Muir, John (1838-1914) (World of Earth Science)
Scottish-born American naturalist
John Muiraturalist, conservationist, mountaineer, and chronicler of the American frontieras born in Dunbar, Scotland on April 21, 1838. During his lifetime, Muir published more than 300 articles and 10 books recounting his travels, scientific observations, and opinions on nature conservation. His wanderlust led him on expeditions around the globe, but California's Sierra Nevadas were his home. In addition to his descriptive and inspirational nature writing, Muir advanced a number of scientific theories, including the now-accepted hypothesis that glaciers carved Yosemite Valley. His love of the Sierras, and his concern for their preservation, led him to become one of America's first environmental activists. Muir co-founded the Sierra Club in 1871, and he served as the club's first president until his death in 1914.
John Muir immigrated to Fountain Lake, Wisconsin in 1849 with his family at age 11. The Muir family's hard-working frontier life left John no time to continue the formal schooling he had begun in Scotland. He did, however, maintain his passion for reading and natural science, and excursions into the woods provided a welcome diversion from his father's strict discipline and grueling work schedule. John put his self-taught knowledge to use at the Muir homestead by inventing an assortment of machines, including a table saw and a machine that dumped him out of bed for morning chores.
In 1860, John Muir left home at age 22 to exhibit his inventions at the Wisconsin state fair in Madison. There he received his first public recognition in the form of a Wisconsin State Journal article describing his prize-winning whittled clocks. He also met one of the exhibit judges, Mrs. Jeanne Carr, and her husband, Dr. Ezra Carr, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, who would become his lifelong friends and mentors. Muir attended classes at the University of Wisconsin from 1861 until 1863 when a lack of funds and the Civil War draft led him to return home.
No letter came from the draft board, and Muir set out on a summer plant-collecting trip that became a four-year walking expedition into Canada. He financed his botanical studies with a series of factory jobs and contributing his inventions to improve production along the way. In spring of 1867, Muir suffered a blinding eye injury at a carriage factory in Indianapolis. When his sight returned after a month of painful recovery, he decided to devote his newly regained vision to observations of nature. After a visit home, Muir walked 1,000 mi (1,609 km) to the Gulf of Mexico, and boarded a ship to Cuba, New York, and finally Panama. He traveled across the Isthmus, and sailed on to California. John Muir was 30 when he arrived in San Francisco in March of 1868.
From San Francisco, Muir walked east across the San Joaquin Valley. He described his first impression of the Sierras in his book, My First Summer in the Sierra: "rom the eastern boundary of this vast golden flower-bed rose the mighty Sierra, miles in height, and so gloriously colored and so radiant, it seemed not clothed with light but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city Then it seemed to me that the Sierra should be calledhe Range of Light." Muir spent the summer of 1869 herding sheep, or "hooved locusts" as he would later call them, at Tuolumne Meadows.
From 1869 until 1880, John Muir systematically explored the mountains of California from his cabin in Yosemite Valley. He traveled, unarmed, through the mountains carrying a tin cup, food, and a notebook. He observed active mountain glaciers, and hypothesized that the slow grinding of ice had carved Yosemite's soaring granite cliffs. His glacial theory, published in 1871 by the New York Tribune, gained him the respect of University of California geologist, Joseph LeConte, among others. His friends, the Carrs, moved to Oakland in 1869, and encouraged Muir to pursue his writing during this period. They also sent their influential academic friends to visit him in Yosemite, including Harvard botanist, Asa Gray, and, in May 1871, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
John Muir married Luisa Wanda Strentzel in 1880, and moved to Martinez, California to run the Strentzel's profitable fruit ranch, and help "Louie" raise their two daughters. Even during that 10-year period of relative domesticity, Muir continued to write and travel extensively, exploring Yellowstone, Europe, Africa, Australia, China, Japan, South America, and, of course, the Sierras. During the 1890s, he conducted a well-timed study of Alaska that coincided with the Klondike gold rush. His most popular book, Stickeen, is an account of a summer spent exploring Alaska's glaciers with a little black dog.
By the turn of the century, Muir had become a leading literary figure. His almost-spiritual descriptions of nature inspired influential and common people alike. Muir's articles in the Century Magazine gained him the attention and friendship of its like-minded editor, Robert Underwood Johnson. Their combined efforts led to an act of Congress that created Yosemite National Park in 1890. Muir and Johnson were subsequently involved in further conservation acts that resulted in the protection of Sequoia, Mount Rainier and Petrified Forest, and Grand Canyon National Parks. President Theodore Roosevelt visited Muir in Yosemite in 1901. Camping together in the shadow of El Capitan, they laid plans for the wilderness conservation programs that became Roosevelt's legacy.
In his last years, Muir turned his considerable energy to the preservation of wild lands. Muir, Johnson, and others formed the Sierra Club in 1892 to, as Muir wrote, "do something for wildness, and make the mountains glad." The fight to prevent erection of a dam in Hetch Hetchy valley was one of the Sierra Club's most dramatic early battles. Hetch Hetchy reservoir was filled in 1913, and Muir died, disappointed, on December 24, 1914 at the age of 76. His enduring legacy, however, were his books and essays that continue to inspire new generations of nature lovers and environmental activists. John Muir was America's first environmentalist, and was perhaps America's most influential naturalist.
See also Environmental pollution; Glacial landforms; History of exploration II (Age of exploration)