John Muir Day

John Muir Day is celebrated annually on 21 April. It was proclaimed in 1988 on the 150th anniversary of the birth of American naturalist, conservationist, environmental philosopher, glaciologist, author, and pioneering advocate John Muir who was born 21 April 1838 in Dunbar, Mid Lothian, Scotland. As a young boy, Muir became fascinated with the East Lothian landscape, and spent a lot of time wandering the local coastline and countryside. It was during this time that he became interested in natural history and the works of Scottish naturalist Alexander Wilson.

In 1849, Muir’s family immigrated to the United States, starting a farm near Portage, Wisconsin, called Fountain Lake Farm. It has been designated a National Historic Landmark. When he was 22 years old, Muir enrolled at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, paying his own way for several years. There, under a towering black locust tree beside North Hall. As a freshman, Muir studied chemistry with Professor Ezra Carr and his wife Jeanne; they became lifelong friends and Muir developed a lasting interest in chemistry and the sciences. and, even though he never graduated, he learned enough geology and botany To understand the processes. In 1863, his brother Daniel left Wisconsin and moved to Southern Ontario (then known as Canada West in the United Canadas), to avoid the draft during the U.S. Civil War. Muir left school and travelled to the same region in 1864, and spent the spring, summer, and fall exploring the woods and swamps, and collecting plants around the southern reaches of Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay. Muir hiked along the Niagara Escarpment, including much of today’s Bruce Trail. With his money running low and winter coming, he reunited with his brother Daniel near Meaford, Ontario, who persuaded him to work with him at the sawmill and rake factory of William Trout and Charles Jay. Muir lived with the Trout family in an area called Trout Hollow, south of Meaford, on the Bighead River. While there, he continued exploring the escarpment and bogs, collecting and cataloging plants. In March 1866, Muir returned to the United States, settling in Indianapolis to work in a wagon wheel factory. He proved valuable to his employers because of his inventiveness in improving the machines and processes; he was promoted to supervisor, being paid $25 per week. However In early-March 1867, an accident changed the course of his life and he decided to “be true to himself and follow his dream of exploration and study of plants.

So in 1867, Muir undertook a walk of about 1,000 miles (1,600 km) from Kentucky to Florida. When Muir arrived at Cedar Keys, he began working for Richard Hodgson at Hodgson’s sawmill, where he contracted Malaria and almost died. In 1868, Muir went to Cuba and while in Havana, he spent his hours studying shells and flowers and visiting the botanical garden in the city.Afterwards, he sailed to New York City and booked passage to California. Muir served as an officer in the United States Coast Survey. After returning Muir moved to San Francisco, and went on a week-long visit to Yosemite. Where Muir built a small cabin along Yosemite Creek, designing it so that a section of the stream flowed through a corner of the room so he could enjoy the sound of running water. He lived in the cabin for two years and published a book “First Summer in the Sierra”. He also married Louisa Strentzel and went into business for 10 years with his father-in-law managing the orchards on the family 2600 acre farm near Oakland.

John and Louisa had two daughters. He was sustained by the natural environment and by reading the essays of naturalist author Ralph Waldo Emerson. 1871, after Muir had lived in Yosemite for three years, Emerson, with a number of academic friends from Boston, arrived in Yosemite during a tour of the Western United States. The two men met, and Emerson was delighted to find at the end of his career the prophet-naturalist he had called for so long ago. Emerson spent one day with Muir, and offered him a teaching position at Harvard. Muir Pursuit of his interest of science, especially geology, and became convinced that glaciers had sculpted many of the features of the Yosemite Valley and surrounding area. This notion was in stark contradiction to the accepted contemporary theory, promulgated by Josiah Whitney (head of the California Geological Survey), which attributed the formation of the valley to a catastrophic earthquake. In 1871, Muir discovered an active alpine glacier below Merced Peak, which helped his theories gain acceptance. Then in 1872 A large earthquake centered near Lone Pine in Owens Valley shook occupants of Yosemite Valley. In addition to his geologic studies, Muir also investigated the plant life of the Yosemite area. In 1873 and 1874, he made field studies along the western flank of the Sierra on the distribution and ecology of isolated groves of Giant Sequoia. In 1876, the American Association for the Advancement of Science published Muir’s paper on the subject.

