John Muir is regarded today as an influential conservationists who fought tirelessly to preserve wilderness areas and wildlife from commercial exploitation and destruction. His deep understanding of and affinity toward the wilderness helped to establish several national parks across the country. He formed the Sierra Club in 1892 to protect the parks and served as the first president of the organization. In his honor, several natural sites have been named after him, including Muir Woods National Monument, an area of pristine redwoods, in Marin County, California. Muir's contributions to wilderness preservation has impacted the lives of many who turn to the wilderness for spiritual fulfillment and renewal.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF MUIR'S WILDERNESS IDEOLOGY
Born April 21, 1838, in Dunbar, Scotland, John Muir was the first of seven children born into a middle-class family who immigrated to Wisconsin when Muir was 11. His father Daniel practiced a hard and humorless Campbellite religion, which took a rational, simple, and straightforward approach to, and interpretation of, the Bible. While his father dismissed anything but religious or practical books as frivolous and impious, Muir's intellectual horizons were opened during early adolescence when he was introduced to Romantic poets from the neighborhood boys. Muir's interest in Byron, Poe, and Wordsworth expanded into travel essays, novels, biographies, history, mathematics, and philosophy. He became consumed with images of the wilderness set forth by the Romantics. From his intellectual curiosity (especially in the areas of science and mathematics) arose a desire to apply his newly acquired knowledge. At the age of 22, Muir was admitted into the University of Wisconsin, although he never graduated.
MUIR'S IMAGES OF NATURE
Muir arrived in Yosemite Valley in 1868 and immediately saw himself in spiritual partnership with nature. To Muir, all beings have spiritual strivings and he believed that it was in nature that the longings of the soul could be consummated. Muir was transformed by the majesty of the Sierra Nevada, which was the spark that drove his experiences, moving him into a life of passionate environmentalism and preservation. Muir saw value in all of creation and the ecological interconnectedness of all things. For him, studying the wilderness was not a means to discover how to best exploit the natural resources available for use by humans, but, rather, was a religious activity. He would explore the mountains in ways he likened to devout Christians who read their Bibles. Like his father, he rejected orthodox religion and preached the Gospel according to his own beliefs; for his father, it was the Campbellite gospel, and for Muir, the gospel of the wilderness. Moreover, while his father believed that only God had the ability to redeem our sins through God's own divine will, so did Muir believe that human nature would resort to sin if one's spiritual education was neglected. Muir's solution to this issue was to get people into nature and away from civilization so that they could experience God as he experienced Him. It was through his prolific writings that Muir let the rest of the world into his spiritual life.
CONSERVATION AND PRESERVATION
Muir's conservation and preservation activities unfolded as a natural consequence of his divine images of nature. Having seen the effects of overgrazing by sheep and cattle in the early 1880s, he wrote that it could be estimated that nine-tenths of the Sierra hillsides looked more like the inside of a dusty corral than a wondrous mountain range. Additionally, loggers began cutting down trees for profit. Before Muir's eyes, his wilderness was being destroyed. In 1896, the federal government authorized a mandate that regulated the amount of timber being seized from public lands. Congress responded by appropriating $25,000 for the inauguration of a national policy for forested lands in the United States. However, still angered and outraged, Muir asserted that if the wilderness was not to be ruined for the benefit of a few, then the people must be organized to stop it. He wrote prolifically about the values of the wilderness to inspire people to take action against loggers. He filled more than 60 volumes of personal journals, published more than 300 articles and 10 major books-all of which recounted his travels and elaborated on his spiritual images of nature. His writings reached people all over the country and, in fact, moved them to action.
His unflagging commitment to the wilderness helped to establish Yosemite Valley as a national park in 1890. While Muir feared that businessmen and others would undoubtedly seek to limit the boundaries of the park, he formed an association to protect Yosemite. As a consequence, the Sierra Club was established in 1892. During his tenure as president of the organization, he personally helped in the creation of several other national parks (Sequoia, 1890; Mount Rainier, 1897; Petrified Forest, 1906; and Grand Canyon, 1919), which earned him the title of the "father of the national parks."
John Muir single-handedly changed the thinking of an entire country with respect to protecting the wilderness. Although he did not create the concept of conservation, he did radicalize the notion of land use and introduced the concept of wilderness protection. Nature, he said, was not just a means to connect with our spirituality and our own sense of the divine, but we had to protect it if humanity was to continue to thrive. While Muir was first motivated into action because of the destruction he saw to the natural environment due to shepherding of sheep, Muir's greatest environmental battle ended in defeat in 1913 when the Hetch Hetchy Valley was to become a reservoir for the city of San Francisco. That fight today still serves as a reminder to the Sierra Club of the passion that a single man and a group of concerned citizens had for the protection of the wilderness. The Sierra Club remains a nonprofit conservation and outdoor organization dedicated to the exploration and preservation of American wilderness and wildlife.
Muir's passion for the wilds and his commitment to live in an environmentally sensitive fashion is his enduring legacy. Arguably the most passionate and influential naturalist and conservationist this world has ever met, Muir was a spiritual exemplar in his unyielding resolve to protect the mountains and the wilderness, which he believed were God's creations. He inspired and motivated a nation of people into action. He became the voice of the wilderness, speaking on behalf of the oceans, mountains, nonhuman animals, and trees whose voices could not be heard.