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John Muir - his path into the wilderness

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Image: Muir Woods / Wikimedia Commons

I came back from helping Shawford people dig out the ancient Bishop's Drain and get water flowing. Then rather tired I dropped into a chair. I read the next chapter in a biography of US President Theodore Roosevelt, which described his camping trip in Yosemite with John Muir. I was reminded that many of the most beautiful and wonderful places on Earth were conserved and preserved as a direct result of John Muir, a thin and wiry farm labourer, scientist, mountaineer and wilderness champion who was born in 1838 in Dunbar, East Lothian.

After a few years in grammar school, John arrived in America on an overcrowded boat from Glasgow with his family. He was eleven. He worked as a farmhand for his father. 'A stern Calvinist', his father demanded that his son read only Scripture, but at the age of fifteen John defied his father's whip and began to walk his own road.

Neighbouring boys had introduced him to poetry. In their house John began to read books. 'He developed an aptitude for creating mechanical devices and, under his mother's influence, a keen interest in nature. (Oxford DNB)' British inventiveness is a remarkable story. On the basis of his inventions, which he showed at a state fair in Madison, Wisconsin, John was invited to attend the University of Wisconsin. At the time it had five faculty members.

Not a big school, but the teaching was good. He studied science and the nature-centered writings of Wordsworth, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. One professor and his wife, Jeanne Carr, became lifelong mentors and friends. Muir discarded his father's punishing religion for 'indwelling human divinity'. Then a terrible accident reshaped his future.

Blindness and new sight

Muir had moved to Canada to avoid fighting in the American Civil War. When he returned, he found work in a machine shop in Indianapolis. The work proved dangerous. An accident destroyed the sight in his right eye, and he became blind in his left eye as well. He waited in darkness, hoping that his left eye would recover, and experienced a conversion: He decided to dedicate himself to 'the inventions of God'.

When sight in his left eye returned, he walked a thousand miles through forest to the Gulf of Mexico. He crossed Panama, took a ship to San Francisco and became a shepherd in the Sierra Nevada. From 1869 to 1873 he lived almost like a hermit in the granite landscape of the Nevada. Eating little, - carrying 'some bread and tea in an old sock'- doing fieldwork, Muir became sure that vanished glaciers - the hands of God - had carved the valleys. The Carrs, now in San Francisco, sent him visitors. They included the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Emerson, making his only trip west. Muir was equally fascinated by botany. He described specimens accurately (three species were named for him) and began to correspond with Sir Joseph Hooker, president of the Royal Society of London, who also visited him.

During those same years, Muir became the most accomplished mountaineer in America, 'climbing, usually alone, with a minimum of equipment and food, all the highest Sierra Nevada peaks. In 1875 he was trapped for four days atop Mount Shasta by a blizzard, and suffered frostbite, permanently damaging his feet. Even so, he made the seventh recorded ascent of Mount Rainier (in Washington state) in 1888 at age fifty' (Oxford DNB).

Writing a different future

In his fifties, Muir began to winter in San Francisco, and to describe his physical and spiritual adventures in the wilderness. His books - The Mountains of California, Our National Parks, The Yosemite, and The Story of My Boyhood and Youth - seized people's imagination. He married, raised two daughters, and continued to travel widely (he visited Alaska seven times). Twenty-five years before his momentous meeting with Teddy Roosevelt, he began to champion an urgent cause - that wilderness be preserved for future generations.

In 1903 John Muir and the President met in Yosemite. Edmund Morris describes the scene in his biography Theodore Rex -

. . .Roosevelt lay high in Yosemite, on a bed of fragrant pine needles, looking up at the sky. On all sides soared the cinnamon-colored shafts of sequoia trees. He had the feeling that he was 'lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hands of man.' Birdsong filled the arches as the sky darkened. He identified the treble tessitura of hermit thrushes, and thought it 'an appropriate choir for such a place of worship'.

His companion was John Muir, the glaciologist, naturalist, and founder of the Sierra Club. . .He was Wordsworthian rather than Keatsian, revering only 'rocks and stones and trees'. Garrulous, erudite and wall-eyed he talked a pure form of preservation that Roosevelt was not used to hearing. . .

Muir wanted the wilderness preserved as wilderness for generations to come.

When they came down from the peaks, Muir had won an immediate presidential order to extend the California forest through the Mount Shasta region, and to cede back Yosemite's commercialised valley to the park. By the time Muir was done, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Mount Ranier and the Grand Canyon had all been made national parks, and the idea of national parks had begun to spread worldwide.

John Muir died in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve 1914. With his fortitude, daring and incandescent spirit, he had helped to preserve unique and wonderful wildernesses for us, and for all who come after us.

Comments (1)

david Abbott:

It's worth mentioning for those who may not know that Ranier is the highest mtn in the lower 48.

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