free labor," he said, "argues that as the Author of man makes
every individual with one head and one pair of hands, it was probably
intended that heads and hands should cooperate as friends, and that that
particular head should direct and control that pair of hands. As each man
has one mouth to be fed and one pair of hands to furnish food, it was
probably intended that that particular pair of hands should feed that
particular mouth, that each head is the natural guardian, director and
protector of the hands and mouth inseparably connected with it: and that
being so, every head should be cultivated and improved by whatever will add
to its capacity for performing its charge. In one word, free labor insists
on universal education."
John had found a novel way of
making his hands serve his head educationally and vice versa. His exhibition
of the educational use to which he had been accustomed to put his clocks by
harnessing them to his bed brought him the acquaintanceship of Mrs. Jeanne
C. Carr, wife of Professor Ezra Slocum Carr, then Professor of Natural
Science and of Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin. She was a native of
Vermont, an uncommonly gifted woman, and passionately devoted to the study
of plants. The Secretary of the State Agricultural Society, desiring to
secure a premium for Muir's inventions, asked Mrs. Carr to report them to
the proper committee, since they were not easy to classify under the
Society's specifications. She, therefore, accompanied the Secretary to a
part of the grounds where John Muir was engaged in exhibiting a practicable
cooperative relation between brains and beds. An improvised bedstead,
covered with a few blankets, was mysteriously connected with a home-made
wooden clock. The latter, when set for a desired rising time, would tilt up
the bed and set the sleeper on his feet upon the footboard. To aid him in
his demonstrations Muir had secured the enthusiastic assistance of two small
boys, one of them the son of James Davie Butler, Professor of Greek in the
University of Wisconsin, and the other a son of Mrs. Carr. The lads
pretended to be asleep until the contrivance set them on their feet amid the
cheers of the spectators who were attracted quite as much by the young
inventor's artless and humorously enthusiastic explanations as by the
novelty of the mechanism. When some time later Professor Carr reported at
home Muir's attendance upon his lectures at the University the two lads,
hoping for a course of jack-knife studies, eagerly invited their ingenious
friend to their respective homes where he became a frequent and much
The manner in which Muir
became a student at the University of Wisconsin a few months after the close
of the fair need not be retold here, since he has done it himself in his
published memoirs. The intervening months were spent at Prairie du Chien
whither he went at the invitation of a Mr. Wirad who offered him employment
in his machine-shop. The opportunity proved a disappointment, though his
intercourse with the Pelton family at the Mondell House, where he gave
service for his board, became the starting-point of a lifelong friendship,
not without profit to the art of letters as will appear later. In short,
John was not to win success at a canter. This was impressed upon him even
during the first exciting weeks in Madison. A youth whose father had refused
to promise assistance in need, and whose paltry hoard of savings was soon
spent, had need of all his wits. "A body has an extraordinary amount of
longfaced sober scheming and thought to get butter and bread," he writes, in
a nostalgic letter to his sister Sarah before the close of the Fair.
"Practice economy in all that you do. • See that all that you do is founded
upon Scripture," was the response he got from his father - surely a futile
admonition to a penniless, struggling, homesick lad a month after he has
left home! "The folks think it funny that you never date your letters, nor
write your name at the end," complains his brother David, in allusion to a
habit which John was long in outgrowing.
In January, 1861, his mother
acknowledges a letter from Madison, expresses surprise that he has left
Prairie du Chien, and desires to know what he wants to study. She is still
further surprised when a month later she learns that he is "batching at the
University." She hopes his health, which has not been good lately, will not
suffer under the new mode of living. lie is having a hard time and she
thinks his father will assist him a little, but does not know when.
Meanwhile he must not be discouraged but make the best of his circumstances.
