John Muir was a Scottish- American naturalists, a wilderness preservationist in America, environmental philosopher, and author. He was widely known as "John of the Mountains" for his exemplary work in forest conservation. His early life which begun in Dunbar, Scotland before they immigrated to the United States was characterized by typical boyhood pursuits such as re-enactions of romantic battles, hunting birds nests, fighting and playground scrapping. Muir's father, Daniel Muir was a strict religious man who made him recite scriptures, "by heart and by sore flesh" (Fox). His father was rigid and punished him often if he could not memorize scripture or keep his demanding schedule, he believed that "anything that distracted his children from the bible was frivolous and punishable" (Marquis). Marquis describes Muir as a restless spirit who developed a love affair with nature while still in his youth.
Since childhood, Muir was inclined to creativity and learning. In his book, The Story of my Boyhood and Youth, he writes how he was always fond of the wild when he was a boy in Scotland. His love for wild places and wild creatures only grew intense as he got older. He invented such things as a table saw, a horse feeder, the wooden thermometer, a device to push a baby out of bed in the morning and so on (Biography.com Editors). Muir's father heard about the good farmland in America and took some of his children from their home in Scotland and settled in Wisconsin. They later moved to Hickory Hill when the soil on their farm could not produce crops anymore. It is at Hickory Hill that John became more aware of the forests and the wilderness and began to explore. He learnt the various names of animals, plants and trees. He especially developed a fascination for the millions of passenger pigeons that flew overhead (Maynard, 6).
Muir's childhood was characterized by a strict religiosity and a rigid father who expected him to follow a certain path quite different from the naturalist and conservationist that he eventually became. Muir was always restless with his father's religious inclinations and even though he remained deeply spiritual, he followed his passions for the wild and was able to make a career out of his love for nature.
Muir's first botany lesson was under a black locust tree in the University of Wisconsin when he was 22 years old. A fellow student used a flower to explain how a grand locust is part of the pea family. This simple lesson charmed Muir into further explorations in the wild. Even though he left school and did not graduate from University, he still pursued his passion and studied botany. He did a lot of exploration on foot and studied the natural world, the wilderness, forests, and nature. The summer, spring and fall of 1864 were spent exploring the swamps and woods of Southern Ontario. He travelled along the Georgina Bay on Lake Huron collecting plants and exploring all aspects of the wilderness. He then travelled to Meaford, Ontario where his brother was and collected and catalogued plants and explored the escarpment and bogs while working in a mill factory.
At this time, Muir took up odd jobs to support himself since his father was no longer supporting him, he, however, still maintained his passion for nature even while working in different fields. Sometime in 1866, Muir returned to the United States and was employed in a wagon wheel company. While working in the factory, he was blinded when a tool he was using hit his eye. Apart from a rigid and strict father, this period of blindness was another major challenge that Muir faced in pursuit of his career. The accident had him confined in a dark room for at least six weeks during which he could not explore the wild or botanize plants as he was accustomed to. When he finally regained his sight, Muir wrote, "This affliction has driven me to the sweet fields. God has to nearly kill us sometimes, to teach us lessons" (Marquis). The blindness he suffered prompted him to think about his future. It was during this time that he saw his life, the world and his purpose in it in a new light. After he regained his sight, he was determined to pursue his dream of the study and exploration of plants and be true to himself and his passion
He embarked on a journey right after he regained his sight and walked for about 1000 mile from Indiana to Florida. He wrote detailed sketches of his walk and the terrain he passed through in his book, A Thousand- Mile Walk to the Gulf. He arrived at the Cedar keys and worked in a sawmill where he was afflicted by a malarial disease and almost died. Some time after he recovered, Muir would climb on the roof of the Hodgson house where he worked and see a ship which was to sail to Cuba. Muir then decided to leave his work in the Hodgson mills and sail to Cuba. He then took his nature explorations to a new level. From walking for miles to botanize plants, he now sailed and studied shells and flowers. In addition to that, he also visited botanical gardens in Havana. He later sailed to New York, Panama and San Francisco where he continued with his walking explorations (Biography.com Editors).
After he settled in San Francisco, Muir decided to explore the Yosemite, a place he had only read about and desired to one day visit. While there, he wrote 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" (Marquis). He returned home then later settled in the Yosemite for and worked as a shepherd. While there, he climbed Mount Dana and Cathedral Peak and hiked along trails. He built a small cabin along Yosemite Creek and settled there. He also invented a water powered mill that would be used to cut trees.
