"Keep close to Nature's heart... and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean." -John Muir
The following is my humble tribute to a man whom I consider to be one of history’s greatest figures. It is a story of a man whom I can personally identify with. My love for the wilds, the quiet corners of the world, and natural wonders both great and small draw me to Muir as a common bond. No doubt, many of the places I have visited in my short life owe their existence to the conservation movement which had its beginnings, literally, in Muirs hands. No one before or since seems to have grasped the wonders of the natural world with such insight and clarity as John Muir. Because of all this, I present the following article. I simply invite you to take a few minutes walking with a man who I draw an immeasurable amount of inspiration from…
P.S. I’m certain there are many out there with a greater understanding of Muir’s life that may find certain events omitted or seemingly glossed over…I apologize for this but I did not set out to write a book. I hope you enjoy it anyway...
“When I was a boy I was fond of everything wild.” -Muir
John Muir was born on April 21, 1832 in the small Scottish town of Dunbar, east of Edinburgh. The son of a devout evangelical Presbyterian, John was a typical young Scottish boy. Splitting his time between school, chores, exploration, and fighting John quickly discovered that he was unique in his family. His father was a hard working and successful farmer who, in typical fashion for the time, believed in harsh discipline as the proper way to bring up children. Even as a young child the future naturalist in Muir emerged. He would wander among the lilies in his aunt’s garden imagining them to be worth “an enormous sum of money” or play “voyages around the world” with his cousins. He also began to take a great interest at reading, even from a young age. In particular, the grand natural spectacles described in John James Audubon’s books drew his imagination to the great wilderness of America. It is no surprise then that, when suddenly John’s father announced they would be leaving "on the ‘morrow" for America, the young boy could barely contain his excitement. Within a couple days young John Muir, not yet 10 years of age, set sail for the great adventure that awaited him in America.
“This sudden push into pure wildness-baptism into nature’s warm heart-how utterly happy it made us!”
Indeed, after six weeks aboard a cramped immigrant ship followed by a roundabout journey up the Great Lakes to Wisconsin, John must have felt like he had entered another world. Upon the recommendation of a family friend John’s father, Daniel, picked out a plot of land along the Fox River near the small town of Kingston, Wisconsin. The new wonders of nature in this land were provided no end of amazement and discovery. Birds, wildflowers, frogs, reptiles, and all other variety of creatures previously unknown to the young naturalist were revealed in an ecological display quite unknown to most today. John was in heaven. Soon, however, the excitement of a new land soon gave way to the realities of farming the western frontier of America in the mid-1800’s. Being the eldest male sibling, many of the more undesirable and difficult chores of plowing, rail-splitting, and stump chopping fell to the teenage Muir. “The axe and plough were kept very busy…and in a very short time the new country began to look like an old one.” Corn, wheat, and potatoes were the crops of choice and it wasn’t long before the family was on the move once again looking for a larger and better area to farm. At age 19, Johns father relocated the Muir’s to a larger farm southeast of Fountain Lake, Wisconsin named Hickory Hill.
John’s dissatisfaction with farm life was not lost on his father. I can imagine the awkward silences that would follow John telling his dad about the habits of the local Blue Jay population or the strange beetles he had collected behind the barn. Inevitably, a rift began to form between the younger and older Muirs as the father grudgingly had to realize that his son was not following in his father’s footsteps. When John would plead that he wanted more time to read his father quickly declared that, instead, the entire family should retire to bed immediately after dinner… if John wanted to read he could do so before chores in the morning. This rule did not have the desired effect. Instead of stunting his son’s love for literature, John would wake himself at 1 a.m. to give himself a good five hours to devote to learning. The writing was on the wall. Not long after his 20th birthday John Muir left home.
John did not immediately set out into the wilds, however. Making his way to Madison he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin where his studies included Latin, Greek, botany, chemistry, and physics. He spent two and a half years at college, spending his summers working back at Hickory Hill. As the Civil War broke out in 1860 John tried to avoid talk by others of joining the fight against the south. To John war was “so ugly a monster” and he wanted nothing to do with it. He managed to avoid the draft in 1863 but when a new, more widespread draft emerged in 1864 John, at the urging of his mother, quietly travelled to Michigan and slipped over the border into Canada.
“I began to doubt whether I was fully born…I was on the world. But was I in it?”
