Was Late Bloomer John Muir the Father of Steampunk?

by Debra Eve | @DebraEve

John Muir, Father of Steampunk?

It’s 1 a.m. and John is awake. He knows what will happen but has no desire to stop it.

The tick tick tick of the clockwork device sounds like hail upon the windowpane. Any second it will go off.

Bam! The device kicks a stone attached to the leg of his bed. The bed crashes down and throws John to the floor.

He leaps up, rushes to the freezing cellar where his clockwork desk opens a book and rotates it to him.

An hour later, the book closes and the next one rotates into focus. Algebra, geometry, trigonometry, Shakespeare, and ah! Emerson.

“I gained five hours, almost half a day!” he wrote. “’Five hours to myself!’…I can hardly think of any other event in my life, any discovery I ever made that gave birth to joy so transportingly glorious as the possession of these five frosty hours.”

Is this the opening of my new Steampunk novel?

John Muir's clockwork desk

John Muir’s clockwork desk

No, it’s a true chapter from the life of naturalist John Muir (1838-1914), best known for establishing California’s Yosemite National Park and founding the Sierra Club.

He dreamed up machines to better people’s lives, until a blinding epiphany changed his.

 A Brave New World

John Muir was born in Dunbar, Scotland, 176 years ago today, the son of Daniel Muir, a strict and extreme Presbyterian.

One evening Daniel told his children to forget their homework and start packing. “Bairns,” he said, “you needna learn your lessons the nicht, for we’re gan to America the morn!”

Daniel would answer no questions and demanded complete obedience. Although surprised, John (age 11) and his younger brother were ecstatic, until introduced to their father’s idea of a brave new world.

“We were all made slaves,” Muir later wrote. Daniel expected them to carve out a farm from the Wisconsin wilderness.

John’s duty was to burn brush in preparation for plowing. His father stood by his side and said, “What an awful thing it would be to be thrown into that fire:—and then think of hellfire, that is so many times hotter. Into that fire, all bad boys will be cast…”

No wonder John developed an obsession with machines, rising every morning at 1 a.m. so he could study and invent. Starting at 6 a.m., he performed his back-breaking farm chores between beatings.

“The old Scotch fashion of whipping for every act of disobedience or of simple, playful forgetfulness was still kept up to in the wilderness, and of course many of these whipping fell upon me. Most of them were outrageously severe, and utterly barren of fun.”

2005 California quarter

2005 California quarter

At age 22, when one of his inventions won a prize at the State Fair, John escaped and enrolled at University of Wisconsin, Madison. His first botany class under a majestic black locust tree outside North Hall gave him new purpose.

“This fine lesson charmed me and sent me flying to the woods and meadows in wild enthusiasm.”

Finally happy in his own brave world, John meandered through his courses. College records showed his status as “irregular gent.”

Many biographies gloss over why he dropped out — to avoid the Civil War draft. He joined his brother in Canada, and spent spring, summer, and fall collecting plants in the woods and swamps around Lake Huron. That winter, he took a job in a sawmill and stayed for almost a year.

After the war, John became a sawyer for $22 a week in a wagon wheel factory.

Blindsided by Destiny

One evening, John was working on a belt with a long file. Somehow, it slipped and rebounded across his eye. “My right eye is gone. Closed forever on all God’s beauty!”

A specialist was called. John’s cornea was badly damaged. But if he rested, he might see again.

John locked himself in a darkened room and dreamed of woods and forests. He vowed if his sight returned, he would “be true to myself” and spend his life exploring and studying plants.

“This affliction has driven me to the sweet fields. God has to nearly kill us sometimes, to teach us lessons.”

Six weeks later, the doctor removed his bandages. He could see! As soon as his vision stabilized, he took to the woods.

In September 1867, John walked 1000 miles from Indiana to Florida, sailed to Cuba and Panama, then crossed the Isthmus on a pilgrimage to California and the world’s oldest and largest trees, the Sequoias.

In March 1868, John arrived in San Francisco and immediately departed for Yosemite Valley with a companion he’d met on the ship. It took them a month to get there, but a grizzly scared them out a few days later.

John then became an itinerant farm hand, a ferry pilot and a sheep shearer, all in an effort to return to Yosemite.

Yosemite Creek

Yosemite Creek

Finally, the Upper Hotel, located near the base of Yosemite Falls, hired him to cut logs for their expansion. He built himself a cabin on on Yosemite Creek. (Later, the U.S. Supreme Court declared Yosemite Valley a National Park and bought the hotel out.)

