Happy Birthday, Mary Wollstonecraft!

In honor of Mary Wollstonecraft’s birthday, April 27, 1759, I share two works about this great feminist thinker which I’ve published here at Ordinary Philosophy.

One is the Traveling Philosophy series in which I followed the life and ideas of Wollstonecraft, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson in Revolution-era Paris, France in 2015.

The second is the following essay:

Mary Wollstonecraft, Champion of Reason, Passionate in Love

The life and work of Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of modern feminism, can seem to reveal a mass of contradictions.

Her seminal feminist work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, champions reason as the ultimate guide for a moral and productive life. She used reason to great effect to show why women should, and how they could, grow out of their socially constructed roles as under-educated coquettes and household drudges. She believed that reason should rule both individuals and societies because it’s the best tool we have to achieve justice and to perfect the self. Without reason, she thought, human beings are ruled by narrow self-interest, by the prejudice born of ignorance, and by crude lust.

Yet the life Wollstonecraft chose to live was widely criticized both during her lifetime and over the two hundred plus years since her death. It’s not just because she didn’t conform to the mores of her time; her life choices are still considered unreasonable and even self-destructive by many. At times, they made her an object of scandal, impoverished, or deeply depressed, even in such desperate straits that she twice attempted suicide. That’s because she was also deeply passionate, devoted to retaining her personal and mental freedom while abandoning herself to loves which never failed to break her heart, be it revolution, family, friend, or lover. For Wollstonecraft, reason and passion are not opposites: they are two sides of the same coin. A truly reasonable person, she thought, is kind, affectionate, and generous as well, and a passionate lover of justice, truth, and beauty.

Wollstonecraft’s chosen role for herself was, first and foremost, a teacher, an advocate of knowledge and instiller of reason. While teaching was one of the few professions open to her as an eighteenth-century woman from a respectable but impoverished background, she brought her formidable powers of reason to bear on the problems with many of the educational and child-rearing practices of her day. After her first job as a companion, she became a teacher, first in the classroom at a school she founded with two of her sisters and her best friend, then as a governess. When she became a mother twice over in her mid- and late thirties, she was a tender and hands-on mother, an advocate of breastfeeding and attentive parenting in an era of wet-nurses and governesses, when wealthy and middle class parents participated relatively little in the care and instruction of their children, even from infancy.

Her first book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, opens with her parenting advice and argues that girls should be taught how to run a household while also learning self-sufficiency. In her time, women were not expected to support themselves; they were trained to raise a family, earning how to catch and keep a man first, household managers second, and educators of young children third. Single women, widows, and married women whose husbands, fathers, brothers, and other male relations could not or would not support them had few employment options available to them, mostly directly related to one of the three roles they were trained for. Those jobs that women could respectably take paid very little, so those working women nearly always lived a life of subservience and privation. Modern feminist thought, until very recently, equated domestic life with that housebound, choiceless, oppressed life most women were required to live. However, now that we’ve mostly established women’s basic moral right to self-determination, we’ve come to consider the domestic life just as valid a choice for free women as a professional or a public life. So in this sense, Wollstonecraft’s view of women was more progressive than that of many modern feminists, even if by accident rather than foresight: she did not speak of a time when women would need to reject domesticity in order to free themselves from it, only to reclaim it by choice after their liberation.

Her ideas were gleaned from her own experience: she discovered firsthand how important it is never to assume that one’s self or one’s children will always have someone they can depend on for education, sustenance, or affection. Life’s too uncertain for that: parents, spouses, relatives, colleagues, and friends can become neglectful, estranged, impoverished, or disabled, and of course, sometimes they die. Wollstonecraft’s father squandered his inheritance and never bothered to learn how to earn an adequate living, leaving all of his children (except for his oldest son, who inherited what was left) to fend for themselves in adulthood, and his daughters without the dowry necessary for a respectable marriage. Knowing firsthand what it’s like to wrest a living from a world where women were ill equipped for and mostly barred from nearly all employments men were free to pursue, Wollstonecraft believed all girls should have a thorough education centered on self-sufficiency, from learning how to take care of a household, to learning how to think, to learning how to make a living. This not only gives women the freedom to choose a partner for better reasons than mere survival (Wollstonecraft equated this with prostitution), but leaves women free to live their lives as independently as they like.

