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Muir, John

Category: Explorer or adventurer

John Muir (April 21, 1838 – December 24, 1914) was born in Dunbar East Lothian Scotland. 

In 1849, Muir's family immigrated to the United States, starting a farm near Portage, Wisconsin, called Fountain Lake Farm and it is his American travels as an engineer, naturalist, author, environmental philosopher, glaciologist, and early advocate for the preservation of wilderness in the United States of America, for which he is now best known.

Whilst he was alive he received few honours, but his name now appears in numerous organisations and trusts. 

The John Muir Trust, for example, is a Scottish charity established as a membership organization in 1983 to conserve wild land and wild places. It has more than 11,000 members internationally. And a number of plants and minerals have been named after him, for example, Muirite (a mineral), Erigeron muirii, Carlquistia muirii (two species of aster), Ivesia muirii (a member of the rose family), Troglodytes troglodytes muiri (a wren), Thecla muirii (a butterfly), and Amplaria muiri (a millipede).

Photos all courtesy of U.S. Department of the Interior

As author and activist

John Muir’s letters, essays, and books describing his adventures in nature, especially in the Sierra Nevada, have been read by millions. But despite  publishing over 300 articles and 12 books, Muir found writing very hard work

Henry Fairfield Osborn

"Daily he rose at 4:30 o'clock, and after a simple cup of coffee laboured incessantly. ... he groans over his labors, he writes and rewrites and interpolates."

But Muir felt an obligation to his fellow man to describe the wonders he was seeing, in order that it might help their preservation and appreciation.  Muir knew his books and essays would never do justice to what he saw, but on the other hand there would be many whose only chance to know of their existence was his books.  Muir wrote in 1872,
 "No amount of word-making will ever make a single soul to 'know' these mountains. One day's exposure to mountains is better than a cartload of books”.

Even though Muir found book writing ‘a terrible trial’ – or maybe because it was – his books are very readable even today.  His descriptions are longer because there were no photos, but his language is unpretentious and his descriptions exciting and absorbing nevertheless, without being melodramatic.   

Marion Randall Parsons [his secretary]

…..composition was always slow and laborious for him. ... Each sentence, each phrase, each word, underwent his critical scrutiny, not once but twenty times before he was satisfied to let it stand.

Muir found prose "a weak instrument for the reality he wished to convey.

However, he was prodded by friends and his wife to keep writing and as a result of their influence he kept at it, although never satisfied.

His books include

  • Picturesque California: The Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Slope; California, Oregon, Nevada, Washington, Alaska, Montana, Idaho, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Etc. [1888]
  • The Mountains of California [1894]
  • Our National Parks [1901]
  •  My First Summer in the Sierra [1911]
  • The Yosemite [1912]
  • The Story of My Boyhood and Youth [1913]
  • Travels in Alaska [1915]
  • A Thousand-mile Walk to the Gulf. [1916]
  • The Cruise of the Corwin [1917]
  • Steep Trails [1918]

His activism helped to preserve the Yosemite Valley, Sequoia National Park and many other wilderness areas. In his later life, Muir devoted most of his time to the preservation of the Western forests. The Sierra Club, which he co-founded, is still a prominent American conservation organization.

As part of the campaign to make Yosemite a national park, Muir published two landmark articles on wilderness preservation in The Century Magazine, "The Treasures of the Yosemite" and "Features of the Proposed Yosemite National Park"; this helped support the push for U.S. Congress to pass a bill in 1890 establishing Yosemite National Park.

The spiritual quality and enthusiasm toward Nature expressed in his writings has inspired readers, including presidents and congressmen, to take action to help preserve large nature areas.  Which neatly brings us on to the next section.

Beliefs and Spirituality

Muir’s upbringing was Puritan and strict -  Scottish Presbyterian, and you cannot get much more strict than that.   It is something of a miracle that he eventually became as spiritual as he did.  In his book, The Story of My Boyhood and Youth (1913), he writes that during his childhood, his father made him read the Bible every day.  It was the fact that Muir's father found the Church of Scotland insufficiently strict in faith and practice [!] that led to their immigration to America.  There they joined a congregation of the Campbellite Restoration Movement, called the Disciples of Christ.  By the age of 11, the young Muir had learned to recite "by heart and by sore flesh" all of the New Testament and most of the Old Testament.

