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When John Muir was a young man, few would have predicted that he would become a celebrated preservationist, founder of the Sierra Club, and advocate for national parks. Born in Dunbar, Scotland, Muir showed an early proclivity for mechanical work. His family immigrated to rural Wisconsin, near the town of Portage, in 1849. His father was a strict Calvinist and instructed Muir, the eldest male child, in Biblical teachings, but did not allow any of his eight children to attend school. Muir obtained books from friends and soon developed an interest in science. His mechanical abilities won him recognition at the Wisconsin State Fair where he displayed some of his ingenious devices, one of which was an intricately carved alarm clock attached to a bed that tilted at a predetermined time, heaving the sleeper to a standing position.
Muir studied briefly at the University of Wisconsin. An accident in a carriage parts factory, however, changed his life. Nearly blinded, Muir regained his sight a month later and vowed to train his eyes on the beauty of the natural world. He traveled extensively, walking from Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico. Muir intended to visit South America, but a bout of malaria encouraged him to travel to California instead. Arriving in San Francisco, Muir quickly looked for the road out of town. His journey took him to the most picturesque, awe-inspiring place he had yet seen: Yosemite. Muir was astonished by the Sierra Nevada Mountains, spending weeks at a time exploring their plants, geology, watersheds, massive forests, and hidden valleys. Muir argued that Yosemite Valley was formed by glacial activity, a position contrary to that held by leading professional geologists. Muir spent years researching in the mountains, discovering active glaciers there.
These wild landscapes, however, were much more than a laboratory to Muir. Influenced by the writings of transcendentalists-particularly Henry David Thoreau-Muir saw a deep connection between nature and spirituality. Natural splendor was part of God’s creation, and Muir approached it worshipfully and preached its glories with fervor.
With fellow nature-loving friends, Muir founded the Sierra Club in 1892. Muir was elected president of the group, a position he held until his death. The Sierra Club’s goals at its founding were to explore and render accessible the mountain regions of the Pacific Coast, to publicize them, and to work for preservation of the forests and natural areas.
Muir worked tirelessly, using all of his connections to protect wild landscapes in the west and was instrumental in the designation of Yosemite as a national park. President Theodore Roosevelt camped with Muir in the Yosemite region, and Muir impressed upon him the importance of using federal authority to protect such natural temples from the avarice of men.
Muir, though a charismatic and a persuasive naturalist, did not win all of his battles for preservation. After the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the thirsty city turned its eyes to the mountains. City leaders wanted to create a reservoir at Hetch Hetchy, one of the valleys in Yosemite National Park. John Muir and many of his colleagues from the Sierra Club mounted a campaign to raise public awareness of the threat to the beautiful valley. Gifford Pinchot, a former friend of Muir, was a conservationist and the chief forester. Pinchot was not a preservationist, however, and he believed that the highest use of the valley was to provide water to San Franciscans. Eventually, the dam was built and the valley transformed. A broken-hearted Muir dubbed Pinchot and those who favored his position “temple destroyers.”
Few have done as much as John Muir to publicize the grandeur and splendor of the mountain regions of the west and few have done as much to protect them. Earning a place on California’s state quarter, John Muir’s enthusiasm for nature-from the smallest flower to the grandest vista-has made him an icon of the environmental movement.
- Michael Cohen, The History of the Sierra Club, 1892-1970 (Random House, 1988);
- John Muir and William Cronon, , John Muir: Nature Writings (Library of America, 1997);
- Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (Yale University Press, 2001);
- Linnie Marsh Wolfe, Son of the Wilderness: The Life of John Muir (Knopf, 1946).