Two months later his father does send him ten dollars - with the admonition
to be temperate, to love God more than making machines, and not to forget
the poor destitute heathen! John, meanwhile, had no choice but to be
temperate, for he occasionally had to cut his expenses for food to fifty
cents a week. Daniel Muir's strangely perverted piety was equal to four
"protracted meetings" a week and liberal gifts of money to vague and distant
causes, while his own son was starving to obtain an education. "Let me
know," he wrote, in sending the ten dollars, "when you are in great distress
and I will try what I can do." The paternal letters are affectionate in tone
at the beginning and the end, but this does not disguise the singular and
baffling stolidity with which he holds out to John a doubtful possibility of
assistance when his troubles shall have assumed the proportions of really
great distress. With religious exhortation he was liberal enough, for
practically every letter, from the first line to the last, is a farrago of
When Muir came to the
University of Wisconsin there was attached to the institution a preparatory
department that served the purpose of a modern accredited high school. John
began his studies in this department, but his proficiency and maturity were
such that he was admitted to the Freshman class in a few weeks. After a
summer of farm work at home he returned to Madison in the autumn of that
year, occupying again his old room in North Hall. The expenses of tuition,
books, and board, though extremely reasonable when judged by present
standards, speedily reduced him to financial straits again, and he decided
to earn some money by teaching a country school, a makeshift to which many
students resorted, alternating their terms of study with terms of
school-teaching. John, however, did not wish to interrupt his studies, so he
arranged to carry forward his University studies by night work during the
spring term of 1862. A fellow student of the previous year, Harvey Reid, who
had to discontinue his University work on account of similar difficulties,
applauded his decision to teach. "Not only will it be of benefit to
yourself," he wrote, "in giving you a thorough review of the common English
branches, but the profession of teaching needs your kindness of heart, depth
of principle, and courage in the right, to aid in making the youth of our
country what a free people ought to be." The following letter exhibits him
in his new role as teacher and "district school philosopher":
To Mr. and Mrs. David M.
[MCKEELEY'S DISTRICT, OAK HALLS
Wisconsin, February 9th, 1862]
DEAR SARAH AND DAVID:
I got your letter a good long
while ago, but I have been so busy I have hardly known where I was. Mother
wrote me that you were all pretty well. I am well as usual; the blessings
attending district school-teaching do not seem to yield the injurious
consequences which I had anticipated. The Monday morning that I commenced I
did not know where to look, nor what to say, nor what to do, and I'm sure I
looked bashful as any maid. A mud-turtle upside down on a velvet sofa was as
much at home. I heard a scholar declare that the teacher didn't seem to know
bran, but all moves with regularity and ease now.
I couldn't get my clocks out
with me at first, and, aslhad not awatch, I set towork and made a clock to
keep time until I had an opportunity of getting my other one from Madison.
It cost about two hours' work and kept time by water passing in a fine jet
through a three cent piece. I have a big wheel set on the wall which tells
the different classes when and how long to recite, and a machine, too, for
making me a fire in the morning at any hour I please, so that when I go to
the old log schoolhouse these cold biting mornings, I find everything warmed
and a good fire. I sometimes think of a "fixin" to box the boys' ears, for
at first the cry of "He don't half whip," came loud and angrily from all
parts of my parish, and, indeed, I did think it an awful thing to skelp the
little chaps, even though so many did give proofs in rich abundance at times
of being mischief to the end of the toes. My voice would shake for hours
after each hazel application. But now they cause precious little agitation
or compunction of soul. My scholars, however, nearly all mean to behave
themselves. They are neither good nor bad, certainly not such children as
Pollock speaks of, so good and guileless as to seem "made entire of beams of
Sarah, how would you like to
have a new home every five or six days? I often wish I could come home among
you all a day or two, but, by the bye, you told Mrs. Parkins that you were
coming down some day. I hope you will. The sleighing is good now. Ask for
Oak Hall, which is about ten miles from Madison, south, then ask for
McKeeley's district, or if you don't wish to come to school I will be in
Madison any day you set. You had better come to school, though, and I will
give you a lecture. I lecture every Saturday evening on Chemistry or Natural
Philosophy, sometimes to sixty or seventy. You know it does not require much
sapience to be a district school philosopher. Dave hasn't visited my school,
nor I his. But I saw him once, and he said he was infinitely happy among his
generous Dutch. He has singing schools, and sabbath schools, and writing
schools. I hope Maggie and John are happy, and the wee body. May you all be
His term of school-teaching
came to an end early in March and a sheaf of letters acknowledging gifts and
expressing affectionate appreciation of the training received survive to
tell of the deep impression he made upon his pupils. He now devoted his
entire time to his university work, improvised a chemical laboratory in his
room in North Hall, and continued to indulge his inventive proclivities.
Muir's room, in fact, speedily became a show place, a museum, to which both
professors and students were accustomed to bring visitors, particularly on
Saturdays and Sundays.
