Late last week I drove to Elmwood Cemetery on the east side of Kansas City, MO, looking for the grave of a father.
Mowers were busy with their weekly maintenance when I arrived, spiritlessly cutting grass and trimming the weeds around headstones in what was undoubtedly a mind-numbingly boring job. It was a stiflingly hot day, but hundreds of trees provided a thick shade from the sun, and an occasional cool breeze made it an almost-enjoyable walk. Aside from the mowers and a single police car patrolling the avenues between the lots, I was alone in the cemetery.
Without an exact map of where I was going, I wandered idly through vast sections of grave markers, scanning the polished faces looking for one name in particular. Among the tall mausoleums and ostentatious marble monuments of well-to-do Kansas Citians, a small headstone stands in memory of Daniel Muir, the father of famed naturalist John Muir.
A native Scot, Muir immigrated to America at the age of 45 with his wife Ann and their seven children. Upon arrival in the country the Muir family settled a thick patch of the Wisconsin wilderness near Portage, and Daniel immediately set to work clearing trees for farmland.
A harsh and often violent man, Daniel’s ethics were informed almost solely by a fundamentalist reading of the Christian scriptures, which he considered the only source of true wisdom. His young son John was frequently the target of Daniel’s outbursts, suffering regular whippings for failing to live up to his father’s vision of Christian piety and discipline.
As a pioneer and homesteader, Daniel was also unfortunately possessed by the zeitgeist of the booming Industrial Age, a period of American History which saw tremendous expansion Westward and an accompanying zeal for bigger, better, and faster agricultural advantage. Unlike John’s harmonious, romantic view of creation, Daniel saw the American wild as a place to be subdued and dominated by its (mostly white European) colonizers. The battle for survival between humanity and nature was a product of human fallenness, and Daniel understood humankind’s purpose to be hard work, using every tool at its disposal to bring creation under submission.
His intense personality and zeal for religion were at odds with John’s gentle, inquisitive, and sauntering lifestyle; it is unsurprising that John spent much of his adult life distancing himself from his family and his past. Yet in his old age, Daniel softened, as old men often do. The final years of his father’s life, John wrote, were “full of calm divine light”:
Faith in God and charity to all became the end of all his teachings, and he oftentimes spoke of the mistakes he had made in his relation toward his family and neighbors, urging those about him to be on their guard and see to it that love alone was made the guide and rule of every action.
After falling and breaking his leg sometime in 1877, Muir spent the majority of his remaining eight years confined to his bed. After being sent word that his father was in poor health, John ventured back from California to Kansas City upon a powerful “inner compulsion” to see Daniel one last time:
While these last weary years wore slowly away he never uttered an impatient word, and his youthful enthusiasm burned on to the end, his mind glowing like a fire beneath all its burden of age and pain, until at length he passed on into the land of light, dying like a summer day in deep peace, surrounded by his children.
Though little information is available regarding the conversations and events that transpired shortly before Daniel’s death in October 1885, it is clear from John’s later writings that the father and his wandering son were ultimately reconciled.
What a strange thing to be remembered only for the work of your children. Daniel remains little more than a footnote in the grander, more captivating story of John, whose work gave us modern environmentalism and the National Park Service. Daniel’s biography will never be written. Students will never read about him in textbooks. He, like most human beings, has been freed to slip into the silent anonymity of history. Daniel was a farmer, gardener, pioneer, musician, evangelist, a father, and a grandfather. Like all of us, he was a complex human being who made a number of tragic mistakes. Yet without him, the last century of progress in environmental conservation would look strikingly different. And in the end, there was forgiveness.
As I walked back to my car and left the cemetery, I thought about how grace shines through in fits and starts, like a halting breeze in the shade on a hot summer day. There are setbacks, of course, and there always will be. We too often claim allegiance to the temporary and neglect the permanent. We are sometimes so convinced of our rightness that we go to great lengths—even zealous violence—to protect it. But in our most vulnerable moments when our imperfections and error lie exposed before us, we receive a brief, clear vision of the love that undergirds the cosmos. In light of this grace, sometimes we are so moved that we repent and it alters our future forever. I hope this was true for Daniel. I hope it is true for me.
Requiescat in Pace, Daniel Muir. Someone remembers you.