John Muir

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John Muir

Born April 21, 1838(1838-04-21)
Dunbar, East Lothian, Scotland
Died December 24, 1914 (aged 76)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.
Occupation engineer, naturalist, writer
Spouse(s) Louisa Wanda Strentzel (1847-1905) (m. 1880–1905) «start: (1880)–end+1: (1906)»"Marriage: Louisa Wanda Strentzel (1847-1905) to John Muir" Location: (linkback:
Children Wanda Muir Hanna (25 March 1881 – 29 July 1942) and Helen Muir Funk (23 January 1886 – 7 June 1964)
Parents Daniel Muir and Ann Gilrye

John Muir (21 April 1838 – 24 December 1914) was a Scottish-born American naturalist, author, and early advocate of preservation of U.S. wilderness. His letters, essays, and books telling of his adventures in nature, especially in the Sierra Nevada mountain range of California, have been read by millions and are still popular today. His direct activism helped to save the Yosemite Valley, Sequoia National Park and other wilderness areas. The Sierra Club, which he founded, is now one of the most important conservation organizations in the United States. His writings and philosophy strongly influenced the formation of the modern environmental movement.


[edit] Early life

John Muir was born in Dunbar, East Lothian, Scotland to Daniel Muir and Ann Gilrye. He was one of eight children: Margaret, Sarah, David, Daniel, Ann and Mary (twins), and the American-born Joanna. In his autobiography, he described his boyhood pursuits which included fighting (either by re-enacting romantic battles of Scottish history or just scrapping on the playground) and hunting for birds' nests (ostensibly to one-up his fellows as they compared notes on who knew where the most were located).[1]

Entrance to Fountain Lake Farm near Portage, Wisconsin

In 1849 Muir's family emigrated to the United States, starting a farm near Portage, Wisconsin called Fountain Lake Farm, which is a National Historic Landmark.[2] Stephen Fox recounts that Muir's father found the Church of Scotland insufficiently strict in faith and practice, leading to their emigration and joining a congregation of the Campbellite Restoration Movement. Fox relates that, by age 11, young Muir had learned to recite “by heart and by sore flesh” all of the New Testament and most of the Old.[3] But in maturity, Muir was never confused by orthodox beliefs. In a letter to his fond friend Emily Pelton of May 23, 1865, he wrote "I never tried to abandon creeds or code of civilization; they went away of their own accord ... without leaving any consciousness of loss." Elsewhere in his writings, he likened the conventional image of a Creator "as purely a manufactured article as any puppet of a half-penney theater."[4]

At age 22 he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, paying his own way for several years. There, under a towering black locust tree beside North Hall, Muir took his first botany lesson. A fellow student plucked a flower from the tree and used it to explain how the grand locust is a member of the pea family, related to the straggling pea plant. Fifty years later, the naturalist Muir described the day in his autobiography: "This fine lesson charmed me and sent me flying to the woods and meadows in wild enthusiasm."[5] Muir was an erstwhile student, attending classes for two years, but never being listed higher than a first year student due to his unusual selection of courses. Records showed his class status as "irregular gent", and even though he never graduated, he learned enough geology and botany to inform his later wanderings.[6]

In 1864 Muir left school to go to Canada, spending the spring, summer, and fall wandering the woods and swamps around Lake Huron collecting plants. With his money running out and winter coming, he met his brother Daniel in Ontario, where the two worked at a sawmill on the shore of Lake Huron until the summer of 1865. Muir's trip to Canada was likely influenced by the Civil War draft. By 1864, President Lincoln was calling up another half million soldiers, and Muir's chances of getting drafted were becoming increasingly likely. Roderick Nash has described Muir's travels in Canada as journeys into wilderness to avoid military service,[7] while Linnie Marsh Wolfe wrote that Muir decided that if his number wasn't picked in the draft—which it wasn't—he "would wander a while" in the Canadian wilderness.[8]

