"Let us go forth a while, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our closed rooms...
The game of ball is glorious."

--Walt Whitman

Friday, November 03, 2006

Notable Americans: John Muir

John Muir (1838-1914)

The third of eight children, John Muir was born in Scotland and immigrated to America at the age of eleven. Though he had little schooling after the move to Wisconsin, in his youth he became a prodigious inventor, creating such things as a thermometer so sensitive it would register the body heat of a person standing several feet away and an alarm clock that worked by tipping the bed and thereby ejecting the sleeper.

Leaving his family's Wisconsin farm for Madison in his early twenties, he came to the attention of several people associated with the University of Wisconsin. Despite his lack of formal education, he was admitted to the university. An early botany lesson inspired in him a passion for the natural world and the wilderness--perhaps a natural product of his rural upbringing when combined with newfound scientific understanding--and for over two years he pursued an eclectic course of study focused on the natural sciences.

Muir spent the next several years working as an industrial engineer (mostly in Canada, perhaps to avoid the Civil War) and taking wilderness trips whenever he could. In 1867 an accident on the job deprived him of the sight in one eye, and the other soon went dark in sympathy. His eyesight did return, slowly, and at the end of this experience Muir felt he had been reborn. He resolved to spend his life among the sights of nature that had been denied him during his recuperation.

Muir walked a thousand miles from Kentucky to Georgia. He turned south, hoping eventually to walk to the headwaters of the Amazon in South America, but he was laid low with a case of malaria in Florida. He rambled across the south of the country and ended up in California instead. There, his quest for wilderness immersion led him to Yosemite. He spent six years there, working as a shepherd, a sawmill operator, and a tour guide, all the while studying the natural world around him.

In time he married and settled near San Francisco, running a fruit farm and writing about his experiences in the natural places of the country, though he often travelled to wilderness sites. In his later travels he became deeply concerned about the effects of domesticated animal grazing on wilderness areas, pushing for protection of the Sierra high country and pushing for the introduction of the Congressional bill that would create Yosemite National Park. The bill eventually passed, but while it did protect the high country it left the Yosemite Valley under state control. Muir then formed the Sierra Club in 1892 to promote conservation efforts.

In 1903, President Roosevelt visited Yosemite National Park with Muir, who told the president about state mismanagement and exploitation of the Yosemite Valley. Roosevelt urged the conservationist to show him "the real Yosemite", and the two men set off on their own for several days, hiking through the back country and sleeping in the open. With the president's support, the Sierra Club pressured Congress to protect the valley, and in 1905 ownership of the valley and of Maiposa Grove were transferred to the national park and placed under federal control.

"Why should man value himself as more than a small part of the one great unit of creation? And what creature of all that 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 man; but it would also be incomplete without the smallest transmicroscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful eyes and knowledge."
--John Muir, A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf

Read the Wikipedia article on John Muir here.

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