Not a great deal is known about John Muir’s time north of the border. Normally a very vocal individual through his journals, John is strangely silent for the three years he spent in the wilds of Canada. What is known is that he split his time between wandering the shores of Georgian Bay with hard labor at a woodworking factory in Meaford, Ontario where he was joined by his brother Dan. John was a very conflicted individual at this time. His love of wilderness and the wonders of nature, on one hand, contrasted with the stark reality of making a life for himself in a more conventional manner. He longed for a life that could combine the two but the simple fact was he had to eat. Interestingly, John worked as an inventor during his time at the sawmill, and apparently he was quite successful at this. During the period between 1865-66 he crafted over 32,000 broom, rake, and fork handles. John carefully put the money he earned aside for a future life in the wilds. On March 1, 1866 providence intervened on his behalf. The sawmill burnt to the ground and John suddenly found himself unemployed. With the Civil War now over he returned to Indianapolis, Indiana where he once again found work as an inventor at a local factory. Then tragedy struck…
“My right eye is gone. Closed forever on God’s beauty!”
While repairing a machine one evening a piece flew up and struck him in the right eye, blinding him. He immediately visited a local physician who told him that with rest he may regain his sight. Muir, no doubt shaken to the core at the prospect of a life without full sight, immediately retired to his apartment and spent the next four weeks in darkness. His mind wandered. He imagined himself in exotic places across the globe. The Amazon, the Pacific, and a little known place called Yosemite Valley in the majestic Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. Ironically, his temporary loss of sight had brought him the clarity of vision he had been longing for. After his eye had healed he quit his job. “God has to nearly kill us sometimes, to teach us lessons,” he wrote to a friend. Lesson learned, John Muir packed his meager belongings, turned his back on civilization, and stepped out in to the woods…
The 1,000-mile Walk & the Amazon Dream...
“All drawbacks overcome…joyful and free…I chose to become a tramp.”
After a brief return to Wisconsin to say his goodbyes to his family Muir hopped a train to Jeffersonville, Indiana from where he set out on his journey south. In his own words he travelled the “wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way” through the Deep South. He crossed the Ohio River and journeyed into eastern Kentucky noting all the wonderful richness of nature along the way. Soon he found himself in the Mammoth Caves area and did a little bit of spelunking. He commented that the immense caverns were “magnificent halls in the natural kingdom.” From Mammoth Caves he walked the Cumberland hills south through Tennessee and into Georgia where each morning revealed new plant life or wild hills to explore. Muir was also likely one of the original 'go-lite' hikers. He carried with him only a plant press, a novel entitled Paradise Lost, and a copy of the New Testament. He foraged his own food and relied on the kindness of strangers for lodging. He was also quite the hiker. Considering his writings, one might imagine John would hardly have had the energy to walk with all the time he spent immersing himself in local plant and wildlife. This wasn’t the case; most days Muir would cover 20 miles or more.
Upon reaching the Atlantic coast at Savannah, Muir caught a ship heading to Florida. He arrived at Cedar Key and was dumbfounded at the exotic subtropical diversity of life at this latitude. He soon found, however, that travel in this region was not to his liking as it was “so watery and vine-tied that pathless wanderings are not easily possible in any direction.” He immediately made plans to depart for Cuba. While waiting for a boat to take him there, Muir was hired on briefly at a local sawmill where he replenished his dwindling travel funds. Unfortunately, the tropics quickly took their toll on young John and he came down with malaria. Sickness hardly slowed him, though. He still made a point of wandering the shoreline near Cedar Key taking in palm-lined beaches and watching waterfowl playing in the surf. Soon, while still quite unwell, he found a place aboard ship and headed for Havana.
For whatever reason, perhaps finding Cuba too similar to Florida, John turned his sights southward again. South America’s Amazon rain forest, in Muir’s mind, was the botanical paradise where he could truly live out his life of natural oneness. It was not to be. Fate once again intervened and no ship could be found to take him there. Instead, he returned north, this time to New York City, to reconsider his future plans. One can hardly be surprised that New York and John Muir did not agree with each other. He sums his feelings up nicely in the following quote: “I felt completely lost in the vast throngs of people, the noise of the streets, and the immense size of the buildings.” With a touch of humor he adds, “I once thought I would like to explore the city, if like a lot of wild hills and valleys, it was clear of inhabitants!” I’m sure many of us could share in that sentiment! Before long Muir had come up with a ‘Plan B’ of sorts. He would travel west, to California, resupply, and then once again proceed south to the Amazon. California was to be just a brief lay-over…if he only knew…
A Mountain Calling...