One delicate bit of mechanism
that especially attracted the attention and admiration of Mrs. Carr was an
apparatus for registering the growth of an ascending plant stem during each
of the twenty-four hours. The plant he had selected for this purpose was a
Madeira Vine (Boussingaultia baselloides) which was growing luxuriantly in
his sunniest window. A fine needle threaded with the long hair of a woman
fellow student made the record upon a paper disk divided into minute spaces
with great exactness. One of his wooden clocks applied and controlled the
motive power. An invention in lighter vein was what he called his "loafer's
chair." It was a wooden chair with a split bottom over which an awkward
crosspiece had been nailed in front, apparently to cure the Split, but
really to make the sitter spread his knees. As soon as the supposed loafer
settled down on the chair and leaned back, he pressed a concealed spring
which fired a heavily charged old pistol directly under the seat. The leaps
of the victims are said to have been worth seeing. These and other
contrivances made John's room such a place of wonders to Pat the janitor
that for decades afterwards he was accustomed to relate its marvels and
point it out to newcomers.
In the autumn of 1916 the
writer secured from surviving fellow students at the University of Wisconsin
some personal impressions and recollections of John Muir as a student in
Madison. Among those consulted were J. G. Taylor, Philip Stein, and Charles
E. Vroman, and they all agreed in describing Muir as an extraordinary type
of student. The account of Mr. Vroman, who became Muir's room-mate upon
entering the University in the spring of 1862, is given as nearly as
possible in his own words:
My acquaintance with John
Muir began when a tutor, John D. Parkinson, took me in tow and led me to the
northeast corner room of North Hall on the first floor. It was my first
impression that the tutor was showing me a part of the college museum, for
it was a strange-looking place to be the room of a college student. The room
was lined with shelves, one above the other, higher than a man could reach.
These shelves were filled with retorts, glass tubes, glass jars, botanical
and geological specimens, and small mechanical contrivances. On the floor
around the sides of the room were a number of machines of larger size whose
purposes were not apparent at a glance, but which I came to know later. A
young man was busily engaged sawing boards and presently the tutor
introduced him as John Muir. I was much younger than he and was entering the
preparatory department, but it was the beginning of a close and delightful
college friendship. When telling me stories of his early life, or reading
Burns, he often dropped into a rich Scotch brogue, although he wrote and
spoke English perfectly. The only books which I remember seeing him read
were his Bible, the poems of Robert Burns, and his college textbooks. It was
a very hard and dreary life which he had been compelled to live on his
father's farm, but in spite of all he was the most cheerful, happy-hearted
man I ever knew.
Muir boarded himself during
his stay at the University, as did other students. His fare was very simple,
consisting chiefly of bread and molasses, graham mush, and baked potatoes.
Being on good terms with Pat, he had access to the wood furnaces in the
basement where he could boil his mush on the coals and bake his potatoes in
the hot ashes. For exercise he played wicket, walked, and swam. Muir's
course of study, while irregular, corresponded closely to what was then
called the modern classical. The last two years of his course were devoted
to chemistry and geology. There were no laboratory facilities in the
University at that time, so Muir built a chemical laboratory in his own
room, He was by common consent regarded as the most proficient chemical
student in the college. In disposition Muir was gentle and loving - a high-
minded Christian gentleman, clean in thought and action. While he was not a
very regular attendant at church, he read his Bible regularly, said his
morning and evening prayers each (lay, and led the kind of life which all
this implies. He was, however, in no respect austere or lacking in humor,
but bubbling over with fun, and a keen participant in frolics and college
pranks, especially when Pat the janitor needed to be taken down.
The summer of 1862 Muir spent
for the most part at the old Fountain Hill farm with his sister and
brother-in-law. The following letter written after his return to Madison
reflects the then prevailing uncertainty regarding the continuance of the
University. It had no Chancellor at this time and was seriously short of
funds. The affairs of the University were administered by the faculty under
the chairmanship of Professor John W. Sterling, whose unselfish devotion and
unquestioned ability entitled him, in the opinion of the most distinguished
alumni, to be made Chancellor. But the strangely myopic regents of this
period let him do the work of holding the University together from 1859 to
1867 without even the title of Vice-Chancellor and without extra salary.
On July 2, 1862, President
Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, which marks one of the greatest advances in
the history of American education. By this Act each State was given for
educational purposes thirty thousand acres of land for each of its Senators
and Representatives in Congress. The coiditions attached to the grant were
easily fulfilled, but the authorities of the University of Wisconsin allowed
four years to elapse before they effected the reorganization that entitled
them to claim the benefit of the Act. Even the prospect of this aid,
however, had a heartening effect upon the little group that kept the
University alive in hope of better times.
