John Muir (April 21, 1838 – December 24, 1914) was one of the earliest modern preservationists. His letters, essays, and books telling of his adventures in nature, and wild life, 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. But more than that his vision of nature's value for its own sake and for its spiritual, not just practical, benefits to mankind helped to change the way we look at the natural world.
Muir was born in Dunbar, East Lothian, Scotland to Daniel Muir and Ann Gilrye. He was the third of eight children being preceded by Margaret and Sarah and followed by David, Daniel, Ann and Mary (twins) and the American born Joanna. In his autobiography, he described his two main 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 emigrated to the United States in 1849, when his family started a farm in rural Marquette County, Wisconsin. He attended the University of Wisconsin 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 without fear 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 which became very successful. (When he died he left an estate of $250,000. Their house and part of the ranch are now a National Historical Site.) During this time two daughters were born, Wanda and Helen.
In the spring of 1868, a young man came to Yosemite and changed the world. Muir had just turned 30 that year. His first 11 years were spent in Dunbar, Scotland. The next 11 he spent in the backwoods of Wisconsin, working through the daylight hours, clearing the forest, holding a plow to a straight furrow behind a team of oxen, digging wells through hard bedrock, and taking an adult's part in subduing wild nature.
Years later, in The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, he stressed the rigours of his childhood, but he seemed to feel that his strenuous years in Wisconsin prepared him well for his later wilderness ramblings.
He also prepared throughout his childhood for his life as a naturalist by a close attention to the wonders of nature. Everything, it seemed, drew his eye and his mind, and all creatures drew his sympathy, whether the mice that ate the grain he had wrung from the earth by the sweat of his brow or the intelligent old ox Buck, who figured out how to open pumpkins to feast on the succulent inner flesh.
As a teenager, he had no time for school and little opportunity for formal study. Yet his mind hungered for knowledge. When his father grudgingly gave permission for him to rise before the rest of the family to read, he took to rising at one in the morning. He wrote, "I had gained five hours, almost half a day! 'Five hours to myself!' I said. 'Five huge, solid hours!' I can hardly think of any other event of my life, any discovery I ever made that gave birth to joy so transportingly glorious as the possession of these five frosty hours."
Much of this new-won time he gave over to his inventions. In fact, it seems he was an inventor of substantial gifts. He created a thermometer so sensitive that it would react to the heat radiated by the body of a person standing four or five feet away. Another creation was an alarm clock that, at the appointed time, tipped up his bed and dumped him on the floor. He called it an "early-rising machine."
These machines and his desire to escape from his overbearing father took him to Madison, Wisconsin and brought him to the attention of several people from the University of Wisconsin. He was admitted, though he had spent only a few months in school after the age of 11. In the following two and a half years, he followed an electic course of study, heavy on Natural Science, and left in 1863.
Over the next three years he worked as a mechanic and took several short wilderness trips. Much of the Civil War he spent in Canada, perhaps to avoid the draft, though that is far from certain. What is certain is that in 1867 a momentous accident changed his life. He was adjusting some machinery with a file when his hand slipped. A point of the file pierced one eye. He lost the use of that eye. The other soon went dark in sympathy. It was the darkest moment of his life for his spirit, as well as his sight.
As his sight gradually returned, over a period of months, he felt that he had been re-born. He resolved to spend the rest of his life immersed in the sights that had been denied him in his darkened sickroom -- the forests, fields, lakes and mountains of pure, unspoiled nature.
His first great wilderness adventure was a thousand mile walk from Louisville, Kentucky to Savannah, Georgia. From there, he hoped to travel to the headwaters of the Amazon and work his way to the sea. But a case of malaria laid him low in Florida and, by a wandering course, he ended up in San Francisco in March, 1868. He inquired the nearest way out of town. "'But where do you want to go?' asked the man to whom I had applied for this important information. 'To any place that is wild,' I said."
So he went to Yosemite.