Muir made four trips to Alaska, as far as Unalaska and Barrow.[ Muir, Mr Young (Fort Wrangell missionary) and a group of Native American Guides first traveled to Alaska in 1879 and were the first Euro-Americans to explore Glacier Bay. Muir Glacier was later named after him. He traveled into British Columbia a third of the way up the Stikine River, likening its Grand Canyon to “a Yosemite that was a hundred miles long”. Muir recorded over 300 glaciers along the river’s course. He returned for further explorations in southeast Alaska in 1880 and in 1881 was with the party that landed on Wrangel Island on the USS Corwin and claimed that island for the United States. He documented this experience in his book The Cruise of the Corwin.

In 1888 after seven years of managing the Strentzel fruit ranch in Alhambra Valley, California, his health began to suffer. He returned to the hills to recover, climbing Mount Rainier in Washington and writing Ascent of Mount Rainier. Muir threw himself into the preservationist role with great vigor. He envisioned the Yosemite area and the Sierra as pristine lands. He thought the greatest threat to the Yosemite area and the Sierra was domesticated livestock

In June 1889, the influential associate editor of The Century magazine, Robert Underwood Johnson, camped with Muir in Tuolumne Meadows and saw firsthand the damage caused. Johnson agreed to publish any article Muir wrote on the subject of excluding livestock from the Sierra high country. He also agreed to use his influence to introduce a bill to Congress to make the Yosemite area into a national park, modeled after Yellowstone National Park. In1890, the U.S. Congress passed a bill that essentially followed recommendations that Muir had suggested in “The Treasures of the Yosemite” and “Features of the Proposed National Park”. however the bill left Yosemite Valley under state control.

In 1892, Professor Henry Senger, a philologist at the University of California, Berkeley, contacted Muir with the idea of forming a local ‘alpine club’ for mountain lovers. Senger together with San Francisco attorney Warren Olney and the first meeting of the Sierra Club was held June, 1892 Muir was elected president, Warren Olney was elected vice-president, and a board of directors was chosen that included David Starr Jordan, president of the new Stanford University. Muir remained president until his death. The Sierra Club immediately opposed efforts to reduce Yosemite National Park by half, and began holding educational and scientific meetings. At one meeting the Sierra Club discussed the idea of establishing ‘national forest reservations’, which were later called National Forests. The Sierra Club was active in the successful campaign to transfer Yosemite National Park from state to federal control.

In July 1896, Muir became associated with Gifford Pinchot, a national leader in the conservation movement. Pinchot was the first head of the United States Forest Service and a leading spokesman for the sustainable use of natural resources for the benefit of the people. However His views eventually clashed with Muir’s and highlighted two diverging views of the use of the country’s natural resources. Pinchot saw conservation as a means of managing the nation’s natural resources for long-term sustainable commercial use. As a professional forester, his view was that “forestry is tree farming,” without destroying the long-term viability of the forests. Whereas Muir valued nature for its spiritual and transcendental qualities. In one essay about the National Parks, he referred to them as “places for rest, inspiration, and prayers.” He often encouraged city dwellers to experience nature for its spiritual nourishment. Both men opposed reckless exploitation of natural resources, including clear-cutting of forests. Even Muir acknowledged the need for timber and the forests to provide it, but Pinchot’s view of wilderness management was more resource-oriented. The final straw came in 1897 when Pinchot released a statement to a Seattle newspaper supporting sheep grazing in forest reserves. Muir confronted Pinchot

This philosophical divide soon expanded and split the conservation movement into two camps: the preservationists, led by Muir; and Pinchot’s camp, who co-opted the term “conservation.” The two men debated their positions in popular magazines, such as Outlook, Harper’s Weekly, Atlantic Monthly, World’s Work, and Century. Their contrasting views were highlighted again when the United States was deciding whether to dam Hetch Hetchy Valley. Pinchot favored damming the valley as “the highest possible use which could be made of it.” In contrast, Muir proclaimed, “Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the hearts of man.”

In 1899, Muir accompanied railroad executive E. H. Harriman and esteemed scientists on the famous exploratory voyage along the Alaska coast aboard the luxuriously refitted 250-foot (76 m) steamer, the George W. Elder. He later relied on his friendship with Harriman to pressure Congress to pass conservation legislation. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt accompanied Muir on a visit to Yosemite. Muir joined Roosevelt in Oakland, California, for the train trip to Raymond. Muir told the president about state mismanagement of the valley and rampant exploitation of the valley’s resources and was able to convince Roosevelt that the best way to protect the valley was through federal control and management. After seeing the magnificent splendor of the valley, the president asked Muir to show him the real Yosemite. So Muir and Roosevelt camped out which had a profound effect on both men. Muir then increased efforts by the Sierra Club to consolidate park management. In 1906 Congress transferred the Mariposa Grove and Yosemite Valley to the park.

