Tuesday, April 2, 2013

John Muir

I could not think of a suitable subtitle to follow the name of John Muir. How about – Naturalist? Conservationist? Environmentalist? Or how about – One who Loved the Earth.

Born in Scotland in 1838, Muir and his family emigrated to Wisconsin eleven years later in part to follow stricter Christian teachings than those of Scottish Presbyterianism: Muir later remembered that he had learned to recite "by heart and by sore flesh" most of the Bible. He never graduated from the University of Wisconsin, but apparently did fill his heart’s desire for knowledge from its geology and botany curricula. Then – he became a draft dodger, living in Canada until the end of the Civil War.

The event that changed his life – was an accident in which he nearly lost his sight. When he could see again, he saw the entire earth and his purpose in it in a new light. So he began a thousand mile walk from Indiana to Florida taking “the wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way” he could find. Then another near-death experience, a case of malaria, altered his course in life once again: his illness caused him to change his original plans to take a ship to South America to one that went – to California.

John Muir meet California: California meet John Muir. It was a match made not in the heaven described by the religion of his Scottish father, but in Muir’s developing spiritual quest and adoration for the heaven expressed in nature itself.

First stop – Yosemite. Then Mono Lake, the Sierras, then Wrangel Island, then Alaska, then Mount Rainier, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon… he visited every continent except Antarctica.

Geoscience firsts: John Muir was the first to recognize that glaciers sculpted the mountains of Yosemite rather than accept the then “consensus” model of fault action. He was the first to locate an active glacier in the Sierras. His study of the Sequoia redwoods was based in part on their place in the glacial – postglacial history of the Sierras in addition to their place in the environment of today. Key to the need for preservation of Yosemite as a national park, he cited the adverse environmental change that would result were sheep and cattle allowed to range in its ecosystem. He was the first to ask the primary question of all environmental impact studies – what would be the adverse consequences if this project (dam, grazing scheme, road, mine, landfill, lumbering scheme) were to be undertaken? Before John Muir, leaving an environment just as it was had never been considered as an option.

He helped found the Sierra Club in 1892 and was its first president. He once turned down a teaching post at Harvard: "I never for a moment thought of giving up God's big show for a mere profship!"

“Home is where the heart is…” (a quote attributed to another naturalist, Pliny the Elder, who died in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD), and in Muir’s case, “home” meant nature, home was the Sierra Nevadas.

"My life these days is like the life of a glacier...one eternal grind; ...soon I'll throw down my pen and take up my heels and go mountaineering once more."
He died in 1914 in California. In addition to family, he was survived by:
--Yosemite, Sequoia, Grand Canyon and Mount Rainier National Parks.
--The Sierra Club
--The National Park Service
--A barium-titanium silicate mineral named for him: Muirite
--Fourteen books still in press and unaccountable articles

And if I might be so bold: The Earth Story

Photo courtesy of Project Yosemite:https://www.facebook.com/projectyose
Filmed by Sheldon Neill and Colin Delehanty.
If you love Yosemite, their in-progress HD video is not to be missed: http://vimeo.com/35396305

Where to find Muir’s books, and books about him and places special to him:

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