But what changed him was contact with Nature when he lived in America.  Muir found no aspect of Nature threatening, indeed at times he seems more comfortable being in the mountains than with men.  At no stage does he use the words ‘fight Nature’ or 'struggle with Nature', he is entirely one with what he finds

"Explorations in the Great Tuolumne Cañon", Overland Monthly, volume XI, number 2 (August 1873)

I drifted about from rock to rock, from stream to stream, from grove to grove. Where night found me, there I camped. When I discovered a new plant, I sat down beside it for a minute or a day, to make its acquaintance and hear what it had to tell. … I asked the boulders I met, whence they came and whither they were going.

And yet again

The whole wilderness seems to be alive and familiar, full of humanity. The very stones seem talkative, sympathetic, brotherly.

Muir was able to study the plants and animals in an environment that he believed "came straight from the hand of God, uncorrupted by civilization and domestication."   

letter to Catharine Merrill, from New Sentinel Hotel, Yosemite Valley (9 June 1872)

Rocks and waters, etc., are words of God and so are men. We all flow from one fountain Soul. All are expressions of one Love. God does not appear, and flow out, only from narrow chinks and round bored wells here and there in favored races and places, but He flows in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless over creeds and forms and all kinds of civilizations and peoples and beasts, saturating all and fountainizing all.

Man versus Nature

Muir was very early on a witness to men’s influence on the creation; and that there is a dichotomy between what man believes to be ‘civilization’ or ‘progress’  and Nature; his core belief was that "wild is superior".

letter to J.B. McChesney

Man as he came from the hand of his Maker was poetic in both mind and body, but the gross heathenism of civilization has generally destroyed Nature, and poetry, and all that is spiritual.

He also saw that man’s transfer to towns and separation from nature only served to make him ill

"Explorations in the Great Tuolumne Cañon", Overland Monthly, volume XI, number 2 (August 1873)

Living artificially in towns, we are sickly, and never come to know ourselves.

Muir experienced the "presence of the divine in nature," and many of the descriptions he provides show him to be ecstatic in the presence of God as Nature.

My First Summer in the Sierra

A few minutes ago every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship. But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease. Every hidden cell is throbbing with music and life, every fiber thrilling like harp strings, while incense is ever flowing from the balsam bells and leaves. No wonder the hills and groves were God's first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn into cathedrals and churches, the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord himself.

It is worth noting that Muir was an extremely competent scientist and observer.  While doing his studies of nature, he would try to remember everything he observed as if his senses were recording the impressions, until he could write them in his journal. As a result of his intense desire to remember facts, he filled his field journals with notes on precipitation, temperature, and even cloud formations, which is why his books are so detailed in their descriptions.

But Muir added emotional comments that made the observations into  "an aesthetic and spiritual notebook, " that amounted to “ a description of the sublimity of Nature," Muir felt that his task was more than just recording "phenomena," but also to "illuminate the spiritual implications of those phenomena". For Muir, mountain skies, for example, seemed painted with light, came to "... symbolize divinity."  Perhaps the most telling comment of all is that he ‘often described his observations in terms of Light’. Muir used words like "glory" and "glorious" to suggest that light was taking on a religious dimension:

See also Flinders, Tim, ed. (2013). John Muir: Spiritual Writings

Nature as a spiritual resource

One of the most interesting battles in which Muir became embroiled, one which still has relevance today, was that with Gifford Pinchot. Pinchot was the first head of the United States Forest Service and a leading spokesman for the ‘sustainable use of natural resources for the benefit of the people’.

Pinchot saw conservation as a means of managing the nation's natural resources for long-term sustainable commercial use. As a professional forester, his view was that "forestry is tree farming" .  To give him his due, Pinchot did oppose reckless exploitation of natural resources, including clear-cutting of forests.

