John Muir

In God's wildness lies the hope of the world.The great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harness of civilization drops off, and words heal ere we are aware.1

Of his beloved wild Sierra, John Muir wrote, 'mountains as holy as Sinai.. .they are given, like the gospel, without money and without price. 'Tis heaven alone that is given away.'2 Like the mountain creatures he so admired, ranging from prophets of old to grizzly bears, Muir was the mountain embodied: 'I am hopelessly and forever a mountaineer',3 he wrote, and it was in mountains that he found meaning and metaphor, glory and imaginative possibility.

'The mountains are fountains of men as well as of rivers, of glaciers, of fertile soil. The great poets, philosophers, prophets, able men whose thoughts and deeds have moved the world have come down from the mountains.'4 Like Moses and visionaries of ancient Christianity such as Augustine and John of Damascus, Muir delivered his message from the mountains with prophetic purity and power. Key events in Muir's life, documented in his voluminous journals and recollections and in public records of his fame, have explanatory power in the raising of this mighty, righteous voice of the mountains.

Born to the family Muir, meaning 'a wild stretch of land', in Dunbar, Scotland on 21 April 1838, son of Daniel and his second wife Anne Gilrye, John Muir spent a lifetime living up to the name and to his father's stern expectations. Daniel was a convert to evangelical Presbyterianism, and a strict, dour man who beat John throughout his childhood. Biographer Stephen Fox writes: 'John read his Bible and grew pious beyond his years, but he could never please his father. The endless scoldings and beatings made his adolescence a grimly unequal contest of wills with a tyrant blinded by his own righteousness.'5

According to Edwin Way Teale, young Muir was repelled by the harsh fanaticism of his father's religion. he affiliated himself with no formal creed. Yet he was intensely religious. The forests and the mountains formed his temple. His approach to all nature was worshipper. He saw everything evolving yet everything the direct handiwork of God. There was a spiritual and religious exaltation in his experiences with nature.6

Muir's dutiful and passionate engagement with learning led him from a Wisconsin farm to which his family had emigrated, to the University of Wisconsin where he took no degree but took the courses he felt he needed. Avoiding the American Civil War and often depressed and lonely, Muir wandered and worked in Ontario and Wisconsin.

Muir came to a turning point in his life when, while working at a wagon factory, he was blinded by a file flying into his right eye and by a sympathetic reaction in his left eye. Struck into abject fear at the prospect of never again seeing natural beauty, he later wrote 'my days were terrible beyond what I can tell, and my nights were if possible more terrible. Frightful dreams exhausted and terrified me every night without exception.'7

Recovering his vision, Muir determined to have a three-year-long 'sabbatical' to store, he wrote, 'a stock of wild beauty sufficient to lighten and brighten my after life in the shadow'.8 Muir's own Sierran baptism and mountain enlightenment climaxed this long search for self-understanding—an odyssey of spiritual and intellectual searching that took place largely out of doors across the North American continent.

In 'First Glimpse of the Sierra' he begins:

[W]hen I set out on the long excursion that finally led to California, I wandered, afoot and alone, from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico, with a plant-press on my back...I crossed the Gulf to Cuba, enjoyed the rich tropical flora there for a few months.but I was unable to find a ship bound for South America. therefore I decided to visit California for a year or two.9

Arriving in San Francisco by steamer on 1 April 1868, he set out to meet his destiny in the Yosemite Valley:

A landscape was displayed that after all my wanderings still appears as the most beautiful I have ever beheld. At my feet lay the Great Central Valley of California, level and flowery, like a lake of pure sunshine, forty or fifty miles wide, five hundred miles long.from the eastern boundary of this vast golden flowerbed rose the mighty

Sierra, miles in height, and so gloriously colored and so radiant, it seemed not clothed in light but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city.10

Muir saw in such wilderness the source of humanity's spiritual health and wholeness. His philosophy of nature as the glorious handiwork of a God who created a democracy of life forms has inspired the post-modern deep ecology movement. Muir was keenly aware of the anthropocentric character of human attitudes towards nature, including the values embedded in utilitarian conservation. In his mind, a different ethic was at work—one which was to inspire Aldo Leopold, Arne Naess, John Seed and contemporary deep ecologists.

The world we are told was made especially for man—a presumption not supported by the facts.. .why should man value himself as more than a small part of the one great unit of creation? And what creature of all the Lord has taken the pains to make is not essential to the completeness of that unit—the cosmos? The universe would be incomplete without the smallest transmicroscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful eyes and knowledge...[P]lants are credited with but dim and uncertain sensation, and minerals with positively none at all. But why may not even a mineral arrangement of matter be endowed with sensation of a kind that we in our blind exclusive perfection can have no matter manner of communication with?.