After John completed the project, he stayed in Yosemite for another 10 years and became a local guide and legend. Some people saw him as the wise man of the mountain. Artists, scientists, and celebrities sought him out.

Others assumed he was an unemployed bum.

In 1871, John’s hero, Ralph Waldo Emerson, visited Yosemite. The two spent the day together and Emerson offered John a position at Harvard’s Divinity School. “I never for a moment thought of giving up God’s big show for a mere profship!” John later wrote.

As he entered his 40s, friends encouraged him to settle down. John moved to Oakland and met Louisa Strentzel, daughter of a prominent physician. They married and managed her father’s 2,600 acre fruit orchard. John was not happy about being a farmer again, but the ranch thrived under his care.

Luckily, Louisa understood him well and packed him off to the mountains whenever he drove her nuts. They had two daughters who often accompanied him as they grew older.

In 1892, John helped found the Sierra Club, which successfully campaigned to put Yosemite Valley under federal protection. He remained its president for 22 years.

Over the course of his career, John wrote over 300 lyrical, luminous newspapers and magazine essays defending his beloved open spaces:

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”

John Muir, 1907

John Muir, 1907

At age 74, he published his memoir, My First Summer in the Sierra, and took a trip to South America. He journeyed by horseback into a forest of monkey puzzle trees.

A year later, he sailed for Africa without telling his daughters, for fear they’d try to stop him. His purpose — to see the baobob trees. He camped at Victoria Falls, then hired a child to take him to a grove of baobob. “Kings may be less,” he wrote to his daughters (imagine their surprise), “but I am glorious!”

Father of Steampunk?

In 1863, Jules Verne began writing about fantastical inventions we now identify with Steampunk. Five years earlier, John Muir was building them.

Yet we remember John Muir for his fierce devotion to nature, not the wacky clockwork machines he refused to patent because he wanted everyone to benefit. Still, if Muir had gone into the woods and never come out, we wouldn’t know Yosemite, Sequoia, or other places of natural beauty.

Muir was a walker between worlds all his life, like many Later Bloomers. It’s part of the natural beauty of our path. As a native Californian (with a drop of Scottish blood), I’m particularly proud.

Sources

The excellent biographies John Muir: Nature’s Visionary by Gretal Ehrlich and A Passion for Nature by Donald Worster.

John Muir’s writings are in the public domain. They’re free on Amazon and at Gutenberg. All quotes of his younger days are from The Story of My Boyhood and Youth.

Get The 2014 Later Bloomer Calendar free when you sign up to receive posts from LaterBloomer.com

Hope you enjoyed! I publish just twice per month, so please sign up to receive

  • posts by email,
  • random freebies,
  • news of the next Later Bloomers anthology, and
  • The 2014 Personalized Later Bloomer Calendar (click at right to preview).
Your email will never be shared.

Leave a Comment

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Lindsay

This is one of your best posts, which is really saying something. Loved it from beginning to end. Happy Earth Day!

Reply

Debra Eve

Coming from you, Lindsay, that’s high praise indeed. Thanks!

Reply

Carolyn

Fantastic! The only thing I knew Muir for was photos he took of glaciers, that helped show their recession (father of global warming mania, too?). He’s even more fascinating than I thought! Will have to pick up the biography.

Reply

Debra Eve

Hi Carolyn! The man is utterly and completely intriguing, and he wrote so well. His memoirs are a perfect balance of description and dialogue, something I struggle with in my writing. He was one of the first to realize glaciers, not earthquakes, carved out valleys and was ridiculed by academics for years. Just goes to show you…

Reply

Prudence MacLeod

Absolutely fantastic. Here is a man who followed his deams; a shining example for us all. Thanks for sharing this story.

Reply

Debra Eve

Thanks for stopping by, Prudence. He’s truly a reminder that the pursuit of joy and happiness can be our greatest endeavor.

Reply

khaula mazhar

Wonderful post, I wasn’t too familiar with John Muir, what a fascinating person he was and so inspiring. Doing what you love because you love it and not focusing on material aspects of life can give you so much satisfaction, unfortunately we all get too caught up in this rat race

Reply

Debra Eve

Thanks, Khaula. I find Muir particularly inspirational because his swing from engineer to naturalist at first seems to extreme. Yet was just a complex human being (as we all are) finding his way in the world.

Reply

Jennette Marie Powell

I didn’t know too much about John Muir beyond that he was a 19th century naturalist. What a fascinating and inspiring story! I was smiling at his wife’s habit of “packing him off to the mountains” when he started to drive her nuts. Reminds me that it’s time to send my husband to NY for some fishing!