Muir’s attitude toward Native Americans also evolved over his life. His earliest encounters, during his childhood in Wisconsin, were with Winnebago Indians, who begged for food and stole his favorite horse. In spite of that, he had a great deal of sympathy for their “being robbed of their lands and pushed ruthlessly back into narrower and narrower limits by alien races who were cutting off their means of livelihood.” His early encounters with the Paiute in California left him feeling ambivalent after seeing their lifestyle, which he described as “lazy” and “superstitious”.  Later, after living with Indians, he praised and grew more respectful of their low impact on the wilderness, compared to the heavy impact by European-Americans. Muir was given the Stickeen (Muir’s spelling, coastal tribe) name “Ancoutahan” meaning “adopted chief”.

With population growth continuing in San Francisco, political pressure increased to dam the Tuolumne River for use as a water reservoir. Muir passionately opposed the damming of Hetch Hetchy Valley because he found Hetch Hetchy as stunning as Yosemite Valley. So in 1906 the Sierra Club Fought to preserve Hetch Hetchy Valley, with some prominent San Francisco members opposing the fight. Eventually a vote was held that overwhelmingly put the Sierra Club behind the opposition to Hetch Hetchy Dam. Muir wrote to President Roosevelt pleading for him to scuttle the project. Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft, suspended the Interior Department’s approval for the Hetch Hetchy right-of-way. After years of national debate, Taft’s successor Woodrow Wilson signed the bill authorizing the dam into law on December 19, 1913. Muir felt a great loss from the destruction of the valley, his last major battle.

During his life, Muir published six volumes of writings, all describing explorations of natural settings. Four additional books were published posthumously. Several books were subsequently published that collected essays and articles from various sources. Miller writes that what was most important about his writings was not their quantity, but their “quality”. He notes that they have had a “lasting effect on American culture in helping to create the desire and will to protect and preserve wild and natural environments.”

His first appearance in print was by accident, writes Miller; a person he did not know submitted, without his permission or awareness, a personal letter to his friend Jeanne Carr, describing Calypso borealis, a rare flower he had encountered. The piece was published anonymously, identified as having been written by an “inspired pilgrim”. Throughout his many years as a nature writer, Muir frequently rewrote and expanded on earlier writings from his journals, as well as articles published in magazines. He often compiled and organized such earlier writings as collections of essays or included them as part of narrative books.

Muir’s friendship with Jeanne Carr had a lifelong influence on his career as a naturalist and writer. They first met in the fall of 1860, when, at age 22, he entered a number of his homemade inventions in the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society Fair. Carr, a fair assistant, was asked by fair officials to review Muir’s exhibits to see if they had merit. She thought they did and “saw in his entries evidence of genius worthy of special recognition,” notes Miller.[20]:33 As a result, Muir received a diploma and a monetary award for his handmade clocks and thermometer.[54]:1 During the next three years while a student at the University of Wisconsin, he was befriended by Carr and her husband, Ezra, a professor at the same university. According to Muir biographer Bonnie Johanna Gisel, the Carrs recognized his “pure mind, unsophisticated nature, inherent curiosity, scholarly acumen, and independent thought.” Jeanne Carr, 35 years of age, especially appreciated his youthful individuality, along with his acceptance of “religious truths” that were much like her own.

Muir was often invited to the Carrs’ home; he shared Jeanne’s love of plants. In 1864, he left Wisconsin to begin exploring the Canadian wilderness and, while there, began corresponding with her about his activities. Carr wrote Muir in return and encouraged him in his explorations and writings, eventually having an important influence over his personal goals. At one point she asked Muir to read a book she felt would influence his thinking, Lamartine’s The Stonemason of Saint Point. It was the story of a man whose life she hoped would “metabolize in Muir,” writes Gisel, and “was a projection of the life she envisioned for him.” According to Gisel, the story was about a “poor man with a pure heart,” who found in nature “divine lessons and saw all of God’s creatures interconnected.”[54]:3

