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Muir, John (1838-1914)

Muir, John (1838-1914)

Scottish-born American naturalist

John Muirnaturalist, conservationist, mountaineer, and chronicler of the American frontierwas born in Dunbar, Scotland on April 21, 1838. During his lifetime, Muir published more than 300 articles and 10 books recounting his travels, scientific observations, and opinions on nature conservation. His wanderlust led him on expeditions around the globe, but California's Sierra Nevadas were his home. In addition to his descriptive and inspirational nature writing, Muir advanced a number of scientific theories, including the now-accepted hypothesis that glaciers carved Yosemite Valley. His love of the Sierras, and his concern for their preservation, led him to become one of America's first environmental activists. Muir co-founded the Sierra Club in 1871, and he served as the club's first president until his death in 1914.

John Muir immigrated to Fountain Lake, Wisconsin in 1849 with his family at age 11. The Muir family's hard-working frontier life left John no time to continue the formal schooling he had begun in Scotland. He did, however, maintain his passion for reading and natural science, and excursions into the woods provided a welcome diversion from his father's strict discipline and grueling work schedule. John put his self-taught knowledge to use at the Muir homestead by inventing an assortment of machines, including a table saw and a machine that dumped him out of bed for morning chores.

In 1860, John Muir left home at age 22 to exhibit his inventions at the Wisconsin state fair in Madison. There he received his first public recognition in the form of a Wisconsin State Journal article describing his prize-winning whittled clocks. He also met one of the exhibit judges, Mrs. Jeanne Carr, and her husband, Dr. Ezra Carr, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, who would become his lifelong friends and mentors. Muir attended classes at the University of Wisconsin from 1861 until 1863 when a lack of funds and the Civil War draft led him to return home.

No letter came from the draft board, and Muir set out on a summer plant-collecting trip that became a four-year walking expedition into Canada. He financed his botanical studies with a series of factory jobs and contributing his inventions to improve production along the way. In spring of 1867, Muir suffered a blinding eye injury at a carriage factory in Indianapolis. When his sight returned after a month of painful recovery, he decided to devote his newly regained vision to observations of nature. After a visit home, Muir walked 1,000 mi (1,609 km) to the Gulf of Mexico , and boarded a ship to Cuba, New York, and finally Panama. He traveled across the Isthmus, and sailed on to California. John Muir was 30 when he arrived in San Francisco in March of 1868.

From San Francisco, Muir walked east across the San Joaquin Valley. He described his first impression of the Sierras in his book, My First Summer in the Sierra : "from the eastern boundary of this vast golden flower-bed rose the mighty Sierra, miles in height, and so gloriously colored and so radiant, it seemed not clothed with light but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city. Then it seemed to me that the Sierra should be calledthe Range of Light." Muir spent the summer of 1869 herding sheep, or "hooved locusts" as he would later call them, at Tuolumne Meadows.

From 1869 until 1880, John Muir systematically explored the mountains of California from his cabin in Yosemite Valley. He traveled, unarmed, through the mountains carrying a tin cup, food, and a notebook. He observed active mountain glaciers, and hypothesized that the slow grinding of ice had carved Yosemite's soaring granite cliffs. His glacial theory, published in 1871 by the New York Tribune, gained him the respect of University of California geologist, Joseph LeConte, among others. His friends, the Carrs, moved to Oakland in 1869, and encouraged Muir to pursue his writing during this period. They also sent their influential academic friends to visit him in Yosemite, including Harvard botanist, Asa Gray, and, in May 1871, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

John Muir married Luisa Wanda Strentzel in 1880, and moved to Martinez, California to run the Strentzel's profitable fruit ranch, and help "Louie" raise their two daughters. Even during that 10-year period of relative domesticity, Muir continued to write and travel extensively, exploring Yellowstone, Europe, Africa, Australia , China, Japan, South America , and, of course, the Sierras. During the 1890s, he conducted a well-timed study of Alaska that coincided with the Klondike gold rush. His most popular book, Stickeen, is an account of a summer spent exploring Alaska's glaciers with a little black dog.