Muir's letter is of interest,
too, because it shows that he was training himself in the art of crayon
sketching, an art in which he was later to gain great proficiency, and one
that proved invaluable to him in the keeping of his exploration journals.
To Mr. and Mrs. David M.
MADISON, [AUTUMN,] 1862
DEAR BROTHER AND SISTER:
Perhaps you begin to think it
long since I wrote last. After leaving the sheaves and thrashing machine,
the merry sound of our old bell mad me all crazy with joy. I think I love my
studies more and more, and instead of the time for dismissing them coming
nearer, as one term after another passes, it seems to go farther and farther
We live in changing times,
and our plans may easily be broken, but if not I shall be seeking knowledge
for some years, here or elsewhere.
Our University has reached a
crisis in its history, and if not passed successfully, the doors will be
closed, when of course I should have to leave Madison for some institution
which has not yet been wounded to the death by our war-demon.
If John Reid can spare me
money I shall not teach this winter, for though it seem an easy way of
making a hundred dollars every winter, yet the time for acquiring as much as
I desire would in that way be too much prolonged. That money will likely be
spent, as the Catholics say, for the benefit of my soul.
Those pictures are framed and
I need not tell you that they are prized a good deal. Our tutor takes a
great liking to the lake, and wishes it in his room. If more time could be
spared for drawing I would send you a picture once or twice in awhile, as I
know you have a taste for them...
This war seems farther from a
close than ever. How strange that a country with so many schools and
churches should be desolated by so unsightly a monster. "Leaves have their
time to fall," and though indeed there is a kind of melancholy present when
they, withered and dead, are plucked from their places and made the sport of
the gloomy autumn wind, yet we hardly deplore their fate, because there is
nothing unnatural in it. They have done all that their Creator wished them
to do, and they should not remain longer in their green vigor. But may the
same be said of the slaughtered upon a battle field? If you might be
successful you would go far to bring the millennium to get love into those
leopards and lambs, would you not?
But good-bye, I wish God's
blessing for yourselves and little ones. Come and see me if you can, as
possibly I may have to go farther from home.
Give me a letter, each of
It was to be expected that a
young man of Muir's sensitive nature and rigid religious training would find
the Civil War an agonizing problem. Camp Randall, where about seventy
thousand men were drilled and mobilized in the course of four years, was
situated half a mile west of the University and within full view of the
campus. Often he went there to look after the comfort of friends or to bid
them farewell. Fragments of an extensive correspondence show that he became
a tender and solicitous religious adviser to numerous enlisted men who
craved this service. Among them are former students of the University whose
names, apparently, were lost from the alumni records. The fearful toll of
life exacted by unsanitary conditions in the military camps weighed heavily
upon his mind and probably had something to do with his long-cherished
purpose to enter the profession of medicine.
One day in the spring of 1863
his fellow student, M. S. Griswold, accidentally detained him for a moment
on the steps of North Hall with questions about a locust blossom that he
picked from a branch overhead. It was a fateful moment for Muir. He
professed to know nothing about botany, so Mr. Griswold proceeded to tell
him about the family relationship of the locust tree, and before the
conversation was ended, Muir had caught an entrancing vision of a science
new to him. "This fine lesson," he wrote in his memoirs, "charmed me and
sent me flying to the woods and meadows in wild enthusiasm.... I wandered
away at every opportunity, making long excursions round the lakes, gathering
specimens and keeping them fresh in a bucket in my room to study at night
after my regular class tasks were learned; for my eyes never closed on the
plant glory I had seen." By such chance occurrences are the destinies of men
determined. Had it not been for this new enthusiasm coming into his life he
would undoubtedly have entered the medical profession. The following letter
is the first to reflect the consequences of his new passion. The "somewhere
much farther away" refers to incipient plans to enter the Medical School of
the University of Michigan.
To Mr. and Mrs. David M.
[Madison] June 1st, 1863
DEAR SARAH AND DAVID:
Unless hindered by
circumstances not seen now, I shall be at Watson's Thursday, [June] 18th. I
am sorry that you have not been able to visit me, as I will not return to
Madison, but will go somewhere much farther away, so that you will not be so
able to reach me, as now.