Until Wollstonecraft’s response to Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution, her Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), her published work continued on an educational vein, from original compositions to editorial work to translation. Beginning with The Rights of Men, through A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), and up to her last work, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1796), she transitioned from a teacher of ideas into an innovator, drawing on the wealth of knowledge she had obtain through her lifetime thus far of work and study. She was a semi-autodidact, her rather patchy childhood education supplemented in her teens by her own voracious reading and friends who recognized her hunger for learning, and continued independently during her working years in the hours she could dedicate to her self-improvement. When she established herself as a professional author, she was finally able to immerse herself as fully in the life of an intellectual, attending famous salons and becoming the friend and colleague of many of the brightest minds of her day.

One of the central themes in The Rights of Woman is the education of women. In this work, Wollstonecraft explained that it’s the nature of women, rather than their practical needs, that’s the ultimate justification for their rights, though she doesn’t minimize the importance of the latter. Since women possess reason just as men do, they likewise need education to be happy, fulfilled, and above all, moral creatures. Infantilizing women by denying them a full education, she says, renders them not only financially helpless, entirely dependent on men whether or not they’re capricious, selfish, lazy, cruel, or just unlucky, but undermines them as moral beings. It’s reason, more than anything else, that determines the difference between right and wrong, and a complete education is required for using reason to its fullest capacity.

But outside of her moral reasoning, in her life as she lived it, Wollstonecraft displays the often stark contrast between what one might expect a person ruled by reason would do, and what a person would do when driven entirely by passion.

One of her earliest crushes, the Irish gentleman and songwriter George Ogle, ended up causing her no harm and probably doing her even more good than many might realize; not only did her cheer her with intellectual and witty conversation in her time as governess for the wealthy Kingsborough family in Ireland, a biographer credits him as the secret benefactor whose cash gift allowed her to return home to England and pursue writing in earnest. And her pursuit of the intellectual life she loved probably brought her more joy and fulfillment than anything else, with the possible exception of her daughter Fanny.

But most of her other loves did seem to bring her at least as much pain as joy. Her first deep attachment in her early teens was to her friend Jane Arden, who didn’t share her idealistic concept of the near-exclusive, passionate friendship of the soulmate. The more the young Mary sought to dominate her affections, the more Jane drew away. Fanny Blood, her dearest friend in adulthood, nearly lived up to her ideal, but her father’s shiftlessness kept her family impoverished, leaving Fanny with the responsibilities of main breadwinner as well as head housekeeper for her large family. Wollstonecraft saw her dreams for Fanny and herself mostly come true when they joined forces with Wollstonecraft’s sisters to found a school, but this didn’t last as long as she hoped. The distant and dithering suitor Fanny longed to marry for years finally carried her off to Portugal, leading to her painful death less than a year later as she succumbed simultaneously to her tuberculosis and the rigors of childbirth. The painter Henry Fuseli may have been a romantic interest: he later liked to claim this, and others echoed this claim, but evidence also indicates that her interest in him was as an aesthetic and intellectual soulmate more than anything. (At this time, she was still firmly opposed to marriage, and determined to keep herself free from the sort of entanglements that would hamper her mental and physical freedom.)

