John Muir, known as the Father of the National Parks, lived all through Queen Victoria’s reign to the start of World War I. He emigrated aged 11 with his family from Scotland to America in the century of the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination and lived into the century of San Francisco’s earthquake and great fire. In his lifetime, he studied botany and geology, gave lectures, wrote countless pieces championing the natural world, climbed mountains (often the first ascent of certain faces), travelled continents, took a President camping, survived a near-blinding and malaria – and yet once marvelled at how well he was known.
Born in Scotland in 1838, John Muir was the son of Daniel, a former army man turned merchant. An indefatigable worker, after running a successful business in Dunbar for 20 years, Daniel sold up and bought a plot of land near the Fox River in Wisconsin. As if taming one plot of the wilds wasn’t enough, eight years later he did it all again in another plot a few miles away. Finally, he devoted himself to his evangelism, travelling America.
It’s easy to see where John got his energy and his own brand of evangelism from. His love of nature though, seems to have been sparked by his grandfather, who would take him walking along Scotland’s coasts. Later, with only a little grammar schooling and mostly self-educated, John paid his own way through five semesters at the University of Wisconsin. A botany lecture there under a Locust Tree re-ignited his love of the subject he spent a lifetime pursuing.
He was not afraid of hard work, employed in sawmills, farming, factories – ironically the industries that posed a threat to the landscapes and trees he loved so much, but allowed him to be nearby. He was an inventor to boot, innovating machinery in the various factories where he worked, as well as more ‘whimsical’ projects, such as an automated desk, that would replace one reading book with another after a set period of time.
This drive towards efficiency is evident throughout Muir’s life’s work and writing – which according to his friend, zoologist Henry Fairfield Osborn, did not come naturally to him. He would rise at 4.30am and pore over the page, looking for the most simple way of expressing himself. He complained: ‘No amount of word-making will ever make a single soul to ‘know’ these mountains. One day’s exposure to mountains is better than a cartload of books.’
And he lived by that mantra – working as a guide in the new state parklands of Yosemite, and not only going on but leading innumerable expeditions. In 1903, Muir even took President Theodore Roosevelt camping alone for 3 days and nights. It’s hard to exaggerate the effect this had: following crusades by Muir, Roosevelt would later declare Arizona’s Petrified Forest a National Monument and refederalise Yosemite into a National Park.
Muir’s influence did not end there. He co-founded the ‘Sierra Club’, which was a group of like-minded people focused originally on the preservation of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. The Club has since become a 3.8-million-member grassroots environmental organisation, defending everyone’s right to a healthy world.
An insatiable appetite for the outdoors saw Muir undertake unprecedented solo mountain ascents all over America, a 1000-mile trek from Kingston in Canada to Florida (only a few months after being near-blinded in a factory accident, and a sailing trip from Cuba to California (yes, that’s right – through the Isthmus of Panama). He visited Alaska many times too, where he became familiar with Native American culture.
While some have accused Muir of racism, it is hard to believe the charge. His early writings describe the Native Americans he met as dirty and ragtag (hardly surprising when you consider they were a people in the midst of a holocaust about which he knew little at that point) but expressed a desire to know them better. He became a staunch defender, emphasising their skill, intelligence, customs and understanding of nature (which he contrasted with white Americans). He admired their resourcefulness and dignity and their gentleness with their children. At dinner with a Colonel involved with the extermination of the Native Americans in California, he berated the man, calling the policy mean, brutal and shameful.
Aged 73, in 1911, Muir left New York on a world tour to South America and Africa, exploring among many places the Amazon, the Nile, and studying Baobab trees near Victoria Falls. On his return from this 40,000-mile trip, he joined a Sierra Club expedition to the Kern River and in the same year published The Yosemite, a collection of his writings on his beloved.
John Muir died of pneumonia in 1914. In Scotland, North America and Canada, the places named for him are too numerous to mention. His role in securing Earth’s environment for future generations is impossible to exaggerate. As billionaire Earthlings begin to look for ways to abandon their planet and exploit territories in space, they’d do well to note: there’s a minor planet in the solar system named for John Muir, who used to give his address as Earth-Planet, Universe.