USA: John Muir: Wilderness Prophet (1838-1914)


‘One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.’

John Muir

John MuirThis year sees the centenary of the death of John Muir, naturalist, conservationist and ‘Father of National Parks’. He was born in Scotland, in the small, coastal town of Dunbar on the 21st April, 1838 and went to school there until the age of 11, when he and his family left these shores for a new life in the United States.

There, he worked on the family farm from dawn until dusk, but on the occasions when he could escape, he and his younger brother would roam the fields and woodlands of the rich and beautiful Wisconsin countryside, and he soon became a keen observer of the natural world.

Muir was a man of many talents – geologist, botanist, conservationist, ornithologist and poet and today, he is venerated alongside the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Thomas Jefferson and others who have had a transformative effect on the nation.

The year of 1867 saw the beginning of his ‘wanderlust’ years, when he walked a thousand miles from Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico, followed by a trip to Cuba. From here he travelled to Panama, where he crossed the Isthmus and sailed up the West Coast, landing in San Francisco. From that moment on, though he would travel around the world, California became his home.

Tunnel View

Tunnel View, Yosemite: Photo ©Kenny Karst/DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, Inc.

It was California's Sierra Nevada and Yosemite that captivated him. He walked across the San Joaquin Valley, through waist–high wildflowers and into the high country for the first time. He described the Sierra Nevada as ‘the most divinely beautiful of all the mountain chains I have ever seen’. He later made his home for a while in Yosemite.

A series of articles entitled Studies in the Sierra, launched Muir’s highly successful career as a writer, and in his later years published 10 major books and 300 articles recounting his travels and passing on his thoughts and ideas about the natural world. His love affair with mountains shines through his writing, and he called on everyone to, ‘climb the mountains and get their good tidings - Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees’. His avid readers came from all walks of life; he inspired a whole generation and his legacy lives on today.

One particular series of articles published in Century magazine drew attention to the devastation caused to mountain meadows and woodland of Yosemite, by grazing cattle and sheep. With the help of Century’s associate editor, Robert Underwood Johnson, Muir worked tirelessly to halt the destruction, and in 1890, due in large part to the efforts of Muir and Johnson, Yosemite National Park was created by an act of Congress.  Others soon followed - Sequoia, Mount Rainier, Petrified Forest and Grand Canyon National Parks, and John Muir became known to many as the father of the National Parks system.

In order to consolidate his achievements in the Sierra Nevada, Muir founded the Sierra Club, which is now America’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization with more than two million members and supporters. Their many successes include protecting millions of acres of wilderness and helping to pass the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act.  In recent years the Club has made history by leading the charge away from burning fossil fuels towards a clean and sustainable energy policy.

In1901, Muir’s book, Our National Parks, was published, bringing him to the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt visited Muir in Yosemite, and together, beneath the trees, they laid the foundations of Roosevelt's innovative conservation programmes.

Roosevelt and Muir

Roosevelt and Muir in Yosemite: Photo: Colby Library

John Muir was perhaps America’s most famous and influential conservationist and naturalist, and he taught his contemporaries and future generations the importance of experiencing and protecting their natural heritage. His writings and activities have inspired environmental activists around the globe.

John Muir always considered himself a Scot and kept in touch with his Scottish roots, but he died in Los Angeles, at the age of 76, while visiting his daughter. He is honored in California every year on the 21st of April - John Muir Day, for his achievements in conservation, and his legacy is also kept alive in Scotland through the John Muir Trust

If you would like to know more about the Sierra Club, go to:

'Keep close to Nature's heart...and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain, or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.'

John Muir