After a but of scandal around her unconventional, and rejected, proposal to Fuseli and his wife (who also her good friend) that she live with the two of them, she set off for Paris to witness the French Revolution firsthand. Wollstonecraft was an ardent supporter of the Revolution, as she saw it continuing the work of dismantling the tyranny of a parasitical monarchy, corrupt and greedy church, and oppressive social practices and mores that the American Revolution had started. By the time she arrived, it had already taken a violent turn, but she held out hopes that this was a natural but temporary outcome of a people throwing off a tyranny that had ruthlessly oppressed them so badly and for so for so long. While she maintained throughout that a certain amount of violence is the natural byproduct of any truly transformative revolution, she became more and more disillusioned with its leadership and tactics over time, and finally, with her own hopes of its success. (She had, by the way, identified herself with the moderate Girondins throughout.) Wollstonecraft did not live long enough to see that the Revolution did end up succeeding in ushering in a new era of human rights-centered government, once some social balance was restored. But she did escape the Terror, probably narrowly, having fallen in love once again. She found herself pregnant and fleeing for her life, returning to England after giving birth her first child at 35.

And it was Gilbert Imlay, father of this child and first deep romantic passion of her life, that caused her the most pain, more than the sisters with whom she was often at odds, more than her most cherished female friends who left her in one way or another, more than her ne’er-do-well brother and Blood family, more than her self-important painter, more than the school she founded that fell apart when she left to nurse Fanny in her final illness, leaving her deep in debt. Imlay presented himself as a man of adventure, and American frontiersman of rugged, self-sufficient, and honest character. These proved to be an illusion: he was actually a man primarily of business, sometimes (often?) of shady dealings, and one who did not always keep his word, to say the least. In Imlay, Wollstonecraft finally found an exciting sexual partner, a stimulating companion, and a fellow believer in truly living according to one’s personality. They never married because they didn’t believe in it, though they found it expedient to pass themselves off as husband and wife in a pinch. In fact, this pretense may very well have saved Wollstonecraft’s life, since the perpetrators of the Terror were executing many expatriate Britons in its most insular stage; Americans were still on good footing with the Revolution, and as his ‘wife’, she was an American too. But it became clear over time that Imlay was not eager to embark on the happy domestic life her pregnancy caused her to long for, and he abandoned her in stages. It took her a long time to get over Imlay while facing the difficulties of being a single mother in 18th-century Europe; it was in this time she twice attempted suicide.

Her husband and first biographer William Godwin called Wollstonecraft a ‘firmest champion’ of her sex. He, finally, turned out to be the lasting sort of love she was looking for, initiated in intellectual connection and only later growing into passion. Sadly, they only enjoyed a brief romance, less than two years, since she died of complications from giving birth to their first child. I think Godwin was right, and I would add, she was a champion of reason and passion too, and a champion of seeking: of truth, of wisdom, of self-discovery, of new ideas and sources of knowledge, of experiences that expand the mind and the heart, of becoming the best human being one can be. To fully follow her example is risky: she often flung prudent reasoning to the wind in favor of following her heart, in a time most dangerous for women to do so. Yet, though reasoned prudence is a virtue, it can be taken too far, holding you back, preventing you from taking chances and experiencing all the richness life can offer. She did not hold back.

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Sources and inspiration:

Godwin, William. Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. London, 1798.

Gordon, Lyndall. Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Harper Collins, 2006.

Jacobs, Diane. Her Own Woman: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

Tomalin, Claire. The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. London: Weidenfield & Nicholson, 1974.

Happy Birthday, Ludwig Wittgenstein!

Drawing of Ludwig Wittgenstein by Christiaan Tonnism, pencil on board 1985, Creative Commons

In honor of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s birthday, Apr 26, 1889, let me share three fascinating discussions about the great philosopher’s life and ideas, one by Stephen West and two for the BBC, one by Matthew Parris and one by Melvin Bragg with their guests.

