John Muir was born in Scotland. When he was eleven, his father moved the family into the wild Wisconsin forest, which ended Muir’s formal schooling. Instead, “when I was about fifteen or sixteen years of age, I began to grow hungry for real knowledge,” and he became obsessed with reading. This is all from Chapter VII of The Story of My Boyhood and Youth (1913).
What did a hard-laboring farm boy read in the five or ten minutes a day he had for reading? Math books, religious books (approved by his father), Scott’s novels (hidden from his father), poetry:
I remember as a great and sudden discovery that the poetry of the Bible, Shakespeare, and Milton was a source of inspiring, exhilarating, uplifting pleasure; and I became anxious to know all the poets, and saved up small sums to buy as many of their books as possible… I think it was in my fifteenth year that I began to relish good literature with enthusiasm, and smack my lips over favorite lines, but there was desperately little time for reading, even in the winter evenings – only a few minutes stolen now and then. (119)
I did not make that discovery until I was eighteen, or later. Mmm, smack, smack. That’s some gooood poetry. And so on.
Muir is nothing if not a problem-solver, and he solves the problem of his limited time by ingeniously exploiting a promise of his father’s:
“If you will read, get up in the morning and read. You may get up in the morning as early as you like.” (120)
Young Muir begins awaking at one o’clock in the morning, which gives him plenty of time (“Five hours to myself… five huge, solid hours!”) to read and do all sorts of other things, including making a homemade saw, inventing clocks (having “learned the time laws of the pendulum from a book”), inventing a clock that “could be connected with a bedstead to set me on my feet at any hour in the morning; also to start fires, light lamps, etc.”
This is pretty much what we all did when we were fifteen, yes? Working in the fields, or chiseling an eighty foot well from sandstone, from dawn to dusk, going to bed at eight, and then, in the middle of the night, reading Shakespeare and inventing clocks. Yes, pretty much.
Like the autobiography of E. O. Wilson (Naturalist, 1994) I read a couple of years ago, the primary task of The Story of My Boyhood and Youth is to give some sense of how John Muir (boy) became John Muir (famous naturalist). And then there is the corollary: why have I not become a famous naturalist? Muir’s memoir (Wilson’s, too) is an admirable success. It decisively answers that question.
Page numbers from the Library of America collection of Muir's work, Nature Writings.