“When we dwell with mountains, see them face to face, every day, they seem as creatures with a sort of life-friends subject to moods, now talking, now taciturn, with whom we converse…”
Hardly had his feet left the docks of San Francisco before Muir was asking someone to take him “anywhere that is wild.” His intended destination was Yosemite Valley. Now step back and take a moment to consider what was about to happen. This young man, well traveled though he was, had never experienced a land more rugged than the southern Appalachians or the mountains of his native Scotland. Journals and sketches of the time were certainly helpful in teasing the imagination of a would-be traveler but pictures of far-off lands were largely created in the mind of the individual. Even someone as well read and in tune with nature as John Muir could not have envisioned the spectacle which opened up before him as he entered the great valley. The sound of his wonder is evident in the deafening silence his first visit produced. No writings exist from the time he first spent at Yosemite. Could it have been that even the exceptionally expressive John Muir was struck speechless? Was he so overwhelmed by the power of nature in this place that words could not have expressed what he felt? For anyone who has visited Glacier Point for the first time, it is not hard to imagine this was so. The siren song of the Sierra did not immediately draw Muir in, however. He soon returned to the nearby farmlands to once again find work and make final preparations for his intended trip to South America. Over the winter he worked at a local ranch within sight of the mountains. Their presence slowly worked on John’s soul. By the next spring he was positively aching to return to the high country and all thoughts of journeying south were lost.
Upon his second visit to Yosemite, Muir finally exercised his literary prowess, and provided us with a few now-famous words that give a glimpse into the deep love he was beginning to form with these mountains. He described the mountain walls as “temples,” the Sierras as a “Range of Light,” and expressed that this place was “…a mountain manuscript that I would give my life to be able to read.” In the Sierra Mountains Muir had finally found his natural soul mate. Now having no desire to leave, Muir gained employment at a small sawmill that operated in the valley. Are you familiar with the expression “I work as a hiker, I(insert your career) on the side?” John Muir wouldn’t have found this very humorous. A hiker and naturalist was, in his heart, what he was. Over the next number of years he spent every minute of his free time wandering remote valley’s and ridges taking notes on the local flora and fauna and speculating on what great forces must have been involved in creating a place so grand. In fact, John Muir was one of the first people to suggest that glaciers may have been responsible for the dramatic relief of Yosemite. Despite his ever-growing expertise on mountain life Muir, now 31, remained a kind of hermit until a friend of his back in Oakland, California decided that Muir’s discoveries needed to be shared with the outside world. Before long John found himself host to a variety of scientific and literary giants of the age. Perhaps his most memorable visit was from a one Ralph Waldo Emerson. To Muir this was like a visit from Jehovah himself. After receiving the grand tour Emerson pleaded with Muir to return with him and share his discoveries but John just couldn’t bring himself to leave the sanctuary of his mountain home. Slowly, inevitably, even Muir could not contain his knowledge and discoveries however. In December of 1871 John Muir’s first published writings entitled Yosemite Glaciers, appeared in the New York Tribune.
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity.”-John Muir
“I have everywhere testified to my friends who should also be yours, my happiness in finding you-the right man in the right place-in your mountain tabernacle, and have expected when your guardian angel should pronounce that your probation and sequestration in the solitudes an snows have reached their term, and you were to bring your ripe fruits so rare and precious into waiting society.”-Ralph Waldo Emerson, to John Muir
“In wildness is the preservation of the world.” – Henry David Thoreau
It might well have dawned on Muir that in sharing in words his love for the wilds he would inexorably be drawn back into contact with the civilization he had up until now tried so hard to avoid. Sensing that the ‘cat was out of the bag’ upon writing his first articles he set about preparing for what would be his culminating adventure amongst the Sierra. Setting out in autumn of 1873 John Muir was intent on hiking the entire length of the Sierra Mountain Range. Entering the highlands by way of the San Joaquin River he pushed north along the least traveled path. He soloed Mount Millar (in which he suffered a fall that could have killed him), lounged among giant Sequoya groves, and in the end topped it all off with a climb of California’s highest peak Mt. Whitney. His grand adventure completed Muir, most certainly with great reluctance, turned his back to the mountains and set out on what would be the most defining part of his life.
John Muir had by now changed focus. From now on he would educate others on the wonders and importance of the natural world rather than living alone within it. “Everyone needs beauty as well as bread,” was one of his most famous quotes and shows a marked shift in Muir’s thinking from self to others. His first public speech was heard at the Literary Institute of Sacramento in January of 1876. For the next number of years he would travel to numerous places across California where he would dazzle attendees with incredible tales and wisdom from the mountains. Despite his ever-growing list of social engagements, Muir still managed to set aside copious amounts of time for travel. Between the years of 1875-79 his destinations included Mt. Shasta, numerous trips into Yosemite, a return to Mt. Whitney, Utah, and river trips down the Merced, Sacramento, and San Joaquin. And then came Alaska…
“God never made an ugly landscape. All that the sun shines on is beautiful, so long as it is wild.”