The next six years brought about another transformation. His first summer in Yosemite, he worked as a shepherd. Then he ran a sawmill near the base of Yosemite Falls. But all the time he was working, he was studying nature, the great truths that, he said, were written in "magnificent capitals" -- the awesome stones of the Sierra Nevada. He became a guide for some of the most famous of Yosemite's visitors, including one of his idols, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Emerson tried to entice Muir away from Yosemite, telling him the world was waiting to hear him teach the lessons he had learned. But Muir chose to follow the ideal Emerson had set forth in "The American Scholar." He stayed in his mountains, working, studying and learning.
Eventually, he did leave the Valley. First for only a few months at a time. He would live with friends in San Francisco or Oakland and write about his glorious mountains, the scenery that drew tourists and the science behind the scenery. Gradually, he spent more time in the Bay Area and less time in Yosemite. In 1880, he married and moved to Martinez, California, 35 miles from San Francisco.
He still traveled, sometimes to Yosemite, several times to Alaska. But the decade of the 1880's saw him mostly in Martinez, applying his love of plants and fecund imagination to the task of raising Bartlett pears and Tokay grapes. He became fairly wealthy, but seemingly discontented. Each trip to the mountains presented him with more proof that, unless something were done, the glorious wilderness he had found in 1868 would soon be only a memory.
Muir's budding re-awakening to literary and political activity was brought to fruition by Robert Underwood Johnson, editor of Century, one of the most prominent magazines in the country a hundred years ago. The catalyst was their famous camping trip to Tuolumne Meadows in 1889. Each seemed to have thought the trip was a way to inspire the other to do something to save the High Sierra from the sheep which Muir felt were rapidly altering the sub-alpine environment. Muir wrote two long articles on Yosemite, advocating a National Park to surround what was then the state-run Yosemite Valley. Johnson published the articles and lobbied energetically. Congress complied with this emotional and literary onslaught, creating a National Park that included almost all the present-day park plus the southeastern area down to Devil's Postpile that was excised in 1905 when the Valley was taken from state control and added to the National Park.
Another fruit of this budding friendship was the creation, in 1892, of the Sierra Club, with Muir as President, apostle, guide, and inspiration. The purpose of the Club was to preserve and make accessible the Sierra Nevada.
The Club grew slowly and quietly for a few years, then a little faster after 1901 with the start of the High Trips. But not until the City of San Francisco began its push for a dam on the Tuolumne at the mouth of Hetch Hetchy Valley was the whole idea of preservation vs. use articulated on the front and editorial pages of the nation's newspapers.
Muir summed up the basic arguments against the dam in some of his most elegant, most elevated prose:
"These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar.
"Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people's cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man."
The Sierra Club, and the environmental movement as a whole, have grown most rapidly in times of severe, well-publicized threats to the environment. But over the years, slow and steady growth can be traced directly to those who have followed Muir's adivce, "Climb the mountains and get their good tidings." In 1900, Sierra Club Secretary Will Colby envisaged a mass outing for the Sierra Club, to introduce as many people as possible to the wonders of the mountains. The following summer, 1901, ninety-seven "Sierrans" including Muir and his two daughters assembled in The Valley and trekked to Soda Springs for a month of hiking, peak climbing, campfire entertainment and education. One woman wrote of the trip:
"Muir, the prince of mountainlovers, was guide and apostle, and his gentle, kindly face, genial blue eyes, and quaint, quiet observations on present and past Sierra conditions impressed us unforgettably with the 'sermons in stone, books in the running brooks,' he knows so well."
These outings became an annual affair, and evolved into the Club's current schedule of dozens of trips all over the world. Periodically, the Board of Directors reminds the membership that the outings were not the reason the Club was started. Will Colby himself wrote, in the January 1904 Bulletin, that membership was up to nearly 800, "mainly due to the annual Club Outing. ... Our members should not, however, lose sight of the fact that this feature of the Club's life is but a minor part ... of the worthy objects for which the Club was incorporated ... the preservation of the forests and the natural scenery of our mountains."
Marion Parsons, one of the few women leaders of the early Sierra Club, answered Colby in her own article in the 1904 Bulletin: "The Sierra Club has great and noble purposes, for which we honor it, but besides these its name has come to mean an ideal for us. It means comradeship and chivalry, simplicity and joyousness, and the carefree life of the open."
