I’ve been thinking about environmental activists lately. It seems that everywhere we look there are messages about “going green” or saving one thing or another. On city street corners, hemp wearing hipsters carry signs on recycled paper urging the world to save the bees, save the trees and only eat free range kale. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for bees and trees and kale. But sometimes I wonder how much they actually know about what it means to be a true activist. And I wonder what they know about John Muir, a man who was an environmental activist long before it was thought of as the cool thing to do.
John Muir wore many hats in his lifetime. He worked as a farmer, a sheepherder and an inventor. But it was his work as an explorer, a naturalist, a conservationist, an environmentalist and a writer that made him a man for the ages.
Down to Earth
“Earth has no sorrow that earth can not heal.” ~ John Muir
John Muir was born in Scotland in 1838, but moved with his family to a farm in Wisconsin in 1849. His father, who was a Presbyterian minister, believed that idle hands were the devil’s workshop and it was a rare occurrence when young Muir’s hands were idle. I mention this because it was during those backbreaking days of laboring on the farm that nature became Muir’s refuge. Whenever possible, Muir would escape into the fields and woods to commune with nature, where he found rest and peace.
Knock on Wood
“The power of imagination makes us infinite.” ~ John Muir
Muir was a curious young man who also became an inventor. He made accurate clocks and even invented a contraption to tip him out of bed in the mornings! In 1867 John Muir was working in a carriage parts shop when he suffered an injury that would change the course of his life. He was temporarily blinded and it took one month for him to regain his sight. It was then that Muir determined that he should spend his time doing what he loved. And what he loved most was nature.
To the Ends of the Earth
“As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.” ~John Muir
Muir, the nature lover, set out to see the world. He walked from Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico. Yes, I said, “walked.” That’s a journey of a thousand miles, in case you have an urge to follow in his footsteps. He sailed to Cuba. And Panama. And California. While he loved seeing the world, he soon realized that California was to become his home.
He was absolutely captivated by the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Yosemite. He proclaimed the Sierra to be “the most divinely beautiful of all the mountain chains I have ever seen.”
Climb Every Mountain
“The mountains are calling and I must go.” ~ John Muir
In 1874, Muir wrote a series of articles entitled, “Studies in the Sierra.” With his writing career established, the mild-mannered naturalist began to capture the attention of the general public.Muir’s father-in-law owned an orchard and for years he worked in the family business. But, after a decade of “settling down,” Muir found himself with the desire to travel again. He traveled to Glacier Bay in Alaska and Mount Rainier in Washington. He put pen to paper and raised public awareness about those sites that he hoped would one day become national parks. He also urged for government protection of the Petrified Forest and the Grand Canyon.
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul” ~ John Muir
Robert Underwood Johnson was a journalist who had been working with Muir to campaign for expanding the boundaries of Yosemite National Park. It was Johnson who encouraged Muir to create an organization to protect the Sierra Nevada range.
Muir and his supporters founded the Sierra Club in 1892. Muir said the group was created to “do something for the wilderness and make the mountains glad.” The Sierra Club was one of the first environmental conservation organizations in the world. Muir was elected president of the club and held that office until his death in 1914.
“Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”~ John Muir
When Muir’s book, Our National Parks, was published in 1901, it gained the attention of a very influential statesman and outdoorsman, President Theodore Roosevelt. In March of 1903, he sent a letter to Muir asking to meet him in Yosemite. The President wrote: “I do not want anyone with me but you, and I want to drop politics absolutely for four days and just be out in the open with you.” That’s a tough invitation to decline and Muir eagerly accepted.
Muir met up with President Roosevelt in Oakland, California, where they traveled by train to Raymond, California. From there, they traveled by stagecoach into Yosemite. No, the two were not traveling alone. Even in 1903, U.S. Presidents traveled with an entourage. But, as soon as they were able, the pair set off by themselves. They hiked together and camped in the backcountry. That first night, they talked for hours on end, camped at Glacier Point and awoke to five inches of snow.
While the President had asked that politics be dropped, Muir was wise enough to not miss an opportunity to appeal to Roosevelt to protect the land he so loved. After all, how often would the president of the Sierra Club have the U.S. President’s ear? He convinced the President and California Governor George Pardee that federal control and management was the best way to guarantee protection of Yosemite Valley. They agreed to recede the state land grant and make both the Valley and Mariposa Grove a part of Yosemite National Park.
That was, undoubtedly, one of the most far-reaching camping excursions of all time. Muir wrote: “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” But, that trip seemed to have provided Muir with exactly what he sought.
A Legacy that’s as Solid as a Rock
“This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never dried all at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.” ~ John Muir
All told, Muir authored more than 300 articles and twelve books. But you don’t have to read his works to know his work. Today, the Sierra Club boasts 2.4 million members and supporters with sixty-four local chapters nationwide. They were instrumental in the passing of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. And it’s all because John Muir was “going green” long before it was the cool thing to do.
Here’s a lovely video from BBC-TV about Muir, and his journey through life that I think you’ll enjoy!