Muir worked at the mill until March 1866, returning to the United States to work as an industrial engineer in Indianapolis. He became extremely valuable to his employers, with his inventiveness in improving the machines, processes, and lives of the laborers at a plant that manufactured carriage parts. In early March 1867, an accident changed the course of his life. A sharp file pierced his right eye, making it temporarily blind. With the milk-white liquid from his eye dripping into his hand, thinking the eye was permanently blinded, he later said, "I would gladly have died where I stood." After four weeks in a darkened room, his eye mostly healed, Muir went on a short walk. When he returned, he was determined to "be true to myself" and follow his dream of exploration and study of plants.[9]

In September 1867, Muir began walking from Indiana to Florida, which he recounted in his book A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf. He had no specific route chosen, except to go by the "wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way I could find". Upon reaching Florida, he hoped to board a ship to South America and continue his wandering there. He contracted malaria on Florida's Gulf Coast, which convinced him to abandon his plans for South America. Instead, he sailed to New York where he booked passage to California.[6]

[edit] California

Yosemite Valley from Inspiration Point

Arriving in San Francisco in March 1868, Muir immediately left for a place he had only read about called Yosemite. After seeing Yosemite Valley for the first time he was captivated, and wrote, "No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite," and " The grandest of all special temples of Nature."

After his initial eight-day visit, he returned to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and became a ferry operator, sheepherder and bronco buster. In May 1869 a rancher named Pat Delaney offered Muir a summer job in the mountains to accompany and watch over Delaney's sheep and shepherd. Muir enthusiastically accepted the offer and spent that summer with the sheep in the Yosemite area. That summer Muir climbed Cathedral Peak, Mount Dana and hiked the old Indian trail down Bloody Canyon to Mono Lake. During this time, he started to formulate theories about how the area was developed and how its ecosystem functioned.

Muir secured a job operating a sawmill in the Yosemite Valley under the supervision of innkeeper James Hutchings. A natural born inventor, Muir designed a water-powered mill to cut wind-felled trees and he built himself a small cabin along Yosemite Creek.

Pursuit of his love of science, especially geology, often occupied his free time and he soon became convinced that glaciers had sculpted many of the features of the valley and surrounding area. This notion was in stark contradiction to the accepted theory of the day, promulgated by Josiah Whitney (head of the California Geological Survey), which attributed the formation of the valley to a catastrophic earthquake. As Muir's ideas spread, Whitney would try to discredit Muir by branding him as an amateur and even an ignoramus. But the premier geologist of the day, Louis Agassiz saw merit in Muir's ideas, and lauded him as "the first man who has any adequate conception of glacial action."

In 1871, Muir discovered an active alpine glacier below Merced Peak, which further helped his theories to gain acceptance. He was also a highly productive writer and had many of his accounts and papers published as far away as New York. Also that year, one of Muir's heroes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, arrived in Yosemite and sought out Muir. Muir's former professor at the University of Wisconsin, Ezra Carr, and Carr's wife Jeanne encouraged Muir to publish his ideas. They also introduced Muir to notables such as Emerson, as well as many leading scientists such as Louis Agassiz, John Tyndall, John Torrey, Clinton Hart Merriam, and Joseph LeConte.

A large earthquake centered near Lone Pine, California in Owens Valley (see 1872 Lone Pine earthquake) was felt very strongly in Yosemite Valley in March 1872. The quake woke Muir in the early morning and he ran out of his cabin "both glad and frightened," exclaiming, "A noble earthquake!" Other valley settlers, who still adhered to Whitney's ideas, feared that the quake was a prelude to a cataclysmic deepening of the valley. Muir had no such fear and promptly made a moonlit survey of new talus piles created by earthquake-triggered rockslides. This event led more people to believe in Muir's ideas about the formation of the valley.

In addition to his geologic studies, Muir also investigated the living Yosemite area. He made two field studies along the western flank of the Sierra of the distribution and ecology of isolated groves of Giant Sequoia in 1873 and 1874. In 1876, the American Association for the Advancement of Science published Muir's paper about the trees' ecology and distribution.