The first is by philosopher West for his podcast Philosophize This!, in which he discusses ‘…the limitations of language as described by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Considered by some to be the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein played a central, if controversial, role in 20th-century analytic philosophy. He continues to influence current philosophical thought in topics as diverse as logic and language, perception and intention, ethics and religion, aesthetics and culture….’ (this episode is only the first West will create about Wittgenstein)

The second is from the series Great Lives, hosted by Matthew Parris and featuring guests Raymond Tallis and Ray Monk. In this program, Parris, Tallis, and Monk discuss ‘Ludwig Wittgenstein, the fascinating and misunderstood genius who changed the course of philosophy…’

The thirdis  from the series In Our Time, hosted by Melvin Bragg and featuring guests Ray Monk, Barry Smith, and Marie McGinn. In this program, Monk, Bragg, Smith, and McGinn discuss ‘…the life, work and legacy of Ludwig Wittgenstein… Wittgenstein is credited with being the greatest philosopher of the modern age, a thinker who left not one but two philosophies for his descendants to argue over: The early Wittgenstein said, “the limits of my mind mean the limits of my world”; the later Wittgenstein replied, “If God looked into our minds he would not have been able to see there whom we were speaking of”. Language was at the heart of both. Wittgenstein stated that his purpose was to finally free humanity from the pointless and neurotic philosophical questing that plagues us all. As he put it, “To show the fly the way out of the fly bottle”.How did he think language could solve all the problems of philosophy? How have his ideas influenced contemporary culture?…’

Enjoy and be inspired, awed, puzzled, and enlightened!

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

 

New Podcast Episode: Two Stories About Following the Life and Work of John Steinbeck

Bust of John Steinbeck and sculptures of people who inspired Cannery Row, Monterey, CA

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

March 4th – 9th, 2017

For several days this last week, I’ve been on a literary retreat hosted by Clay Jenkinson, Becky Cawley, and Russ Eagle. You may remember Clay and Becky from the account of my last retreat with them at Lochsa Lodge in the Bitterroot Mountains in January. Clay is a humanities scholar who has been very influential in my own study and thought for the last few years, Becky has worked with Clay for many more years than that co-creating historical, cultural, and literary tours throughout the United States, and Russ Eagle has made Steinbeck a special study for many years as well. At Lochsa Lodge this winter, we read and discussed Walden Pond and Henry David Thoreau’s concept of living deliberately, as well the history of the Native Americans of the Great Plains and the wars of the United States’ expansion into their territories through the 1800’s, and the echoes of those wars and that expansion in the DAPL fight today.

This tour took us to Monterey, Pacific Grove, the Salinas Valley, and the mountains and coastline of this beautiful region of California following the life and work of the great American writer John Steinbeck

Read the written version here and here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Ordinary Philosophy’s 4th Anniversary

At Monticello, VA, with my Dad, John Cools, in 2015 for my history of ideas series following Thomas Jefferson in America

I published my first post for Ordinary Philosophy four years ago today, on April 23rd, 2013. Thank you, dear readers and listeners, for your kind attention, your encouragement, your corrections, your patience as I learn with and from you, and your hospitality and financial support (you know who you are!) for all of my traveling philosophy / history of ideas series.

Ordinary Philosophy has been one of the most satisfying projects of my life, and I look forward to continuing to share my love of philosophy, history, ideas, and travel for many more years to come, whatever form this will take.

I’m thrilled to share the news with you that I’ll be resuming my formal education at the University of Edinburgh this fall. What an adventure this will be! I’ll be living and studying in the center of the Scottish Enlightenment and the city of David Hume. He brought me here three years ago when I followed his life and ideas for my first history of ideas travel series. I’ll take this opportunity continue my Hume series as well. Though my studies will demand a great deal of my energy and attention, I dearly hope I’ll be able to devote more time to share more with you here at Ordinary Philosophy, not less, as I once again pour the bulk of my time, energy, and love into the world of ideas.

Yours, as ever, Amy Cools

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Selfie in the beautiful Rose Room of the New York Public Library, 2016 Amy Cools

In the beautiful Rose Room of the New York Public Library. Thank you, friends, for supporting my New York projects too! Ahhh, what a town…

Remembering Margaret Fell

Margaret Fell, with George Fox before the judges, from a painting by J. Pettie 1663, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Margaret Fell with George Fox before the judges, from a painting by J. Pettie, 1663

Margaret Fell was born on some unknown date in 1614, so let’s take this occasion to remember her on the date of her death, April 23rd, 1702.

