John Muir: The saving of 100 million acres begins with a first word on paper

July 19, 2012

John Muir’s place in American history endures constant assault.  Not only did businessmen and politicians of his own day find Muir’s policies anathema to their hopes of profiting from the destruction of the American wild, so today do we hear that profits cannot be had without the rape of the environment.

Muir knew better, and so should you!

On July 19, 1869 — in the middle of the administration of U. S. Grant, Muir began his journals on the beauty of life in the Sierras, to be published 42 years later as My First Summer in the Sierra.

It should be required reading in more American classrooms:

John Muir

Watching the daybreak and sunrise. The pale rose and purple sky changing softly to daffodil yellow and white, sunbeams pouring through the passes between the peaks and over the Yosemite domes, making their edges burn; the silver firs in the middle ground catching the glow on their spiry tops, and our camp grove fills and thrills with the glorious light. Everything awakening alert and joyful…John Muir,
Entry for “July 19 from
My First Summer in the Sierra, 1911.
“California As I Saw It”: First-Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849-1900

John Muir
John Muir,
1902.
The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920

On July 19, 1869, naturalist John Muir set pen to paper to capture his experience of awakening in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. Published in 1911, My First Summer in the Sierra is based on Muir’s original journals and sketches of his 1869 stay in the vicinity of the Yosemite Valley. His journal tracks his three-and-a-half-month visit to the Yosemite region and his ascent of Mt. Hoffman and other Sierra peaks. Along the way, he describes the flora and fauna as well as the geography and geology of the area.

Muir immigrated from Scotland to Wisconsin as a child. He attended the University of Wisconsin and began working as a mechanical inventor. After an 1867 industrial accident nearly blinded him, he abandoned his career as an inventor to work as a naturalist.

California, El Capitan, Yosemite Valley
El Capitan,
Yosemite Valley,
California,
William Henry Jackson, photographer,
1899.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

An early defender of the environment, Muir in 1876 advocated adoption of a federal forest conservation program. His popular articles and books describing Yosemite’s natural wonders inspired public support for the establishment of Yosemite National Park in 1890 and expansion of the park in 1906.  At the same time, Muir continued to work and write as a serious scientist whose fieldwork in botany and geology enabled him to make lasting contributions. Alaska’s Muir Glacier is named for him. In 1892, Muir co-founded the as an association explicitly dedicated to wilderness preservation and served until 1914 as its first president, shaping it into an organization whose leadership in political advocacy for protection of the natural world continues to this day.

The popularity of President Theodore Roosevelt’s groundbreaking conservation program owed much to Muir’s writing. In 1903 Roosevelt and Muir visited the Yosemite region together. In 1908, Roosevelt issued a presidential proclamation establishing the Muir Woods National Monument in Marin County, California, in Muir’s honor. Muir died six years later. Although sorrow and disappointment at his failure to save Hetch Hetchy Valley from becoming a reservoir for San Francisco may well have contributed to his death, Muir had succeeded more than any other single individual in establishing the preservation of wild nature as a major American cultural and political value. The clarity of his vision and the eloquence of his writing continue to inspire environmentalists throughout the world.

Learn more about John Muir and the conservation movement in American Memory:


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