In 1880, Muir married Louisa Wanda Strentzel, whose parents owned a large ranch and fruit orchards in Martinez, California, a small town northeast of San Francisco. For the next ten years he devoted himself to managing the family ranch, consisting of 2,600 acres (11 km2) of orchards and vineyards which became very successful. During this time two daughters were born, Wanda and Helen.

When he died, he left an estate of $250,000, worth more than $5.1 million in 2007 dollars.[10] The house and part of the ranch are now a National Historical Site.

[edit] Travels in the Northwest

In 1888 after seven years of managing the ranch his health began to suffer. With his wife's prompting he returned to the hills to recover his old self, climbing Mt. Rainier and writing Ascent of Mount Rainier.

Muir travelled with the party that landed on Wrangel Island on the USS Corwin and claimed that island for the United States in 1881.[11] He documented this experience in his book The Cruise of the Corwin.

[edit] Preservation efforts

John Muir's home in 1872 (Robert E. Nylund)

Muir threw himself into the preservationist role with great vigor. He envisioned the Yosemite area and the Sierra as pristine lands.[12] He saw the greatest threat to the Yosemite area and the Sierra to be livestock, especially domestic sheep, calling them "hoofed locusts". In June 1889, the influential associate editor of Century magazine, Robert Underwood Johnson, camped with Muir in Tuolumne Meadows and saw firsthand the damage a large flock of sheep had done to the grassland. Johnson agreed to publish any article Muir wrote on the subject of excluding livestock from the Sierra high country. He also agreed to use his influence to introduce a bill to Congress to make the Yosemite area into a national park, modeled after Yellowstone National Park.

On 30 September 1890, the U.S. Congress passed a bill that essentially followed recommendations that Muir put forward in two Century articles—The Treasure of the Yosemite and Features of the Proposed National Park, both published in 1890. But to Muir's dismay, the bill left Yosemite Valley in state control.

[edit] Sierra Club

In early 1892, Professor Henry Senger, a philologist at the University of California, Berkeley contacted Muir with the idea of forming a local 'alpine club' for mountain lovers. Senger and San Francisco attorney Warren Olney sent out invitations "for the purpose of forming a 'Sierra Club.' Mr. John Muir will preside." On May 28, 1892, the first meeting of the Sierra Club was held to write articles of incorporation. One week later Muir was elected president, Olney vice-president, and a board of directors was chosen that included David Starr Jordan, president of the new Stanford University. Muir would remain president until his death 22 years later.[13][14]

The Sierra Club immediately opposed efforts to reduce Yosemite National Park by half, and began holding educational and scientific meetings. One meeting in the fall of 1895 that included Muir, Joseph LeConte, and William R. Dudley discussed the idea of establishing 'national forest reservations', which would later be called National Forests. The Sierra Club was active in the successful campaign to transfer Yosemite National Park from state to federal control in 1906. The fight to preserve Hetch Hetchy Valley was also taken up by the Sierra Club, with some prominent San Francisco members opposing the fight. Eventually a vote was held that overwhelmingly put the Sierra Club behind the opposition to Hetch Hetchy Dam.[14]

[edit] Preservation vs conservation

In July 1896 Muir became associated with Gifford Pinchot, a national leader in the conservation movement. Pinchot was the first head of the United States Forest Service and a leading spokesman for the sustainable use of natural resources for the benefit of the people. His views eventually clashed with Muir and highlighted two diverging views of the use of the country's natural resources. Pinchot saw conservation as a means of managing the nation's natural resources for long-term sustainable commercial use. As a professional forester, his view was that "forestry is tree farming", without destroying the long term viability of the forests.[15] Muir valued nature for its spiritual and transcendental qualities. In one essay about the National Parks, he referred to them as "places for rest, inspiration, and prayers." He often encouraged city dwellers to experience nature for its spiritual noursishment. Both men opposed reckless exploitation of natural resources, including clear-cutting of forests. Even Muir acknowledged the need for timber and the forests to provide it, but Pinchot's view of wilderness management was far more utilitarian.[15]

