Monday, June 20, 2022

The Story of My Boyhood and Youth by John Muir

A budding naturalist in frontier Wisconsin
John Muir is best known as the naturalist who explored the Sierras of California and the glaciers of Alaska, but he was born in Scotland and spent his adolescence and early adulthood in Wisconsin. Muir discusses these years of his life, from his birth in 1838 to his departure from college in 1864, in his partial autobiography The Story of My Boyhood and Youth. This memoir was published in 1913, a year before Muir’s death.

The first chapter tells of Muir’s life in Scotland, where he and his brothers developed a love of the outdoors at an early age. His boyhood adventures aren’t remarkably different from those of a child growing up in rural America, but Muir’s exceptional storytelling renders even familiar childhood experiences into captivating anecdotes. At the age of 11, Muir emigrated to America with his father and two of his siblings to establish a farm in Portage, Wisconsin, before sending for his mother and the rest of the family to cross the Atlantic. Unlike many frontier memoirs, this book is not a lovingly nostalgic and picturesque portrait of nineteenth-century farm life. Rather, Muir paints a realistic picture of the hard work and ceaseless toil involved in clearing land and working a farm on the American frontier, especially under the stern supervision of a strict and rigidly pious father who valued hard labor over education.

Nevertheless, Muir and his brother David found time to enjoy the outdoors, whether hunting game or merely exploring and observing nature. Muir spends a large portion of the narrative discussing Wisconsin’s birds. As a birder myself, I enjoyed these portions of the book very much. Muir describes the behavior of birds with the precision of a scientist yet also manages to convey the thrill experienced by a young boy who simply enjoys the beauty of birds. Particularly valuable is Muir’s description of the huge flocks of passenger pigeons that would darken the sky for scores of miles and break trees with their collected weight. He also details some of the barbaric hunting practices that had rendered the bird extinct by the time Muir wrote this memoir. In many instances The Story of My Boyhood and Youth provides a vivid first-person record of Wisconsin’s natural history in the 1850s and ‘60s. Muir also recounts a few encounters with Native Americans and briefly laments the robbing of their lands and rights.

Muir’s narrative takes a surprising turn when he reveals himself to be an inventor. As a teenager he created clocks, thermometers, and other instruments from materials that happened to be lying around the family farm. He fondly relates how his creations caused a big stir when he displayed them at the Wisconsin State Fair. The way Muir describes some of the other mechanical devices he created calls to mind the ingenuity of Thomas Jefferson and the absurdity of Rube Goldberg. Muir originally left home with the intention of working as a machinist, engineer, or physical scientist before attending the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he enjoyed studying chemistry and botany. The book ends with Muir’s departure from the university and his turning towards what he calls “the University of the Wilderness.”

Those interested in Muir as a naturalist may not be enthralled by the schoolboy anecdotes of his early youth, but this book does contain plenty of passages of scientific discovery and descriptive beauty indicative of his better-known nature writings. Those who enjoy reading the autobiographies of scientists and naturalists will find this a very well-written one. The Story of My Boyhood and Youth is a pleasure to read and provides a candid inside look at how Muir became one of America’s great environmental philosophers.
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