I cannot do anything toward
analyzing your plant, Sarah, without the flower. I mean to be happy for a
few days around Fountain Lake in collecting specimens for my herbarium. I
returned last Saturday evening from a long ramble of twenty-five miles
through marshes, mud, and brushwood with a heavy basketful of flowers,
weeds, moss and bush-twigs, having made five or six visits besides, and
pressed thirty specimens or more. So you need not cry over my sober face. I
am not so feeble, you see.
You would like the study of
Botany. It is the most exciting thing in the form of even amusement, much
more of study, that I ever knew. Very unlike the grave tangled Greek and
Latin - but I will see you soon.
I had almost forgotten,
Sarah, to tell you that I was elected judge in one of the debating clubs a
short time ago, also President of the Young Men's Christian Association. You
say that you expect something great by and by! Am not I great now?
Within a week he withdrew the
appointment to be met at Watson's, saying that he was going on a long
botanical and geological tour down the Wisconsin River valley and into Iowa.
"I am not so well as I was last term," he writes. "I need a rest. Perhaps my
tour will do me good, though a three or four hundred mile walk with a load
is not, at least in appearance, much of a rest." He went with two companions
and an account of the excursion was subsequently communicated to Miss Emily
Pelton, then of Prairie du Chien, in a series of letters predated as if they
had beenwrittèn "during the ramble," but actually written six months later,
just before he went on a botanical tour into Canada.
To Miss Emily Pelton
Fountain Lake, February 27th,
DEAR FRIEND EMILY:
You speak in your last letter
of the pleasure which a letter written during the ramble would have given,
but it is not yet too late.
"Backward, turn backward, O
Time, in your flight!"
RECESS IN THE BLUFFS NEAR
MCGREGOR, [IOWA] July 71h, 1863
DEAR FRIEND EMILY:
This evening finds us
encamped near McGregor. We have spent a toilsome day, but it has not been
without interest. In the morning we were directed to a romantic glen down
which a little stream sought a path, turning the mosses to stone as it went,
and watering many interesting flowers. "The road that leads to it," said the
man, "lies close along the river brink. It is not very far and a log house
marks the glen's narrow entrance." We remarked that in following our
directions, when we had inquired more particularly about the exact position
of the log house after we had proceeded some distance on our way, the person
we inquired of gave us some very curious glances which we could not
understand. As we proceeded on our way we could not withstand the temptation
to climb the bluffs that beetled so majestically overhead, and after many
vain attempts we at last found a place where the ascent was practicable. We
had to make many a halt for rest, and made as much use of our hands as of
our feet, but the splendid view well repaid the toil.
After enjoying the delightful
scenery and analyzing some specimens which we gathered on our way, we began
to wish ourselves down again, as the afternoon was wearing away and we
wished to visit the glen before night, but descending was still more
difficult, and we several times reached an almost unstoppable velocity. We
found the first specimen of Desmodium in this vicinity and several beautiful
After traveling a good way
down the river we began to fear that we had already passed the object of our
search, but, when the sun's rays were nearly level and we had just emerged
from a mass of low leafy trees, we were suddenly struck with the most
genuine astonishment at the unique and unexpected sight so full before us.
We expected that a log house in such a place would be a faultless specimen
of those pioneer establishments with outside chimney, the single window, and
door overrun with hop vines or wild honeysuckle, the dooryard alive with
poultry and pigs, and the barnyard at hand with its old straw-stack and
street of dilapidated stables and sheds, with cows, dirty children, and
broken plows sprinkled over all.
But judge, Emily, of our
surprise when, upon a piece of ground where the bluffs had curved backward a
little from the river, we at once saw the ruinous old house with four
gaudily dressed females in an even row in front, with two idle men seated a
little to one side looking complacently upon them like a successful merchant
upon a stock of newly arrived goods. Not a broken fence, dirty boy, or
squealing pig was to be seen, but there on such a background - the old
decaying logs and the dark majestic hills on which the soft shades of
evening were beginning to fall -there, in clothes which had been dipped many
times in most glaring dyes, sat the strange four. It was long before I could
judge of the character of the establishment, but I saw at once there was
something very strange about it, and instinctively fell behind my companion.
He was equally ignorant, but boldly marched forward and asked for the glen
where fossils were found. This was a subject of which they knew but little.
They told us that the path went no further, that the hills were unclimbable,
etc. We then took the alarm, gained the summit of the bluffs after an hour's
hard labor, built our campfire, congratulated each other on our escape, and
spoke much from the first chapter of Proverbs.
