JOHN MUIR—Defender of the Wilderness

JOHN MUIR—Defender of the Wilderness

By Dr. Lorin Swinehart

“The mountains are calling and I must go.”


john-muirOnce when a fierce windstorm raged through California’s Yuba Valley, John Muir, perhaps our greatest wilderness advocate, climbed a 100-foot Douglas pine to better experience nature in all her glory. He was spellbound as trees six feet thick bent to the surface of the earth, driven by the strength of the gale. As he described it, “Every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship.”

That episode defines John Muir, a humble yet fiery Scottish immigrant, who devoted his life to wilderness preservation, spurred the effort to preserve Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest and other majestic places, inspired the creation of the National Park System and founded the Sierra Club.

Muir regarded the natural world as divinely created and devoted his life to protecting it from man’s avaricious, destructive grasp. He observed that manmade cathedrals pale in comparison to those made by the Creator himself.

Preparing for his lengthy solo treks into the Sierras or Alaska he would only stuff some tea and bread into an old sack and jump over the back fence.  He said, “Only going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter.”

A wealthy, innovative farmer and orchardist, Muir proclaimed that he was richer than railroad magnate H.E. Harriman because he had all the money he wanted and the tycoon did not. Muir preferred being a tramp to being a millionaire.

He understood the interdependence of living things decades before ecology and environmentalism became part of public consciousness.  He said, “When we try to pick anything out by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

Reflecting upon Americans’ cruelty, greed and shortsightedness, labeling them temple destroyers and devotees of ravaging commercialism, he accused his fellow citizens of professing love for God Almighty, while only loving the Almighty Dollar. He proclaimed, “The gross heathenism of civilization has generally destroyed nature, and poetry, and all that is spiritual.”

He argued that it takes no courage to chop down a tree because it cannot defend itself. He condemned the massacre of walruses for their tusks, which he witnessed on an Alaska beach. When Harriman returned from a hunt with a bear and a cub, Muir wrote, “Harriman returned last evening after killing two bears—mother and child.”

“Bears, “ he declared, “are made of the same dust as we, and breathe the same winds and drink of the same waters. A bear’s days are warmed by the same sun, his dwellings are over-domed by the same blue sky, and his life turns and ebbs with heart-pulsings like ours, and was poured from the same First Fountain.”

He insisted, “Nature’s object in making animals and plants might possibly be first of all the happiness of each one of them, not the creation all for the happiness of one.”

Riding off with Theodore Roosevelt on a three-day camping trip in the Yosemite, he convinced the president that the country needed a national conservation policy in order to preserve our most beautiful places for the enjoyment of future generations.

His greatest disappointment was the damming of California’s pristine Hetch Hetchy Valley to provide water for the burgeoning population of San Francisco. He raged, “One may as well dam for water tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.”

Although he lost the battle for Hetch Hetchy, his greatest legacy endures in the grandeur of the places he helped to preserve. While most of the despoilers are now forgotten, Muir is memorialized in the John Muir Trail, John Muir College and many beautiful areas throughout North America that still bear his name.

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