*Muir, John

John Muir

John Muir



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Muir, John

American, 1838–1914
Mountaineer, traveler, naturalist, activist, and essayist, John Muir is perhaps more than any other single person the progenitor of modern American environmentalism. At a time when Americans were hungry for accounts of the wilderness, his nature essays offered the public affectionate firsthand descriptions of America’s natural beauty and at the same time alerted them to the environmental threat of expanding urbanization. Shifts in public attitudes were not the only consequence of his paeans to nature. A series of essays in the Atlantic Monthly (later published as Our National Parks, 1901) is thought to have been the driving force behind the Congressional bill establishing the National Park system.
Muir’s writing also articulated, less as a theory than through intuitions based on years of close and disciplined observation, some of the ecological principles that would become fundamental to later environmentalists. But perhaps the greatest reason for Muir’s appeal and continuing relevance is that his vision of nature as having value in and of itself offers a powerful, ethically responsible alternative to the still predominant view of nature as a consumer commodity. “No dogma taught by the present civilization,” he argued in the early essay “Wild Wool” (1875; later included in Steep Trails, 1918), “seems to form so insuperable an obstacle in the way of a right understanding of the relations which culture sustains to wildness as that which regards the world as made especially for the uses of man.”
Muir filled some 60 journals with the observations he made during years of hiking in and studying the wilderness. Drawing heavily on these, he wrote dozens of sketches and essays for local newspapers and for popular American magazines such as Century, Overland Monthly, and the Atlantic Monthly, many of which were later revised for inclusion in his books. In spite of this considerable output, Muir found writing very difficult. Recording observations in personal journals was one thing; reporting them to the public, quite another. When he had to address a broader audience, words came to him “slow as a glacier.” The Mountains of California (1894), his first and possibly his best book, was published only when he was in his mid-fifties. His difficulties can to some extent be attributed to the rhetorical situation in which he, like many nature writers since, found himself. To evoke in the American public an active interest in nature, to take them out of their expanding cities and make them realize the need for limits on urban growth, Muir knew he had to revivify what Americans had come to take for granted; yet in using language to achieve this he risked drawing their attention to words rather than living things. The paradox of nature writing clearly frustrated him: “No amount of word-making will ever make a single soul to know these mountains,” he complained. “One day’s exposure to mountains is better than cartloads of books.”
The attempt both to inform and to move his readers was not always successful. In some essays, Muir’s sustained descriptions of nature may seem tedious to the modern sensibility, and his scientific reportage dry; in others, his attempts to convey his awe in the face of nature’s wonders seem somewhat inflated and altogether too dependent on eager intensifiers and superlatives. Seldom does his prose possess the balance, grace, and fluidity evident in the writing of that other great 19th-century American naturalist, Henry David Thoreau. Yet there are also many passages in which it does achieve an appealing simplicity, where Muir’s spare diction and syntax so effectively convey his joy in nature that they elicit our own. When the snow falls in the High Sierra, he writes in The Mountains of California, “The rough places are then made smooth, the death and decay of the year is covered gently and kindly, and the ground seems as clean as the sky.”
Anthropomorphic descriptions in the same book suggest an affection for all things natural and exemplify Muir’s belief that everything has a life and purpose of its own. Great rocks “lean back in majestic repose” or “advance their brows in thoughtful attitudes…their feet set in pine-groves” and “bathed in floods of singing water”; as the glaciers retreat, pinetrees “march” up the “sun-warmed moraines” in “long, hopeful files.”
Along with his keen and affectionate eye for detail, Muir’s ethos is the source of power in his essays. He is a kind of sotto voce John the Baptist, his occasional anger at tourists and distaste for the “pathetic and silly” gardens of civilization always softened by the pleasure he takes in snow and rainstorms, rocks and rivers, sequoia trees and wild sheep.
The American essayist Edward Hoagland has said of Muir, “At rock bottom, love was what he was about.” Yet he is also about joy, and about the heightened consciousness that encounters with nature can bring us. At times, the reader feels not only the extraordinary exuberance of the man but the deep bond he had with the American wilderness—as, for example, when he tells us, in My First Summer in the Sierra (1911), of shuffling along a three-inch rocky ledge high over the rushing Merced River, his mouth stuffed with bitter artemisia leaves “to prevent giddiness”; or when he recounts, in The Yosemite (1912), how he slowly ascended a mountain, sunk waist-deep in snow and almost “out of sight” in some places, only to find himself “riding an avalanche” down, his body “moderately embedded on the surface or at times a little below it.” Passages like these make Muir a nature writer still worth reading. At his best, he is like the grasshopper described in My First Summer in the Sierra: a “crisp electric spark of joy enlivening the massy sublimity of mountains like the laugh of a child.”


