John Muir America’s Preeminent Naturalist

John Muir, America’s preeminent naturalist, is also known as “John of the Mountains” and “Father of the National Parks.” He was an influential Scottish-American naturalist, author, and early advocate for the preservation of wilderness in the United States of America. He was born in Dunbar, East Lothian, Scotland to Daniel Muir and Ann Gilrye on 21 April 1838 and was the third of eight children.

John Muir in 1872. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

From an early age John Muir loved taking walks with his grandfather. Author Amy Leinbach Marquis notes that his “love affair” with nature may have been in reaction to his strict religious upbringing:

“His father believed that anything that distracted from Bible studies was frivolous and punishable [and] Muir’s restless spirit made him especially prone to lashings.”[1]

The one enjoyment that he found as a young boy was the East Lothian landscape, an area east of the city of Edinburgh that the famous wax sculptress Madame Tussaud loved. John Muir found that in East Lothian he could freely explore and commune with nature. It was during these special times that he first became interested in natural history and the works of Scottish naturalist Alexander Wilson. Muir’s love the Scottish landscape continued after his family immigrated to the United States in 1849 as he often reminisced about his childhood experiences with nature.

In America, the Muir family settled on a farm near Portage, Wisconsin. Muir’s father had decided to immigrate because he found the Church of Scotland insufficiently strict and once in the U.S. he and his family joined the Campbellite Restoration Movement, called the Disciples of Christ. They were a group committed to restoring primitive Christianity. By eleven, a young John Muir could recite from memory the New Testament and most of the Old Testament. However, later as an adult his beliefs in religion changed:

“I never tried to abandon creeds or code of civilization; they went away of their own accord, melting and evaporating noiselessly without any effort and without leaving any consciousness of loss.”[2]

In 1860, at the age of 22, John Muir enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and received his first botany lesson from a fellow student named Griswold. Muir wrote that he was standing on the stone steps of a dormitory when Griswold joined him and plucked a flower from a branch of the locust tree above them. He and handed it to Muir asking if he knew what family the tree belonged to, and as Muir knew nothing about botany, he told him no. Griswold then explained how the grand locust was a member of the pea family, related to the straggling pea plant. Muir never forgot that lesson and years later wrote:

“This fine lesson charmed me and sent me flying to the woods and meadows in wild enthusiasm. Like everybody else I was always fond of flowers, attracted by their external beauty and purity. Now my eyes were opened to their inner beauty, all alike revealing glorious traces of the thoughts of God, and leading on and on into the infinite cosmos. I wandered away at every opportunity, making long excursions round the lakes, gathering specimens and keeping them fresh in a bucket in my room to study at night after my regular class tasks were learned; for my eyes never closed on the plant glory I had seen.”[3]

At the university Muir took a variety of classes, and as he put it, “I … picked out what I thought would be most useful to me, particularly chemistry, … mathematics and physics, a little Greek and Latin botany and geology.”[4] Because of his unorthodox selections after two years he still remained a first-year student. Although he never graduated from the university, he did gain enough knowledge from his chemistry, geology, and botany classes that they aided him in his naturalist wanderings.

In 1863, Muir’s brother Daniel moved to Southern Ontario to avoid being drafted in the American Civil War, and, a year later Muir traveled to the same region. He spent about nine months exploring the area of Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay and hiking the Niagara Escarpment before he joined his brother near Meaford, Ontario. Daniel then convinced him to work with him at a sawmill and rake factory and Muir remained there until March 1866 when he returned to the United States.

Muir then settled in Indianapolis and found employment with a wagon wheel factory. It was while working at this factory that his life changed forever. In March of 1867 as he was holding a tool against a machine belt, the tool slipped and struck him in the eye cutting the cornea of his right eye and blinding him. To make the situation worse, his left eye then sympathetically failed.

To regain his sight, he was confined to a dark room for six weeks. During this confinement, friends read him to him and entertained him with stories about such magnificent places as Yosemite in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, and besides stewing and worrying about whether he would regain his sight, he also contemplated life. When he regained his eyesight, he was grateful:

“This affliction has driven me to the sweet fields. God has to nearly kill us sometimes, to teach us lessons.”[5]

Location of Yosemite on map of California. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

From that point forward he decided to no longer waste time and to follow his dream of exploring and studying plants. Thus, on 2 September he set out on a long walk from Louisville, Kentucky and traveled through Tennessee and Georgia to Florida.

“He paid little attention to the towns and cities through which he passed, his was not the quest of the ordinary sight-seer; it was his purpose, as he explained in the first rough notes in his journal … to followed the ‘wildest, leafiest, and least-trodden way’ he could find, promising the greatest extent of virgin forest. In this he was successful.”[6]

At the Cedar Keys in Florida, he accepted work at a sawmill and then almost died from malaria. While there he also saw a ship and learned that it would soon be sailing to Cuba. Curious about that country there, he sailed for Havana and began to study its shells and flowers. From there he sailed to New York City and booked passage to California.

