IN last week’s first part of this three-part series on the life of John Muir, I promised to try to show the great Scottish naturalist’s relevance to modern life. I wrote that as I knew at Muir can speak to us even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Though it happened by accident, and a nasty one at that, Muir’s life-changing experience at the age of 28 can even show us how to deal with emerging from lockdown. He used a miserable, painful time in his life to change for the better, indeed change for the betterment of the world.

When this blasted virus is under control, can we make things better for ourselves, our entire human race, our beautiful Scotland, our bonnie broukit bairn of a planet? As we shall see, John Muir spent his life trying to do exactly that.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, however. We left Muir’s story last week when he was an adolescent living on the family farm in Wisconsin, studying wildlife in his spare time and inventing things at night – thermometers, clocks, that sort of thing.

READ MORE: The wild youth of legendary Scottish naturalist John Muir

His Bible-thumping father Daniel clashed with Muir over his nocturnal activities – Muir would regularly go to bed at 8pm as all the family did, and rise at 1am to spend the wee sma’ hours on reading and inventing. His father had decreed that only the Bible would be needed to see someone through life, but Muir persuaded him to allow history books and even some philosophy into the household, while he secretly devoured Shakespeare and poetry books and novels borrowed from neighbours.

His father even came to admire some of Muir’s inventions, particularly a massive thermometer which was attached to the side of the house and was so sensitive that its dial registered even the movement of a hand near it. Muir had learned arithmetic at school back home in Scotland, and had taught himself geometry and trigonometry, but as he entered his 20s, he knew he needed a much fuller “proper” education.

To do that he would have to leave home. Deciding to make his own way in the world, and with his father not helping with so much as a dollar, at the age of 22, Muir left for the State Fair of 1860 at Madison, the capital of Wisconsin, with just 15 dollars and the gold sovereign his grandfather had given him the night before he left Dunbar for America. He also took two of his clocks and a thermometer to show at the Fair’s Fine Arts Hall.

They proved a hit, and Muir doubled his “fortune” of $15 overnight while also gaining a diploma and press attention as the farmboy inventor, the Wisconsin State Journal calling his products the “star attraction” of the Fine Arts Hall.

The newspaper recorded: “While at the Fair Grounds this morning we saw some very ingenious specimens of mechanism, in the form of clocks, made by Mr JOHN MUIR, of Buffalo, Marquette County. They were without cases, and were whittled out of pine wood.

“The wheels moved with beautiful evenness. One registered not only hours but minutes, seconds, and days of the month. The other was in the shape of a scythe, the wheels being arranged along the part representing the blade. It was hung in a dwarf burr oak very tastefully ornamented with moss about its roots. We will venture to predict that few articles will attract as much attention as these products of Mr Muir’s ingenuity.”

It was the very first mention in the press of John Muir. It would not be the last. He wrote in his memoirs: “They seemed to attract more attention than anything else in the hall, I got lots of praise from the crowd and the newspaper-reporters. The local press reports were copied into the Eastern papers. It was considered wonderful that a boy on a farm had been able to invent and make such things, and almost every spectator foretold good fortune. But I had been so lectured by my father above all things to avoid praise that I was afraid to read those kind newspaper notices, and never clipped out or preserved any of them, just glanced at them and turned away my eyes from beholding vanity.”

SOMEONE did keep them: “Many years later, after I had written articles and books, I received a letter from the gentleman who had charge of the Fine Arts Hall.

“He proved to be the Professor of English Literature in the University of Wisconsin at this Fair time, and long afterward he sent me clippings of reports of his lectures … telling how well he remembered my arrival at the Hall in my shirt-sleeves with those mechanical wonders on my shoulder, and so forth, and so forth. These inventions, though of little importance, opened all doors for me and made marks that have lasted many years, simply, I suppose, because they were original and promising.”

That should have started his career as an inventor or engineer there and then, but though he took a short-term job in a small foundry in upstate Wisconsin, Muir was still hankering after a career to do with nature. He was making a living in Madison by doing menial tasks, but after a visit to the local State University, Muir’s heart was set on becoming a student there. He was lucky as the Dean of the Faculty was a Professor John W Sterling, renowned for encouraging education among all classes of people.

Muir wrote: “With fear and trembling, overladen with ignorance, I called on Professor Sterling who was then Acting President, presented my case, and told him how far I had got on with my studies at home, and that I hadn’t been to school since leaving Scotland at the age of eleven years, excepting one short term of a couple of months at a district school, because I could not be spared from the farm work. After hearing my story, the kind professor welcomed me to the glorious University — next, it seemed to me, to the Kingdom of Heaven.”