In June, 1879 John set out for the great north. Once again, just as he had over a decade earlier, he set out into the great unknown. Little did he know just how great it would be. Travelling the Inside Passage he took time to climb mountains (Glenora Peak) and spent time amongst many native villages. His trip culminated with a visit to Muir’s geologic Holy Grail at Glacier Bay. What breathtaking wonder must have swept over him as he stood surrounded by the power and majesty of the glacial forces he had studied for so long. He explored the Glacier Bay area extensively before, as the fleeting northern summer waned, he had to return home.
Even Muir could likely not have anticipated what the interlude years of 1880-88 held for him. During these years the unkempt mountain-man John Muir became almost domesticated. He was married to Louie Strentzel on April 14, 1880 after an awkward romance that dated back to 1874. Though he made brief trips back to the Alaskan panhandle in 1880 and 1881 he celebrated the birth of his first daughter, Wanda, between trips. After returning south in 1881 Muir and his small family moved to a farm outside Martinez, California where Muir began his life as a 19th Century family man and all the expectations, responsibilities, and troubles associated with that lifestyle. As would become a theme in his later life, the longer Muir was without his time in the wilderness, the more irritable and unhealthy he became. True to his own words, having bread was good but for his own health, John Muir needed to get back to the beauty of the mountains.
Following the birth of his second daughter, Helen, in January of 1886 John made his long awaited return to the Sierra. He was shocked by what he found. Loggers had all but destroyed the forests surrounding the majestic peak. Sadly he proclaimed, “The glory is departing.” Pushing north he culminated his trip with an ascent of mighty Mt. Rainier where his attitude was much improved by the untouched landscape. Upon Rainier’s slopes he made note of a brief thought many mountain dwellers even today can relate to: “Doubly happy is the man whom lofty mountain tops are within reach, for the lights that shine there illuminate all that lies below.”
John Muir had made a name for himself in academic circles by 1889 as the authority on the ways of the mountain wilderness. His passion for conservation was there but up until that year his main focus was the education of the public not governmental policy. All that was soon to change. In the spring of that year Muir headed out to Yosemite with the editor of the widely popular Century magazine, Robert Johnson. After the visit Johnson, awed by the beauty of the valley, implore Muir to write a series of articles for his magazine which might be used to further the effort for a national park at Yosemite. John Muir accepted the offer and provided the magazine with two articles named Treasures of Yosemite and Features of the Proposed Yosemite National Park. In the latter he stated his wishes that the park include such notable features as the Tuolumne River and canyon, the entirety of the central Sierra, Big Tuolumne Meadows, and the big Sequoya groves. The articles had the desired effect. Two years later, in what must have been one of the highlights of Muir’s life, congress passed a bill to create Yosemite National Park along with 4 million additional acres of National Forest adjacent to it.
Who, though, would oversee the preservation of Americas newest natural treasure? Not long after the formation of the park the question of who would police conservation policies within the park became a serious issue. Fortunately, no doubt as a result of John Muir’s influence, a small group of like-minded individuals met in San Francisco to form an organization that would the services Yosemite required. They called themselves the Sierra Club, and they unanimously elected John Muir as the first club president. His literary and oratory skills were put to the test within the first couple years. Private interests were already encroaching on park lands and the Sierra Club was forced into numerous heated legal battles for its protection. Behind Muir’s unwavering spirit and literary genius, the Sierra Club was ultimately successful in their fight, and both Muir and the club became seared into the public minds as symbols of national conservation. Unfortunately for Muir and his beloved wild lands, the fight was only just beginning.
The Final Battles...
"God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools."
For three years after his victories involving Yosemite (1893-96) Muir at long last returned to Europe. His first stop, after an absence of 50 years, was to his birthplace in Dunbar, Scotland. From there he headed south across the continent passing through France, Switzerland, the Alps, and finally onto Italy. What he discovered upon his return was conservation in turmoil. His old acquaintance Gifford Pinchot was preaching a belief that the forests of America could not only be preserved but also used as a sustainable resource. The thought was, and remains to this day, that conservation of forests can include their use as a resource…as long as they are replenished. Muir immediately recognized these theories for the threats to the environment that they were. He first wrote of their precious beauty: “The American forests, however slighted by man, must surely have been a great delight to God; for they were the best he ever planted. The whole continent was a garden, and from the beginning it seemed favored above all other wild parks and gardens of the globe.” He then lashed out against those that would use the forests for gain: “Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed-chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones.”