[B]ut glad to leave these ecclesiastical fires and blinders, I joyfully return to the immortal truth and immortal beauty of Nature.11

For him such truth and beauty as one can know in nature answered his questions. Through immersion in wild nature one could know how best to live. As Michael P.Cohen puts it, 'ecological consciousness would generate an ecological conscience'.12 Muir moved from his own profound spiritual experiences in wilderness to preaching action to a nation. According to Cohen: 'His vision, he now felt, must lead to concrete action, and the result was a protracted campaign that stressed the ecological education of the American public, government protection of natural resources, the establishment of National Parks, and the encouragement of tourism.'13 He was much ahead of his time in promoting action based on ecological responsibility. Many have called Muir the voice of the wilderness and his passion to protect it from destruction gave birth to the popular conservation movement. In 1898 he founded the Sierra Club for these purposes.

Within his own historical context Muir had remarkable influence— literary, political and philosophical—on those who were to follow him in environmental ethics and environmental education. Inspired from an early age by the Bible, Shakespeare, Milton, Scott and Burns, he later discovered Thoreau and Emerson.14 He kept journals with no intent to publish and his first book was not printed until he was aged 56. Literary fame came fast though—the result of a turn-of-the-century love of nature and the urgent need to conserve America's vast natural resources from the unbridled rapaciousness of her maturing capitalism.

His political influence grew as he devoted himself to proselytizing the grandeur of the American West and the vital importance of protecting it. He led an array of important figures from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Theodore Roosevelt on excursions in the Sierra. Some of these camping trips had an enormous effect, such as that upon Robert Underwood Johnson, editor of the influential Century magazine, who subsequently launched a campaign to create Yosemite National Park, while President Roosevelt ordered his Secretary of the Interior to extend the Sierra Reserve one day after emerging from his sojourn with Muir.

For generations his work inspired not only the movement to conserve nature but the impetus to appreciate it. His journals brim with the power of his experiences which could and ought to be accessible to all. He thought if only people would save the land and take the time to saunter on it, then would come wisdom. His encounter with the rare orchid Calypso Borealis, later famous as marking the beginning of his evolution into pantheism, is recorded in such a journal entry. The entry was written in 1864 near Lake Huron. Muir was in Canada to avoid being drafted into the American Civil War:

I never before saw a plant so full of life; so perfectly spiritual. It seemed pure enough for the throne of its Creator. I felt as if I were in the presence of superior beings who loved me and beckoned me to come. I sat down beside them and wept for joy.15

His philosophical contributions to the conception of wilderness, to the democratic ethical responsibility of humans towards all life forms, and to the ecological consciousness of a vast eternal unity are immense. Earlier, among Americans, only Thoreau spoke with such moral authority; later only Carson had such an influence on environmental thinking.


1 'Alaska Fragments, June-July (1890)', in John of the Mountains, p. 317.

2 Quoted in 'Chronology' by William Cronon, John Muir: Nature Writings, New York: The Library of America, p. 839, 1997.

3 Edwin Way Teale, The Wilderness World of John Muir, Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin Company, p. 143, 1954.

4 'The Philosophy of John Muir', in Teale, op. cit., p. 321.

5 Stephen Fox, John Muir and His Legacy: The American Conservation Movement, Boston: Little, Brown & Co., p. 31, 1981.

8 Ibid.

12 Michael P.Cohen, The Pathless Way: John Muir and the American Wilderness, Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984, quote appears on the dust jacket.

13 Ibid.

See also in this book

Carson, Leopold, Naess, Thoreau

Muir's major writings

The Mountains of California, New York: Century, 1894.

Stickeen, Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin Company, 1909. This book is in the public domain and can be found on the web at the following URL : http:// The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin Company, 1913.

Letters to a Friend, Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin Company, 1915. Travels in Alaska, Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin Company, 1915. A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf, Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin Company, 1916.

John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, ed. Linnie Marsh Wolfe, Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin Company, 1938.

John Muir in His Own Words: A Book of Quotations, compiled and ed. Peter Brown, Lafayette, CA: Great West Books, 1988.

For more writings by John Muir visit the WWW John Muir exhibit: http://

On-line text versions of many of Muir's works are available at the URL: http://

Further reading

Kimes, William F. and Kimes, Maymie B., John Muir: A Reading Bibliography, Fresno, CA: Panorama West Books, 1986.

Miller, Sally M. (ed.), John Muir: Life and Work, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995.

Nash, Frederick, Wilderness and the American Mind, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967.

Wolfe, Linnie Marsh, Son of the Wilderness, New York: Alfred A.Knopf, Inc., 1945.

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