John Muir, the Scottish-born American naturalist, was born on the 21st of April, 1838.
Long Johnny Muir was a man who walked the Earth and devoted his life to interpreting the wonder and beauty of the world around us. He is known as ‘the Father of America’s National Parks’ and was the visionary naturalist responsible for the creation of the Yosemite and Sequoia national parks in California. He campaigned unceasingly for the preservation of natural environments through his work as an environmentalist, geologist and botanist, and was utterly opposed to the exploitation of natural resources at a time when many believed the resources of the earth were infinite. Muir’s writings were influential and his accounts of his adventures in the wild, particularly in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, presented an eloquent counterpoint to exploitation of the wilderness. It’s difficult to imagine the modern conservation movement without his influence and to this day, he casts an enormous shadow over conservation in the modern world.
John Muir was born in Dunbar on the 21st of April, 1838. John was brought to America in 1849, where his family settled on a farm in Wisconsin. From the age of eleven until he was twenty-two, John Muir devoted himself to hard work, under the unbending influence of his strict Calvinist father, working the fields from dawn to dusk. He had no time for school, but he had an inquiring and inventive mind, and showed an ingenious talent for inventing mechanical devices. Muir’s curiosity was not to be ignored and he attended to his own education in the wee small hours, reading books, which he secretly borrowed from friends.
Muir left home at the age of twenty-two, with $14 in his pocket, and went to display his inventions at the state fair. There, he met the Carrs, who were University of Wisconsin teachers and who enabled him to attend the college there for nearly three years. Drawn to observe and study nature and botany, he gave up college to pursue various jobs that relied on his unusual mechanical aptitude. As a young man he received recognition for being able to make working clocks out of carved wooden pieces and also inventing various useful gadgets.
During the Civil War, Muir moved to Canada, to avoid conscription. After the war, he moved to Indiana and then, determined to see more of the United States, set out on his epic hike to the Gulf of Mexico. He intended to visit South America, but illness forced him to abandon that plan and eventually, having made his way back north, he sailed from New York to California. He arrived in California in 1868 – and the rest is legend.
Leaving San Francisco, John Muir walked to the place that would become his spiritual home, California’s Yosemite Valley. The valley, with its dramatic granite cliffs and majestic waterfalls, touched Muir deeply. He took a job working in a sawmill and there he stayed, exploring the area for most of the next decade. He became a renowned naturalist in the ‘Range of Light’ and established his theory of glaciers accounting for the high Sierra valleys. He settled down for a time, with a wife and children, to the life of a fruit rancher and farmer. However, he was most happy in his travels and explorations and luckily, he had an understanding wife. He often returned to Yosemite, and also made several trips to Alaska.
Yellowstone was named the first National Park in the United States, in 1872, and Muir and others began to campaign for the same distinction for Yosemite. Muir published a series of magazine articles, making his case for further protection of Yosemite and, in 1890, thanks in large part to Muir’s advocacy, Congress passed legislation declaring Yosemite a National Park. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt visited Yosemite and was shown around by Muir, the two posing for what has become an iconic photograph on Glacier Point. Their campfire conversation, under the stars and the giant Sequoia trees, helped consolidate Roosevelt’s plans for conserving the American wilderness.
In 1892, Muir founded the Sierra Club, with Robert Underwood Johnson, and served as its first president. Muir said of the Sierra Club, “[it was formed] to do something for wildness and make the mountains glad.” The Club remains at the forefront of the environmental movement and Muir is, of course, a powerful symbol of its vision.
Muir’s love of nature came before all else and he would joke about how he gave up pursuing the life of a millionaire to live instead as a tramp. He once said that, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” That was prophetic, in terms of how we now understand the environment. It is also sad, in the sense that here we are in the 21st Century struggling to take seriously the need to tackle environmental issues. We should heed Muir’s advice, “The battle we have fought, and are still fighting for the forests is part of the eternal conflict between right and wrong, and we cannot expect to see the end of it.”
The story of Long Johnny Muir ended in December, 1914, when he died of pneumonia. There is a stunning new visitor attraction, which highlights the work and achievements of this remarkable man, in his birthplace of Dunbar.
Here are a few lines of a powerfully stirring tribute, written by Brian McNeill, called ‘Muir and the Master Builder’…
“And who grew straighter than Long Johnny Muir?
A redwood of flesh, blood and bone
Filled by the Master Builder with a passion so pure
For the mountains no single man can own.”