John Muir was an inventor and a rancher by vocation, but he was also a naturalist and a writer, and it was this avocation for which we remember him. During his lifetime, he published 10 books and more than 300 articles of observations about nature. His writings detailed his travels from Panama to Canada and particularly in the Sierras, mountains in the Western United States.
Muir was born in Dunbar, Scotland on April 21st, 1838, but he came to the United States at the age of 11. His family was unable to send him to school, but he studied on his own, continuing to be a passionate reader and amateur scientist all his life. As a boy, he came up with inventions to improve his family’s life — including a machine that dumped him out of bed in the morning so he would get up and do his chores.
He went to the Wisconsin State Fair in 1860, when he was 22, to exhibit his machines, including a table saw and hand-carved clocks. He started school at the University of Wisconsin the following year, but the Civil War interrupted his studies in 1863.
He traveled gradually into Canada, working at a succession of factories where his inventiveness helped to make the work more efficient. After an accident which left him recuperating for a month, he walked 1,000 miles south and took ship for Cuba, New York, Panama, and at last, at the age of 30, he reached San Fransisco. He walked into the Sierras and spent the next 12 years in study and observation, tending sheep along the way.
Muir described himself as a “trampogeologist'” but his work was published and its value was recognized. It was Muir who suggested that the action of glaciers had formed the Sierras.
In 1880, Muir married Luisa Wanda Strentzel, and settled down for the next decade as a rancher. He still traveled, observed nature, and wrote during that time, but he also brought up two daughters and worked toward goals in conservation of the environment.
In Muir’s day, many people worked toward causes by writing letters, and Muir was one of them. One of the letters he wrote was an invitation to President Teddy Roosevelt to come camping in the Sierras, in Yosemite. Roosevelt took Muir up on his invitation, and was just as impressed as Muir hoped he would be.
In 1890, Yosemite became the first National Park. Since then, the national parks system has preserved 84 million acres) of American wilderness.
Muir relied on scientific information and education to reach his goals in life. He was also good with people. He was able to influence people who had power, and he also gathered ordinary people together and gave them power when he cofounded the Sierra Club.
John Muir died on December 24th, 1914.
Learn more about John Muir:
- John Muir founded the Sierra Club, and they have an online exhibit about him.
- Biography of John Muir at the Ecology Hall of Fame, with nice quotes from Muir’s writings.
- John Muir : Nature Writings is a collection of Muir’s writings.