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Issue 78 - Following John Muir's Trail

Scotland Magazine Issue 78
December 2014


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Following John Muir's Trail

Keith Fergus walks in the footsteps of the Scottish-born international conservationist

Is there a Scottish historical figure more deserving of hero status than the great trans-Atlantic John Muir? Many regard Muir as the father of modern conservation and the concept of National Parks might not exist, as well as protection of our wild open spaces, if it were not for the man who was ahead of his time. His legend also comprises his work as a farmer, geologist, explorer and writer of some note, including over three hundred articles and six books (four more were published posthumously), several of which are still in print today and remain highly influential.

John Muir was born in Dunbar in East Lothian on 21 April 1838 and this year, on 24 December, sees the centenary of his death. Muir is a national hero in America (California celebrates John Muir Day on 21 April annually) where he lived from the age of 11 but until recently he has been a little overlooked in his native country. Thankfully this is slowly changing and his legacy now includes the John Muir Trust (the conservation charity dedicated to protecting wild places such as Ben Nevis, Schiehallion and Sandwood Bay), the John Muir Way (a long distance trail stretching for 134 miles between Dunbar and Helensburgh), and the fantastic John Muir Country Park and John Muir Birthplace Museum in Dunbar.

The Loch Lomond and the Trossachs and The Cairngorms National Parks, which were only set up in 2002 and 2003 respectively, also provide tangible evidence of Muir’s legacy, as they followed the model started by him when Yosemite National Park was formed in 1890. In fact it has often been said that the value and protection of Scotland’s own wild land may have happened much sooner had Muir lived his life in the country of his birth.

However, his formative years exploring Scotland’s east coast were key in developing his love affair with the outdoors, stating how he ‘loved to wander in the fields, to hear the birds sing, and along the shore to gaze and wonder at the shells and the seaweeds, eels and crabs in the pools when the tide was low; and best of all to watch the waves in awful storms thundering on the black headlands and craggy ruins of old Dunbar Castle.’

Just before his eleventh birthday, Muir sailed to the USA from Helensburgh with his father and brother, eventually arriving in Wisconsin after a six week journey. The family started a farm with the young Muir no doubt finding plenty to occupy himself in the wide-open spaces. At the age of 22, he enrolled in the University of Wisconsin, where his passion for chemistry and the sciences flourished. And then in 1866, when working as a sawyer in Indianapolis, an accident almost blinded him, at which point he decided to follow his passion of exploration and the study of plants.

The next year saw Muir embark on his first great journey, a walk between Indiana and Florida, one that formed the basis of his book
A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf, and was the beginning of the rest of his life.

In 1868, he arrived in San Francisco and then headed south into the Sierra Nevada and Yosemite Valley, where he was completely overwhelmed by its incredible beauty, describing it as ‘the range of light.’ Over time, he also realised that the valley had been formed through glaciation, a fact that had not been recognised by scientists.

Muir started work first as a shepherd and then as a guide, exploring the landscape and studying the flora and fauna, all the time keeping journals and sketching.

In 1880, he married Louie Strenzel and worked on her family’s fruit ranch. Their first daughter, Wanda, was born in 1881, and their second, Helen, in 1886. By this time Muir had become increasingly troubled by the damage to the landscape of Yosemite through mining, logging and sheep (or ‘hooved locusts’ as he described them).

And so began his campaign to protect Yosemite, one that included the writing of articles for the likes of
Century Magazine. The process culminated in Yosemite becoming the USA’s Third National Park in October 1890, only a few days after Sequoia gained National Park status, and 18 years after Yellowstone became the country’s first National Park.

With the formation of the Sierra Club in 1892 (which Muir played a key role in and was its first president), Muir became an increasingly influential figure in conservation. The Sierra Club has gone on to become one of the most important environmental organisations in the world, with over two million members, and it continues its policy of lobbying politicians to promote environmental issues.

However, it was his remarkable three day wilderness trip with President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903 that sealed John Muir’s name in the annals of conservation history. Roosevelt was guided through the wilderness by Muir, visiting points of interest such as Mariposa Grove, Sentinel Dome and Glacier Point where the President gazed across Yosemite Valley to Half Dome and Yosemite Falls. Muir spoke of the importance of the landscape, its history, wildlife and the role it could play in ecology as they camped near Mariposa Grove under the Grizzly Giant, Roosevelt apparently sleeping in a pile of 40 wool blankets.

The second night was spent near the iconic Sentinel Dome, where five inches of snow fell during a snow storm (can you imagine any contemporary President or Prime Minister willing to really experience the true heart of a landscape? – no me neither). The final night was spent at Bridalveil Meadow, within reach of a litany of Yosemite landmarks, where Muir made an impassioned speech for all of the Yosemite wilderness to be protected. And it worked.

In 1906, Roosevelt transferred the control of Yosemite Valley and the spectacular Mariposa Grove (home to some of the largest giant sequoias in the world, including the Grizzly Giant, thought to be around 1900–2400 years old) from the State of California into Yosemite National Park, granting them much needed protection.

During his presidency, which lasted from 1901 – 09, Roosevelt signed into existence five national parks, eighteen national monuments, fifty five national bird sanctuaries and wildlife refuges, and one hundred and fifty national forests. And much of it to do with one man from Dunbar.

Today, Yosemite National Park welcomes almost four million visitors annually who witness the deep valleys, scoured by ice and water, beautiful meadows filled with wildflowers, and huge granite peaks.

This range of habitats supports an astonishing array of wildlife including black bear, mule deer, coyotes, mountain lion, red-tail hawk, great-grey owl and golden eagle.

Even into later life, Muir’s passion for the outdoors and environmental causes did not dim. At the age of 73, he sailed to South America and South Africa, travelling some 40,000 miles in eight months while the last few years of his life saw him campaigning against the damming of the Hetch Hetchy Valley for use as a reservoir for the residents of San Francisco. Unfortunately, Muir’s last fight was unsuccessful.

Nevertheless, without John Muir how much of the world’s wild places would be protected and valued today? It is a trail we must continue to walk. Certainly it is more than likely that Scotland would not have its two National Parks (although there should be at least two more!), several Regional and Country Parks, and countless Nature Reserves, which are there to safeguard the astonishing landscape and diversity of flora and fauna that calls Scotland home – the pleasure these give to human beings is simply a wonderful by-product of their primary objective.

As the great man himself said, “The world, we are told, was made especially for man – a presumption not supported by all the facts.”