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  Muir, John
NameJohn Muir
, California , United States
Born April 21, 1838
DiedDecember 24, 1914 (76 years)
ContributorThomas Walker
Last ModifedThomas Walker
Dec 06, 2007 01:01pm
InfoJohn Muir (April 21, 1838 – December 24, 1914) was one of the first modern preservationists. His letters, essays, and books telling of his adventures in nature, and wildlife, especially in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, were read by millions and are still popular today. His direct activism helped to save the Yosemite Valley and other wilderness areas. The Sierra Club, which he founded, is now one of the most important conservation organizations in the United States. His writings and philosophy strongly influenced the formation of the modern environmental movement.

Muir was born in Dunbar, East Lothian, Scotland to Daniel Muir and Ann Gilrye. He was one of eight children: Margaret, Sarah, David, Daniel, Ann and Mary (twins), and the American-born Joanna. In his autobiography, he described his boyhood pursuits, fighting (either by re-enacting romantic battles of Scottish history or just scrapping on the playground) and hunting for birds nests (ostensibly to one-up his fellows as they compared notes on who knew where the most were located). Such pursuits would later prove formative to Muir's adult character.

Muir immigrated to the United States in 1849, when his family started a farm near Portage, Wisconsin called Fountain Lake Farm. He attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison for several years. It was there, under a towering black locust tree beside North Hall, that Muir took his first botany lesson. A fellow student plucked a flower from the tree and used it to explain how the grand locust is a member of the pea family, related to the straggling pea plant. Fifty years later, the naturalist Muir described the day in his autobiography. "This fine lesson charmed me and sent me flying to the woods and meadows in wild enthusiasm," Muir wrote. But instead of graduating from a school built by the hand of man, Muir opted to enroll in the "university of the wilderness" and thus walked a thousand miles from Indiana to Florida after spending most of the years 1866 and 1867 working as an industrial engineer in Indianapolis, where a factory accident almost cost him his eyesight. He had planned to continue on to South America, but was stricken by malaria and went to California instead.

Arriving in San Francisco in March 1868, Muir immediately left for a place he had only read about called Yosemite. After seeing Yosemite Valley for the first time he was captivated, and wrote, "No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite," and "[Yosemite is] the grandest of all special temples of Nature."

After his initial eight-day visit, he returned to the Sierra foothills and became a ferry operator, sheepherder and bronco buster. In May 1869 a rancher named Pat Delaney offered Muir a summer job in the mountains to accompany and watch over Delaney's sheep and sheepherder. Muir enthusiastically accepted the offer and spent that summer with the sheep in the Yosemite area. That summer Muir climbed Cathedral Peak, Mount Dana and hiked the old Indian trail down Bloody Canyon to Mono Lake. During this time, he started to create theories about how the area was developed and how its ecosystem functioned.

Now more enthusiastic about the area than before, Muir secured a job operating a sawmill in the Yosemite Valley under the supervision of innkeeper James Hutchings. A natural born inventor, Muir designed a water-powered mill to cut wind-felled trees and he built a small cabin for himself along Yosemite Creek.

Pursuit of his love of science, especially geology, often occupied his free time and he soon became convinced that glaciers had sculpted many of the features of the valley and surrounding area. This notion was in stark contradiction to the accepted theory of the day, promulgated by Josiah Whitney (head of the California Geological Survey), which attributed the formation of the valley to a catastrophic earthquake. As Muir's ideas spread, Whitney would try to discredit Muir by branding him as an amateur and even an ignoramus. The premier geologist of the day, Louis Agassiz, however, saw merit in Muir's ideas, and lauded him as "the first man who has any adequate conception of glacial action."

