Muir, John (1838 – 1914) American Naturalist and Writer

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John Muir (1838 1914) American naturalist and writer

John Muir is considered one of the towering giants of the conservation/environmental movement in the United States. Anyone seriously interested in natural history, conservation , wilderness preservation, or the national parks in this country should be aware of John Muir's work. He was a spirited, joyous naturalist, a serious student of glaciers, an influential advocate of wilderness preservation, and the acknowledged founder of the national park idea. Born in Dunbar, Scotland, Muir emigrated with his family to the United States in 1849 when he was 11 years old. He spent his youth working on a farm in the Wisconsin wilderness, trying to please his father, who was a deeply religious man. The wilderness, his religious background, and the hard labor influenced his thinking the rest of his life.

Muir's father believed the Bible to be the only book necessary for a young person, but Muir managed to educate himself and to spend several years at the University of Wisconsin (where he chose his own curriculum and so left without a degree). After school, he worked at various jobs, generally quite successfully, until a factory accident temporarily blinded him. He vowed that if his sight returned, he would leave the factory and see as much of the world as possible. After about a month, his sight did return and he left for various jaunts in the wilderness, including a famous 1,000-mi (1,609 km) walk through the country to the Gulf of Mexico, an account recorded in A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf (1916).

His eventual goal was to reach South America and wander through the Amazonian tropical rain forests. He reached Cuba, but a bout with fever (carried over from the humid lowlands of Florida) turned him instead toward the drier West, especially California and the Yosemite Valley, about which he had seen a brochure and which he determined to see for himself. "Seeing for himself" also became a life-time habit, and he eventually traveled over much of the world. As he had planned, he did make it up the Amazon, in 1911, at the age of 73.

Arriving in California in 1868, he made his way to Yosemite and spent several years studying its landforms, wildlife , and waterways, earning his living by herding sheep, working in a sawmill, and other odd jobs. As Edward Hoagland noted, Muir "lived to hike," a mode of transportation that involved him intimately in the landscape. He traveled light, and alone, often with little more than some dry bread in a sack, tea in a pocket, a few matches and a tin cup, and perhaps a plant press.

Through his travels in Yosemite, he became convinced that the spectacular land forms of Yosemite had been carved by glaciers or, as he put it, "nature chose for a tool...the tender snow-flowers noiselessly falling through unnumbered centuries." His belief in glacial origins placed him in conflict with the established scientific ideas of the time, especially those held by the California state geologist. But Muir eventually prevailed, his ideas vindicated when he found the first known glacier in the Sierra range. The results of his years of intense glacial investigations are available in Studies in the Sierra (1950). Current views have verified his theories, changing only the number of glacial events and emphasizing the role of water in cutting the canyons. Muir also made five trips to Alaska to study glaciers there, one of which is named for him.

His glacial studies were the principle contributions Muir made as an original scientist, most of his life being devoted to travel, writing, and conservation activism. Even as early as 1868, Muir was concerned with the effects sheepherding had on plant life and soil erosion .

Muir's travels were interrupted for a time when, in early 1880, he married Louise Strentzel, the daughter of a fruit rancher in the Alhambra valley. Muir helped run the ranch, first rented and then bought some of the acreage, applying his inventiveness and hard work to fruit growing. Reportedly, he was a good businessman, prospering after only a decade to ensure a measure of financial independence. He then sold part of the ranch and leased the rest, which allowed him time with his daughters, to return to his beloved wilderness, and to write and actively promote his wilderness ideas. Muir's intimate acquaintance with the Yosemite area and the Sierra Nevada exposed him not only to the depredations of sheep but also to the rapid felling of giant old Sequoias, cut up for shingles and grape stakes. Muir's response: "As well sell the rain clouds, and the snow, and the river, to be cut up and carried away...." In 1889, he escorted the editor of Century magazine to Yosemite and showed him the negative impacts of sheep, which he called "hoofed locusts." A series of articles in that magazine alerted the public to the destruction of the land, and they eventually pressured Congress to establish the Yosemite area a national park in 1890.

An earlier attempt to rally interest in the plight of the western forestsa suggestion for a government commission to survey the forests and recommend conservation measureswas also realized with the appointment of such a commission in 1896. Charles Sargent, the chair of the commission, invited Muir to participate and, on the basis of the Sargent Commission's recommendation, President Grover Cleveland created thirteen forest preserves, setting aside 21 million acres. Negative reaction from commercial interests, however, nullified most of these gains. Muir responded by writing two articles on forest reserves and parks in Harper's Weekly and Atlantic Monthly in 1897. These articles helped to rally public support and in 1898, the annulments were reversed by Congress.

Muir influenced the public and extended his influence by friendships and correspondence with some of the most powerful people of his time. A number of the successes of the early conservation movement, for example, can be attributed to his influence on such figures as Theodore Roosevelt . After a three-day camping trip with Muir under the Big Trees in 1903, Roosevelt added many millions more acres to the national forest system, as well as national monuments and national parks and created what became the national wildlife refuge system.

Known for his many successes, Muir was much saddened by his one big loss: the damming of Hetch Hetchy valley in Yosemite National Park as a reservoir to supply water to San Francisco. Muir's public image was damaged by the excessive vehemence of his attacks upon the citizens of San Francisco, whom he denounced as "satanic," and following the Hetch Hetchy incident, Muir retired to his ranch to edit his journals for publication.

Muir never considered himself much of a writer and begrudged the time it took away from his beloved mountains and forests. Most of his books were published late in life,
after the turn of the century. His writings are still widely read today by students, scholars, activists, and philosophers. In the opinion of most observers, the primary importance of Muir's writings lies not in their literary quality but in the fact that they persuaded a large number of Americans to regard scenic wilderness areas as irreplaceable natural resources which must be protected and preserved.

[Gerald L. Young Ph.D. ]



Browning, P., ed. John Muir in His Own Words: A Book of Quotations. Lafayette, CA: Great West Books, 1988.

Cohen, M. P. The Pathless Way: John Muir and the American Wilderness. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.

Fox, S. John Muir and His Legacy: The American Conservation Movement. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

Turner, F. Rediscovering America: John Muir in His Time and Ours. New York: Viking Penguin, 1985.


Hoagland, E. "In Praise of John Muir." Anteus no. 52 (Spring 1984): 17083.

Wadden, K. A. "John Muir and the Community of Nature." The Pacific Historian 19 (SummerFall 1985): 94102.

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Muir, John (1838 – 1914) American Naturalist and Writer

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