He arrived on 1 April 1868 and settled in San Francisco. The next day he left to visit Yosemite. He had no idea what to expect as he had only heard about it. What he saw overwhelmed him and he was struck by its “grandeur” and “inexhaustible beauty.” He was so impressed he returned the next year and worked as a ranch hand and the next year he became employed as a shepherd. During this time, he continued to study the flora and fauna and later published My First Summer in the Sierra.

El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in the fall. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

John Muir also spent much of his first year and half in and around Twenty Hill Hollow that he dubbed “delightful Hollow” or the “Merced Yosemite of the Plain.” In addition, he hiked and climbed various mountains in Yosemite that included Cathedral Peak and Mount Dana. After his job as a shepherd was over, he worked for James Mason Hutchings at his mill, but eventually he and Hutchings argued, and Muir quit his job in 1871.

Cathedral Peak in Yosemite National Park. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

He then wrote his first article on glaciers. It was published through the New York Tribune in September of 1871. He believed that glaciers had sculpted the features of Yosemite, an idea that contradicted contemporary theories promoted by Josiah Whitney, the head of the California Geological Survey. As Muir’s ideas of glaciers spread, Whitney tried to discredit him, but the premier geologist of the day, Louis Agassiz, supported Muir and touted him as “the first man I have ever found who has any adequate conception of glacial action.”[7]

John Muir’s ideas about glaciers were further accepted when a large 1872 earthquake happened in Lone Pine in Owens Valley and shook Yosemite Valley. Muir was there and wrote:

“I was awakened by a tremendous earthquake, and though I had never before enjoyed a storm of this sort, the strange thrilling motion could not be mistaken, and I ran out of my cabin, both glad and frightened, shouting, ‘A noble earthquake! A noble earthquake’ feeling sure I was going to learn something.”[8]  

John Muir in 1875. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Throughout the remainder of the 1870s, he continued to publish articles and his reputation as a naturalist grew. On 15 September 1874 he met his future wife, Louisa Strentzel, at the home of Dr. Ezra and Jeanne Carr. Muir had previously met them at the Wisconsin State Fair where he exhibited some cleverly whittled clocks. Jeanne encouraged him to apply to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Dr. Carr became one of Muir’s professors. Thereafter John Muir and the Carrs stayed in touch and it was Muir who encouraged them to move to California.

Ezra Carr. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Jeanne had been trying for some time to fix up Muir with Strentzel. After they met at her home, she began to exert increasing pressure on them to marry and her pressuring finally worked because John Muir proposed. They became engaged on 17 June 1879 and married on 14 April 1880 at the home of Strentzel’s parents. On 25 March 1881, Muir and his wife had a daughter Wanda and Helen was born five years later, on 23 January 1886.

Strentzel’s father managed a fruit orchard that consisted of 2600 acres. It was located in Martinez near Oakland, and Muir joined him in managing it. However, nature remained Muir’s first love. He therefore continued to visit Yosemite often taking nothing more than a loaf of bread, tea, and a copy of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays. On these trips, he camped under the stars and was seen so often in the area he eventually became known as a “fixture” at Yosemite.

John Muir also made several trips to Alaska. The first trip happened in 1879 when he explored Glacier Bay, an American national park located in Southeast Alaska west of Juneau that President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed as such under the Antiquities Act on February 25, 1925, and Muir Glacier was later named for John Muir. During his visit there, he wrote accounts that were published in installments in the San Francisco Bulletin and later he collected them for his 1915 book, Travels in Alaska. He returned to Alaska in 1880 and 1881 and explored more of Alaska. In addition, he was also among the party aboard the USS Corwin that claimed Wrangel Island for the United States. He documented this experience which then resulted in his book, The Cruise of the Corwin.

Muir Glacier in 1994. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Muir eventually became a vigorous preservationist. He saw Yosemite and the Sierra as pristine land and worried about the threats posed by domesticated livestock grazing in the area. He was particularly opposed to sheep whom he nicknamed “hoofed locust” because when they feed, they crop plants very close to the ground and can overgraze a pasture much faster than cattle. In addition, he encouraged the U.S. Congress to consider a bill about preservation that was based on suggestions he made in two articles, “The Treasures of the Yosemite” and “Features of the Proposed National Park.” The bill passed but unfortunately it still left Yosemite Valley under state control.

Because of Muir’s preservation leanings when he had a chance to assist in the formation of an “alpine club” he leapt. The suggestion was made to him in 1892 by Professor Henry Senger, a philologist at the University of California, Berkeley. Invitations were sent out for the “Sierra Club” and at its first meeting on 28 May 1892 John Muir was elected president and remained in the position until his death 22 years later.

A few weeks after the club’s formation, Sacramento’s The Record Union published an article about the newly formed club:

“The Sierra Club of San Francisco has filed articles of incorporation, in which they set forth that they have associated themselves together for the purposes of exploring, rendering accessible, and cooperating with the people and the Government in preserving the forests and other natural features of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

The club further proposes to take, hold, purchase, acquire, buy, sell, and convey real estate, etc.