Born 21 April 1838 in Dunbar, Scotland. Moved with his family to the United States, 1849, settling in Wisconsin. Studied at the University of Wisconsin, until 1863. Walked from Indiana to New Mexico, 1867, to California, 1868, and into Yosemite Valley, where he remained six years. Married Louise Wanda Strentzel, 1880: two daughters. Learned horticulture from his father-in-law and ran a fruit ranch, Alhambra Valley, California,
1881–91. Campaigned to establish Yosemite National Park, 1890, and eventually became an acknowledged leader of the forest conservation movement in the U.S. Took President Theodore Roosevelt on a camping trip in Yosemite, 1903: as a result Roosevelt set aside 148 million acres of additional forest reserves.
Awards: honorary degrees from four universities. Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Died in Los Angeles, 24
December 1914.

Selected Writings
Essays and Related Prose
The Mountains of California, 1894; enlarged edition, 1911; edited by Robert C.Baron, 1988
Our National Parks, 1901; enlarged edition, 1909
The Yosemite, 1912
Articles by John Muir, Published in the Century Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, the Outlook, 1890 to 1912, 1916
A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, edited by William Frederic Badè, 1916
Travels in Alaska, 1917
Steep Trails, edited by William Frederic Badè, 1918
Studies in the Sierra, 1950; revised edition, edited by William E. Colby, 1960
The Wilderness of John Muir (selection), 1954
Trails of Wonder: Writings on Nature and Man, edited by Peter Seymour, 1972
Wilderness Essays, 1980
The Yosemite and Beyond: Writings from the Years 1863 to 1875, edited by Robert Engberg and Donald Wesling, 1980
Muir Atnong the Animals: The Wildlife Writings, edited by Lisa Mighetto, 1986
South of Yosemite: Selected Writings, edited by Frederic R.Gunsky, 1988
In Nature’s Heart: The Wilderness Days, edited by James Randklev, 1991

Other writings: Stickeen (1909), the story of a dog, nature writing on glaciers and mountains, journals, and autobiographies (The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, 1913; My First Summer in the Sierra, 1911).
Collected works editions: Writings (Manuscript Edition), edited by William Frederic Badè, 10 vols., 1916–24; The Eight Wilderness Discovery Books, 1992.

Further Reading
Cohen, Michael P., The Pathless Way: John Muir and American Wilderness, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984
Elder, John C., “John Muir and the Literature of Wilderness,” Massachusetts Review 22 (1981): 375–86
Fleck, Richard F., Henry Thoreau and John Muir Among the Indians, Hamden, Connecticut: Archon, 1985
Fox, Stephen, The American Conservation Movement: John Muir and His Legacy, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985
Hoagland, Edward, Foreword to Steep Trails by Muir, San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1994
Jones, Holway R., John Muir and the Sierra Club: The Battle for Yosemite, San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1965
Nash, Roderick, Wilderness and the American Mind, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1967
Oelschlaeger, Max, The Idea of Wilderness: From Prehistory to the Age of Ecology, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1991
Orovec, Christine, “John Muir, Yosemite, and the Sublime Response: A Study in the Rhetoric of Preservationism,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 67 (1981): 245–58
Tallmidge, John, “John Muir and the Poetics of Natural Conversion,” North Dakota Quarterly 59 (1991): 62–79
Turner, Frederick, Rediscovering America: John Muir in His Time and Ours, San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1985

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