Reply

Debra Eve

Ha! I know what you mean about the fishing, Jennette. I read through two complete Muir biographies for this piece, completely fascinated. I’m glad you were too!

Reply

Wendy Krueger

Enjoyed this post. I used to volunteer at Muir Woods in their native plant nursery, so I have been a fan of his for a while.

I have no idea that was involved with steampunk inventions. Very fascinating. The desk is cool but doesn’t look very practical :)
-Wendy

Reply

Debra Eve

That’s so cool you worked with the native plants, Wendy! Most of Muir’s inventions were pretty wacky. He can keep the bed that dumps you on the floor at 1 am! Thank goodness he turned his genius to conservation and nature writing.

Reply

Ciara

Very interesting story Debra, I think our purpose finds a way to come out sooner or later

Reply

Debra Eve

Hi, Ciara! Thanks for stopping by. I agree whole-heartedly, and the epiphany certainly doesn’t have to be as dramatic as Muir’s.

Reply

August McLaughlin

Fantastic post! As a native mid-westerner and fan of California wildlife, I respect Muir and his work big time.

Reply

Debra Eve

Thanks, August. It’s fitting that Earth Day is the day after Muir’s birthday. His writing is absolutely luminous and he’s completely self-taught. Gives me hope :)

Reply

Karen McFarland

Born and raised in California, I was raised around Sequoia and Yosemite and Muir Woods. What a great post Debra! It reminds us all to be greatful for these amazing people who worked so hard so that we could enjoy the best of what nature has to offer! Yes, Happy Earth Day! :)

Reply

Debra Eve

Happy Earth Day, Karen. I was so intrigued by Muir that I actually read two biographies about him, instead of just doing internet research. Someone on Twitter mentioned he needed a biopic and I agree!

Reply

David Stevens

Incredible story Debra, thankyou
be good to yourself
David

Reply

Debra Eve

My pleasure, David. Thanks for stopping by from Australia to read about one of our California heroes!

Reply

Debra Kristi

Ooh! I found this post fascinating Debra! Thank you for sharing. I have always wondered about John Muir as I pass by the school named for him often. My father attended there. Now you have filled me in and I need not wonder any longer. :)

Reply

Debra Eve

Thanks, Debra! Happy to oblige :) Muir’s name is well-known to we Californians because so we have so many places in his honor, but my English husband had never heard of him!

Reply

Genie

Fascinating article!

Reply

Debra Eve

So happy you liked it, Genie!

Reply

Patricia

I always love hearing the story of John Muir. Being from California we often run across references to him and his studies, explorations, and other fantastic contributions he offered. Muir Woods near San Francisco is another awe-inspiring place of wonderment for me.

Thanks for sharing this beautiful tribute to a great man!

Patricia Rickrode
w/a Jansen Schmidt

Reply

Debra Eve

Thanks so much, Patricia! I’ve always known Muir was a naturalist, but I never realized what a true genius he was. It was fun learning about him. I’ve been through the Muir Woods, too, and totally agree.

Reply

Lynne Strang

What an interesting story! I’ve always liked the photography associated with the Sierra Club. Your post reminded me that I’ve never been to Yosemite National Park. It’s now on my “places to visit” list. Thanks, Debra!

Reply

Debra Eve | @DebraEve

Same here, Lynne. I remember visiting Yosemite as a child, but it has been decades. But we drove though the Sequoias a few year back. Thanks for dropping by!

Reply

Chris Edgar

I can definitely appreciate the creativity and initiative he showed in waking up at 1:00 am to work on machines, but I also get the sense that this kind of practice has a masochistic and lonely quality to it. I guess that shouldn’t come as a surprise, since he was subjected to such awful abuse. Anyway, thanks for another great bio!

Reply

Debra Eve | @DebraEve

You’re welcome. I hadn’t really thought of it that way, Chris. But getting up at 1am was the only way he could some study time in before the farm day began. He probably fell asleep by 6pm! We forget how differently life was ordered before electricity (I say as someone who works nights and doesn’t actually get off until 1am sometimes). I’ll never be an early riser, which some self-help types hold out as the road to success. We all have our own schedule.

Reply

Debra Eve | @DebraEve

You’re welcome. I hadn’t really thought of it that way, Chris. But getting up at 1am was the only way he could some study time in before the farm day began. He probably fell asleep by 6pm! We forget how differently life was ordered before electricity (I say as someone who works nights and doesn’t actually get off until 1am sometimes). I’ll never be an early riser, which some self-help types hold out as the road to success. We all have our own schedule.

Reply

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: