Celebrating John Muir on his Birthday
No single American has done more to preserve our wilderness than John Muir, the Scottish-born naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club. Muir had already become the most ardent defender of the American wilderness by 1903 when he guided President Theodore Roosevelt on a three-day camping trip in Yosemite. As a result of this trip, Roosevelt would establish 148 million acres of national forest, five national parks, and twenty-three national monuments during his years in office.
From an early age, Muir developed a love for the land which grew and developed throughout his years of living in Yosemite, his exploration of Alaskan glaciers, and visits to many locations in the American West. After a boyhood of working his father’s Wisconsin farms, attending the University of Wisconsin, and working several years in factories, he took off on his own. His adventurous life began by walking from Indianapolis to Florida. From there he took a boat to San Francisco and walked into what is now Yosemite National Park. He did not have a clear plan for his life, yet when he reached the Sierras he knew intuitively that he had found the path that was right for him. He recorded in his journal that, “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
Muir never considered himself a writer, which is hard to imagine since his magnificent descriptive writings read like poetry. His friends persuaded him that his words could coax the American public into visiting natural places and even more, convince them to use whatever political clout they could muster to preserve them.
John Muir became a fierce defender of forests, especially ancient old growth trees. After reading Muir’s essay, “Any Fool Can Destroy Trees,” President Grover Cleveland established 13 forest preserves, comprising 21 million acres which laid the foundation of the United States Forest Service.
He was an early protector of wildlife. On his seven Alaskan trips it pained Muir to observe the killing of wildlife for sport. When he witnessed the shooting of a female walrus he noted the wailing of her cubs as their mother sunk to the bottom of the bay. “These magnificent animals are killed oftentimes for their tusks alone, like buffaloes for their tongues, ostriches for their feathers, or for mere sport and exercise.” In San Francisco he spoke against the killing of birds for the beauty of their feathers. “It is the same; no recognition of rights—only murder in one form or another.”
John Muir knew that it was not enough that wild places be set aside; they need to be constantly defended. He waged a seven-year battle, and lost, to stop the State of California from taking Yosemite’s magnificent Hetch Hetchy Valley to dam for the purpose of furnishing San Francisco’s water supply. “No sooner were the boundaries of the park established, than interested parties began to break through them….the battle we have fought is part of the eternal conflict between right and wrong, and we cannot expect to see the end of it.”
John Muir may have been the first naturalist to identify what we now know as global warming. He cited the warming of the atmosphere as causing the contraction of glaciers. Having studied the effects of glaciers long since dried up in the Sierras, Muir was keen to visit Alaska to study what he called, “living glaciers.” He said, “Parts of Alaska, and the south polar region are shallowing and shrinking. Every glacier in the world is smaller than it once was. All the world is growing warmer.”
On his birthday, we wonder what John Muir would be thinking now. We consider the California’s Central Valley where John Muir experienced his greatest epiphany, a vivid realization of the extreme beauty and harmony of the world, an awakening that would remain with him throughout his life. After his three-month walk from San Francisco to the Sierras, he was arrested by his first glimpse of the Central Valley. With the Sierras in the distance as far as his eyes could see, he observed that the Valley, “…of inimitable beauty was robed with the greenest grass and richest light I ever beheld, and colored and shaded with millions of flowers of every hue, chiefly of purple and golden yellow; with songs of larks, filling the valley with music like a sea, making it an Eden from end to end.”
Now, much of the Central Valley which traditionally has put fruit, vegetables and nuts on 25% of American tables, has become a dry, cracked wasteland. Most of the old growth forests are gone; sea levels are rising; lakes are drying up and disappearing; more and more species are becoming endangered. Wolves, walruses and polar bears continue to be hunted. While Muir worried about receding glaciers, it is doubtful he could have imagined 526 tons of water being shed from the world’s glaciers annually.
All that John Muir stood for is seriously threatened, and this has been confirmed by a report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, where it is stated, “Human influence has been detected in warming of the atmosphere and the oceans, in changes in the global water cycle, in reductions in snow and ice, in global mean sea level rise, and in changes in some climate extremes. It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of this observed warming.”
John Muir’s convictions are as timely as ever, as is the breadth of his concern for Planet Earth. When he first started his thousand mile walk to the Gulf of Mexico, he inscribed the notebook, “John Muir, Earth-planet, Universe.” Two decades of international efforts to limit human influence on the planet have not been enough. A more concerted effort, especially on the part of the rich, resource-hungry nations of the world, are going to have to make Earth-planet, Universe, their top priority.
–Anne Rowthorn. Anne Rowthorn is the compiler of The Wisdom of John Muir: 100+ Selections from the Letters, Journals, and Essays of the Great Naturalist (Wilderness Press).