In 1871 Muir discovered an active alpine glacier below Merced Peak, which further helped his theories to gain acceptance. He was also a highly productive writer and had many of his accounts and papers published as far away as New York. Also that year, one of Muir's heroes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, arrived in Yosemite and sought Muir out. Muir's former professor at the University of Wisconsin, Ezra Carr, and Carr's wife Jeanne encouraged Muir to publish his ideas. They also introduced Muir to notables such as Emerson, as well as many leading scientists such as Louis Agassiz, John Tyndall, John Torrey, Clinton Hart Merriam, and Joseph LeConte.

A large earthquake centered near Lone Pine, California in Owens Valley (see 1872 Lone Pine earthquake) was felt very strongly in Yosemite Valley in March 1872. The quake woke Muir in the early morning and he ran out of his cabin "both glad and frightened," exclaiming, "A noble earthquake!" Other valley settlers, who still adhered to Whitney's ideas, feared that the quake was a prelude to a cataclysmic deepening of the valley. Muir had no such fear and promptly made a moonlit survey of new talus piles created by earthquake-triggered rockslides. This event led more people to believe in Muir's ideas about the formation of the valley.

In addition to his geologic studies, Muir also investigated the living Yosemite area. He made two field studies along the western flank of the Sierra of the distribution and ecology of isolated groves of Giant Sequoia in 1873 and 1874. In fact, in 1876 the American Association for the Advancement of Science published a paper Muir wrote about the trees' ecology and distribution.

In 1880 Muir married Louisa Wanda Strentzel, whose parents owned a large ranch and fruit orchards in Martinez, California, a small town northeast of San Francisco. For the next ten years he devoted himself to managing the family ranch, consisting of 2,600 acres (11 km²) of orchards and vineyards which became very successful. (When he died he left an estate of $250,000, worth more than $4 million dollars in 2005 terms (Worster). Their house and part of the ranch are now a National Historical Site.) During this time two daughters were born, Wanda and Helen.

In 1888 after seven years of managing the ranch his health began to suffer. With his wife's prompting he returned to the hills to recover his old self, climbing Mt Rainier and writing "Ascent of Mount Rainier".

Muir travelled with the party that landed on Wrangell Island on the USS Corwin and claimed that island for the United States in 1881. He documented this experience in his book The Cruise of the Corwin.

Muir threw himself into the preservationist role with great vigor. He envisioned the Yosemite area and the Sierras as pristine lands.[1] He saw the greatest threat to the Yosemite area and the Sierras to be livestock, especially domestic sheep (calling them "hoofed locusts"). In June 1889, the influential associate editor of Century magazine, Robert Underwood Johnson, camped with Muir in Tuolumne Meadows and saw firsthand the damage a large flock of sheep had done to the grassland. Johnson agreed to publish any article Muir wrote on the subject of excluding livestock from the Sierra high country. He also agreed to use his influence to introduce a bill to Congress to make the Yosemite area into a national park, modeled after Yellowstone National Park.

On September 30, 1890, Congress passed a bill that essentially followed recommendations that Muir put forward in two Century articles ("The Treasure of the Yosemite" and "Features of the Proposed National Park", both published in 1890). To Muir's dismay, however, the bill left Yosemite Valley in state control. With this partial victory under his belt, Muir helped form an environmental organization called the Sierra Club on May 28, 1892; he was elected its first president (a position he held until his death 22 years later). In 1894, his first book, The Mountains of California, was published.

In July of 1896 Muir became good friends with another leader in the conservation movement, Gifford Pinchot. That friendship ended late in the summer of 1897 when Pinchot released a statement to a Seattle newspaper supporting sheep grazing in forest reserves. Muir confronted Pinchot and demanded an explanation. When Pinchot reiterated his position Muir told him "I don't want any thing more to do with you." This philosophical divide soon expanded and split the conservation movement into two camps: the preservationists, led by Muir, and Pinchot's camp, who co-opted the term "conservation." Muir was deeply opposed to commercializing nature. The two men debated their positions in popular magazines as Outlook, Harper's Weekly, Atlantic Monthly, World's Work, and Century. Muir argued for the preservation of the land's spiritual and uplifting values; Pinchot saw conservation as a means of managing for the sustainable commercial use of what he prized: the nation's natural resources. Both men opposed reckless exploitation of natural resources, including clear-cutting of forests.