Fell’s lived a life as passionate as it was long. She was an unconventional thinker for her time, a zealous and progressive religious activist at times imprisoned for her beliefs, a prolific writer, well-traveled, a mother of eight children and a wife twice.

An early adherent and eloquent promoter of Quakerism, Fell is now considered one of its founders. She converted to Quakerism after hearing a sermon by one of its most charismatic preachers, George Fox, and almost immediately launched into a lifetime of hosting Quaker meetings and speaking out on behalf of her new religion. After her husband died some years later, Fell married Fox, probably more as a co-missionary than as a romantic partner since their work, travels, and imprisonments kept them apart for much of their marriage.

As I’ve had a lifelong fascination with the history of human rights, I’ve long admired the Quakers because, along with Unitarians and Deists, so many have been leaders in the struggle to expand, establish, and promote them. That’s because these faiths emphasize the importance of individual conscience, the primacy of the human mind, God’s rational nature, and the moral equality of all human beings.

Fell believed in the Quaker doctrine of the Inner Light which God has caused to shine equally in the hearts of all beings; all we need do is heed it. Therefore, one does not need ministers, priests, or any other authorities or intercessors to achieve salvation. And because God has created everyone for the same purpose and gave everyone that light, everyone is spiritually equal and capable of understanding and proclaiming the Truth. We can see how this doctrine, central to Quakerism, readily aligns with human rights movements centered on a belief human spiritual and intellectual equality. The right of women to speak in church and write religious texts, in her time limited to men, was a cause particularly dear to Fell’s heart. While Fell’s belief in the equality of women was limited to their role as spiritual beings, Quakerism tended to encourage ever-more progressive beliefs in its adherents. Over time, Quakers came to be leaders in the abolitionist and pacifist movements, promoting the right of all to receive equal and universal education and for women’s rights in social and political spheres as well.

In light of her achievements as a female religious pioneer, and the human rights advances facilitated by the Quaker faith she helped found, Fell’s contributions should continue to be remembered and celebrated.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and inspiration

Broad, Jacqueline, ‘Margaret Fell‘, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Jacoby, Susan. Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion. New York: Pantheon, 2016 (see chapter on Margaret Fell)

Photobook: John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez, CA, continued

John Muir’s bedroom at John Muir National Historic Site, Martinez, CA

Yesterday, I published a piece in honor of John Muir’s birthday. Muir was the great naturalist and writer who, perhaps more than any other single individual, awoke America’s consciousness to the sacredness and essential value of the unspoiled natural world. Here are a few more photos from my visit to his home at John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez, CA.

Enjoy!

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

The Muir family home built by Dr. John Strentzel at John Muir National Historic Site, Martinez, CA

An orchard at John Muir National Historic Site, Martinez, CA. They are beautifully maintained and visitors may wander the orchards and eat the fruit at will.

Dr John Strentzel’s pomegranate trees in bloom at John Muir National Historic Site, Martinez, CA

Vicente Martinez Adobe, built in 1849, on the grounds at the John Muir National Historic Site, Martinez, CA

Vicente Martinez Adobe plaque at the John Muir National Historic Site, Martinez, CA

The living room of the big house, John Muir National Historic Site, Martinez, CA. Louie Muir was an expert piano player, having learned as part of her excellent education in lovely Benicia, just across the Carquinez Strait from Martinez

The kitchen at John Muir National Historic Site, Martinez, CA

Inside the bell tower of the big house at John Muir National Historic Site, Martinez, CA. From this tower, one has an excellent view of the surrounding orchards.

Happy Birthday, John Muir!

John Muir National Historic Site, his home in Martinez, CA, where he lived the last two and a half decades of his life

In honor of John Muir’s birthday, April 21, 1838, I’ll share the story of my visit to an important place in his life last summer. It was June 26th, 2016, a hot, bright day in Martinez, CA.