The first class he took was Latin – and he found they used the same books that he had studied at school in Dunbar. It was a fellow student called Milton Griswold, however, who gave Muir his first lesson in the subject he would come to adore – botany. Griswold and Muir would become firm friends, the former going on to be a learned lawyer and judge.

Three completed years of study followed, with Muir working hard each summer on farms to earn the money needed to put himself through University, all the while using his summer lunch breaks to gather plants and seed samples. He also took teaching jobs, and at one school invented a clock that could start a fire at the same time each morning so that the schoolroom was always warm for an 8am start.

Yet though he worked hard and studied even harder, and continued inventing everything from barometers to miniature glasshouses, Muir never graduated from university. He had deliberately chosen an eclectic range of subjects which had the effect of making him what was called an “irregular gent” so that a degree could not be awarded to him. He did not care a jot, as he knew what he wanted to do – study botany in the wilds of the whole wide USA.

AS he explained in his memoirs, written in his 70s: “I did not take the regular course of studies, but instead picked out what I thought would be most useful to me, particularly chemistry, which opened a new world, and mathematics and physics, a little Greek and Latin, botany and geology. I wandered away on a glorious botanical and geological excursion, which has lasted nearly fifty years and is not yet completed, always happy and free, poor and rich, without thought of a diploma or of making a name, urged on and on through endless, inspiring, Godful beauty.”

He added: “I was only leaving one University for another, the Wisconsin University for the University of the Wilderness.”

The arithmetically and historically astute of you will have noticed that Muir’s time at Wisconsin State University took place during most of the American Civil War. Yet he does not mention it in his memoir The Story of My Boyhood and Youth – no mention of Lincoln, the Union, the Confederacy and definitely no mention of his own non-involvement.

Though he did not adhere to his father’s strict form of Presbyterianism – Muir senior was now a full-time evangelist – John Muir was a lifelong pacifist and hated warfare of any sort, and it seems likely that he would have been a conscientious objector if conscripted.

He knew the horrors of war – he would often visit the giant Camp Randall near the State University which was host to tens of thousands of Union soldiers during the war, many of whom were wounded, including personal friends of Muir. Another old friend, a neighbour to the family farm, James Whitehead, was wounded and sent home to die but survived thanks mainly to the care and support of Muir’s father.

It is known that Muir’s brother Daniel fled to Canada in 1863 to escape the Union draft instigated by Lincoln. University students were not exempt from the draft, but John Muir was never actually selected for conscription – pure luck, it would seem. Muir has often been accused of draft-dodging by following his brother to Canada, but the truth is that in the winter of 1863/4 he was finished with his studies and we know he waited for the draft while staying at Fountain Lake Farm with his sister Sarah and her husband David Galloway who now owned the original Muir farm.

The draft had actually been cancelled when on March 1, 1864, John Muir headed by train to Canada West as it then was, but which is now the Province of Ontario. Now what would be his life’s work could commence.

He travelled all over Canada West, exploring the wilderness and collecting plants. He visited the areas of Hamilton and Niagara and collected specimens which, almost incredibly, can be seen to this day at the John Muir Historic Site in Martinez, California. We know where he went in Canada because the 47 specimens are named and dated with their locations, though sadly his journals were lost in a fire in 1866.

That fire took place at a sawmill in Trout Hollow in Meaford County where his brother Daniel was employed and who arranged for John to join him. After the fire, John moved south to Indianapolis and got a job in the factory of Osgood, Smith and Co which made carriages and wagon wheels. He was doing so well in improving the factory that the owners wanted to make him a partner – he might well have spent the rest of his life as an engineer.

On March 6, 1867, curiously enough the day of a total eclipse, Muir was working on a machine when a metal awl flew up and into his right eye, cutting the cornea and blinding the eye. The left eye shut down too, and John Muir was left completely blind. He was shattered, but friends gathered round to care for him.

The blindness was only temporary. The then 28-year-old Muir gradually recovered his sight, so much so that he was able to go home to Wisconsin. But the months of total and partial blindness had made their mark. No more would John Muir work solely as a mechanic or engineer. Instead he resolved to travel and see the wonders of the vast countryside of the USA, and find new plants and trees to record.

He wrote he “saw the world — and his purpose — in a new light”, adding “This affliction has driven me to the sweet fields. God has to nearly kill us sometimes, to teach us lessons.”