By the turn of the century, Muir had become a leading literary figure. His almost-spiritual descriptions of nature inspired influential and common people alike. Muir's articles in the Century Magazine gained him the attention and friendship of its like-minded editor, Robert Underwood Johnson. Their combined efforts led to an act of Congress that created Yosemite National Park in 1890. Muir and Johnson were subsequently involved in further conservation acts that resulted in the protection of Sequoia, Mount Rainier and Petrified Forest, and Grand Canyon National Parks. President Theodore Roosevelt visited Muir in Yosemite in 1901. Camping together in the shadow of El Capitan, they laid plans for the wilderness conservation programs that became Roosevelt's legacy.

In his last years, Muir turned his considerable energy to the preservation of wild lands. Muir, Johnson, and others formed the Sierra Club in 1892 to, as Muir wrote, "do something for wildness, and make the mountains glad." The fight to prevent erection of a dam in Hetch Hetchy valley was one of the Sierra Club's most dramatic early battles. Hetch Hetchy reservoir was filled in 1913, and Muir died, disappointed, on December 24, 1914 at the age of 76. His enduring legacy, however, were his books and essays that continue to inspire new generations of nature lovers and environmental activists. John Muir was America's first environmentalist, and was perhaps America's most influential naturalist.

See also Environmental pollution; Glacial landforms; History of exploration II (Age of exploration)

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Muir, John

John Muir

Born: April 21, 1838
Dunbar, Scotland
Died: December 24, 1914
Los Angeles, California

Scottish-born American naturalist and explorer

The writings of John Muir, American naturalist (a scientist of natural history) and explorer, are important for their scientific observations and their contributions to the cause of conservation (the preservation and protection of natural resources).

Early life

John Muir was born in Dunbar, Scotland, on April 21, 1838. He was the third of Daniel and Anne Gilrye Muir's eight children. Muir recalled in The Story of My Boyhood and Youth (1913) that his father was religious and extremely strict, keeping his children in line with frequent whippings. In 1849 the Muirs moved to the United States and bought farmland near Portage, Wisconsin. Muir's father worked him hard on the farm and would not allow him to waste daylight hours on reading. Muir asked for and received permission to rise early in order to study. He invented an "early-rising machine" that dumped him out of bed at one o'clock each morning so that he could read. In 1860 he displayed this and other inventions at the Wisconsin State Fair.

Student of nature

In 1861 Muir entered the University of Wisconsin to study science. He also tried studying medicine but soon gave it up for various jobs that challenged his skill at inventing things. His interest in nature, particularly plants, was growing; he made frequent trips throughout Wisconsin and nearby states to observe plant life. In 1867 he gave up his own inventions "to study the inventions of God." He set out on the walk described in A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf (1916). Actually, he went as far as Cuba. In 1868 he traveled to San Francisco, California, and worked on a sheep ranch. Exploring Yosemite Valley occupied much of his next six years. On all of his explorations he kept a journal of scientific and personal observations and also pencil drawings.

In 1880, after returning from exploring in Alaska, Muir married Louie Wanda Strentzel, the daughter of a Polish plant grower. They would have two children. In 1881, after another trip to Alaska, Muir settled on a fruit ranch near Martinez, California. He worked for ten years to make enough money to enable him to stop. Having provided permanently for his wife, two daughters, and himself, he turned his full attention to the study of nature. Glaciers and freezing particularly interested him, and his work contributed to an explanation of the process by which glaciers are formed. He also went on expeditions to Europe, Asia, and Australia.

Pioneer in conservation movement

In 1889 Muir argued in Century magazine that Yosemite Valley should become a national park. The passage of a law in 1890 making that happen owed much to Muir's influence. The Mountains of California (1893), Our National Parks (1901), and his many articles in popular magazines greatly advanced the conservation movement, as did his creation in 1892 of the Sierra Club, an organization dedicated to preserving wild lands such as Yosemite. Muir served as the president of the club until his death.

