The Legend of John Muir

Written by Zak Weinberg

John Muir called himself a “poetico-trampo-geologist-bot” and it’s likely to remain the best description of preservation’s most popular poster child. He was a Kerouac or McCandless, with a scholarly command kept in check by his whimsical humor and self-prescribed duty to share the wilderness with the world. And of equal marvel, his beard remains a silent bond and dream to any man whose pores have touched cold mountain water.

This is his legend:

In 1867, Muir traveled 1,000 miles from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico, after dropping out of Wisconsin University after two and half years. “I was only leaving one university for another, the University of Wisconsin for the University of the Wilderness,” said Muir. From the Gulf he sailed north to San Francisco, wandered into the city, and allegedly asked the first person he saw how to get out of town.  The man asked where Muir was going. “Anywhere wild,” he said.

In that headstrong fashion, he continued to tramp through the wilderness and in 1868 followed an eastern trail to the Sierra Nevada, through a “window opening into heaven, reflecting the creator,” which most of us know as the pristine Yosemite Valley.

But the influence he cultivated in the Yosemite Valley almost languished as an unrealized ghost. It’s likely he would have continued his life as a man who invented an archaic alarm clock or automatic book-page turner, a man tied to economic and industrial excitement of the late eighteen-hundreds, if it weren’t for an accident at an Indianapolis carriage factory blinded him for nearly a month.

“God has to nearly kill us sometimes to teach us lessons,” he said, and from then on coveted the wilderness, “determined to devote the rest of life to the study of all the inventions of God.”

In 1871, Muir invited Ralph Waldo Emerson to join him “in a month’s worship with Nature in the high temples of the great Sierra Crown beyond our holy Yosemite.” Much of the philosophy Muir championed was actually born out of Emerson and the transcendentalists. But all hopes of the philosophical camping trip of the millennium were extinguished when Emerson and his grey-haired traveling companions declined the invite. The wilderness can be “a sublime mistress, but an intolerable wife,” warned Emerson, and he countered Muir with an opportunity live in Massachusetts as a permanent guest. Muir refused and marked the incident as “a sad commentary on culture and the glorious transcendentalism,” and later reduced Emerson’s famous Walden retreat as a “mere saunter” from Concord and scoffed the philosopher for “seeing forests in orchards and patches of huckleberry brush.”

Muir’s first summer in the Sierra he spent as a goat herder, and during the period he noticed “hoofed locust” moving into the High Sierra and saw the damaging effects of overgrazing.

To combat the problem, he wrote “God’s First Temples: How Shall we Preserve our Forests,” and spearheaded his first unsuccessful effort to establish a national park in the Southern Sierra in 1876.

While the effort died in the Senate, Muir attracted the nation’s leading literary monthly, Century, and its editor Robert Underworld Johnson.

When I took this position at Modern Serenity, it was hashed out over electronic contracts and email. Johnson and Muir settled their agreement around a campfire near the Tuolumne River.

“What had become of the luxuriant meadows and wildflowers that had supposedly existed in the mountains?” Asked Johnson.

Muir explained the sheep and overgrazing and Johnson’s said, “Obviously, the thing to do is to make Yosemite a national park.”

Subsequently, Johnson offered Muir an opportunity to publicly argue for a 1,500 square-mile Yosemite National Park, and Muir agreed to write two articles, The Treasure of the Yosemite and Features of the Proposed National Park. Muir’s illustrative pieces argued for the valley preservation for its environmental service as a critical watershed, but more importantly as “a noble mark for the lover of wilderness, pure and simple.”

Johnson became Muir’s strongest advocate at the time, lobbying to the House of Representative for the creation of Yosemite National Park. The bill passed quietly on September 30th, 1890, bolstered not only by Muir’s steadfast belief in transcendental value of wilderness, but also the interest of South Pacific Railroad – who anticipated the value of the park as a popular tourist site.

But just as corporate interest helped establish Yosemite Valley as a national park, it also led to its partial destruction, as energy and water interests veiled as public utilitarian services flooded Hetch-Hetchy valley, situated within the national park, in order to meet the needs of San Francisco’s growing population.

During the debate Johnson publicly expressed the popular sentiments of preservationists: they didn’t want to deny San Francisco a water resource. Their point, as Scholar Roderick Nash points out in Wilderness and the American Mind, is that “of course civilization must have its due, they conceded, but in this case other sources of water were available.”

“These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the Mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar,” said Muir.

Today, as California state parks are being closed and policy makers pin price tags to Muir’s oldest stomping grounds, it’s important to rekindle passion that belonged to a man the 1912 American Review called “the most magnificent enthusiast about nature in the United States, the most rapt of all prophets of our out-of-door gospel.”


John Muir: A Brief Biography. The Sierra Club http://www.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit.

About the author

Zak Weinberg

Zak is a third year environmental studies major, and writing minor, at University of California Santa Barbara. In his free time he enjoys reading, writing, and staying active. Zak also founded a college website in Santa Barbara called Ole Today.

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