After Muir returned to the United States, he spent the next four years exploring Yosemite, while at the same time writing articles for publication. During those years, Muir and Carr continued corresponding. She sent many of her friends to Yosemite to meet Muir and “to hear him preach the gospel of the mountains,” writes Gisel. The most notable was naturalist and author Ralph Waldo Emerson. The importance of Carr, who continually gave Muir reassurance and inspiration, “cannot be overestimated,” adds Gisel. It was “through his letters to her that he developed a voice and purpose.” She also tried to promote Muir’s writings by submitting his letters to a monthly magazine for publication. Muir came to trust Carr as his “spiritual mother,” and they remained friends for 30 years.[54]:6 In one letter she wrote to Muir while he was living in Yosemite, she tried to keep him from despairing as to his purpose in life.[54]:43

The value of their friendship was first disclosed by a friend of Carr’s, clergyman and writer G. Wharton James. After obtaining copies of their private letters from Carr, and despite pleadings from Muir to return them, he instead published articles about their friendship, using those letters as a primary source. In one such article, his focus was Muir’s debt to Carr, stating that she was his “guiding star” who “led him into the noble paths of life, and then kept him there.”

Muir’s friend, zoologist Henry Fairfield Osborn, writes that Muir’s style of writing did not come to him easily, but only with intense effort. “Daily he rose at 4:30 o’clock, and after a simple cup of coffee labored incessantly. … he groans over his labors, he writes and rewrites and interpolates.” Osborn notes that he preferred using the simplest English language, and therefore admired above all the writings of Carlyle, Emerson and Thoreau. “He is a very firm believer in Thoreau and starts by reading deeply of this author.”[56]:29 His secretary, Marion Randall Parsons, also noted that “composition was always slow and laborious for him. … Each sentence, each phrase, each word, underwent his critical scrutiny, not once but twenty times before he was satisfied to let it stand.” Muir often told her, “This business of writing books is a long, tiresome, endless job.”[56]:33

Miller speculates that Muir recycled his earlier writings partly due to his “dislike of the writing process.” He adds that Muir “did not enjoy the work, finding it difficult and tedious.” He was generally unsatisfied with the finished result, finding prose “a weak instrument for the reality he wished to convey.” However, he was prodded by friends and his wife to keep writing and as a result of their influence he kept at it, although never satisfied. Muir wrote in 1872, “No amount of word-making will ever make a single soul to ‘know’ these mountains. One day’s exposure to mountains is better than a cartload of books.” In one of his essays, he gave an example of the deficiencies of writing versus experiencing nature.

Muir believed that to discover truth, he must turn to what he believed were the most accurate sources. Muir had a strict, Scottish Presbyterian upbringing. In his book, The Story of My Boyhood and Youth (1913), he writes that during his childhood, his father made him read the Bible every day. Muir eventually memorized three-quarters of the Old Testament and all of the New Testament Muir’s father read Josephus’s War of the Jews to understand the culture of first-century Palestine, as it was written by an eyewitness, and illuminated the culture during the period of the New Testament.[59]:43 But as Muir became attached to the American natural landscapes he explored, Williams notes that he began to see another “primary source for understanding God: the Book of Nature.” According to Williams, in nature, especially in the wilderness, Muir was able to study the plants and animals in an environment that he believed “came straight from the hand of God, uncorrupted by civilization and domestication.”, Muir’s belief in this “Book of Nature” compelled him to tell the story of “this creation in words any reader could understand.” As a result, his writings were to become “prophecy, for they sought to change our angle of vision.”

Williams notes that Muir’s philosophy and world view rotated around his perceived dichotomy between civilization and nature. From this developed his core belief that “wild is superior”. His nature writings became a “synthesis of natural theology” with scripture that helped him understand the origins of the natural world. According to Williams, philosophers and theologians such as Thomas Dick suggested that the “best place to discover the true attributes of deity was in Nature.” He came to believe that God was always active in the creation of life and thereby kept the natural order of the world.As a result, Muir “styled himself as a John the Baptist,”  Muir saw nature as a great teacher, and this belief became the central theme of his later journeys and the “subtext” of his nature writing. During his career as writer and while living in the mountains, Muir continued to experience the “presence of the divine in nature”

During his first summer in the Sierra as a shepherd, Muir wrote field notes that emphasized the role that the senses play in human perceptions of the environment. According to Williams, he speculated that the world was an unchanging entity that was interpreted by the brain through the senses, and, writes Muir, “If the creator were to bestow a new set of senses upon us … we would never doubt that we were in another world While doing his studies of nature, he would try to remember everything he observed as if his senses were recording the impressions, until he could write them in his journal. As a result of his intense desire to remember facts, he filled his field journals with notes on precipitation, temperature, and even cloud formations.[59]:45

However, Muir took his journal entries further than recording factual observations. Williams notes that the observations he recorded amounted to a description of “the sublimity of Nature,” and what amounted to “an aesthetic and spiritual notebook.” Muir felt that his task was more than just recording “phenomena,” but also to “illuminate the spiritual implications of those phenomena,” writes Williams. For Muir, mountain skies, for example, seemed painted with light, and came to “… symbolize divinity.” He often described his observations in terms of light.