You will perhaps soon hear
from us again. Truly your friend
To Miss Emily Pellon
[CAMP BELOW THE JUNCTION OF THE
WISCONSIN. WITH THE Mississippi, July 8, 1803]
DEAR FRIEND EMILY
When morning had dawned after
our evening log house adventure, we found ourselves upon the brink of one of
the highest points overhanging the river. It seemed as though we might
almost leap across it. The sun was unclouded, and shone with fine effect
upon the fleecy sea of fog contained by its ample banks of bluffs. Later it
flowed smoothly away as we gazed and gave us the noble Mississippi in full
Breaking the spell which
bound us here so long, we leisurely proceeded to explore the pretty glen
which we had passed before in the dark. Here we spent some hours of great
interest and added some fine plants and fossils to our growing wealth, and
soon found ourselves upon the shore of the great river. The genuine calm of
a July morning was now master of all. The river flowed on, smooth as a
woodland lake, reflecting the full beams of the dreamy light, while not on
all the dark foliage which feathered its mountain wadi moved a single
breeze. We stood harnessed and half asleep with the settled calm, looking
wishfully upon the cool waters, when suddenly the thought struck us, "How
fine it would be to purchase a boat and sail merrily up the Wisconsin to
Portage." We would read and work the oars by turn as our heavy packs would
be stowed snugly away beneath the seats, and every few miles we would land
at an inviting place and gather new spoils. And so in a few minutes we had
our effects packed snugly, as I have described, in a pretty boat, and were
joyfully floating on the bosom of the Father of Waters.
But, alas, how vain our large
hopes of promised bliss! We reached the mouth of the Wisconsin River and
soon our bright faces grow less and less bright till gloomy as a winter's
day, as we paddle with all our might, shooting bravely on against the
current at the fearful velocity of ten rods per two hours. At last,
completely exhausted, we give up, for a moment, in despair and are instantly
returned to the Mississippi by the boiling current. But we were not yet
beaten, for holding a council of war against the bustling stream, we
determined to "Try, try again."
So, landing, we procured a
pair of boards, by the necessitous act of self-appropriation, and proceeded
to make two pair of oars. They were nearly made before dark. We found a new
camping ground and sought repose with hearts again trimmed with fresh hope.
I shall write you again and
give you the result of to-day's labor. I wish you would write immediately on
receiving this. Address Wauzeka [Wisconsin.] I shall pass near that place in
a few days.
Truly your friend
To Miss Emily Pelton
FARM HOUSE NEAR WRIGHT'S FERRY,
July 9th, 1863
DEAR FRIEND EMILY:
We started, in good spirits
again, this morning, with our long oars manufactured by our hatchet. We
applied them to our little boat and soon were again at the mouth of the
Wisconsin which came tumbling down rapid and restless as ever. At each pull
of the oars our little fairy almost leaps from the water, but we were now in
the very midst of the boiling waters. We shoot now to this side, now to
that, making very acute angles, and almost capsizing several times. Again we
pull harder than ever - again are baffled. We are drenched thoroughly with
streaming sweat, but we have strength remaining and have already conquered
fifteen or twenty rods. The combat is prolonged amid splashing and boiling,
now drifting back, now gaining a few rods, now fast on a sand-bar on this
side, now aground on the other, till the victory was again wrenched from us,
and, drawing our boat up on a large sand bank we disembarked, laid our packs
at our feet, and with uncovered heads, thus addressed the culprit boat, each
"O Boat, heretic and
perverse, why persist in this obstinate and unprofitable determination of
opposition to the reasonable demands of thy lords and masters?. . . Shame be
thy portion! Thou art small and light as a baby's cradle, but obstinate and
unsteerable as Noah's ark.. . . Depart from my service to that of another
upon thy parent whom thou seemet to love, and may'st thou serve her better
than thou hast served me."
This said, a card was nailed
upon a conspicuous place and directed to Mrs. Goodrich, [Note by Mrs. Emily
Pelton Wilson: "A friend he met at our house in Prairie du Chien."] Dubuque,
Iowa, and two three cent stamps placed on it as it was overweight. Then
pushing it into the current we watched it a few minutes as it sailed away,
now appearing and now lost, as it passed the willows upon the bank. Then we
again placed our old companion packs, and soberly marched away with unequal
steps through the tall grass, like good Aneas with his Penates when cast
upon Queen Dido's coast.
