A bright thought flies across my afternoon
fighting to stay aloft as my finger, on an old roadmap
traces a trip across the desert decades ago,
driving west in the early summer of our marriage.
We traveled by night in a compact car,
small dog panting in the backseat.
We fled scalding walls of heat toward
an ocean we could only picture.
Even trailer trucks behind us huffing across
the Rockies could not make us give way,
nor fog banks or detours we met full face;
challenged, we pressed north to the redwoods.
These things I knew: we were young and capable;
this was our America, our luck to belong here.
We were pursuing an instinct to find our edge,
look back at our innocence from a distance.
We saw rooms confining our aspirations,
doors to push open to a maze of choices.
“Roadtrip West” by Natalie Safir from Eyewitness. © Dos Madres, 2016. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
It’s the birthday of naturalist John Muir (books by this author), born in Dunbar, Scotland (1838). He grew up on a farm in Wisconsin. His father was a strict Christian, and by age 11, Muir could recite three-quarters of the Old Testament and all of the New Testament by heart. One evening, the boy was up late reading, and his father forbade him from staying up late, but decided that as a compromise, he could get up as early as he wanted in the morning. Muir began getting up at 1 a.m. and going to the cellar to work on inventions by the light of a tallow candle. He invented a self-setting sawmill, thermometers, barometers, complex door-locks, an automatic horse-feeding machine, clocks, a firelighter, and many more tools. For motivation in the dark winter mornings, he invented an elaborate clock that also told the day of the week and the month, and was connected to a bed that set him on his feet at an appointed hour.
He exhibited some of his inventions at the state fair, and made enough money to enroll at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. One day, he was standing underneath a black locust tree when a fellow student asked Muir if he knew what family the locust tree was in. Muir said that he didn’t know anything about plants, so the student asked him, well, what does the flower look like? Muir said it looked like a pea flower. When the student explained that they were in the same family, Muir was amazed, even more so after the other student explained the principles of taxonomy. He wrote: “This fine lesson 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.” Despite his new fascination with plants, he was a mechanical genius, and he remained equally interested in inventions. He improved his clock-bed, which now set him on his feet and simultaneously lighted a lamp. The bed was supplemented by a clockwork desk that kicked into gear as soon as he woke up; it took each book he needed to study in order, pushed it to the top of the desk, and opened it for the correct number of minutes. He invented a wide variety of complex scientific instruments. Professors were so amazed that they regularly brought visitors to Muir’s dormitory room on the weekends to show off his inventions. Muir chose not to follow a recommended course of study. Instead, he dabbled in whatever interested him, from botany to Latin, and left Madison without a degree. Before his death, he wrote about his college years: “I wandered away on a glorious botanical and geological excursion, which has lasted nearly 50 years and is not yet completed, always happy and free, poor and rich, without thought of a diploma or of making a name.”
Muir found work as a sawyer in a wagon wheel factory. He was quickly promoted, and expected to have a great career. But after a year, he was repairing a belt for a circular saw when a file slipped and struck his eye, and he was temporarily blinded. He spent six weeks in a dark room, not knowing if he would ever see again. When his sight did return, he realized how important the beautiful world was to him. He wrote: “It was from this time that my long continuous wanderings may be said to have fairly commenced. I bade adieu to all my mechanical inventions, determined to devote the rest of my life to the study of the inventions of God.” He set out on a 1,000-mile walk from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico, then walked from San Francisco to the Sierra Nevada.
Muir went on to become one of the most important naturalists and conservationists in American history. He founded the Sierra Club and helped fight to protect wilderness areas, especially the area around Yosemite Valley in the Sierra Nevada mountains. His books include Picturesque California (1888), My First Summer in the Sierra (1911), and The Story of My Boyhood and Youth (1913).
Today is the birthday of Charlotte Brontë (books by this author), born in Thornton, Yorkshire, England in 1816, the third of six children. The family moved to nearby Haworth in 1820, when Charlotte was four, because her father had been appointed the town’s minister, and there she grew up on the Yorkshire moors. Her mother died of cancer the following year, and Charlotte and her two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, were sent to boarding school. Conditions at the school were deplorable; the two older girls both contracted tuberculosis and were sent home, where they died in 1825.
Younger brother Branwell received a box of wooden soldiers from their father when Charlotte was 10, and soon the four remaining Brontë children — including Anne and Emily — began using them to populate imaginary kingdoms known as Angria and Gondal, about which they wrote and acted out detailed narratives.
As a young woman, Charlotte worked as a governess for a series of Yorkshire families, and even entertained the idea of opening a school with her sisters. She and Emily studied in Brussels with this goal in mind, but the school proved a nonstarter: their advertisements failed to raise a single response.
She and her sisters published a volume of poetry in 1846, under the masculine-sounding pen names Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. She wrote, “We had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, a flattery, which is not true praise.”
Charlotte’s most famous novel, Jane Eyre, was published in 1847, and in it she drew heavily upon her boarding school experiences and her early career to tell the story of a plain and penniless orphan governess who falls in love with her troubled — and married — employer. It was a best-seller, but critics called it “coarse” and “un-Christian,” and the criticism only increased when it was revealed that Currer Bell was really a woman.
Within a year of the novel’s publication, Charlotte’s three remaining siblings died: Anne and Emily of tuberculosis, and Branwell of alcohol and laudanum abuse. Charlotte remained close to home, caring for their father, and in 1854 she married her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls. She became pregnant soon after, but died of complications of pregnancy in 1855.