Hope for John Muir came in 1903 in the form of a letter in which a prominent dignitary of the day inquired if Muir would accompany him on a visit to Yosemite stating, “I do not want anyone but you, and I want to drop politics absolutely for four days, and just be out in the open with you.” The letter was signed Theodore Roosevelt. Muir eagerly accepted and soon he found himself camping out under the stars with the president of the United States. What amazing conversations the two must have enjoyed! For four days Muir shared the wonders of the valley in his own remarkable way and upon returning to civilization Roosevelt declared that he had a ‘bully’ time. A better friend in Washington Muir could not have found. In the following years, thanks in great part to Muir, Roosevelt would expand the size of Yosemite National Park as well as adding no less than 55 wildlife preserves and 150 national forests! Amazingly, however, Yosemite Valley was still not included within the boundaries of the young park. It would not be until 1906 that the crown jewel of Yosemite would gain protection.
Perhaps comfortable in the fact that the American wilderness was finally in good hands Muir set out in 1904 on his grandest adventure yet. On this grand tour Muir would circle the globe, fulfilling a dream that dated back to his days as a young lad in Scotland. For a good part of the next year Muir could be found crossing Europe, wandering through Siberia, gazing at the pyramids of Giza, touring the streets of Bombay, visiting the great Australian outback, or marveling at the ancient ways of the Japanese. It was truly the adventure of a lifetime. Unfortunately for Muir, his joy would be short-lived. If 1904 would be remembered as one of the greatest of his life then the following years, surely, would be remembered as some of the worst. It was in 1905 that Muir had lost his closest companion, his wife Louie. Muir was heart-broken. Unfortunately, he didn’t have long to grieve. It wasn’t long after Louie’s death that Muir was to begin his greatest, most tragic, and final conservation battle.
In 1906 the earthquake-stricken city of San Francisco appealed to the federal government for water rights within Yosemite National Park, specifically the grand Hetch Hetchy Valley. The argument was that Hetch Hetchy was a rather commonplace valley in the Sierra’s which, due to its protected status would contain the purest water possible for the city. Some even argued that a lake would improve the scenic beauty of the valley! The reality was something different altogether as John Muir would vainly try to explain. If Yosemite was the king of valleys then Hetch Hetchy was the crown prince. Created by the same forces that carved out the cliffs of El Capitan, Hetch Hetchy was nearly as grand. In Muir’s eyes it was more so. More than that, the proposal to dam the valley was proof-positive of all that Muir despised in the human spirit. This fight was personal. Muir bombarded government offices and journals with countless letters pleading that the city look elsewhere for its water. He personally wrote to President Roosevelt, his friend whom he camped with only a few years prior. Nothing worked. His words fell on deaf ears. No amount of eloquent oratory or literature could stem the tide of progress. Muir’s frustration and fury show in the following quote: “These temple destroyers, devotees of raging commercialism, seem to have perfect contempt for Nature, and instead of lifting their eyes to the mountains, lift them to dams and city skyscrapers!”
Many years before her death, Louie had on a number of occasions suggested John return to the mountains for sake of his health. Many friends would remember that John’s frequent bouts with illness coincided with his times away from the wild. The impending loss of Hetch Hetchy must have been more than his aging soul could bear. From 1908 on his health would slowly deteriorate. He found solace in trips to South America and Africa in 1911-12. Also, Muir began spending more and more time at his daughters home in Daggett simply walking the fields or playing with his grandchildren. Though he continued to plead for last minute clemency in the case of the Hetch Hetchy, Muir most certainly knew the die was cast. In November he scribbled a brief note in a letter to Helen, “The Hetch Hetchy question will likely be decided in the first week of December (1914)…anyhow I’ll be relieved when it’s settled, for it’s killing me.” Later that month John traveled again to Daggett to visit Helen and, while out walking one rather chilly evening, caught a cold which quickly became pneumonia. Muir was quickly transported to a hospital in Los Angeles. On Christmas Eve John Muir, naturalist and lover of all that was wild, passed over the final ridge and into eternity.
“The grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.” –John Muir (1838-1914)
Works Cited...Ehrlich, Gretel. John Muir Nature's Visionary. Washington DC: National Geographic, 2000. Print.
Wolfe, Linnie M. Son of the Wilderness: The Life of John Muir. 5th ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc, 1947. Print.
John Muir National Historic Site U.S. National Park Service, 1 Oct. 2009. Web.
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