Over the past few years I have written about people that have built our great nation. Most were political or military leaders. This is not the only breed of American that had an impact on the development of our country. There are countless private Americans that continue to do their part to build our country in a quiet manner without fanfare and without seeking the spotlight. Every once in a while someone will rise to the spotlight but without political agenda or seeking financial wealth and acting upon one’s volition to simply bring light to a subject that requires change. One such person was a man named John Muir.
Muir was born in Scotland and as a child migrated to America with his parents in 1849. He was brought up in a strict religious family and by 11 he was able to recite the New Testament and most of the Old Testament. At 22 he entered the University of Wisconsin, took many diverse courses, was still a freshman after two years and never graduated. He did have a very diverse range of science courses and this would serve him in the future.
After he left the University of Wisconsin he traveled up to Canada and explored and collected botanical specimens. With money running low he took a job at a Canadian saw mill. Later he returned to America and worked at a wagon wheel factory. It was there that he had an accident, almost lost an eye and was confined in the dark for six weeks where he emerged with a new disposition and direction in life; one of those epiphanies in life that completely changes a person’s future.
In 1867 he went for a “walk” from Kentucky through Florida and lasted for a thousand miles. His only requirement he would later state about the route was that it would be “wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way I could find”. When he arrived in the Florida Keys he worked again in a saw mill until he hopped a boat to Cuba where he studied shells and the seashore environment. Eventually he made his way to New York and then got passage to California. At this point in life one would think that he was simply a drifter and in fact he was but with a purpose. He studied the natural environment while he toured the country.
Muir worked for a short time as an officer in the Unites States Coast Survey. The wild called him and he visited Yosemite where he later returned and built a cabin. The corner of the cabin had a part of the river running through it so that he could hear the water at night. He also invented a water mill to cut wood that had fallen in the river and could then be used for lumber. After living for three years in Yosemite he was visited by a group from the American East. Though not having completed college, he was so versed in nature that the group offered him a professorship to Harvard. Muir could not leave the beauty of the Sierra’s and declined.
Muir loved geology and put a theory out that Yosemite was formed by a glacier. This was in contrast to the belief that was originally thought to be the product of an earthquake. His theory of this “amateur” proved to be correct. His writings were so good that he was being printed in New York. In addition to geology he also studied the plants of the west and visited the giant sequoias of the Pacific coast. Later he visited Alaska and wondered at the natural beauty of the American territory that would someday become the 50th state.
By the 1890s Muir had become an activist for natural America. His writings were being published in magazines around the country and was leading to legislation being passed to protect large tracts of Federal Land. He encouraged a bill to make Yosemite a National Park and to be modeled after the first National Park, Yellowstone.
The unique thing about America is that we find a balance in diverse beliefs. This is where John Muir and his naturalist beliefs are a part of our everyday life today. His world has come face to face with modern manufacturing and economic expansion. Because of what he has taught and the followers he has today, debate continues about ecology vs pollution and many compromises have taken place to insure that America continues to grow its’ industries but with a conscience for natural beauty.
In 1992 Muir co-founded an “alpine club” that two weeks later would be incorporated as the “Sierra Club”. He remained president until his death 22 years later.