[Wednesdays, I am posting pieces of Chasing Smallwood, an early book now out of print. This is a book about four interconnected themes:
- how to communicate with the dead;
- the life of a 19th-century American;
- the massive task facing us today, and
- the physical world’s place in the scheme of things.]
.9. John Muir
Well, you wouldn’t think it, but I was getting older. By 1854 I was 32 and I felt like I was getting on in years. Now, if I had been doing the same thing all the time, the way you do in your time – or even some in my time, come to think of it, maybe I wouldn’t have felt the years passing in the same way. Or maybe it would have been worse, I don’t know.
That summer in Wisconsin I worked for John Muir’s father as a hired man. This wasn’t something I was used to doing, I was more on my own. But I had my reasons that year why I didn’t go trading. A little mix-up that I thought I’d let some time settle over. Not really anybody’s business, even after “all this time.” It wasn’t nothing disgraceful.
Yes, you notice how my diction changes from place to place. Well, think what I was! Yankee, Harvard graduate, Indian trader, Oregon settler (even though I didn’t settle, as it turned out), companion of horsemen and frontier dwellers and all manner of people with all manner of backgrounds. I fitted in with all of them, and it becomes easier to talk like the rest, and sort of relaxing, in a way. You should know when you use “ain’t” – even as a child that was like a forbidden thrill, wasn’t it?
(6:15 p.m.) Joseph?
John Muir was a skinny kid – tall, but skinny – with a great big Scots accent that made me work, sometimes, to figure what he was saying. His father was worse. I remember his mother as a tiny thing with a soft clear pleasant voice and good manners. Now that’s a funny thing to say isn’t it, but in the middle of the woods, she’d be dressed up for dinner, as we used to say.
Eau Claire – you don’t even know where to find it on a map, and you can’t quite remember if that’s the right place. Will you just let some things be wrong if they have to be wrong?
I suppose there’s no harm in telling it. I spent the winter [he means summer, clearly] working as a hired man because I thought it was as well to leave off trading until some people got over a misunderstanding. They thought I cheated them, and what it was, some goods disappeared somehow – somebody stole them, but it wasn’t me and I couldn’t see that I should take the loss. When something gets stolen, the person who had it is the loser, not the person gave it to him, or sold it to him, nor left it to him! But the thing is, nobody could tell when the stuff got out of my bags and we never did figure it out. But the codger who called me a thief – white man, of course; Indians knew better – he wouldn’t hear reason. What kind of trader wants a reputation as a thief? Not if he’s fixing to ever return to the same place! But, like I say, this old man swore himself black in the face that I’d sold him shirts I didn’t have. (Sold them in a bundle of stuff, you see.) If he’d opened the bundle when I sold it to him, I’d have had to take the loss, I guess – if they were missing! – but for all I knew, he just put the shirts aside and claimed they weren’t there. Bad business, dealing third-hand [I think he means with an intermediary], and I never did it again, but counted out the money and counted out the goods right there.
But there we were, the fellow saying harsh things about me and threatening to law me and who knows what-all, as they say down your way, or used to. I was pretty disgusted – nobody had ever called me a liar and a thief – and if this had been the “old west” you’ve been fed in your movies and westerns, I guess we’d have had a gunfight at high noon. But he was just a crazy old man and there wasn’t a good way to handle it.
Sure I could have given him the money for the shirts, and if I’d thought he didn’t have the shirts from me, I would have! Wouldn’t have charged him for them in the first place! But either somebody stole them from him or he was trying to steal them from me, and neither way was I going to pay him for goods I’d sold him! I was pretty disgusted. It only takes this one set-to like that to sour something I’d been doing with pleasure for years.
Of course from here I can see that the whole thing – including my reaction to it – was just to get me to that farm for that summer, to infect a skinny kid with a love of Indians and the wilderness. But how was I supposed to know that then? The short answer is, I wasn’t supposed to know it! My Upstairs as you call it was working day and night to be sure I didn’t know it! It was telling me it was entirely reasonable to take a year off trading just to let the dust settle, and of course that makes just as much sense as dipping water with a sieve. But it seemed to make sense, because Upstairs saw to it that it seemed to, and then I just “happened” to wind up working there that summer, and all I thought I was doing was making a little money, killing time, doing something different, avoiding trouble. You name the time of day, I had a different excuse for what I was doing.
And do you know what I was doing? I was doing two things together – besides working the farm, I mean, which by the way brought me back to my own boyhood. One, I was doing the first work on my dictionary. I had all my ledger books, and for once I had a stretch of months where I was in the same place, with a lamp and a table. And two, although I didn’t know it, I was lighting up that boy. As soon as he saw I knew the Indian names for things, he started to pester me like I must have pestered Charley, years before. He wanted to know what they called it, how the name sounded, and what the name meant, if it meant more than “little blue cornflower.” I didn’t entirely grasp what he was after. Probably he didn’t know, himself. But he wanted to know just everything I could tell him. He liked listening to my stories about heading west, too.
Now, his father was a fair man, but he was harsh in his way. I suppose he could see his son’s nature, and he got scared for him. He didn’t want a dreamer! He wanted somebody practical. The funny thing is, John was very good with his hands. Something broke, he could fix it better than it was to start with. And of course you know from your reading that his way off the farm came through the inventions he thought of and built. If he was a dreamer – and he was, for sure – he was a practical dreamer. But, like I say, he worried his father. So he and I did our talking while we worked, so the old man would have no cause to complain about either of us.
Nor did he, but only because I remembered I was a hired man, not a free man. I held my tongue plenty when the old man talked religion, which was not seldom. He knew I didn’t agree with him but I never said so, and he didn’t want to lose a good hand in mid-season, so he never pressed. But he knew, and that was just one more thing to worry about John.
I like to think I’m the one introduced him to Emerson but I don’t think it was really that way. Emerson traveled all around the Midwest lecturing, you know, and while I don’t think he got quite to Wisconsin his name did. Plus, he would be in the Tribune and that would have been enough to give Johnny the idea. His mind naturally ran that way, the way mine did and so many of the men of my generation. And the two generations that followed, I was glad to see. Then it was Henry’s turn.
That one long summer and I never saw him again. He went on to have quite some impact on things, and I’m taking credit for my little bit. Set up in the back room out of my sight, of course, but still I did it. That’s the secret of life: doesn’t matter how good the planning, at the end, somebody has to do it, or it won’t get done that way. Another way, maybe – and maybe not – but certainly not that way. Sometimes a lot of planning is riding on your being willing to do what’s been worked out.
So that’s my story with John Muir, as close as I came to greatness. To personally interacting with it, I mean.