The John Muir National Historic Site is near the Carquinez Strait, which links San Pablo and Suisun Bays. Benicia, California’s third but short-lived capital city, is just across the strait and was reached by ferry in Muir’s time. A lovely town with a well-preserved historic district, Benicia is well-situated on a waterway that permits easy passage for ships and ferries. In its early years, the strait allowed for easy passage of people, animals, and the products of this agricultural region and later industrial center, so it became a busy, thriving center of commerce. It enjoyed its first big boom with the gold rush, as it lay on an easy route between San Francisco and the gold fields.

Martinez was also a hub of Gold Rush activity. The ferry between Benicia and Martinez enjoyed a monopoly on getting all those gold-crazed fortune seekers south to the gold fields and north again to cash on. But Martinez was also an important agricultural town, and this site preserves just a little bit of that aspect of its history. It’s about a thirty-five-minute drive northeast of where I live in Oakland, CA.

Physician, horticulturist, and father-in-law of John Muir, Dr. John Strentzel, among his orchards and vineyards in Martinez, CA. Photo credit: Sierra Club

A ripe peach from the orchards of John Muir National Historic Site, Martinez, CA

The grand house which stands here was first the home of Dr. John Strentzel, a Polish physician who emigrated to the United States in 1840. Like Benicia and Martinez, Strentzel made his early fortune in the Gold Rush, in his case through the practice of medicine. He later took up farming and achieved fame as a horticulturist. Strentzel settled in Alhambra Valley, just south of Martinez, with his wife Louisiana, daughter Louisa, and son John, in 1853. The Strentzels built their final home and grand farm here in Martinez from 1880-1882, with a veritable mansion made comfortable with the most modern amenities as they became available: indoor plumbing, gas lighting, two water closets, a telephone, and eventually, electricity. Louisa, nicknamed Louie, ferried to Benicia daily where she went to school and learned to play the piano expertly. John died at only nine years old in 1857.

The Martinez house was surrounded by acres and acres of rolling farmland, and several groves remain. I see grapes, peaches, plums, pomegranates, and much more. Visitors can pluck and eat the fruit freely; the peaches and plums are ripe now, the latter richly red, dripping, and delicious.

John Muir’s ‘Scribble Den’, John Muir National Historic Site, Martinez, CA

John Muir met the Strentzels in 1874; he was already well known as a naturalist and just beginning his career as a writer. The year before, he moved to Oakland from Yosemite in 1873 and published articles about California’s natural wonders. He often lamented how slowly his thoughts flowed through his pen though they bloomed as naturally and abundantly in his mind as the wild California flowers he loved.

Parts of Yosemite had already been set aside as public land, protected by the state of California for public use and barred from development by private interests. Senator John Conness introduced the bill in Congress in 1864 which passed quickly, and President Abraham Lincoln signed it that summer. Conness is an interesting and admirable person as well, an Irish immigrant who also got his start in the Gold Rush and remained on the right side of history in his political career. His advocacy for Chinese immigrants and equal rights eventually destroyed his political career, but in the meantime he was respected as a champion of the ordinary American, native and immigrant, over the interests of the few and the wealthy, and was one of Lincoln’s pallbearers.

Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park

Yet the bill protecting Yosemite did not provide funds or authority to protect it. It took Muir, another immigrant, to reveal the true sacredness of the natural world to the consciousness of his (now) fellow Americans, which in turn gave rise to the political will to care for it. An accident in the factory he worked at in 1867 damaged his eyes temporarily and he began to wander. He walked from Indianapolis to Florida, a thousand miles, and fell in love with the natural world and the transformative power of walking in nature. Muir heard that there were spectacular natural wonders in California, vast, and in many places still unexplored and unspoiled, and sailed to San Francisco in 1868. He walked to Yosemite and throughout the Sierras, writing a journal as he went. He emerged as a prophet, fearless, tireless, and rendered poetic by his baptism of the wind, trees, stones, wildlife, and water.