But his views eventually clashed with Muir's and highlighted two diverging views of the use of the country's natural resources.

Muir valued nature for its spiritual and transcendental qualities. In one essay about the National Parks, he referred to them as "places for rest, inspiration, and prayers" and he often encouraged city dwellers to experience nature for its spiritual nourishment.

On the one hand there was Pinchot preaching sustainable exploitation for profit – an approach now euphemistically called ‘conservation’ and Muir who simply valued Nature for what it was, and wished to preserve something he found inherently beautiful and spiritually uplifting.

To put it crudely Muir looked on Nature like a good man sees his wife, someone not to be exploited but simply loved and appreciated for what she was.  Pichot saw Nature as a pimp sees a woman, a potential prostitute, one only manages it for money. 

Despite being honoured on a US postage stamp , it seems Muir's true wishes as a preservationist have been forgotten and these days he is being called  a conservationist instead.  The irony is worse as the stamp appears to show him - a small figure against massive sequoia trees bathed in spiritual Light.

The poor design of this stamp is made that much more poignant when the story of President Theodore Roosevelt’s experience is told. In 1903, Roosevelt accompanied Muir on a visit to Yosemite. After entering the park and seeing the magnificent splendor of the valley, the president asked Muir to show him the real Yosemite. Muir and Roosevelt set off largely by themselves and camped in the back country. The duo talked late into the night, slept in the brisk open air of Glacier Point, and were dusted by a fresh snowfall in the morning. It was a night Roosevelt never forgot. He later told a crowd, "Lying out at night under those giant Sequoias was like lying in a temple built by no hand of man, a temple grander than any human architect could by any possibility build." Maybe preservation is a more meaningful objective for the well being of all in the long run.

Muir’s loss of the Hetch Hetchy valley was probably the start of the major slide into eco-destruction we see today on a world-wide scale; the loss of all that is sacred and spiritually uplifting.  In this case the destruction was caused by almost the same problem that we have today - population growth -  this time in San Francisco, the plan being to dam the Tuolumne River for use as a water reservoir. Muir passionately opposed the damming of Hetch Hetchy Valley because he found Hetch Hetchy as stunning as Yosemite Valley.  But after years of debate, Woodrow Wilson signed the bill authorizing the dam into law on December 19, 1913. Muir was devastated, "As to the loss of the Sierra Park Valley [Hetch Hetchy] it's hard to bear. The destruction of the charming groves and gardens, the finest in all California, goes to my heart."

Life in brief

John Muir was the third of eight children: Margaret, Sarah, David, Daniel, Ann and Mary (twins), and the American-born Joanna. Even as a young boy, Muir was fascinated with Nature, and spent a lot of time wandering the local coastline and countryside. Muir never forgot his roots in Scotland. He held a strong connection with his birthplace and Scottish identity throughout his life. He greatly admired the works of Thomas Carlyle, for example and the poetry of Robert Burns. He also never lost his strong Scottish accent.

When he was 22, Muir enrolled at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, paying his own way for several years. He studied botany, chemistry and the sciences and even though he never graduated, he learned enough geology and botany to inform his later wanderings.

Muir's friendship with Jeanne Carr had a lifelong influence on his career as a naturalist and writer. Carr was married and older than Muir.  They first met in the fall of 1860, when, he was 22, and she was 35.  Her husband, Ezra, was a professor at the same university as Muir and they both recognised a fellow spirit. Jeanne Carr and Muir corresponded with each other their entire lives.  Carr continued corresponding even when he was in Yosemite and sent many of her friends to Yosemite to meet Muir.  The importance of Carr, who continually gave Muir reassurance and inspiration, "cannot be overestimated,". It was "through his letters to her that he developed a voice and purpose." She also tried to promote Muir's writings by submitting his letters to a monthly magazine for publication. Muir came to trust Carr as his "spiritual mother," and they remained friends for 30 years.

In 1864, Muir left school to join his brother Daniel in Southern Ontario and spent the spring, summer, and fall exploring the woods and swamps, and collecting plants around the southern reaches of Lake Huron's Georgian Bay.  He also hiked along the Niagara Escarpment, including much of today's Bruce Trail.

