John Muir: spiritual father of environmentalism

John Muir has been called many things including “ the father of our national parks” and “protector of the wilds.” Muir, however, saw himself as an ordinary citizen of the universe and adopted as his address “John Muir, Earth-Planet, Universe.” In the opinion of many, no greater champion of the environment has arisen since Muir’s death in 1914 at the age of 76.

Muir, though a loner for the first part of his life, became an evangelist for the salvation of the environment and preached the gospel of conservation and ecology at every opportunity. Before the days of radio and television, he used the printed word to carry the message to the masses. His writing was vivid, accurate, sometimes tinged with purple language, and often hypercritical of individuals who were more interested in acquiring the almighty dollar than in preserving our natural treasures.

He drew recognition for his wilderness expertise from poets and presidents alike. Ralph Waldo Emerson described Muir as “One of the greatest men I have ever met.” As a 19th-century transcendentalist in the tradition of both Emerson and Thoreau, Muir believed that nature was the ready-made path to knowledge of the almighty.

President Theodore Roosevelt wrote to him in 1903: “ I want to drop politics for four days and just be out in the open with you.” Going to California to meet Muir at Yosemite, TR camped with him in the newly created national park, with neither the benefit of tent nor cots. The pair awoke one morning with four inches of new snow on top of their blankets, and the old Rough Rider exclaimed, “This is bullier yet!” Muir remarked later, “I stuffed him pretty well regarding the timber thieves, the destructive work of land speculators, and other spoilers of the environment.

The president was duly impressed as he quickly saw to it that the Valley of the Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove of big trees were added to the park. The camping trip in 1903 is thought to have been a major influence in Roosevelt’s later designation of five new national parks and 23 national monuments. Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft, also visited Muir at Yosemite and relied on him as his adviser on the environment throughout his term of office.

John Muir was born in Dunbar, Scotland, in 1834 and came to America with his parents when he was 11 years of age. The family settled in Wisconsin, and, as a young man, he attended the University of Wisconsin for three years where he took a variety of courses. He dropped out of the UW before his senior year to pursue his education in the classroom of the outdoors. Twenty-five years later the University awarded him an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.

Soon after leaving the university, Muir embarked on a walk of more than 1,000 miles that took him from Louisville, Ky., to Cedar Key, Fla. After a near fatal bout with malaria he acquired on the walk, he made his way to California, and the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and at last to the valley of the Yosemite where he lived for many years. Though he made extensive trips to Alaska and other parts of the world, he always returned to Yosemite. Today there is the 211-mile John Muir Trail that begins in the Yosemite Valley, hugs the ragged spine of the High Sierras through the park, the Ansel Adams and John Muir wilderness areas, and King’s Canyon National Park. It ends on Mt. Whitney in Sequoia National Park.

He was one of the first naturalists to recognize that the lives of all living things were intimately associated and to destroy even one species making up the complex web of life was to court disaster. Muir’s philosophy manifested itself in a non-anthropocentric view of nature, which saw man as a part of the natural world rather than the center of it.

John Muir was and still is a champion of the environment and a hero to those who have heeded his message. He passed the torch of the environmental movement to us, and we should do everything we can to see that it is passed on unextinguished to those who come after us.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960-1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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