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John Muir: Outdoor Icon

Kathy Cabrera
December 15, 2011
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John Muir

John Muir contributed to our nation’s wilderness and the conservation of its natural beauty.

John Muir’s contributions to our nation’s wilderness and the conservation of its natural beauty have not only earned him the title Outdoor Icon, but also American Icon. Muir, to quote documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, is on the “level of Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, and Thomas Jefferson, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Jackie Robinson — people who have had a transformational effect on who we are.”

Muir (1838-1914) was born in Scotland and immigrated to the US with his family at age 11. He lived during a historical era that included such major events as the U.S. Civil War, assassination of President Lincoln, California gold rush, 1906 earthquake of San Francisco and, at the time of his death, the beginning of World War I. And, while the man who would later be called “The Father of our National Parks” and “Wilderness Prophet,” had a connection to the outdoors since a young age, it wasn’t until he suffered a factory accident that temporarily blinded him at the age of 29 that he decided to leave the world of industry to study nature. That accident served as the catalyst for a lifelong dedication to nature and the beginning of a movement that would influence generations to come.

Muir poetically describes this own awakening. “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.”

In 1867, after recuperating from the accident that nearly took his sight, Muir commenced on a 1,000-mile walk from Indiana to Florida, which he wrote about in his book, “A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf”. Originally intent on traveling to South America, he changed course after contracting malaria. He sailed to New York instead — where he made arrangements for passage to California — a state on which he would leave an indelible mark and where he spent the majority of his remaining 46 years.

John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt

John Muir (fourth from right) with President Theodore Roosevelt (sixth from right) in Yosemite.

In March of 1868, Muir arrived in California via San Francisco, but quickly headed for Yosemite — where he became a sought-after fixture in the park by its many visitors — from scientists to tourists. He worked as a shepherd for a season and climbed mountains, including Cathedral Park and Mount Dana. He resided in a self-constructed cabin along Yosemite Creek, which he wrote about in the book, “First Summer in the Sierra”. While Muir studied nature in near-solitude, his experiences were shared with thousands when his writings were published in the New York Tribune, among other influential publications of the time. In those writings, Muir called upon everyone with the “right manners of the wilderness” to visit the Sierra and for it to be permanently protected as an accessible and recreational resource.

Over the next two decades, Muir’s published works inspired interest of the outdoors with mainstream society, and lobbied their support for forest protection and conservation. For part of that time, Muir traveled on natural explorations, but resided in Northern California and continued to make a living as a writer. During that span, he also spent eight years as a rancher and fruit farmer.

From 1889 to early 1890, two significant occurrences in Muir’s life helped spark the creation of the Sierra Club. The first involved a trip in northern Yosemite with the influential Century Magazine editor Robert Underwood Johnson. On this trip, the two planned a campaign for Yosemite to become a national park, proving so successful that the US Congress established it as such one year later. The second was with J. Henry Singer, who led a group from the University of California dedicated to making the Sierra Nevada and Yosemite more accessible and better known to promote it as a place of recreation. Muir joined these group members and others who wanted to create an alpine club.

On May 28, 1892, the Sierra Club was officially incorporated, with the mission to: “explore, enjoy, and render accessible the mountain regions of the Pacific Coast; to publish authentic information concerning them,” and “to enlist the support and cooperation of the people and government in preserving the forests and other natural features of the Sierra Nevada.” The Sierra Club, with its three clear motives and objectives being recreation, education and conservation, could find no one better suited to be its president than Muir himself. He would serve in that role for the remainder of his life.

In 1901, Muir’s majestic, groundbreaking book “Our National Parks” was published. And, by 1903, Muir’s lifework to influence support for conservation reached an apex when he spent three days and nights camping alone alongside then President Theodore Roosevelt in Yosemite. Roosevelt would soon after affix a presidential seal to ratify two initiatives campaigned for by Muir. In 1906, Roosevelt made the Arizona Petrified Forest a national monument, and also signed federal legislation to make Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove part of Yosemite National Park (something Muir and the Sierra Club had pursued for 17 years).

While Muir continued his love and education of nature in solitude, the poetic observations and call to action of his writings inspired the hearts and minds of both the American people and their leaders of his time — not to mention the millions of those in future generations who are able to revel in the country’s natural wonders due to the lifelong efforts of Muir, and the ongoing programs of the Sierra Club. While the 100th year since Muir’s death will be marked in 2014, his influence is as impactful now as ever.

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