The Board of Directors includes some prominent men of the State, and as it is without capital stock, it is doubtless a worthy organization, with a worthy object in view. … If the club succeeds in directing proper legislation looking toward the preservation of mountains, forests and stream, it will have achieved a worthy object and be a public benefactor.”[9]

Once formed the Sierra Club began to immediately oppose efforts to reduce the size of Yosemite National Park and the club began to discuss the idea of “national forest reservations.” They then successful campaigned to transfer the park from state to federal control, accomplishing it in 1906. For a time, John Muir also attempted to work with Gifford Pinchot, a conservationist who became the first head of the United States Forest Service. However, the two men’s views eventually clashed.

Gifford Pinchot. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Pinchot saw conservationism as a pathway to manage the national’s natural resources for commercial use, while Muir saw preservation in a completely different light. He loved nature for its spiritual and transcendent qualities. Moreover, he encouraged city dwellers to personally experience nature by suggesting people travel to the mountains and experience the beauty of the forests. He believed communing with nature would provide spiritual nourishment to people and encourage them to want to preserve nature for future generations. When Pinchot began to support sheep grazing, Muir confronted him, their friendship ended, and it pitted conservationists against preservationists.

Over the course of his lifetime, John Muir published over 300 articles and 12 books. However, writing was never an easy thing for him as related in a Sierra Club bulletin published in 1919:

“By seven o’clock each morning Mr. Muir had breakfasted and was ready for the day’s work, usually lasting with but the interruption of an hour at lunch and dinner and another a mail time, until ten at night. Composition was always slow and laborious for him. ‘This business of writing books,’ he would often say, ‘is a long, tiresome, endless job.’ To read his easy, flowing, forceful sentences, as rich in imagery and simple in direction as Bible English, no one would dream what infinite pains had been taken in their creation. Each sentence, each phrase, each word, underwent his critical scrutiny, not once but twenty times before he was satisfied to let it stand. His rare critical faculty was unimpaired to the end. So too was the freshness and vigor of his whole outlook on life. No trace of pessimism or despondence, even in the defeat of his most deeply cherished hopes, ever darkened his beautiful philosophy, and only in the intense physical fatigue brought on by his long working hours was there any hint of failing powers.”[10]

On 24 December 1914, Muir died in Los Angeles at the California Hospital at the age of 76 from pneumonia. He had taken a brief visit to Daggett, a community located in San Bernadino County, to see his youngest daughter Helen. Hardly was his body cold before a Nevada paper, the Reno Gazette-Journal, wrote a touching tribute to him:

“Like Thoreau, Muir was a naturalist. He lived in the open. He loved the wide spaces and civilization crowded him. Where the giant crags were, where the glaciers slowly flowed in their age-old channels, there John Muir breathed.

There are many people who know that another man was first of the white race to enter the Yosemite, but, so far as Yosemite can be said to have been discovered, John Muir did it. Until he had written of that wonderful cleft in the Sierra in his simple but powerful English, few knew of the valley and no one appreciated its wealth of beauty. He described the way that deep crevice in the mountains had been hewn into its present shape by some giant glacier, and his story caught the public fancy, till all the world knew Yosemite.

But it is not with such things alone that the world ought to associate John Muir’s name. He should be held up as a type of thoroughness to the younger generation. He was thorough above all things. He knew the stamen of the flower and the talus of the precipice. he knew the track of the glacier and the age of the sequoia. Others theorized. He knew.

Whether this was due to his rugged Scottish ancestry or to the training he received in his university days in Wisconsin, it is not necessary to inquire. But John Muir knew not only the Earthy and Nature — he knew also how to write them. And in writing, he never misplaced a punctuation point or neglected capitalization. …

The Muir glacier in Alaska will be his monument forever, but those who knew him will always feel as long as they live that attention to detail in everything was what made John Muir great.”[11]

John Muir. Posthumous portrait by Orlando Rouland (1917). Courtesy of Wikipedia.

References:

  • [1] National Parks (National Parks Conservation Association), p. 58.
  • [2] L. M. Wolfe, Son of the Wilderness: The Life of John Muir (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), p. 95.
  • [3] J. Muir. 1916, p. 225.
  • [4] J. Muir, The Writings of John Muir v. 1 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1916), p. 228.
  • [5] National Parks (National Parks Conservation Association), p. 58.
  • [6] The Living Age v. 292 (Boston: The Living Age Company, 1917), p. 576.
  • [7] J. Muir and T. Gifford, John Muir: His Life and Letters and Other Writings (London: Bâton Wicks, 1996), p. 322.
  • [8] D. R. Prothero, California’s Amazing Geology (Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2017)
  • [9] The Record-Union, “In a Good Direction,” June 18, 1892, p. 3.
  • [10] Sierra Club, Sierra Club Bulletin (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1919), p. 35.
  • [11] Reno Gazette-Journal, “John Muir is Dead,” December 24, 1914, p. 4.

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