“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.” — The Yosemite by John Muir (1912)
Widely regarded as one of the first and foremost voices of conservation, John Muir was undoubtedly one of the greatest champions of preserving and protecting wild places for posterity. Tales of his great hikes, adventures, and insights from across the American west found their way into a wide variety of national publications in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These stories helped awaken and invigorate a new sense of conservation among the American public, and played a large role in the protection of national parks and other public lands that continues to this day.
“Everything is flowing — going somewhere, animals and so-called lifeless rocks as well as water. Thus the snow flows fast or slow in grand beauty-making glaciers and avalanches; the air in majestic floods carrying minerals, plant leaves, seeds, spores, with streams of music and fragrance; water streams carrying rocks…While the stars go streaming through space pulsed on and on forever like blood…in Nature’s warm heart.” — My First Summer in the Sierra by John Muir (1911)
Although Muir undeniably influenced the creation of many national parks and monuments throughout America, his greatest presence was felt in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. He was central to the fight to preserve the Yosemite Valley and its surrounding peaks, rivers and lowlands for all Americans to enjoy, and helped shape the creation of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park in the southern Sierras.
“Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed — chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones. Few that fell trees plant them; nor would planting avail much towards getting back anything like the noble primeval forests…It took more than three thousand years to make some of the trees in these Western woods — trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty forests of the Sierra. Through all the wonderful, eventful centuries…God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools — only Uncle Sam can do that.” — Our National Parks by John Muir (1901)
Like all good stories, however, Muir’s life was more than just the high points that are widely-known by many. Like all good heroes his was one as much of struggle, setback and loss as it was noteworthy victory. Born to an almost abusive fundamentalist father in Scotland, at a young age his family emigrated to Wisconsin. With a religious work ethic beaten into him from a young age, his skill for mechanical innovation and efficiency helped him earn a living in the burgeoning factories of the Gilded Age. All the while his fascination with the natural world kept calling him to the wilderness, however, and he was always torn between industrious productivity and escaping into the peace of the forests and mountains. Just as he was making a name for himself in midwestern factories, he just as quickly fled the tumult to explore America’s wild places. He planned to visit South America, but an unexpected bout with malaria left him bed-ridden in Florida for months. After that he tempered his goals and instead headed to California.
“Wander here a whole summer, if you can. Thousands of God’s wild blessings will search you and soak you as if you were a sponge, and the big days will go by uncounted. If you are business-tangled, and so burdened by duty that only weeks can be got out of the heavy-laden year…give a month at least to this precious reserve. The time will not be taken from the sum of your life. Instead of shortening, it will indefinitely lengthen it and make you truly immortal.” — Our National Parks by John Muir (1901)
Muir’s new life in California saw him hiking endless miles of the Sierras, working when necessary and exploring when not. He took to documenting his travels for local publications to supplement his meager income. His colorful words helped illustrate this new frontier for countless Americans who yearned for new, unspoiled places to experience, free from the daily grind.
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” — Our National Parks by John Muir (1901)
Before long Muir took a wife, inherited her family orchards near San Francisco, and was again drawn to industrious productivity. For years he worked tirelessly to improve the farm’s efficiency and economic output in order to provide for his new and growing family. His wife and children depended on him, but as time went on it became apparent his siblings did as well. Most, failing in their own economic pursuits, came to work on his farm. This happened to work out well for Muir. He was able to help out family, and with the work delegated he was then able to spend more time exploring America’s wilderness.
“All the wild world is beautiful, and it matters but little where we go, to highlands or lowlands, woods or plains, on the sea or land or down among the crystals of waves or high in a balloon in the sky; through all the climates, hot or cold, storms and calms, everywhere and always we are in God’s eternal beauty and love. So universally true is this, the spot where we chance to be always seems the best.” — John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir (1938)
Later in life Muir would lead Theodore Roosevelt through the Sierras, impressing upon him the importance of conservation that ultimately lead to the creation of no less than Grand Canyon National Park. Muir’s influence undoubtedly had an impact on Roosevelt later becoming known as the “conservationist president.” Muir would later battle the first head of the US Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, on the importance of unspoiled preservation versus managed use. In his final battle, Muir would see the pristine Hetch Hetchy Valley of Yosemite fall victim to the water needs of San Francisco. Ultimately dammed and flooded to provide a water reservoir for the city, Muir likely died somewhat broken by this loss in 1914.
“These temple-destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar. 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 heart of man.” — The Yosemite by John Muir (1912)
If any or all of this is fascinating to you, I invite you to read “A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir” by Donald Worster. It’s a relatively long, sometimes dry, but mostly fascinating look at the life of John Muir. If you’re into Muir, conservation, national parks, late-nineteenth or early-twentieth-century American history, or just a good story, this is a great read. I found myself enamored with Worster’s exhaustive synopsis of not only Muir’s life but all those around him, and was intrigued throughout.