Naturalist John Muir and the Preservation of Wilderness

Screen Shot 2016-08-25 at 15.00.08Scotland saw many a geologist, surveyor and explorer go out into the world charting unknown lands. What is perhaps less well known is that there were also botanists and naturalists who cared for the environment in, for their time, progressive ways. One of them was John Muir. Born in Dunbar on 21 April in 1838, Muir’s parents emigrated to the United States in 1849, setting up Fountain Lake Farm in Wisconsin.

At 22 Muir commenced studying at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he first became interested in botany, chemistry and sciences. He selected courses rather randomly, however, and thus never actually graduated. This was not to stand in the way of what became a lifelong passion for the preservation of nature and wilderness. After a brief stint in Canada, Muir went on to a 1,000 mile walk from Indiana to Florida in 1867 – a journey he later wrote about in A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf. Without an exact plan, Muir was simply guided by the ‘wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way I could find.’ Due to illness he abandoned his original plan to continue his walk in South America, sailing instead to California. After his arrival in San Francisco in early 1868, Muir quickly made his was to Yosemite, having heard so much about its natural beauty.

One of his earliest thoughts was that the valleys of Yosemite could not have been formed by a major earthquake – the established view at the time – but were rather a result of glacial activity. It was such progressive ideas that contributed significantly to Muir’s standing, though, initially, they were dismissed as ridiculous by many geologists for whom Muir was a silly amateur. One of Muir’s early supporters was Louis Agassiz, one of the foremost geologists of the time who described Muir as ‘the first man I have ever found who has any adequate conception of glacial action.’

Theodore Roosevelt and Muir, 1906

The preservation of wilderness became Muir’s greatest passion and achievement. For him Yosemite and other areas in the Sierra
deserved protection from humans and livestock alike to maintain their pristine natural environment.
As a result not least of Muir’s lobbying activities, the United States Congress passed a bill at the end of September 1890 that followed most of Muir’s recommendations. Muir was also co-founded, in 1892, of the Sierra Club, acting as its first President. The Club is one of the oldest environmental organizations in the United States.

As a result of his growing reputation, Muir acted as expert on many occasions. His endeavours received a significant boost when Theodore Roosevelt became President of the United States. At the President’s suggestion, he and Muir camped together in Yosemite in 1903, with the President leaving the trip convinced that Yosemite should be brought entirely under control of the federal government – something Muir had long since campaigned for.

To learn more about Muir and his activities, click here or watch the documentary. British readers may also be interested in this BBC programme.

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