John Muir is such a household name that, as a journalist for 40 years, I had neglected to read much about him. Someone might say to me, “You know John Muir, of course.” And I’d answer, “Certainly.” I thought I knew him. My coverage of religious and cultural diversity occasionally focused on naturalists and people trying to preserve fragile natural settings. I spent a week writing about a family living on an entirely self-sufficient farm that was “off the grid” high in the Appalachians; I traveled up river in Bangladesh with a team of journalists to write about a village whose sustainable practices were being honored as a world heritage site; I covered the biologists wading deep into mountain streams trying to document the rarest American snail darters. So, when Candlewick Press sent me a review copy of their biography of John Muir for young readers, I flipped open the book. And, for the first time, I met John Muir. I had waited far too long to read his story. I commend this new book to you and your family. The truth about the best of children’s books is this: They’re for children—but they’re just as much for the adults who love them.
John Muir (1838-1914)
The U.S. National Park Service calls John Muir “The Father of the National Park Service,” explaining “Muir’s writings convinced the U.S. government to protect Yosemite, Sequoia, Grand Canyon and Mt. Rainier as national parks.” That much is widely known by Americans, especially those who have toured some of our most famous parks.
But did you know that John Muir’s surname name means “wild land”? The opening chapter of Kathryn Lasky’s John Muir: America’s First Environmentalist describes Muir’s childhood when the mischievous little boy loved to explore the lives of birds, foxes and other creatures living in the rolling hills near his Scottish home. In 1849, the Muirs crossed the Atlantic to develop a family farm in Wisconsin at Fountain Lake. (The “Wisconsin Friends of John Muir” organization has more about that historic landmark.)
Did you know that Muir was a conscientious objector during the American Civil War? At that point, Muir had just finished his university studies and, “John wanted no part of any war. The thought of killing another human being, no matter what the cause, was simply unthinkable. To get as far away from war as possible, John took a train to northern Michigan, got off, and walked into Ontario, Canada.”
Many Americans who’ve heard of John Muir know that he was famous for his incredibly long walks into the wilderness. Stories abound about Muir leaving on a trek with the most meager of supplies. Lasky describes one of Muir’s adventures in the South: “Here is what John Muir took with him in a small rubber bag for his 1,000-mile walk to the Gulf Coast of Florida—one change of underwear, a comb, a towel, soap, a small device to press samples of plants and leaves, a brush, three books and a notebook. On the first page, he wrote—John Muir, Earth-planet, Universe.” Given today’s multi-billion-dollar outdoor industry, can you imagine setting off into the wilds with such a simple sack?
Here are a few more things you might not know about John Muir:
- He conducted some of the first research in North America on the effects of glaciers in shaping the landscape—even though other leading scientists continued to assume that ice could not possibly have played such a dramatic role. His research was often dismissed as amateur speculation.
- He was an early advocate against overgrazing of the landscape and an opponent of manipulative corporate control of open lands.
- In 1892, he founded the Sierra Club.
- He personally guided Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Roosevelt through Yosemite.
Lasky concludes, “Never a rich man, John nonetheless considered himself a millionaire. In pursuit of wildness, he had found temples of light in mountain valleys, a song in the water of a stream, a symphony in a storm-tossed tree, and snow flowers in a blizzard. Such was the wealth of John Muir, Earth-planet, Universe.”
(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)