Muir biographer Steven Holmes notes that Muir used words like “glory” and “glorious” to suggest that light was taking on a religious dimension: “It is impossible to overestimate the importance of the notion of glory in Muir’s published writings, where no other single image carries more emotional or religious weight,”[10]:178 adding that his words “exactly parallels its Hebraic origins,” in which biblical writings often indicate a divine presence with light, as in the burning bush or pillar of fire, and described as “the glory of God.

Muir often used the term “home” as a metaphor for both nature and his general attitude toward the “natural world itself,” notes Holmes. He often used domestic language to describe his scientific observations, as when he saw nature as providing a home for even the smallest plant life: “the little purple plant, tended by its Maker, closed its petals, crouched low in its crevice of a home, and enjoyed the storm in safety.”[60]:57 Muir also saw nature as his own home, as when he wrote friends and described the Sierra as “God’s mountain mansion.” He considered not only the mountains as home, however, as he also felt a closeness even to the smallest objects: “The very stones seem talkative, sympathetic, brotherly. No wonder when we consider that we all have the same Father and Mother.”

In his later years, he used the metaphor of nature as home in his writings to promote wilderness preservation. However Muir’s deep-seated feeling about nature as being his true home led to tension with his family at his home in Martinez, California. He once told a visitor to his ranch there, “This is a good place to be housed in during stormy weather, … to write in, and to raise children in, but it is not my home. Up there,” pointing towards the Sierra Nevada, “is my home.

His letters, essays, and books describing his adventures in nature, especially in the Sierra Nevada, have been read by millions. His activism has helped to preserve the Yosemite Valley, Sequoia National Park and many other wilderness areas. The Sierra Club, which he co-founded, is a prominent American conservation organization. In his later life, Muir devoted most of his time to the preservation of the Western forests. As part of the campaign to make Yosemite a national park, Muir published two landmark articles on wilderness preservation in The Century Magazine, “The Treasures of the Yosemite” and “Features of the Proposed Yosemite National Park”; this helped support the push for U.S. Congress to pass a bill in 1890 establishing Yosemite National Park. The spiritual quality and enthusiasm toward nature expressed in his writings has inspired readers, including presidents and congressmen, to take action to help preserve large nature areas.

John Muir has been considered “an inspiration to both Scots and Americans”. Muir’s biographer, Steven J. Holmes, believes that Muir has become “one of the patron saints of twentieth-century American environmental activity,” both political and recreational. As a result, his writings are commonly discussed in books and journals, and he is often quoted by nature photographers such as Ansel Adams. “Muir has profoundly shaped the very categories through which Americans understand and envision their relationships with the natural world,” writes Holmes.

John Muir died at California Hospital (now California Hospital Medical Center)  in Los Angeles on December 24, 1914, of pneumonia at age 76, after a brief visit to Daggett, California, to see his daughter Helen Muir Funk. His grandson Ross Hanna lived until 2014, when he died at age 91. Muir was noted for being an ecological thinker, political spokesman, and religious prophet, whose writings became a personal guide into nature for countless individuals, making his name “almost ubiquitous” in the modern environmental consciousness and exemplified “the archetype of our oneness with the earth”. Muir has been called the “patron saint of the American wilderness” and its “archetypal free spirit.” As a dreamer and activist, his eloquent words changed the way Americans saw their mountains, forests, seashores, and deserts. Muir also tried to save the American soul from total surrender to materialism and campaigned for wilderness preservation in the U.S. as well as co-founding the Sierra Club. He wrote over 300 magazine and newspaper articles and 12 books, including The Yosemite; Our National Parks; and Rediscovering America. The first ever John Muir Day was celebrated in Scotland on 21 April 2013, to coincide with the 175th anniversary of his birth. During his lifetime John Muir published over 300 articles and 12 books. He co-founded the Sierra Club, which helped establish a number of national parks after he died. Today the club has over 2.4 million members.

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