John Muir (MYOO-ur), the “godfather” of the United States’ national park system, was not principally a writer, though he wrote a vigorous and muscular prose reminiscent of his life. He was born in Scotland to a strict Calvinist family, where harsh physical punishment was used to enforce work and study. In 1849 his father Daniel emigrated to pioneer Wisconsin with his three older children.
Muir’s love of nature and his inventive abilities manifested themselves early. Driven by eagerness to learn, he devised a wooden clock geared to his bed, “an early rising machine” to wake him for study before he had to go to work. In 1861, the year he entered the University of Wisconsin, many of his inventions relating to nature study were displayed at the state fair.
He left the university without taking a degree, though he was honored by four degrees in later life. His inventive genius gave way to his love of nature when a factory accident impaired his eyesight. Once he regained his sight, he decided to walk from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico, observing nature and recording his thoughts along the way. His first journal, which was later published as A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf, opens with the heading, “John Muir, Earth-planet, Universe,” indicating his desire to establish new values, turning away from mechanization and adopting a life in harmony with nature. In 1868, determined to “study the inventions of God,” he emigrated to California to continue his careful observations of nature, principally the forest and glacial regions, which were to fill seventy notebooks. In 1880 he married Louise Strentzel, whose father owned fruit ranch land. Muir’s industry as a manager and horticulturist made it possible for him to resume his naturalist pursuits.
During the administrations of Grover Cleveland and Theodore Roosevelt, he promoted conservation and urged the establishment of public parks, visited forest and glacial lands, and wrote articles and books that persuaded the American public to preserve their natural resources. He remained slight of build but vigorous to the end. The true value of Muir’s writing lies in his vision of the American wilderness. Because of his tireless campaigns to preserve this wilderness, his vision remains, notably in his real monuments, the national parks.