John Muir: America's Most Famous Environmentalist

by Stephanie Sykes, age 16

muir We live in a fast-paced world of technology and high-stress jobs. In a society where every minute is planned out, it is a relief to know that there are still pockets of wilderness. We can escape to wild places when we need a break.

These gems of rough landscape in North America offer refuge to those who still wish to connect with their planet and appreciate the raw beauty of nature. In today’s modern world many people still rely on the plants, animals, and peace these landscapes offer. They bring them a kind of refuge from the chaos.

This really isn’t very surprising. Natural areas take people’s breath away. It has always been that way.

John Muir was one of these people.

John Muir is most famous for drawing up the plans that set boundaries for Yosemite National Park. He advocated the creation of the park, writing articles and co-founding the Sierra Club to protect its beauty.

The adventures of Muir’s youth lead many people today to think of him as a successor to famous environmental pioneers like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Many of the ideas Muir eventually shared with the world were developed during the time he spent free of responsibility, wandering about Yosemite.

Born in Dunbar, Scotland, in 1838, Muir grew up the son of a Calvinist shopkeeper. At age eleven, he immigrated to the United States with his family and settled on a homestead near Portage, Wisconsin. He spent the remainder of his youth working on his family farm.

As a youngster Muir read everything he could get his hands on and immersed himself in learning. He originally planned to become an inventor, and many gadgets were attributed to him by the time he was in his twenties. But after a serious factory mishap in 1867, Muir chose to devote his life to the study of nature.

Muir decided he wanted to see the great Amazon River. With almost no money he walked from Kentucky to Florida, intending to journey all the way to South America. He contracted malaria in Florida’s Cedar Key, and the illness derailed his adventure. He chose instead to sail to California via the Panama Canal. When he arrived he asked a merchant to direct him towards “anywhere that is wild.”

He was sent to Yosemite. The year was 1868.

John Muir’s first visit to the Yosemite area lasted only ten days. Yet later entries in his meticulously kept journal make it apparent he was smitten with its unique natural beauty, and intended to return as soon as possible.

Muir was not the only nineteenth century traveler who was fascinated by the beauty of this part of California. By the time Muir arrived in Yosemite, people had already been journeying there for years to “celebrate God in Nature.”

The first American visitors to the region were the Mariposa Battalion, who rode into Yosemite in 1851, chasing the Ahwahneechee Indians. They drove the tribe out of the area, and returned to their homes victorious. They also brought home tales of breathtaking meadows and waterfalls, bordered by deep gorges and steep cliffs.

A few years later tourists began to arrive in the area, and by the 1860s a steady flow of visitors was traveling from San Francisco to spend their summers among the towering sequoias in “Mariposa Grove.” More adventurous visitors would descend into the valley to stay in the few rustic cabins that existed there at the time.

After Niagara Falls was established as a public park, a group of Californians asked President Abraham Lincoln to sign into law an act that set aside Mariposa Grove “for public use, resort and recreation.” These people loved Yosemite Valley and the surrounding area, just as Muir soon would.

Parts of what would one day become one of America’s most cherished places were set aside as a protected natural area under the jurisdiction of the state of California. It remains one of our nation’s most famous and most coveted places.

Arriving to the area in 1868, John Muir would play a leading role in protecting Yosemite and creating planet Earth’s most extensive and impressive national park system.

After a year’s separation from his beloved Yosemite, Muir returned to the area in 1869 with the intention of residing in the valley permanently. Muir worked as a shepherd in the Tuolumne Meadows of the High Sierra, where he spent his first long period of time immersing himself in the beauty of the area.

Exploring this rugged terrain soon became the main focus of Muir’s life. He was the first person to climb to the top of 10,911-foot tall Cathedral Peak. He then ran a sawmill for James Hutchings who owned the Hutchings House hotel, which took in visitors to the valley. Muir guided guests on hikes.

In November of 1869 he enlisted the help of his friend Harry Randall to build a cabin. The one-room structure was just as saturated with nature as the valley outside its door. Muir allowed ferns and vines to grow through the floor, and diverted Yosemite Creek so that it would run beneath his floor. He fell asleep every night to the sound of frogs chirping.

This close interaction with and heartfelt enthusiasm for nature are important reasons why people still love John Muir today. He did not just offer detached ideas about our natural world. He incorporated his personal experiences into the beliefs he held.

We can learn more about John Muir from the famous British writer Theresa Yelverton, who came to Yosemite as a tourist in 1870. Yelverton described him as sloppy in appearance. She also noted that he was interesting, intellectual, enthusiastic, and fully engaged in what he did. Shortly after meeting Lady Yelverton, Muir left Yosemite again.

Upon his return in January 1871, Muir re-dedicated himself to learning about the natural world. He spent his Sundays studying the area’s geology, plants, and animals. He lived in the park for the next twenty-two months.

He spent many weeks visiting the park’s most remote areas. During part of this time he allowed Hutching’s relatives to use his cottage. He often slept in the mill, where he built a small study. Muir spent hours here filling journals with his observations and ideas about the park.

Joseph LeConte, a noted scientist, was impressed by Muir’s work. LeConte convinced Muir to publish his theory that Yosemite Valley was not formed by a prehistoric cataclysm, but rather by glacial activity. The article appeared in the New York Tribune in 1871.

Muir also spent time with Ralph Waldo Emerson. They traveled together to Muir’s beloved Mariposa Valley, but were not able to stay overnight due to Emerson’s advanced age. John Muir was becoming a very well-known figure.

By the end of 1872 Muir was making appearances in cities throughout California and writing frequently for nature magazines. Nonetheless, part of him simply wanted to stay in the park. He was torn between fighting for the park he loved, and simply loving the park in solitude.

Muir’s time in Yosemite was running out. He returned to the park after a nine-month absence and felt like a stranger. He decided that it was his responsibility to go out and protect the wilderness he loved so much.

As he grew older, Muir became a respected elder statesman of American Conservation. He still felt, however, a deep connection with Yosemite. Muir traveled to the area frequently, revisiting the places he had walked in his youth. In 1889 he camped with Robert Underwood Johnson, the editor of Century Magazine, in the area of Tuolumne Meadows. During their adventure they drew up boundaries for a 1,200-square-mile Yosemite National Park. The plan was passed by congress the following year.

In 1903 he camped with the President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. The two men evaded the Secret Service and escaped into Yosemite’s wilderness for three days. Many historians believe it was during this time that Muir persuaded the President to expand America’s national park system. Muir also persuaded Roosevelt to combine Mariposa Valley and Mariposa Grove, making Yosemite even bigger.

In 1906 Muir fought hard against the proposal to build a dam in Yosemite. His efforts failed, and congress allowed the dam to be built in Hetch Hetchy Valley in 1913. A year later John Muir died of pneumonia at the age of 76.

The creation of this dam lead to a push for the creation of the National Park Service and increased protection for all of the country’s National Parks. These goals were achieved in 1916. John Muir would have been proud of those who continued to fight for nature long after his death.

[Source: Smithsonian; John Muir’s Yosemite]