Two books, one written by and one owned by John Muir

But he realized that this great inspiration which transformed and ennobled his life would be unavailable to others if the entrepreneurs trespassing into the Yosemite valley and despoiling it were allowed to continue. So like the biblical prophets, Muir emerged from the wilderness to share the good news and cry out against those who defiled the great temples of creation for their own gain. He returned to civilization to spread the word, first through newspapers and then through books. 1874, the year he met the Strentzel sat a mutual friend’s home in Oakland, saw his first success as a writer with his ‘Studies in the Sierra’ series. Muir had also discovered the evidence that the formations of Yosemite were created by glaciers, not wind and rain as previously thought, and over time, convinced the scientific community of the truth of his theory.

The sequoia that John Muir planted near his home is not doing too well, it’s too warm and dry here. Its natural habitat is in the higher, cooler Sierras

Muir married Louie Strentzel in 1879. Though her father and Muir had become good friends, the couple did not fall for each other on their own. Another mutual friend set them up and convinced each, separately, that the other would make a perfect companion. Muir began to help Dr. Strentzel run the Martinez farm when his health declined, and when he died in 1890, the Muirs established a life together here as ranchers with their two daughters. Muir turned out to be an excellent rancher and, like his father-in-law, was a hard and skilled worker, gifted at innovation and invention. Though Louie didn’t share Muir’s central passion for the wilderness, the couple were affectionate and generous with one another, and she insisted that Muir get away and spend time alone in his beloved wilderness when he needed it, which was often, and often for extended periods.

Like Muir, I love to walk, especially in nature, and when the weather and daylight hours permit, go on hikes, long or short, two or three times a week. I would one day love to have the wherewithal, or lacking that, the courage to give up financial security and my belongings to wander the earth awhile in freedom, taking in what the journey has to offer. I’m in the process right now of cutting my moorings and setting off on a new course in life, resuming my studies in Muir’s native Scotland and getting in as much walking and traveling as I can beforehand. I’m happy that I’ve walked in many of the places Muir has, or at least nearby: I’ve ascended Mount Diablo, by foot and by bicycle; I’ve done several hikes in Yosemite; I’ve lived in Oakland for ever a decade and spent a lot of time in San Francisco; and on that beautiful summer day in June, I explored his old home and strolled through some of his orchards.

Amy in Yosemite National Park, above the falls on the El Capitan hike

The idea that Americans should own the most beautiful portions of their nation’s land in common is an idea that melds Muir’s belief in the sacredness of nature and Senator Conness’s belief in universal human rights. Each human soul needs and deserves a place of unspoiled beauty to immerse itself in, and everyone, not only the rich, the powerful, and the well-connected, should have the opportunity to fulfill and ennoble themselves this way. The National Parks, then, are among the greatest expressions of this democratic spirit.

You can find more photos of the John Muir National Historic Site here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and inspiration

Burns, Ken. The National Parks: America’s Best Idea documentary series, and ‘John Muir (1838–1914)‘ from the documentary website

City of Benicia: Historic Context Statement, Sep 27, 2010. By City of Benicia Department of Public Works & Community Planning

John Muir National Historic Site: People‘, at NPS.gov

History of Martinez‘. From the Martinez Historical Society website

John Conness‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

The John Muir House‘. John Muir National Historic Site: People, at NPS.gov

Sierra Club: John Muir Exhibit, various articles: ‘Chronology (Timeline) of the Life and Legacy of John Muir‘; ‘Dr. John Theophile Strentzel’; ‘John Muir: A Brief Biography‘; ‘Louie Strentzel Muir: A Biography by Steve and Patty Pauly‘; ‘Who Was John Muir?

Thomas, Donna and Peter. Muir Ramble Route: Walking from San Francisco to Yosemite in the Footsteps of John Muir

Walsh, Victor A. ‘John Muir and the Family Ranch in Martinez‘. July 5, 2011. LiteraryTraveler.com