John Muir: Innovator and Outdoorsman

By Marion Fernandez
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John Muir: Innovator and Outdoorsman

Marion Fernandez
 
 
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A man of legend, John Muir has a reputation for his relentless love for nature and his strong desire for the conservation of the environment. John Muir left his mark on the United States, a mark that still remains to this day. So what made the man himself? Let’s take a look at the man who brought nature to the forefront of our minds and shared his love with all.

The Beginnings

While John Muir’s efforts are best known in the United States, he was not originally from the States. Born in Dunbar, Scotland in 1838, John Muir’s family moved in 1849 to settle down in Hickory Hill Farm, not far from Portage, Wisconsin. Muir gained his hard work ethic from his father, who worked for his family from dawn till dusk, making free time scarce for the young Muir children.

John Muir childhood home. Today a National Historic Site in Martinez, California
John Muir childhood home. Today a National Historic Site in Martinez, California

When John was able to find a way to get away from the plow, he would venture into the countryside, exploring the world around him and taking in the scenic lands of Wisconsin. It was there that John’s love for nature planted its seed and began to grow.

Outside of fostering his love of the outdoors, John proved himself to be a clever inventor, going so far as to have his creations win prizes at the Wisconsin State Fair. Among his inventions was a clock that was able to keep time accurately as well as a bed that would wake him up by literally flipping him out of it. Needless to say, there was already something special about John Muir long before he put his stamp on the world.

His Career

When he was 22, John enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he found himself charmed by the concept of botany and chemistry. Although he never graduated, he had a wide range of studies that aided him throughout his life. With the breakout of the Civil War, both John and his brother Daniel moved to Southern Ontario, where they explored the woods and swamps.

John Muir
John Muir

In 1866, John moved back stateside, working in a wagon wheel factory in Indianapolis, where he was quickly promoted to a supervisor after demonstrating his sharp eye and knack for machinery. It was this job that changed his path permanently toward nature. In 1867, John suffered an accident at work that left him blind for six weeks. Worried that he would never see again, John had a lot of time to think about his future. Once his vision returned, he felt that he had been given a second opportunity to go out and study plants the way that he wanted to.

Following his recovery, John embarked on a 1,000 mile journey from Kentucky to Florida. He had no real path in mind but tried to go on the path that was less walked upon. Once he made it to Florida, he quickly fell sick from malaria. After that near-death experience, John headed to Cuba to study plants there. From there, he made his way to California.

John Muir, American conservationist.
John Muir, American conservationist.

Yosemite was his paradise and he made his home there for many years. John became known as the go-to for information about nature, which led to many scientists and celebrities seeking him out to either gain his knowledge or simply meet the man that everyone had been talking about. He was even offered a position to teach at Harvard, but he turned it down. Nothing could remove John from nature.

Activism

Because of his great love of nature, John became an icon without any self-promotion. Living in Yosemite gave him a vision of how nature should be contained forever. He published two articles about his thoughts, which were eventually followed by the United States Congress. The articles had explained that livestock was, at the time, the biggest threat to conservation efforts. Sheep could tear apart grasslands quickly and with little effort. The bill that was introduced to Congress requested that livestock is kept out of protected areas, ensuring that they would remain as they were. Sadly, Yosemite, which was John’s biggest love, was not covered under the bill and it was up to the State of California to do what they needed to. California’s aim, however, was not to protect Yosemite, but instead cut the park in half.

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (left) and nature preservationist John Muir
U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (left) and nature preservationist John Muir

Part of his activism included his help in creating the Sierra Club, which was a group of men who enjoyed the mountains. The Sierra Club, once it was founded, first set out to stop California from cutting up Yosemite. It was here that the concept of National Forests was born. The Sierra Club was pushing to create national forest “reservations”, areas that would be left to themselves as nature intended, without the touch of humans or livestock that could cause permanent damage. The club eventually won, helping make Yosemite into part of the National Forest System. John had a hand in the entire process. He was not only the first president of the Sierra Club, but he remained president until his death.

John is known for his efforts that lead to the conservation concepts we employ today, which was not his original intent. The concept of conservation is to keep our natural resources up and running and make sure there is enough to keep humans going. John’s goal, however, was the preservation of the woods, keeping nature as it is without the destruction of humans and animals. He wanted people to be able to enjoy nature and value it, not just use it for what it could do for us. Regardless, his lessons and a great understanding of the natural world have been pertinent in human efforts to keep nature around.

Legacy

Valley View in Yosemite National Park. – Author: King of Hearts – CC BY-SA 3.0
Valley View in Yosemite National Park. – Author: King of Hearts – CC BY-SA 3.0

Because John Muir led such a rich life, he is remembered for many things. He was an avid writer, including publishing more than 300 articles and 12 books. He also left behind the Sierra Club which continues its efforts today. With a charter school organization in his name as well, John Muir will continue to be remembered as a naturalist and innovator.

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