The following piece is a work of fiction, though it's based upon the real story of John Muir's infamous bonfire in an October storm. I grew up on the hill Muir wrote about in Travels in Alaska. My favorite spot on Mount Dewey was also Muir's favorite spot. My grandfather ended up homesteading on the acreage below the small hill. One of the things I wanted to answer was: Why did Muir build the bonfire? Sure Muir said he wanted to see how the trees would act in a storm, but I didn't think that was a good enough answer. So I made one up. Here's to John Muir. Here's to adventure. Here's to loving a tree.


I made short excursions to the nearby forests...causing wondering speculation among the Wrangell folk.-- John Muir,Travels in Alaska.

 October 1879

John Muir kneeled in the grass near the Presbyterian Church counting tree rings. Missionary Young recently cut down the large spruce to make way for the new manse. In his notebook Muir recorded dendro-memory, layers of wood-cells. The old tree had chronicled rain, temperature, and wind velocity for over a hundred years.

Soon Muir became aware of Wrangell-folk peeking out their doors at him. By mid-day locals gathered to watch the strange man talk to himself. From behind him someone said, “There’s an even bigger live tree up the hill.” Muir turned and saw a local Tlingit, Old Town Slim, pointing his wide hand beyond the steeple. “I’d guess he'd be over two-hundred-years old,” Slim said.
My husband, a tree hugger

Muir found the large tree near the edge of a clearing. He circled the tree, running his hand along its bark noting the dragon-like scales. Suddenly, he had an urge to hug the tree. “May I,” he asked, reaching his lanky arms around, leaning in, his cheek pressing its scratchy hide—rough like whiskers, he thought. He closed his eyes, inhaling its wet scent. He stepped back and poked his finger into the pitch globbing from beneath the bark. He sniffed it, then stuck his finger in his mouth sucking the sticky substance.

For two more weeks Muir visited this tree, discovering its inner stratum. He learned to strip a small tree root and made nettle tea. He even climbed to a top branch, straddled its knobby arm to look out over Zimovia Strait to snow-capped Woronofski Island.

One night Muir settled beneath a bark shed, covering himself with his blanket. The tree sheltered him as he dreamed of his youth: skinny dipping with his friend Scott in Blossom Lake. Afterwards, they'd lay naked, drying on the rocks. But one day, Scott brought the girl who lived on the neighboring farm to swim—after that, Muir never went swimming at the lake.
Fort Stikine (Wrangell, Alaska)

Now, Muir slept late and awoke beneath the great spruce, its erect pendant cones dangling, its female cones swelling purple. He felt the pith at his center, the xylem, his cambium layer. He got up and ate hardtack crackers, listening to the tree moan its stories. The tree told of first contact with whites, Russian rule, explorers and gold seekers. Near nightfall, the winds gusted and branches snapped. “Storm coming,” Muir said.  Since he'd first stepped off the boat in Alaska and discovered the spruce and hemlock forests, he sensed a change—a celebration was needed. “A marriage, yes,” he said to the tree.

Muir dragged dead branches and dry grass to the center of the clearing and built a small fire. He added more tree limbs until the fire roared. The large spruce dropped pine cones at his feet and he tossed them into the fire. The sky darkened and it started to pour. Around him, the forest creaked; sparks danced like crazed fireflies. He wiped tree-pitch on his face, his lips, then stomped around the fire, arms twirling. He kept heaping branches on the fire until his skin flushed with heat.

Below the storm-dance, Missionary Young awakened to the rap of frightened Tlingits at his door. He looked up at the glowing hill—St. Elmo’s Fire? A madman perhaps? Then Young remembered the strange Mr. Muir, wandering around town mumbling to himself. Such actions, he figured, likely meant that Muir was smitten with a local girl. Yes, he chuckled looking up at the sky-fire, lances of gold aurora streaking upward—a madman indeed.
 * There is a Tlingit story called The Woman Who Married a Tree (Tlingit Myths & Texts, J. Swanton).


Tel said…
I love this story! It's achingly beautiful.
Joy Prescott said…
Love your version of the story!

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