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Issue 49 - John Muir

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 49
February 2010


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John Muir

Scotland's saviour of the Sierra.

Even those who spent the majority of their lives elsewhere but were born in Scotland can be rightfully claimed as Scottish. And why shouldn’t Scotland claim John Muir as its own creation? Out of Dunbar in East Lothian he came, born on April 21 1838 to a family of strict Presbyterians. He later recalled his early years spent fighting in school playgrounds, but no one could have known the things this boy would grow up to see and do.

At the age of 11, Muir emigrated with his family to America and settled on a farm near Portage, Wisconsin. He was one of eight children, all worked hard by their strict father, who was fiercely religious. The young John Muir eventually memorised the New Testament and much of the Old, helped along by frequent beatings.

But John Muir was destined to follow a different path from that of his father. He came to love a gentler, more inclusive God, who he saw as present in every living thing.

Muir was fascinated by nature and natural science. He even invented a machine that tipped him out of bed before dawn each day so that he could study, as his days were otherwise filled with gruelling work on the farm.

His inventiveness led him to create various machines that he entered in the Wisconsin State Fair, and in 1860 he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin to study science. Muir never got his degree, but his passion was for knowledge rather than formal qualification. His interest in botany and geology grew during that time, and he left university to travel widely and observe nature in many forms.

Muir was willing to turn his hand to just about any job if it allowed him access to the wilderness he loved. Over the years he worked not only as a farmer and inventor, but also as a shepherd, professional explorer, industrial worker and writer.

His epiphany came when he was temporarily blinded while working as an industrial engineer in Indianapolis in 1867.

When his sight returned he took this as an omen: now he would follow his dream and explore all of God’s wonders in Nature.

Among other truly impressive feats, he completed a thousand-mile walk from Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico.

But in the end Muir’s heart was stolen by California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Yosemite Valley. As well as making his home in California, much of his calling to preserve the natural world was centred on these areas.

He began to write, not just for himself but for publication. He had a controversial theory about the formation of the Yosemite Valley by glaciers, and before long his writing attracted the attention of prominent and influential people.

Muir’s series of articles “Studies in the Sierra” were first published in 1874. In total his published works included over 300 articles and 10 major books, and his works are still widely read today.

His articles, which were published in popular magazines such as Century and Harper’s, were influential in bringing to the public and to politicians the idea that the natural landscape might be preserved for its own sake – its intrinsic spiritual value – rather than for its usefulness as an economic resource.

Muir was the co-founder of the Sierra Club in 1892 and was its president until his death in 1914. The Sierra Club was made up of like-minded individuals who loved the mountains, and the Club soon grew into a lobbying voice against the destruction or neglect of natural treasures. They were behind the establishment of National Forests and campaigned for the transference of Yosemite National Park from state to federal control in 1906.

However, the greatest fight of the Sierra Club concerned the damming of the Hetch Hetchy Valley to provide a reservoir for the swelling population of San Francisco. The project was eventually authorised by President Wilson in 1913, the year before Muir’s death, and Muir was devastated by the loss of this beautiful valley.

During his long career as a naturalist and writer, Muir’s enthusiasm, knowledge and soul-deep connection to nature came to the attention of many powerful people, including President Roosevelt, who spent a night camping with Muir in the wilderness.

Muir’s unrelenting voice in support of America’s most remarkable landscapes was to influence ongoing conservation initiatives and the creation of the National Park Service.

Muir died on Christmas Eve 1914, aged 76. He taught countless people the importance of knowing and protecting the natural environment, living in harmony with nature rather than exploiting. He was an American pioneer and, before any of that, he was Scottish.