In March 1866, Muir returned to the United States, settling in Indianapolis to work in a wagon wheel factory. He was doing well and was being paid well when in early-March 1867, a tool he was using slipped and struck him in the eye. He became temporarily blind and " saw the world—and his purpose—in a new light". Muir later wrote, "This affliction has driven me to the sweet fields. God has to nearly kill us sometimes, to teach us lessons." From that point on, he determined to "be true to [himself]" and follow his dream of exploration and study of plants.

It is fairly clear that Muir’s destiny was well stamped out for him in no uncertain terms, as, after undertaking the walk of about 1,000 miles (1,600 km) from Kentucky to Florida, described in his book A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, he began working at Hodgson's sawmill. However, three days after accepting the job at Hodgson's, Muir almost died of a malarial sickness.

Once recovered and in early January 1868, Muir boarded the ship Island Belle and sailed to Cuba spending his hours there studying shells and flowers.  Afterwards, he sailed to New York City and booked passage to California, where he eventually settled in San Francisco, Muir immediately left for a week-long visit to Yosemite, a place he had only read about. Seeing it for the first time, Muir notes that "He was overwhelmed by the landscape, scrambling down steep cliff faces to get a closer look at the waterfalls, whooping and howling at the vistas, jumping tirelessly from flower to flower." He later returned to Yosemite and worked as a shepherd for a season, where he built a small cabin along Yosemite Creek. He lived in the cabin for two years and wrote about this period in his later book First Summer in the Sierra (1911). During these years in Yosemite, Muir was unmarried, and alone. On excursions into the back country of Yosemite, he traveled alone, carrying "only a tin cup, a handful of tea, a loaf of bread”.  He usually spent his evenings sitting by a campfire in his overcoat, reading Ralph Waldo Emerson under the stars. In 1871, after Muir had lived in Yosemite for three years, Emerson, with a number of academic friends from Boston, arrived in Yosemite and the two men met; it seems the delight at their meeting was mutual.  Unbeknownst to Muir, his reputation had spread - a "fixture in the valley," respected for his ‘ knowledge of natural history, his skill as a guide, and his vivid storytelling’.

Muir made four trips to Alaska, as far as Unalaska and Barrow. Muir, Mr. Young (Fort Wrangell missionary) and a group of Native American Guides first traveled to Alaska in 1879 and were the first Euro-Americans to explore Glacier Bay. Muir Glacier was later named after him. He also traveled into British Columbia a third of the way up the Stikine River, Muir recorded over 300 glaciers along the river's course.

In 1878, when he was nearing the age of 40, Muir's friends "pressured him to return to society." Soon after he returned to the Oakland area, he was introduced by Jeanne Carr to Louisa Strentzel, daughter of a prominent physician and horticulturist with a 2,600-acre (11 km2) fruit orchard in Martinez, California, northeast of Oakland. In 1880, after he returned from the trip to Alaska, Muir and Strentzel married. John Muir went into partnership with his father-in-law, Dr. John Strentzel, and for ten years directed most of his energy into managing this large fruit farm. Although Muir was a loyal, dedicated husband, and father of two daughters, "his heart remained wild". His wife understood his needs, and after seeing his restlessness at the ranch would sometimes "shoo him back up" to the mountains. He sometimes took his daughters with him.

In 1888 after seven years of managing the Strentzel fruit ranch in Alhambra Valley, California, his health began to suffer. He returned to the hills to recover, climbing Mount Rainier in Washington and writing Ascent of Mount Rainier.

John Muir eventually died in Los Angeles on December 24, 1914, of pneumonia aged 76.

Robert Underwood Johnson, editor of Century Magazine,

The world will look back to the time we live in and remember the voice of one crying in the wilderness and bless the name of John Muir. ... He sung the glory of nature like another Psalmist, and, as a true artist, was unashamed of his emotions. His countrymen owe him gratitude as the pioneer of our system of national parks. ... Muir's writings and enthusiasm were the chief forces that inspired the movement. All the other torches were lighted from his.



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