The great naturalist John Muir lost his sight in an industrial accident in Indianapolis in March 1867. (Courtesy New York Public Library Digital Collections)
Mystics and scientists alike have often found that there’s a strange algebra to the universe. From tiny cosmological beginnings, we have the immensity of all that is, says the Big Bang Theory. A host of old creation stories concur.
In the history of the American environmental movement, one of the original “Big Bang” events — the puncturing of John Muir’s right eye by an awl, which caused him to temporarily go blind in both eyes — happened at a factory on Indianapolis’ Old Southside. Though this was the most frightening and soul-shattering event in the young Muir’s life, somewhere in the weird matrix of fate, we can trace the survival of California’s Yosemite Valley and Muir’s deep love for the high Sierra Nevada, for the beauty of rocks and redwoods, to the intense crisis he underwent after that terrifying accident in Indiana in 1867.
Born in Dunbar, thirty miles east of Edinburgh on Scotland’s southeastern coast, in 1838, Muir was the third of eight children. Given an intense and very Scottish religious upbringing — what environmental historian Mark Stoll calls the “hard and humorless religion” of his father Daniel — he eventually memorized most of the Old Testament and all of the New. In later years Muir departed from his evangelical background and proclaimed a “wilderness gospel,” but his strict Presbyterian roots were critical to him, if for no other reason than that his father, finding the Church of Scotland not strict enough, moved the family in 1849 to the wilds of frontier Wisconsin. Muir grew up in rural Marquette County, a few miles east of Portage, in a community of fervent Campbellite Presbyterians intent on restoring primitive Christianity.
He spent his teenage years almost at civilization’s edge: the family had settled in Wisconsin just a year after it became a state. Raised on the 160-acre Fountain Lake Farm (today a National Historic Landmark), the young Scottish immigrant grew to love the glacial lakes, meadows, and forests of the amazing Wisconsin wilderness. During long, dark winter nights, when he wasn’t developing his love for nature or reading Romantic poetry, he turned to mechanical invention, building — with no technical training at all — an incredible series of clocks, thermometers, a barometer, and other devices. In 1860, without his father’s blessing, the 22-year-old moved to Madison to enroll in the fledgling University of Wisconsin.
Once there, Muir continued to hone his skills as a mechanic while also getting his first introduction to geology, natural philosophy, and the writings of the American Transcendentalists, like Emerson and William Ellery Channing, who enriched his views on both religion and science.
He also kept on building clocks. Muir’s growing technical aptitude — the source of his fateful encounter with Indianapolis — led him to create two of the most interesting time-keepers ever made. Built just at the outbreak of the Civil War, his impressive combination alarm clock and study desk survives and is on display at the Wisconsin Historical Society on the UW campus. One of Muir’s designs was a folksy “scythe clock,” combining a pendulum with wheels, arrows and the long field knife that farmers once mowed hay with. At the Wisconsin State Fair in 1860, he displayed some of these fascinating contraptions to many admirers.
When his brother Daniel fled to Ontario to escape the Civil War draft, Muir followed him, working in a Canadian sawmill and rake factory in 1864-65. One of the great “temptations” of the future conservationist’s life was to settle down and work at mechanics, which he considered a service to humankind. But when the Ontario mill burned down in 1866, Muir headed back to the United States.
Indianapolis at that time was one of the great industrial and railroad centers of the Midwest. A year after the Civil War ended, John Muir sauntered into town. The city’s location, in some ways, was ideal for him. Marion County still held many great forests and two swamps, ripe for a naturalist’s study, but its busy factories meant that he would also be able to support himself here. In an autobiographical sketch, Muir specifically mentioned the appeal that central Indiana’s hardwood forests had for him.
Though he intended to eventually go down to the Caribbean and South America, the newcomer quickly and easily found work at Osgood, Smith & Co., a carriage factory at 230 South Illinois Street. This shop was located barely two blocks south of Indianapolis Union Station, at the intersection of Illinois and Merrill Streets. Pogue’s Run, not yet channeled through underground tunnels, ran nearby. The spot today, just east of the towering Lucas Oil Stadium, is occupied by an Indianapolis Post Office distribution center, one of the biggest concrete eyesores in town — appropriate, perhaps, considering what happened to John Muir’s eyes here. In a certain accounting of destiny, this spot was the birthplace of Yosemite National Park.
Listed as a sawyer in Edward’s Annual Directory for 1867, Muir boarded at 331 South Pennsylvania Street. Wowed by their new employee’s skills, owners J. R. Osgood and S. E. Smith nearly made him a partner in their business. As a supervisor, he earned $25 a week. If fate hadn’t intervened, the wagon and carriage manufacturing company might have become known as Osgood, Smith & Muir.
During his year-and-a-half stay in Indy, Muir became close friends with Catherine Merrill. Her father was Samuel Merrill, a prominent early Hoosier who helped move the capitol from Corydon and later served as a temperance advocate and the second president of the Indiana Historical Society. Catherine had studied literature in Germany before teaching at Wabash College in Crawfordsville. She was also a Union nurse in Kentucky during the Civil War. In 1867, Merrill became Butler University’s first female professor and one of the first women to teach at a university anywhere in the U.S. Muir called her “the first friend I found in Indiana.”
Though a May 25, 1913, article in the Indianapolis Star mentioned that Muir knew a certain visitor to town — archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, discoverer of Troy, who came here to take advantage of Indiana’s lax divorce laws — the Star was wrong. Schliemann came in 1869 and only stayed for a few months. He did own land on the Old Southside, however. Before Schliemann went to Turkey to dig up ancient Troy, he held title to land that became the parking lot at Shapiro’s Deli. In his will, he left his daughter Nadezhda some other property now occupied by Lilly’s downtown campus, a short walk from where John Muir worked.