After a very wearisome walk
over wet places and fallen trees we reached the house where I now write. We
did not intend to stop here, but only called fr our fifth meal, as we had
but one yesterday, and we wished to make a fair average. But the old lady of
the mansion gave us so good a welcome that we entered and she made us
supper. She has invited us to stay all night. She, we had observed from the
first, was possessed of a lasting fund of everyday benevolence, and just a
few minutes ago she told us her reason. "I have," she said, "a son who was
some years in New Mexico. Many times he was refused shelter from storm and
compelled to pass long nights in rain and sleet. I was determined that
though I should be occasionally imposed upon I should never refuse the rites
of hospitality to any." This, I think, is as noble a sentiment as ever came
from mortal lips, and if I live, she shall know some time that I have not
forgotten her. My companion, as I write, is listening to the narration of
this son's adventures. This is the only place where we have met with a
really cordial reception.
Good-bye. You may hear from
me again when I reach a convenient point. Write soon.
Apparently the trio of young
naturalists had difficulty in finding the wherewithal to satisfy their
healthy outdoor appetites. The following narrative poem, which accompanied
the foregoing letters to Miss Pelton, describes the difficulties they
encountered while searching for a breakfast:
IN SEARCH OF A BREAKFAST
Dedicated to the
"Patron of all those luckless brains,
Which to the wrong side leaning,
Indite much metre with much pains
And little or no meaning."
The early breeze of morning
Upon the trembling chamber walls,
The hours of evening, one by one,
Retreat before the joyful sun.
Our heroes' task of resting o'er,
They leave their ever-open door
And yawn, and stretch, and view the sky
With looks and garments much awry;
Then seek, with faltering steps and slow
The bustling stream that winds below,
Where, like wet poultry after rain,
That trim disordered plumes again,
They wash, and lave, and dress their hair,
And for the breakfast search prepare.
All harnessed now, in
With bounding glee they march a while;
The gen'rous grass and twigs bestow
Their dewy honors as they go,
Till we might deem the stranger three
All night had drifted in the sea.
Minutely now each sheltered shade,
Soft sedgy pool and waving glade,
Is searched throughout with patient eye,
If stranger plant they might descry.
If such be found, no golden treasure
May bring so much of honest pleasure.
But smoke curls on that mountain brow,
And breakfast is the question now.
The house is gained - with
air half bold
Their tale of morning hunger's told;
They ask no bun of prickly taste,
No pie complex with frosty paste,
No fiery mixture striped with candy,
No slimy oysters boiled in brandy,
But bread and milk, at any time
Purchased with a paper dime.
But ah! how marred was breakfast then.
How lost the plans of "mice and men"!
For bread — "I've none," good mother cries,
"Because my risings did not rise.
"I've biscuit, but a pair at most,
"And as for milk, the cow is lost.
"But, three miles farther on your way
"You'll come to Dick and Simon Day."
With tardy steps they leave
And more a hungered than before,
And slow, the lengthened miles they tread
Which lead to Simon's timber shed.
With growing emphasis they tell
How 'neath a cotton sheet they dwell,
And 'mid the hills all daylight hours
Roam near and far for weeds and flowers.
But growling want still pressing sore
Compels to seek the farmer's door,
And add with deeply serious brow,
How much they feel of hunger now.
But Simon has no bread to
The milk is soured by sultry air.
But Jacob Wise at Fountain well
"Has heaps of cows, and milk to sell."
Then from a fallen log they rise
And gravely steer for Farmer Wise.
Meanwhile the day of sultry June
Approaches fast the hour of noon.
Our heroes, faint and fainter still,
Toil on with braced unfaltering will,
Till on a ridge of thistly ground
The home of Master Wise is found,
And, waxing bold, our starving men
Bestow their tale of want again.
But Jacob with commanding air
Presents on each a Yankee stare,
And slowly, in dull angry tone,
Assures them they "had best be gone.'
But stanchly fixed with
Till fed with milk and bread their fill,
And, wiser grown, they know their task
And kindly divers questions ask: -
How long beside this darkened wood
His house and handsome barn have stood?
How old himself and curly dog?
How much had weighed his fattest hog?
How great the price of meadow hay?
How far from here his clearing lay?
These chords so struck resounding well,
With kindling eye he'll warely tell
How first this woodland farm he found
When all was Indian hunting ground.
And coons and herds of fallow deer
Were tame as sheep or broken steer,
And howling wolf and savage yell
Mixed all the echoes up the dell.