In 1899, Muir accompanied railroad executive E. H. Harriman and other esteemed scientists on Harriman's famous exploratory voyage along the Alaska coast aboard the luxuriously refitted 250-foot (76 m) steamer called the George W. Elder. He would later rely on his friendship with Harriman to apply political pressure on Congress to pass conservation legislation.

In 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt accompanied Muir on a visit to the park. Muir joined Roosevelt in Oakland, California for the train trip to Raymond. The presidential entourage then traveled by stagecoach into the park. While traveling to the park, Muir told the president about state mismanagement of the valley and rampant exploitation of the valley's resources. Even before they entered the park, he was able to convince Roosevelt that the best way to protect the valley was through federal control and management.

After entering the park and seeing the magnificent splendor of the valley, the president asked Muir to show him the real Yosemite. Muir and Roosevelt set off largely by themselves and camped in the backcountry. While circling around a fire, the duo talked late into the night, slept in the brisk open air of Glacier Point and were dusted by a fresh snowfall in the morning - a night Roosevelt never would forget.

Muir then increased efforts by the Sierra Club to consolidate park management and was rewarded in 1905 when Congress transferred the Mariposa Grove and Yosemite Valley into the park. His wife Louisa died on 6 August 1905.

Pressure started to mount to dam the Tuolumne River for use as a water reservoir for San Francisco. The damming of Hetch Hetchy Valley was passionately opposed by Muir who thought Hetch Hetchy more stunning even than Yosemite Valley. Muir, the Sierra Club and Robert Underwood Johnson fought against inundating the valley and Muir even wrote Roosevelt pleading for him to scuttle the project. After years of national debate that polarized the nation, Roosevelt's successor, Woodrow Wilson signed the dam bill into law on December 19, 1913. Muir felt a great loss from the destruction of the valley, his last major battle.

John Muir died at a hospital in Los Angeles on December 24, 1914 of pneumonia[2] after a brief visit to his daughter Helen. Some, such as Steve Roper, a California climber, say he thinks he died mostly "of a broken heart".[3]

John Muir's legacy is carried on by his great-grandson, Michael Muir, who founded a group called Access Adventure, to help people with disabilities experience the outdoors in their wheelchairs.

Two John Muir Trails (in California and Tennessee), the John Muir Wilderness, Mount Muir just off the John Muir Trail, the Muir Woods National Monument, John Muir High School, John Muir Elementary SchoolJohn Muir College (a residential college of the University of California, San Diego), John Muir Country Park in Dunbar and the John Muir Way in East Lothian are named in his honor, as is the asteroid 128523 Johnmuir. An image of John Muir, with the California Condor and Half Dome, appears on the California state quarter which was released in 2005. A quote of his appears on the reverse side of the Indianapolis Prize Lilly Medal for conservation.

On December 6, 2006, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and First Lady Maria Shriver inducted John Muir into the California Hall of Fame located at The California Museum for History, Women, and the Arts.

Muir has been criticized for his views of wilderness as pure, according to Carolyn Merchant "John Muir envisioned national parks as pristine wilderness, without domesticated animals or Indians. In My First Summer in the Sierra (1911), a saga of his Sierra Nevada travels in 1868, Muir wrote disparagingly of the Indians he encountered there, equating Indians with unclean animals that did not belong in the wilderness." His travels in Canada after President Lincoln ordered a draft of half a million men has been seen by historian Roderick Nash as not simply a journeys into wilderness but a trip to avoid the draft writing: "Muir's first encounter with the idea that nature had rights came as a consequence of draft-dodging. ... Muir, who was twenty-six and single, felt certain he would be called, and he apparently had no interest in the fight to save the Union or free the slaves."



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