Their friendship ended late in the summer of 1897 when Pinchot released a statement to a Seattle newspaper supporting sheep grazing in forest reserves. Muir confronted Pinchot and demanded an explanation. When Pinchot reiterated his position Muir told him "I don't want any thing more to do with you." This philosophical divide soon expanded and split the conservation movement into two camps: the preservationists, led by Muir; and Pinchot's camp, who co-opted the term "conservation." The two men debated their positions in popular magazines such as Outlook, Harper's Weekly, Atlantic Monthly, World's Work, and Century. Their contrasting views were highlighted again when the United States was deciding whether to dam Hetch Hetchy Valley. Pinchot favored the damming of the valley as "the highest possible use which could be made of it". In contrast, Muir proclaimed, "Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people's cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the hearts of man".[15]

Roosevelt and Muir

In 1899, Muir accompanied railroad executive E. H. Harriman and other esteemed scientists on Harriman's famous exploratory voyage along the Alaska coast aboard the luxuriously refitted 250-foot (76 m) steamer called the George W. Elder. He would later rely on his friendship with Harriman to apply political pressure on Congress to pass conservation legislation.

In 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt accompanied Muir on a visit to Yosemite. Muir joined Roosevelt in Oakland, California for the train trip to Raymond. The presidential entourage then traveled by stagecoach into the park. While traveling to the park, Muir told the president about state mismanagement of the valley and rampant exploitation of the valley's resources. Even before they entered the park, he was able to convince Roosevelt that the best way to protect the valley was through federal control and management.

After entering the park and seeing the magnificent splendor of the valley, the president asked Muir to show him the real Yosemite. Muir and Roosevelt set off largely by themselves and camped in the backcountry. While circling around a fire, the duo talked late into the night, slept in the brisk open air of Glacier Point and were dusted by a fresh snowfall in the morning—a night Roosevelt never would forget.

Muir then increased efforts by the Sierra Club to consolidate park management and was rewarded in 1905 when Congress transferred the Mariposa Grove and Yosemite Valley into the park. His wife Louisa died on 6 August 1905.

[edit] Preservation and Native Americans

Muir's attitude toward Native Americans evolved over the course of his life. His earliest encounters were with the weary tribes of Winnebago Indians in Wisconsin, who begged for food and stole his favorite horse. In spite of that, he had a great deal of sympathy for them for "being robbed of their lands and pushed ruthlessly back into narrower and narrower limits by alien races who were cutting off their means of livelihood." His early encounters with the Digger Indians in California left him feeling ambivalent after seeing their lifestyle, which he described as "lazy" and "superstitious".[16] Carolyn Merchant criticized Muir, believing that he wrote disparagingly of the Native Americans he encountered in his Sierra Nevada travels in 1868 (My First Summer in the Sierra (1911)).[17] In the book, Muir actually praised the Native Americans for their low impact on the wilderness, and disparaged the white man's comparably heavy impact.[18] Muir's attitudes towards Native Americans grew more respectful over time, especially after he lived with them while traveling in the California and Pacific Northwest wilderness.

[edit] Hetch Hetchy and death

Pressure started growing to dam the Tuolumne River for use as a water reservoir for San Francisco. Muir passionately opposed the damming of Hetch Hetchy Valley because he found Hetch Hetchy more stunning even than Yosemite Valley. Muir, the Sierra Club and Robert Underwood Johnson fought against inundating the valley and Muir wrote to Roosevelt pleading for him to scuttle the project. After years of national debate, Roosevelt's successor, Woodrow Wilson signed the dam bill into law on December 19, 1913. Muir felt a great loss from the destruction of the valley, his last major battle.

John Muir died at a hospital in Los Angeles on 24 December 1914 of pneumonia[19] after a brief visit to his daughter Helen.

[edit] Honors

John Muir on the California commemorative quarter, released in 2005.

The following were named after Muir: Muir Glacier, Alaska; three John Muir Trails (in California, Tennessee, and Wisconsin); the John Muir Wilderness; Mount Muir just off the John Muir Trail; the Muir Woods National Monument; John Muir High School; John Muir Middle School (Los Angeles, California); John Muir Elementary School; John Muir College (a residential college of the University of California, San Diego); John Muir Country Park, in Dunbar; the John Muir Way in East Lothian; the asteroid 128523 John Muir; Muir's Peak next to Mount Shasta, California (also known as Black Butte); Muir Woods just north of San Francisco. Camp Muir in Mount Rainier National Park.