The fateful event that changed Muir’s life occurred on March 6, 1867 — curiously enough, on a day that saw a total solar eclipse. While tightening a spinning leather belt on a machine at the workshop, Muir lost his grip. A metal awl or file that he was holding flew up into his right eye and punctured his cornea. Vitreous ooze began to flow out. “My right eye is gone,” workers in the shop heard him cry out, “closed forever on all God’s beauty.” The uninjured left eye temporarily sank into “sympathetic” blindness.
What came next Muir described, literally and figuratively, as the darkest time in his life. Three days after the accident, he wrote home to his mother, Ann Gilrye Muir, back on the family farm in Wisconsin:
“I am completely prostrated and the eye is lost. I have been confined to bed since the accident and for the first two or three days could not eat or drink a mouthful, but I am a little better today and hope to be at work again in a month or two. I am condemned by the doctor to a dark room for some 2 weeks. I am surprised that from apparently so small a shock my whole system should be so completely stunned… My love to all, John Muir. I have written at random and in the dark but hope you will be able to read my meaning.”
Another letter to his mother, penned in the room in Indianapolis where he was kept sheltered from light, shows his handwriting trailing off as he struggled to write a straight line across the page. Toward the end, some of his words overlap. Though striking a confident note to his mother, privately Muir slipped into a deep existential crisis and depression. He wrote this letter while nursed by friends and a helpful Indianapolis family who took him into their home at Union and McCarty Streets.
Muir received several letters from his concerned family and friends. His brother David offered to take the train down to Indianapolis and bring him home. One beautiful letter came from his friend Jeanne C. Carr. Carr was married to the pioneer Wisconsin geologist Ezra Slocum Carr, who taught natural science at the University of Wisconsin before he took a professorship in 1869 at the University of California-Berkeley. Dr. Carr first got to know the talented Muir after seeing his fabulous “whittled” clocks at the Wisconsin State Fair. Jeanne Carr, who remained a close friend, kept up a correspondence with Muir for the next thirty years. From Madison, she struck a comforting religious — even Transcendentalist — tone as she wrote to her friend in Indiana on March 15, 1867:
I grieve, as your sister might, at this news which has come today — that God has been leading you into the darkness, and long to be able to minister to your comfort while the burden of pain and weakness and loneliness is to be borne. What can I do, now, while you are so far from us, but whisper some of those sweet promises which fasten the soul to the source of Light and Life? …It is hard, dear friend, it seems cruel, but let us look away beyond the suffering of the present, let us believe that nothing is without meaning and purpose which comes from the Father’s hand…
I am glad to feel that you will see more with one visual organ than most persons could with half a dozen… And then you will come here and we will be eyes for you. The Cordilleras & the Amazon will stay in their places. They are waiting — have waited thousands of years to be set to music. The Queen of the Antilles will be as beautiful in her next year’s green as now. You will take a richer heart, and a clearer mind, with which to interpret them, for this retirement. Dear John. I have often in my heart wondered what God was training you for. He gave you the eye within the eye, to see in all natural objects the realized ideas of His mind. He gave you pure tastes, and the steady preference of whatsoever is most lonely and excellent. He has made you a more individualized existence than is common…
I am getting a dimness in my eyes thinking of yours and must say good night. Make your mark now and then, dear, on these envelopes, for better or worse as you feel. I can read your “worsest words” and am always your loving friend — Jeanne Carr
In response, Muir diagrammed a drawing of the injured eye for Carr. Some of their correspondence has been published.
Catherine Merrill saw to it that a Dr. Parvin, “said to be a very skillful oculist and of large experience both here and in Europe,” watched over Muir. During the rich Indiana spring, Muir wrote home that “I have been groping among the flowers a good deal lately,” as he fumbled along the ground, trying to feel what he still had some trouble making out. “I have nearly an eye and a half left.” When not touching the ground, his hands gripped a traveler’s account of the Yosemite Valley, a place he had read about a year before and thought of “most every day.” Four years later, he was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s guide through the valley.
Fortunately, by May the vision in his left eye had mostly come back, and he was up and moving, walking outdoors, reading Carr’s letters “upon a moss-clad fallen tree… I will try not to tell you how much I enjoyed this walk after four weeks in bed. You can feel it.”
On June 9, 1867, Muir was finally able to report to Carr that he was leaving Indianapolis for a five- or six-week stay in Wisconsin. Accompanied by an 11-year-old boy named Merrill Moores, he took the train to Decatur, Illinois, then wandered north for a few weeks, “botanizing” on the still-vast Illinois prairies, perhaps walking overland all the way from Decatur to Madison.
This jaunt was just a quick prelude to the next great episode in Muir’s life. In August, he rode the train back to Indianapolis. Thankful, and elated at his restored vision, Muir swore to see the wider world at last. Later in life he wrote of this decision: “I bade adieu to all my mechanical inventions, determined to devote the rest of my life to the study of the inventions of God.” Striking out from Indianapolis on September 1, he took the train through southern Indiana as far as Jeffersonville. Once he got to Louisville, he then walked all the way to Florida. Muir told this story in his book A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf. After traveling to Havana, Cuba, he set out “by a crooked route” — bound for California at last.
William Frederic Badè, The Life and Letters of John Muir, Houghton-Mifflin, 1924
Mark R. Stoll, Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism, Oxford University Press, 2015
John Muir, Spiritual Writings, Orbis Books, 2013
Bonnie J. Gisel, ed., Kindred and Related Spirits: The Letters of John Muir and Jeanne C. Carr, University of Utah Press, 2001.