Thirty years later, twenty years after Muir's death, another woman wrote of her own experiences on a High Trip. "Never had I really understood John Muir's ecstasy until I wandered through this little valley." That "ecstasy" was exactly what Muir found most lacking in California, even among his fellow "preservationists." "The love of Nature among Californians is desperately moderate; consuming enthusiasm is almost wholly unknown." It was this ecstasy in Nature that distinguished Muir from most other preservationists and it was this very emotionalism that made him so attractive to the women he met as well as others who weren't embarrassed by their emotional response to Nature.
Over the years, Muir developed from a guide for select individuals to a guide for the Sierra Club to a guide for the whole nation. Not just to Yosemite or any other specific place, but to the inner regions of the emotional response to Nature, especially Wild Nature.
Muir died of pneumonia in a Los Angeles hospital in January, 1914. It was a unexpectedly prosaic end for a man who had repeatedly faced death on rocky crags and icy glaciers, who braved Alaskan storms with a crust of bread in his pocket. In the years since, his legend has grown. In 1976, the Calfiornia Historical Society voted him "The Greatest Californian." The U.S. Geological Survey has suggested an even greater mark of his fame. In their guidelines on naming mountains and lakes after individuals, it gives Muir as the example of someone who has had so many things named for him already that they would not be likely to approve any further such commemorations.
But perhaps the greatest tribute ever given to Muir took place in a private conversion between two great comtemporary mountaineers. Galen Rowell once asked Rheinhold Messner why the greatest mountains and valleys of the Alps are so highly developed, why they have hotels, funicular railways, and veritable cities washing up against sites that, in America, are maintained relatively unencumbered by development. Messner explained the difference in three words. He said, "You had Muir."
Quotations and Meditations
Favorite Quotations, selected by Harold Wood from the John Muir Exhibit "Damming Hetch Hetchy", excerpt from Muir’s Unpublished Journals, c. 1913 (Sierra Club California) "Man’s Place in the Universe", originally published in Muir’s A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf (1916) "Mountain Thoughts", written by John Muir during the 1870s, collected by Linnie Marsh Wolfe in John of the Mountains (1938)
Selected Passages by John Muir
"The Calypso Borealis" excerpted from The Life and Letters of John Muir - Muir’s moving account of his long search for, and final discovery of a rare woodland flower. This was his first published writing "The Earthquake" , from Our National Parks (1901) - Muir revels in an earthquake in Yosemite, just as he does any other storm! "Mount Ritter" from The Mountains of California (1894) - A mountain-climbing classic The Water-Ouzel , Chapter 13 of The Mountains of California (1894). - One of the finest animal biographies ever written "Wild Wool" from Steep Trails (1918) - Muir’s reflections on why animals are not made "for man." A Wind Storm in the Forests - Chapter 10 of The Mountains of California by John Muir (1894). - Muir’s exciting adventure atop a Douglas fir during a wind-storm
Articles by John Muir
"American Forests" , Atlantic Monthly , No. 80, 1897 August. (Muir revised this article as chapter 10 of Our National Parks ) (University of Virginia) "Edward Taylor Parsons," Sierra Club Bulletin, Vol. IX, No. 4, January, 1915 "Features of the Proposed Yosemite National Park," by John Muir, The Century Magazine, September 1890 "The Hetch Hetchy Valley," by John Muir, Boston Weekly Transcript, March 25, 1873. (Muir’s first essay about Hetch Hetchy - quite different from other Hetch Hetchy writings.) "The Hetch-Hetchy Valley," by John Muir, Sierra Club Bulletin January, 1908. (Later revised and included as Chapter 16 of Muir’s 1912 book, The Yosemite.) Victorians and Meadowlarks: Two Muir Letters Rediscovered (John Muir Exhibit) A Letter from John Muir to S. Hall Young, May 31, 1910 (John Muir Exhibit) Mount Shasta and John Muir , his writings from the Mount Shasta Collection at College of the Siskiyous Library: Modoc Memories (1874), Notes from Shasta (1877), Salmon Breeding (1874), Shasta Bees (1874), Shasta Game (1874), Shasta in Winter (1874), and Snow-Storm on Mt. Shasta (1877). "Reminiscences of Joseph LeConte," by John Muir, The University of California Magazine (September 1901) The National Parks and Forest Reservations by John Muir (Proceedings of the Meeting of the Sierra Club Held November 23, 1895.) Published in Sierra Club Bulletin, 1896 Save the Redwoods by John Muir, Sierra Club Bulletin (Volume XI Number 1, January 1920) "A Rival of the Yosemite; The Cañon of the South Fork of Kings River, California," by John Muir, The Century Magazine, November 1891 "Snow-Storm on Mount Shasta", by John Muir, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1877 September (with illustrations) "The Treasures of the Yosemite," by John Muir, The Century Magazine, August 1890 Victorians and Meadowlarks: Two Muir Letters Rediscovered "Yosemite Glaciers," by John Muir, New York Tribune, December 5, 1871 "Yosemite in Winter," by John Muir, New York Tribune, May 7, 1872 "Yosemite in Spring," by John Muir, New York Tribune, December 5, 1872
