John Muir

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul.

- John Muir (Ehrlich, 2000, p. 196)

John Muir was born on April 21, 1838, in Dunbar, Scotland. His father, Daniel Muir, was a devoted Christian who ran a prosperous grocery business. His mother, Ann Gilrye Muir, was an affectionate woman who was fond of painting and poetry. Muir was the third of eight children, and from the age of three, was drawn to the natural world. In 1849, following his father's rejection of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland, the Muir family departed for North America (Fox, 1981). 

The family homesteaded eighty acres near Portage, Wisconsin which became known as Fountain Lake Farm. It was here that Muir first witnessed the detrimental effects of environmental abuse. Due to poorly-planned farming tactics, he watched the harvests dwindle more and more each year, until his family was forced to relocate and start the homesteading process again. When Muir was 19, his father purchased another homestead five miles southeast of Fountain Lake, and they began clearing it and building another house.

Muir was delegated to dig a well. When he hit rock, however, he was forced to descend in a bucket and chisel away at the 90 feet of stone that separated him from the water. He eventually completed the arduous task, but not before nearly dying from asphyxiation due to the excess carbon dioxide that lay at the bottom of the narrow hole. While he was stuck doing laborious chores for his father, a new passion was arising in Muir, a deep hunger for learning (Ehrlich, 2000). 

His father commanded that everyone went to bed immediately following evening prayers, but Muir insisted on reading by candlelight. With much persistence, his father granted him permission to wake up earlier in the mornings to read. He took this permission to heart and began rising at one in the morning to study his books. He also discovered a passion and talent for inventing machines. He began inventing a number of things, including waterwheels, thermometers, and clocks.

In 1860, at the urging of a friend, Muir packed up some of his inventions and departed for the State Agricultural Fair in Madison, Wisconsin. His inventions were immediately popular at the fair, and he was awarded an honorarium. That fall, he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin where he remained for two-and-a-half-years (Ehrlich, 2000). 

In 1864, a draft order signed by President Lincoln threatened to send Muir to fight in the Civil War. At the urging of his mother, he took a train north and walked through northern Michigan to Canada. He remained in Canada, working at a woodworking factory, until it burned down in 1867. He then returned to the United States and took a job making carriage parts in Indianapolis, Indiana. One evening, he was repairing a belt on one of the machines when he stopped to untie a connection with the point of a file.

The file flipped up and struck him in the right eye, scratching the cornea and causing aqueous humor to leak out. Muir was frightened that he would lose sight in the eye and never be able to fully witness the beauty of nature again. However, a specialist told Muir that his sight would return if he abstained from light. Following the incident, he decided he would walk (literally) through the wilderness until he found his heart's home (Ehrlich, 2000). 

Muir followed wagon roads and farmers' paths as he walked south toward Florida. When he arrived at the Gulf Coast, he worked at a sawmill while awaiting a schooner to Cuba. On his second day in Florida, however, he fell ill with malaria. When a working schooner stopped at the sawmill for a load of lumber, Muir, although still weak, boarded it for Cuba. He planned to continue his voyage to South America, but was unable to find a boat to take him there. As a result, Muir boarded a schooner for New York, but he was overwhelmed and unimpressed with the city once he arrived. After about ten days in New York, he embarked for Panama aboard yet another ship, crossed the isthmus by train, and got on a boat headed for California (Ehrlich, 2000). 

In March 1868, when he docked in California, Muir finally discovered his heart's home: Yosemite Valley. Following his eight-day initial visit to Yosemite, he returned to the Sierra foothills and began working as a ferry operator, sheepherder, and bronco buster. In May 1869, a rancher named Paul Delaney offered him a summer job herding sheep in the Yosemite area, and Muir enthusiastically accepted. While tending the sheep, he was able to spend a great deal of time in Yosemite and began creating theories about how the area was created and how its ecosystems functioned. Reluctant to leave at the end of summer, Muir secured a job operating a sawmill in the valley and built himself a small cabin along Yosemite Creek.

Muir's love of science occupied much of his free time, and he soon became convinced that glaciers had sculpted much of Yosemite Valley. This theory directly opposed the leading theory of the day, which proposed that the valley was the result of a catastrophic earthquake. However, the premier geologist of the time, Louis Agissez, saw merit in Muir's theories. In 1871, Muir discovered an active alpine glacier below Merced Peak which helped his theories gain credence (Wikipedia, 2008). 

In 1880, Muir married Louisa Wanda Strentzel, whose parents owned a large ranch and fruit orchards in Martinez, California. For the next ten years, he managed the 2,600 acre family ranch. The couple had two daughters, Wanda and Helen. In 1886, Muir became friends with another leading figure in the conservation movement, Gifford Pinchot.

However, the friendship ended in 1897 when Pinchot released a statement endorsing sheep grazing in forest reserves, which Muir utterly opposed. This philosophical divide soon spread throughout the conservation movement and led to two well-known camps: the preservationists, led by Muir, and the conservationists, led by Pinchot. Muir was opposed to any commercialization of the wilderness; whereas, Pinchot saw conservation as a means of managing commercialization in nature (Wikipedia, 2008). 

In the spring of 1892, Henry Senger, a linguist at Berkley, approached Muir with the idea of creating a local club of mountain lovers. Muir introduced Senger to a university colleague, William D. Armes of the English Department, and the two professors arranged the Sierra Club's first meeting. The organization was based on the Appalachian Mountain Club. Muir was elected president, and he held the office for the remainder of his life. The newly-founded club soon succeeded in warding off a bill in Congress to reduce the boundaries of Yosemite National Park.

The Sierra Club then faced San Francisco's proposal to dam Tuolumne River and flood Hetch Hetchy Valley. The club organized a series of protests in the battle, but was ultimately unsuccessful in preventing the dam, which was erected in 1913. However, the publicity helped raise public awareness of the exploitation of national and state parks (Fox, 1981). Today, the Sierra Club is one of the most influential environmental groups in the United States and has hundreds of thousands of members located throughout the country (Wikipedia, 2008). 

In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt requested Muir as his guide through Yosemite. Muir postponed a planned trip around the world to accept the President's request. While travelling with Roosevelt to the park, Muir described the mismanagement of the valley and rampant exploitation of its resources. Muir was able to convince Roosevelt that the best way to protect the valley was through federal control and management. The President requested that Muir show him the real Yosemite, and the pair spent the next three days camping in the valley mostly unaccompanied. The trip was fruitful, and Roosevelt was responsible for expanding the boundaries of Yosemite National Park to include Yosemite Valley (Ehrlich, 2000). 

Muir's latter years were plagued with a series of disappointments. Louie Strentzel died of lung cancer on August 6, 1905 at the age of 57, leaving Muir devastated. He spent much of the remainder of his life embroiled in the continuing fight to save Hetch Hetchy, and the ultimate failing of his efforts in 1913 devastated him. In deteriorating health, he visited his younger daughter, Helen, in the Mojave Desert in 1914. The desert was cold, and Muir caught pneumonia. He was taken by train to California Hospital in Los Angeles.

On December 24, 1914, Muir passed away at age 76. His legacy remains in his writings, the California wilderness area named after him, the Sierra Club, our national parks, and today's flourishing wilderness movement (Ehrlich, 2000). An image of Muir is featured on the California state quarter, released in 2005, and he was inducted into the California Hall of Fame on December 6, 2006 (Wikipedia, 2008). 


Ehrlich, G. (2000). John Muir: Nature's Visionary. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic. 

Fox, S. (1981). John Muir and His Legacy: The American Conservation Movement. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. 

Wikipedia. John Muir.

Wikipedia. Sierra Club.