Muir later met Joseph LeConte on an expedition in Yosemite. LeConte encouraged Muir to join the University Excursion Party which was organized by some students. He then wrote a detailed account of the geological expedition which he entitled, " Ramblings Through the High Sierra." He wrote of Muir:
"Mr. Muir is a gentleman of rare intelligence, of much knowledge of science, particularly of botany, which he has made a specialty. He has lived several years in the valley and is thoroughly acquainted with the mountains in the vicinity. A man of so much intelligence tending a saw mill!not for himself but for Mr. Hutchings. This is California!"... He is a most passionate lover of nature. Plants, and flowers, and forests, and sky, and clouds, and mountains seem actually to haunt his imagination. He seems to revel in the freedom of this life. I think he would pine away in a city or in a conventional life of any kind. He is really not only an intelligent man, as I saw at once, but a man of strong, earnest nature, and thoughtful, closely observing and original mind."(LeConte).
Muir then started writing more articles and become known for how he wrote about his affection for the ecology and the connection between the earth and humanity, how he praised nature ad spoke in spiritual poetic terms concerning it. His writing earned him a varied and large audience and readership who were enchanted by his style of writing as well as his command of matters pertaining to nature. He then published essays that pushed for the establishment of the Yosemite National Park. The park was later created in 1890 and became a major park in the area. After the success of the park, Muir became widely known for the creation of parks in various regions like Sequoia and the Grand Canyon. Muir stated that: "Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike." (Muir).
In 1982, Muir co- founded the Sierra Club to which he was the president of its environmental advocacy for close to three decades. He embarked on a three- night camping trip with the then president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. Muir helped to shape the president's conservationists policies and Roosevelt was quoted saying, "I was interested and a little surprised to find that, unlike John Burroughs, John Muir cared little for birds or bird songs, and knew little about them. The hermit-thrushes meant nothing to him, the trees and the flowers and the cliffs everything" (Marquis).
During the period when Muir lived in the Yosemite, he was unmarried and jobless. Most of his time was dedicated to nature and conservationist efforts. He did not have a career and went through various periods of anguish in which he could not fend for himself or take care of his needs. He would carry only a copy of Emerson, a tin cup, a loaf of bread and a handful of tea. The natural environment became his sustenance and he would sit by a campfire and read Emerson under the light of the stars.
The people's response to his way of life was a mixture of admiration and awe, although others found him strange and eccentric for his love of nature. People considered him a fixture in the valley since he was also found in the wild. They criticized his reluctance to live among people and to associate with others as normal human beings did. However, most people respected and admired his storytelling skills, his vast knowledge of history and skills as a guide (Tallmadge). Visitors to the Yosemite including celebrities, scientists and artists would all seek out Muir to get a better understanding and knowledge of nature and his work in the area and also regarding conservation.
Later, in 1877, Muir led Professor Asa Gray and Sir Joseph Hooker to the Shasta region for an expedition. He then went on a boat trip or rather floated down the Sacramento River on a small boat. He climbed the Marysville Buttes which he wrote about and documented as measuring, "eighteen hundred feet above its base, ... nineteen hundred and fifty feet above the river, ... or in round numbers two thousand feet above tidewater" (Muir). His explorations from then on involved floating on rafts over distances and allowing the rivers to direct him as he explored nature. During one of his boat trips, he visited the family of the woman who was to be his wife, Louie then went on to climb Mount Diablo before returning to Oakland.
Muir was, in a sense, a firm believer of the things he stood for and his values in life. His non- conformity earned him a few disagreements but mostly it helped him become one of the greatest conservations in the world. During the period between 1866 and 1869, Muir became associated with a national conservationist leader, Gifford Pinchot. The two, however, differed on their views concerning the environment. Muir saw nature and the forests as spiritual, inspirational and places of rest and prayers while Pinchot saw forestry as a way of conserving the natural environment to be used later for commercial use to the benefit of the nation and its people. He died a conservationist who left a legacy of parks as well as numerous articles and books he wrote.
Biography.com Editors. John Muir Biography A & E Television Networks. 2010. Web. May 3. 2016. http://www.biography.com/people/john-muir-947625Fox, Stephen R. The American Conservatism Movement: John Muir and his Legacy. (1985). University of Wisconsin Press.
LeConte, Joseph. A Journal of Ramblings through the High Sierra of California. (1890). Web. May 3, 2016. http://www.yosemite.ca.us/library/leconte/Marquis, Amy Leinbach. A Mountain Calling. (2007). National Park Magazine.
Maynard, Charles W. John Muir: Naturalist and Explorer. (2003). Rosen Publishing Group Inc.
Muir, John. Our National Parks. (1901). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Tallmadge, John. Meeting the Tree of Life: a Teachers Path. (1997). University of Utah Press.
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