Born in Dunbar, Scotland (April 21, 1838), John Muir was the third of eight children. Muir’s father was both strictly religious and religiously strict. In 1849 the Muirs moved to the US near Portage, Wisconsin. His father made him work hard on the farm from daybreak to nightfall, not allowing Muir any time for reading or studying. When he received permission to rise early in order to study, Muir invented an “early rising machine” that pushed him out of bed at one o’clock each morning so that he could read. He also designed clocks, water wheels, barometers, locks, and invented a machine to automatically feed the horses.
Encouraged by a neighboring farmer, Muir displayed his inventions at the Wisconsin State Fair in 1860. He did not return to the farm after the Fair, but rather stayed on in Madison to attend the University. Muir enrolled to study science and then began studying medicine. Along with his studies, Muir kept inventing. He invented a ‘study desk’ which could open books in the correct order as well as turn the pages. Soon, his interest in things mechanical became greater than his interest in school. Muir’s interest in plants and nature was also growing. He made several trips through the countryside of Wisconsin to observe the plants.
Muir worked alongside his brother at a broom and rake factory in Canada during the American Civil War, and then moved back to the US in 1866. He went to Indianapolis, Indiana and became the foreman at a carriage factory. He consistently thought of ways to improve production and re-designed machinery to be more efficient. A year later, Muir was blinded temporarily when a file slipped, damaging his eye. Upon his recovery, Muir “bade adieu to all my mechanical inventions determined to devote the rest of my life to the study of all the inventions of God”.
Muir began the walk that he would describe in A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf (1916). He traveled to Cuba. In 1868 he arrived in San Francisco, California, and found work on a sheep ranch. His explorations of California led him to the Yosemite Valley and he explored it extensively during the next six years. Muir was very thorough in the journals that he kept of his personal and scientific observations, illustrating them with delicate pencil drawings.
In 1880, after returning from exploring in Alaska, Muir settled in Northern California, married, and spent the next ten years raising his family (two daughters) and growing fruit on his ranch in Martinez, near San Francisco. When he had established himself well enough to support his family, he stopped being involved with the ranch directly and returned to his travels.
Muir was instrumental in the formation of Yosemite Valley and Sequoia National Parks, co-founded the Sierra Club, and spearheaded the unsuccessful campaign to stop a part of Yosemite from being flooded to form the Hetch Hetchy reservoir.
“Hetch Hetchy Valley, far from being a plain, common, rock-bound meadow, as many who have not seen it seem to suppose, is a grand landscape garden, one of Nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples. As in Yosemite, the sublime rocks of its walls seem to glow with life, whether leaning back in repose or standing erect in thoughtful attitudes, giving welcome to storms and calms alike, their brows in the sky, their feet set in the groves and gay flowery meadows, while birds, bees, and butterflies help the river and waterfalls to stir all the air into music—things frail and fleeting and types of permanence meeting here and blending, just as they do in Yosemite, to draw her lovers into close and confiding communion with her. …”
Muir was noted for his political activism on behalf of ecology and preserving the wonders of the American landscape. His numerous writings have been a personal guide into nature for countless individuals. His name is nearly synonymous with environmental consciousness.
In America, there are many places of natural beauty that have been named in Muir’s honor. Nationwide, there are four Muir Trails; and in California there are Muir Woods, Muir Beach, Mount Muir, Muir’s Peak, and many schools, parks and even a medical center named after him.
This week, in Scotland, (17-26 April) the John Muir Festival celebrates the life and legacy of Muir. A new national pathway named in his honor will be opened; it runs 134 miles from his home town of Dunbar in East Lothian to the town of Helensburgh on the West coast. Seventy events are planned across the country with the main ones taking place in Falkirk, Dunbar, and Loch Lomond.
Among the quotes by famous Scots that are engraved on the walls of the Scottish Parliament building is this one from John Muir:
“The battle for conservation will go on endlessly. It is part of the universal battle between right and wrong.”
Makars’ Court at the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh celebrates the achievements of Scottish writers. At the end of April, a new inscription will be installed with the following quote from John Muir:
“I care to live only to entice people to look at Nature’s loveliness.”