Muir's wife died in 1905. From then until his death Muir published four books, including Stickeen (1909), which was a popular dog story, and My First Summer in the Sierra (1911). He died in Los Angeles, California, on December 24, 1914. John of the Mountain, drawn from Muir's journal of his 1899 Alaskan expedition, was published in 1938.

For More Information

Ehrlich, Gretel. John Muir: Nature's Visionary. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 2000.

Muir, John. John of the Mountains; the Unpublished Journals of John Muir. Edited by Linnie Marsh Wolfe. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1938. Reprint, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979.

Smith, Herbert F. John Muir. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1965.

Teale, Edwin Way. The Wilderness World of John Muir. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.

Wolfe, Linnie M. Son of the Wilderness: The Life of John Muir. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1945. Reprint, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978.

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John Muir

John Muir

The writings of John Muir (1838-1914), American naturalist and explorer, are important for their scientific observations and their contributions to the cause of conservation.

John Muir was born in Dunbar, Scotland, on April 21, 1838. If his recollections in The Story of My Boyhood and Youth (1913) can be credited, his father was harsh and tyrannical, enforcing piety and industry by frequent whippings. In 1849 the Muirs moved to America, establishing a homestead near Portage, Wis. When Muir's father forbade him to waste daylight hours on reading, he asked and received permission to rise early in order to study. He invented "an early-rising machine" that dumped him out of bed at one o'clock each morning. In 1860 he displayed this and other inventions at the Wisconsin State Fair.

In 1861 Muir entered the University of Wisconsin to study science. Subsequently he tried studying medicine but soon gave it up for various jobs that challenged his inventive skills. In 1867 he made the career decision he never regretted: to give up his own inventions "to study the inventions of God." He set out on the tour described in A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf (1916). Actually he went as far as Cuba. In 1868 he traveled to San Francisco and worked on a sheep ranch. Exploring Yosemite Valley occupied much of the next 6 years. On all explorations he kept a journal of scientific and personal observations and also pencil sketches.

In 1880, returning from exploring in Alaska, Muir married Louie Wanda Strentzel. In 1881, after another trip to Alaska, he settled on a fruit ranch near Martinez, Calif. He worked 10 years to make the ranch pay enough to enable him to give it up. Having thus provided permanently for his wife, two daughters, and himself, he turned his full attention to the study of nature. Glaciation particularly interested him, and his work contributed to its explanation.

In 1889 Muir argued in Century Magazine that Yosemite Valley should become a national park. The passage of legislation for that in 1890 owed much to his influence. The Mountains of California (1893), Our National Parks (1901), and his many articles in popular magazines greatly advanced the conservation movement.

Muir's wife died in 1905. During the 10 years Muir survived her, he published four books, including Stickeen (1909), which was a much-admired dog story, and My First Summer in the Sierra (1911). He died in Los Angeles on Dec. 24, 1914. John of the Mountain, drawn from Muir's journal of his 1899 Alaskan expedition, appeared in 1938.

Further Reading

Linnie M. Wolfe, Son of the Wilderness: The Life of John Muir (1945), is an admiring biography. Edwin Way Teale, The Wilderness World of John Muir (1954), provides an introduction to Muir and a selection of his writings. The development of Muir's ideas and character is surveyed in Herbert F. Smith, John Muir (1965). Muir is discussed at length in Norman Foerster, Nature in American Literature (1923). □

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Muir, John

John Muir, 1838–1914, American naturalist, b. Dunbar, Scotland, studied at the Univ. of Wisconsin. He came to the United States in 1849 and settled in California in 1868. In recognition of his efforts as a conservationist and crusader for national parks and reservations, Muir Woods National Monument was named for him. He made extended trips throughout the country, often on foot; he also traveled in Alaska (discovering Muir glacier) and in Russia, India, and Australia. His books include The Mountains of California (1894), The Story of My Boyhood and Youth (1913), Steep Trails (1918). John of the Mountains (1938; ed. by L. M. Wolfe) contains his journals.

See biographies by W. F. Bade (2 vol., 1924, repr. 1972), L. M. Wolfe (1945, repr. 2003), and D. Worster (2008); study by R. Silverberg (1972).

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