Thus poulticed he, inflamed
Is calm as Boss, and all her store
Uncreamed, with bread and Sally's pie,
Bestows with kindly beaming eye.
"Nor aught," said he, "will I deny
To honest folks as good as I;
But strolling men of wiley looks,
A peddlin' clothes and dirty books,
Howe'er so lamed or big they be
Much comfort ne'er shall get from me,"
The following letter, bearing
no indication of place or date, probably was written toward the end of July,
1863, shortly before he left Madison to assist his brother-in-law in harvest
work on the Fountain Lake farm. If so, it describes, perhaps, the last
botanical excursion he made from Madison.
To Mr. and Mrs. David M.
[MADISON, July, 1863]
Since writing last we have
been on many a hill, and walked "o'er moors and mosses many o," but the best
of all our rambles was one which was completed last Friday. We took the
train from here Thursday morning for Kilbourn, a small town on the Wisconsin
River towards LaCrosse, rambled all day among the glorious tangled valleys
and lofty perpendicular rocks of the famous Dells, stayed over night in
Kilbourn, and voyaged to Portage next day upon a raft of our own
construction. The thousandth part of what we enjoyed was pleasure beyond
telling. At the Dells the river is squeezed between lofty frowning sandstone
rocks. The invincible Wisconsin has been fighting for ages for a free
passage to the Mississippi, and only this crooked and narrow slit has been
granted or gained.
At present all is peace, but
the river, though calm, does not appear contented. Only a few foam-bells are
seen, but they float with an air of tardy settled sullenness past the black
yawning fissures and beetling, threatening rock-brows above. But when winter
with its locking ice has yielded to the authoritative looks of the high
summer sun, just at the darkest of the year before any flowers are overhead
or any of the rock ferns have unrolled their precious bundles, then the war
is renewed with the most terrific, roaring, foaming, gnashing fury. Fierce
legions come pouring in from many an upland swamp and lake, in irresistible
haste, through broken gorge and valley gateways. All in one they rush to
battle clad in foam -rise high upon their ever-resisting enemy, and with
constant victory year by year gain themselves a wider and straighter way.
Kilbourn station is about two
miles below the Dells. We went to the river-side and at once began to find
new plants. The banks are rocky and romantic for many miles both above and
below the Dells. On going up the river we were delightfully opposed and
threatened by a great many semi-gorge ravines running at right angles to the
river, too steep to cross at every point and much too long to be avoided if
to wish to avoid them were possible. Those ravines are the most perfect, the
most heavenly plant conservatories I ever saw. Thousands of happy flowers
are there, but ferns and mosses are the favored ones. No human language will
ever describe them. We traveled two miles in eight hours, and such scenery,
such sweating, scrambling, climbing, and happy hunting and happy finding of
dear plant beings we never before enjoyed.
The last ravine we
encountered was the most beautiful and deepest and longest and narrowest.
The rocks overhang and bear a perfect selection of trees which hold
themselves towards one another from side to side with inimitable grace,
forming a flower-veil of indescribable beauty. The light is measured and
mellowed. For every flower springs, too, and pools, are there in their
places to moisten them. The walls are fringed and painted most divinely with
the bright green polypodium and asplenium and mosses and liverworts with
gray lichens, and here and there a clump of flowers and little bushes. The
floor was barred and banded and sheltered by bossy, shining, moss-clad logs
cast in as needed from above. Over all and above all and in all the glorious
ferns, tall, perfect, godlike, and here and there amid their fronds a long
cylindrical spike of the grand fringed purple orchis.
But who can describe a
greenhouse planned and made and planted and tended by the Great Creator
himself. Mrs. Davis wished a fernery. Tell her I wish she could see this one
and this rock-work. We cannot remove such places to our homes, but they cut
themselves keenly into our memories and remain pictured in us forever.
Muir had lingered in Madison
after the close of the University session, partly to botanize amid its
lovely natural surroundings, partly because of his attachment for the place
where his eyes had been opened to a greater world of knowledge and of
beauty. But the time of departure finally came. "From the top of a hill on
the north side of Lake Mendota," he writes in the closing paragraph of ':'My
Boyhood and Youth," "I gained a last wistful, lingering view of the
beautiful University grounds and buildings where I had spent so many hungry
and happy and hopeful days. There with streaming eyes I bade my blessed Alma
Mater farewell. But I was only leaving one University for another, the
Wisconsin University for the University of the Wilderness."