The naturalist and conservationist John Muir was born in Scotland on this date in 1838. He came to America with his family when he was 11 years old, and they settled on a farm in Wisconsin. He went to the University of Wisconsin - Madison for a few years, paying his own way and studying botany for the first time.
Muir left school to wander around Canada, collecting plants and, when he needed money, working in a sawmill in the Ontario area. In 1866 he returned to the U.S. and worked as an industrial engineer in Indianapolis, Indiana, but that ended when a work injury almost blinded him. After six weeks in a darkened room, Muir emerged determined to be true to his dreams of exploration and the study of plants.
So he walked about 1,000 miles from Indiana to Florida, going the “wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way” he could find. He wanted to go to South America and continue his wilderness walk, but he fell ill with malaria, so instead he sailed to New York and then traveled by steamship to California.
As soon as Muir's ship landed in San Francisco, California, he made his way to Yosemite. He immediately fell in love with the place in a big way.
He lived there for years, studying the botany and geology of the area.
He suggested that Yosemite Valley was carved out by glaciers, rather than by a gigantic earthquake as theorized by Josiah Whitney. (Whitney's idea was widely believed at the time.)
Muir was often lonely and comforted himself, not only with the beauties of nature, but also with reading the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. After Muir had lived in Yosemite for three years, Emerson himself came to the valley. The two men were delighted to meet each other. Emerson offered Muir a professorship at Harvard, but Muir turned him down without even considering the idea.
Emerson and Ezra Carr, a former professor from the University of Wisconsin, urged Muir to write about his theory of Yosemite's creation through glaciation. Muir discovered an active glacier in the area, and a large earthquake shook the valley but didn't make it deeper, so more and more people turned to Muir's theory as the likelier. (Of course, a huge amount of evidence has since been found to pretty much clinch Muir's theory.)
Eventually John Muir moved to a more civilized area, Oakland, where he married, helped raise two daughters, and lived on a ranch. He continued to study and write about botany and geology and conservation. He took breaks by traveling to his beloved Sierras, and he also climbed Mt. Rainier in Washington and went on expeditions to Wrangel Island in the Arctic Sea and along the Alaskan coast. Later in life, Muir traveled the world talking about preservation of wild spaces, visiting England, France, Germany, Russia, China, India, Egypt, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Hawaii, and, briefly, Indonesia and the Philippines. He stayed in Arizona for a while, and he finally got to South America and even Africa!
As important as Muir's writings and scientific contributions were, he is best known for helping to start the Sierra Club, a conservation group, and for gaining protected status for Yosemite as a national park. Both the club and the national park were successes, but Muir also opposed building a dam at Hetch Hetchy, and that fight he lost.
In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt went to Yosemite and asked Muir to show him “the real Yosemite.” The two men camped in the back country, slept out under the stars and were even dusted by a bit of snow in the early morning. Muir was able to convince the president of the importance of Yosemite and of federal control of the park.
Later in his life Muir shrugged off the title “conservationist,” as he often disagreed with the land-use ideas of people who called themselves by this term. Muir began to call himself a “preservationist,” because he wanted to keep certain lands almost entirely untouched. He considered them of great spiritual value, more beautiful than the greatest temple or cathedral ever built by humans.
Muir lived to age 76 and died in Los Angeles, California, of pneumonia. Many places and institutions have been named after John Muir, particularly in California. My own sister went to John Muir High School in Pasadena. There are a bunch of other schools plus a college named after him, plus several mountains, a glacier, a wilderness area, several long hiking trails, a beach, a stand of redwoods, many parks, a camp, and even an asteroid!
Muir has been featured on several postage stamps and appears on the California state quarter. Muir's birthday was declared John Muir Day by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2004.
- Watch a video clip about Muir and Roosevelt in Yosemite.
- Read some quotes by John Muir, and think about the relevance of each to his life and also to yours. (Quotes selected by Harold Wood for the Sierra Club.)
- If you want more Muir writings, the Sierra Club provides a great resource with selected passages, letters, eulogies, and bibliographies...plus the complete text of his books!
(Look for the blue drop-down menu called "Writings.")
- Here is a coloring sheet of the California state quarter depicting Muir.
This photo shows a bit of the John Muir
trail I have hiked several times in my life.
Even better, make a plan to preserve a bit of wilderness!