An image of John Muir, with the California Condor and Half Dome, appears on the California state quarter which was released in 2005. A quotation of his appears on the reverse side of the Indianapolis Prize Lilly Medal for conservation. On 6 December 2006, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and First Lady Maria Shriver inducted John Muir into the California Hall of Fame located at The California Museum for History, Women, and the Arts.

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ Muir, John (1916). The Story of My Boyhood and Youth. Houghton Mifflin Co.. pp. 25, 37. 
  2. ^ "Fountain Lake Farm (Wisconsin Farm Home of John Muir)". National Historic Landmarks Program. Retrieved on 2009-01-04. 
  3. ^ Fox, Stephen R. (1985). Univ of Wisconsin Press. pp. 30. ISBN 9780299106348. 
  4. ^ Wolfe, Linnie Marsh, Son of the Wilderness: The Life of John Muir, Alfred A. Knopf, 1945.
  5. ^ Muir, John (1916). The Story of My Boyhood and Youth. Houghton Mifflin Co.. p. 225. 
  6. ^ a b Miller, Rod (2005). John Muir: Magnificent Tramp. Macmillan. p. 36. ISBN 9780765310712. 
  7. ^ Nash, Roderick (1989). The Rights of Nature. Univ of Wisconsin Press. pp. 38-39. ISBN 9780299118440. 
  8. ^ Marsh Wolfe, Linnie (2003). Son of the Wilderness: The Life of John Muir. Univ of Wisconsin Press. p. 90. ISBN 9780299186340. 
  9. ^ Marsh Wolfe, Linnie (2003). Son of the Wilderness: The Life of John Muir. Univ of Wisconsin Press. pp. 97-105. ISBN 9780299186340. 
  10. ^ Inflation Calculator
  11. ^ John Muir (1917). "The Cruise of the Corwin". written at Boston and New York. Houghton Mifflin Company. Retrieved on 2008-09-05. 
  12. ^ John Muir (September 1890). "Features of the Proposed Yosemite National Park". The Century Magazine XL (No. 5). Retrieved on 2007-04-08. 
  13. ^ Fox, Stephen R. (1985). The American Conservation Movement: John Muir and His Legacy. Univ of Wisconsin Press. pp. 107-108. ISBN 9780299106348. 
  14. ^ a b Colby, William (December, 1967). "The Story of the Sierra Club". Sierra Club Bulletin. Sierra Club. Retrieved on 2009-02-26. 
  15. ^ a b c Meyer, John M. (Winter, 1997). "Gifford Pinchot, John Muir, and the Boundaries of Politics in American Thought". Polity (Palgrave MacMillan) 30 (2): 267-284. Retrieved on 14/12/2008. 
  16. ^ Fleck, Richard F. (Feb. 1978). "John Muir's Evolving Attitudes toward Native American Cultures". American Indian Quarterly (University of Nebraska Press) 4 (1): 19-31. 
  17. ^ Carolyn Merchant. "Shades of Darkness: Race and Environmental History". Retrieved on 2007-06-09. 
  18. ^ "Indians walk softly and hurt the landscape hardly more than the birds and squirrels, and their brush and- bark huts last hardly longer than those of wood rats.... How different are most of those of the white man, especially on the lower gold region roads blasted in the solid rock, wild streams dammed and tamed and turned out of their channels and led along the sides of cations and valleys to work in mines like slaves." Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra, p. 73.
  19. ^ On this Day. "Obituary: John Muir". Retrieved on 2007-04-23. 

[edit] Primary sources

[edit] Secondary sources

[edit] Other books

  • Sachs, Aaron (2006). The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism. Viking Press. ISBN 0-670-03775-3.  Muir is one of four people the author focuses on who were influenced by Alexander von Humboldt.

[edit] External links

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