Books by John Muir
We provide the complete text of each book in HTML, organized by chapter, usually with the original illustrations. The following list is arranged by date of first publication. Studies in the Sierra (1950 reprint of serials from 1874) Picturesque California (1888-1890) The Mountains of California (1894) Our National Parks (1901) Stickeen "Stickeen: An Adventure with a Dog and a Glacier" — the 1915 (shorter) version "Stickeen: The Story of a Dog" — the 1909 (longer) version, with annotations My First Summer in the Sierra (1911) As first published in the The Atlantic Monthly in 1911. Edward Henry Harriman (1911) The Yosemite (1912) The complete text of this book arranged by chapter The Story of My Boyhood and Youth (1913) The Life and Letters of John Muir by William Frederic Badè (1924) - The full text of this two-volume book contains thousands of Muir’s letters and previously unpublished writings, along with Badè’s biography. Letters to a Friend (1915) Travels in Alaska (1915) A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf (1916) The complete text of this book arranged by chapter The Cruise of the Corwin (1917) Steep Trails (1919) John of the Mountains (1938) letters edited by Linnie Marsh Wolfe. Will be posted online when it enters the public domain in 2034.
For further information on on the life of John Muir, please see the Sierra Club’s John Muir Exhibit, created by Harold Wood and others. For further historical books and photographs on Yosemite, See the Yosemite Online Library.
In 1888 after seven years of managing the Strentzel ranch Muir described himself as "all nerve-shaken and lean as a crow - loaded with care, work and worry." Accompanied by botanist Charles Parry, Muir left on a journey to the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. The trip marked a turning point in Muir's life. Muir began writing again. He became his old self, climbing Mt Rainier, writing "Ascent of Mount Rainier". While he was gone Louisa died
Muir threw himself into his new role with great vigor. He envisioned Yosemite area and the Sierras as pristine lands without domesticated animals and free of people, including Native Americans. He saw the greatest threat to the Yosemite area and the Sierras to be livestock, especially domestic sheep (calling them "hooved locusts"). In "My First Summer in the Sierra" he writes about his encounter with the Indians describing his impression; "A strangely dirty and irregular life these dark-eyed dark-haired, half-happy savages lead in this clean wilderness." 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 that would make the Yosemite area into a national park, modeled after Yellowstone National Park.
A bill essentially following 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), was passed by Congress on September 30, 1890. To the dismay of Muir, 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 and was elected as 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 was 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 conservationist movement into two camps: the preservationists, led by Muir, and Pinchot's camp, who co-opted the term "conservationist." 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 resources for their spiritual and uplifting values; Pinchot saw conservation as a means of intelligently managing the nation's 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 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 a few ranges into the backcountry. While circling around a fire, the duo talked late into the night, slept in the brisk open air 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.
Pressure then 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 called Hetch Hetchy a "second Yosemite." 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 in Los Angeles on December 24, 1914 after a brief visit to his daughter Wanda. Some, such as Steve Roper, a California climber, say he died of a "broken heart". 
Two John Muir Trails (in California and Tennessee), the John Muir Wilderness, the Muir Woods National Monument, John Muir High School, John Muir College (a residential college of the University of California, San Diego), and John Muir Country Park in Dunbar are named in his honour, 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.
original sketch by Mr. Muir