raising little ones in the great outdoors

John Muir: The Original Outdoor Parent?

When I think of John Muir, I think of the solo mountaineer rambling through the High Sierra or the old conservationist fighting to save the Hetch Hetchy Valley from the damn that now traps it beneath reservoir water. Muir as a parent? I’d never hear much about his family life until reading Donald Worster’s acclaimed biography, A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir.

In a sense Muir may have been the first outdoor parent. Sure children were raised with strong connections to outdoor world before Muir’s day, but nature wasn’t necessarily viewed as a force that could instruct and form, rather a force that needed to be harnessed and controlled. Muir hoped the natural world would be a light in his children’s life, and, like many of us, he also struggled to balance his passions with his responsibilities. There is something distinctly modern to Muir’s stories and struggles.

passion coverAt the time of his marriage, Muir was at an apex in his career as naturalist and writer. His articles were appearing regularly in magazines across the country. In scientific circles, he had already grown into a household name. Scientific journals begged him to sit down and produce academic papers on glaciology, yet his writing work didn’t generate enough income to support a family. Muir’s life shifted when he married Louisa Strentzel, the daughter of wealthy fruit farmers. With his in-laws aging, Muir promised to run the prosperous estate in Martinez, Ca.

Nestled in the low coastal mountains, Martinez was far from the high country. Yosemite Valley was a spiritual and intellectual crucible where Muir ticked peaks and dined with some of the most eminent thinkers and scientists of the day. His love of mountains didn’t diminish even though his life had changed.

Muir essentially went from a transient life style into managing a massive business. Muir threw himself into providing for his family and turned the already prosperous orchards into a cash cow for the Strentzels. While the bucolic setting couldn’t compare to the mountains raw beauty, Muir’s family filled a void that the natural world had never been able to.

“How beautiful the world is and how beautiful is the time of the coming of our little love,” he would write to a friend. “Never since the Glacial Period or the Baby Period began were two happier people.”

The transition wasn’t without hiccups. With Louisa pregnant, Muir embarked on “one last trip” to Alaska before the arrival of his daughter Wanda and he would leave again two years later. Muir applied himself to family life and made a small fortune in the fruit business, but saw his new career as a means to end rather than a calling.

He imagined his younger daughter Helen becoming a great naturalist writer. In their teenage years, Muir included his children in his Sierra Club gatherings in Tuolumne. Helen would continue to attend even when her father couldn’t make the annual gatherings.


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3 Responses to “John Muir: The Original Outdoor Parent?”

  1. Steve says:

    Dude, don’t leave me hanging! Did Helen become a naturalist writer? Did she become CA’s most successful fruit saleswoman?

    • You got to read the book….just kidding. No it’s kind of sad. I think Muir loved his girls a lot, but he always was pretty busy when they were teenagers. He stayed close with them, but ultimately both girls didn’t follow a course Muir envisioned. The older daughter married a man Muir didn’t’ totally approve of. Helen was troubled with bouts of lung infections and so was Muir. Muir and Helen started making long pilgrimages to the desert, but ultimately Muir returned to Cali. Helen married a rough and tumble guy some where out by Barstow. I guess there maybe is a certain amount a kid rebels. I also think Muir wasn’t a perfect father, but who is? It’s really interesting though — I thought of the outdoor parent as soon as I read the section on Muir’s family life. It mirror’s so many of the hopes, concerns and struggles brought to life on this site. It’s by no means a short read and the family part is small compared to the rest of the book, but I found it truly fascinating on many different levels.

  2. Danny says:

    Its interesting to get insight into how children adopt or don’t adopt, their parents passions.

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