As I read John Muir’s The Story of My Boyhood and Youth I thought about how much it reminded me of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. Shocked at my own thoughts, I decided to write them out to see why my mind was making a connection between the writings of John Muir, naturalist, founder of the Sierra Club, and the man influential in creating our national parks, and the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who can be found neatly shelved in the young readers section of bookstores and libraries, and who is vaguely remembered as a semi-annoying character from the late 70’s early 80’s Little House on the Prairie television show, which featured Michael Landon (Pa), as the main star rather than Laura.
First, I will address the Little House books. Searching for something to read to my six year old it was recommended to me to read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. I am highly susceptible to suggested readings so I began with what would become a year long obsession (7 or 8 books, depending on if you want to read the one about Almanzo), to my six year old and husband. Mostly our reading took place in our living room, but sometimes we huddled on our bed totally absorbed in the story. I never imagined that we would get hooked, and that my husband would be asking if I were going to read, and by the end neither of us thought it was exclusively for my daughter.
The Little House books are written in a simple style and take you to an America that is gone. Not only because we do not homestead anymore, but because there is so much of nature we have already lost. Sadly, we will never get to experience the many birds that Ingalls Wilder describes covering the lake in By the Shores of Silver Lake. It is not the pioneer spirit or myth of traveling west to a better life that is so striking; it is rather the constant description or “seeing” of the landscape that Ingalls Wilder does for the reader, a skill honed by first seeing for her sister, Mary, who lost her sight.
“The whole world was green with grass now; the yellow-green willow leaves were uncurling. Violets and buttercups were thick in the prairie hollows, and the sorrel’s clover-like leaves and lavender blossoms were sour and good to eat” (On the Banks of Plum Creek, 108).”
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books are filled with beauty as well as the harshness of nature. The Long Winter, which is an intense narration of living through an uncharacteristically freezing winter in DeSmet, South Dakota, brings the attempt to idealize nature by the reader to a warm halting gratitude for a gas furnace. Blizzard after Blizzard blasts the little town, leaving the Ingalls huddling next to a small stove that they fuel with hay stalks that Charles Ingalls and Laura twist so as to make them burn slowly.
The beauty of the land is matched by the fierceness of it. The idyll of a peaceful life without modern technologies is slowly replaced by the stolid descriptions of hard labor that made up a life in the late 19th century. Pa, Charles Ingalls, moves his family from Wisconsin to various places before they settle in DeSmet. He not only works his own land, but he must also labor at any odd job in order to keep his family clothed, fed and sheltered. The girls go to school sporadically until they settle in South Dakota. They work inside the house: cleaning, sewing, baking, caring for each other; when necessary they work outside the house.
Ingalls Wilder’s story is so connected to the landscape, the weather, the earth beneath their mostly barefoot feet that I could not help but think my own body must be lost in this world of technology. It is not only that I cannot identify half the trees, flowers, and birds that I see; it is that for most of my life I never even noticed them! I was jolted by the ruggedness of life, and envious of the seclusion and confrontation with self and nature that Ingalls Wilder expresses so eloquently in her works. My daughter seemed a bit startled too. She was interested in knowing how they communicated without cell phones, and wanted to know about indians, hunting your own food, and farming.
Now for John Muir. I did not read Muir’s The Story of My Boyhood and Youth to my family. I found a collection of his work in the library and decided to take it home and perhaps read some of it since the solitude of nature writing appeals to me. I thought I would skip his story, written in first person, but when I began to read it I suddenly found myself hanging on Muir’s talent, like Ingalls Wilder, for “seeing”. Muir’s family came from Scotland and settled in Wisconsin. The Ingalls and the Muirs were experiencing America around roughly the same time, mid 19th century.
I found myself lingering on the descriptions offered up in what seemed like heaping scoops taken right from the land. He recounts a landscape that is harsh and beautiful. His days were filled with work on the farm with hardly any time for leisure activity. He went to school in Scotland, but at age 11 he was in Wisconsin plowing fields, tending to animals, mending whatever needed mending around the farm, digging a well by chiseling through rock, and basically doing whatever his father told him to do. There is a sense of exhaustion and exhilaration in his writing.
“The only fire for the whole house was the kitchen stove, with a fire-box about eighteen inches long and eight inches wide and deep, — scant space for three or four small sticks, around which in hard zero weather all the family of ten persons shivered, and beneath which in the morning we found our socks and coarse, soggy boots frozen solid. We were not allowed to start even this despicable little fire in its black box to thaw them. No, we had to squeeze our throbbing, aching chilblained feet into them, causing greater pain than toothache, and hurry out to chores. Fortunately, the miserable chilblain pain began to abate as soon as the temperature of our feet approached the freezing-point, enabling us in spite of hard work and hard frost to enjoy the winter beauty, – the wonderful radiance of the snow when it was starry with crystals, and the dawns and the sunsets and white noons, and the cheery, enlivening company of the brave chickadees and nuthatches (99).”
Muir sees beauty all around him. Not a leisure beauty. Not beauty as hobby. It is beauty that is deeply connected to his being, and as such tied directly to the pain that he experiences. But, it is not all about him. Even though he writes in first person he is able to go beyond himself and open life with its joy and sorrow to all sentient beings.
“Oftentimes I have thought it strange that one could walk through the woods and mountains and plains for years without seeing a single blood-spot. Most wild animals get into the world and out of it without being noticed. Nevertheless we at last sadly learn that they are all subject to the vicissitudes of fortune like ourselves (67).”
As I read through Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books and John Muir’s story I became more aware of my desire for constant comfort and what sacrifices I have made to avoid hard work. I am certainly grateful for some of the easy living. It was painfully obvious in the Ingalls Wilder books that if something happened to Pa, Charles Ingalls, the entire family would have been shattered. But, interestingly, Ingalls and Muir recount lives that were lived in the body. Because of the work that needed to be done they had little time to dwell on their sorrows or hold tight to their joys. If their minds wandered it was only to gaze awestruck at life that extended beyond themselves, and then somehow they went back to the task at hand without much fuss or complication.
The life both John Muir and Laura Ingalls Wilder describe is meditation created by the physical demand of living in an environment which necessitates moving in rhythm with the oxen and the plow. They were physically part of the environment and therefore able to connect with it. It makes me think we have lost not only a long list of species and land forms, but too our own bodies. Muir and Ingalls Wilder show us that if we are going to care for our world in any way that makes sense we must first find our bodies. And, probably the best place to begin the search is going out into the world where it might be among the grasshoppers, trees, birds, soil, rocks, water, clouds, and all other beings and things we simply forget to see or to hear or to touch….