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John Muir (1838-1914)
by Janice Albert

John Muir

This bust of Muir is on the grounds of Villa Montalvo, Saratoga


John Muir@Sierra Club

More California sites have been named for John Muir than for any other person, according to James Hart in his helpful book, A Companion to California. Among these are Muir Pass in King's Canyon National Park, Muir Grove in Sequoia National Park, Muir Gorge in Yosemite and Muir Trail through the High Sierra, as well as Muir Woods, a National Monument in Marin County protecting 485 acres of coast redwoods.

In another sense, the existence of the national parks themselves is a monument to the memory of the man who cared for America's wilderness and who, through his writing and public speaking, made others care for it.

Muir arrived in San Francisco on March 28, 1868, and set out to walk to Yosemite on April 1. He was thirty years old and had spent much of his life traveling through America on foot. As a young man, a student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he had walked from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico, keeping notes in his journal and developing his powers of observation of regional geology and botany. The story of this early walk was published from his edited journal two years after his death under the title A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf (1916).

The prospect of walking from Oakland to Yosemite today strikes one as dangerous and filled with impediments: the eight lanes of Highway 5, the flow of the California Aqueduct, not to mention thousands of fences and restricted rights of way. In 1869, Muir says, "It was the bloom-time of the year over the lowlands and coast ranges; the landscapes of the Santa Clara Valley were fairly drenched with sunshine, all the air was quivering with the songs of meadowlarks, and the hills were so covered with flowers that they seemed to be painted." Writing of his first glimpse of the Sierra from Pacheco Pass, he describes it as "so gloriously colored and radiant, it seemed not clothed with light, but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city." And he rechristens the Sierra Nevada the Range of Light.

Muir stayed in the West, exploring the Yosemite area and traveling into Alaska in pursuit of his interest in glaciers and their effects. In 1880 he met and married Louie Wanda Strentzel, the daughter of a fruit grower in Martinez, California. For the next ten years, Muir acted as ranch manager for his father-in-law and was able to amass a fortune of $250,000, which allowed him to retire at the age of 42 and devote the rest of his life to the movement to save America's natural resources.

The 8.8 acre John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez, California, preserves the house where Muir lived with his wife and two daughters, Wanda and Helen, from 1890 until his death in 1914. The 17-room mansion, built in 1882 by his father-in-law, was his wife's inheritance and reflects the Victorian taste of the Strentzel family. Constructed almost entirely of redwood, the house survived the 1906 earthquake although most of the chimneys and fireplaces suffered damage. This enabled Muir to enlarge the fireplace in the East Parlor into the massive Spanish fireplace one sees today, big enough to hold a "real mountain campfire." The upstairs study, which Muir called his "scribble den," is the room where Muir wrote The Mountains of California (1894), My First Summer in the Sierra (1911), and The Yosemite (1912).

Muir was first and foremost an observant naturalist. "It was John Muir who first declared Yosemite Valley to be glacial in origin," says Lawrence Clark Powell in his collection of essays California Classics. Other luminaries had suggested that Yosemite was formed out of a geologic cataclysm, but in the end it was Muir, considered to be "a mere sheepherder and ignoramus," who proved to be right.

Muir's writing is surprisingly lyrical and descriptive. He perceives Nature as an animated force where rocks seem to "glow with life." In Yosemite, he writes, "some lean back in majestic repose; others, absolutely sheer, or nearly so, for thousands of feet, advance their brows in thoughtful attitudes beyond their companions, giving welcome to storms and calm alike…." Muir also perceives the animal kingdom as inseparable from the human world:

The birds were assembled beneath leafy shade, or made short, languid flights in search of food, all save the majestic buzzard; with broad wings out-spread he sailed the warm air unwarily from ridge to ridge, seeming to enjoy the fervid sunshine like a butterfly. Squirrels, too, whose spicy ardor no heat or cold may abate, were nutting among the pines, and the innumerable hosts of the insect kingdom were throbbing and wavering unwearied as sunbeams.

Finally, the inhabitants of outback California, leftover miners and settlers with their buried hopes of wealth, are described with compassion: "In spite of all the natural beauty of these dell cabins, they can hardly be called homes. They are only a better kind of camp, gladly abandoned whatever the hoped-for gold harvest has been gathered. There is an air of profound unrest and melancholy about the best of them. Their beauty is thrust upon them by exuberant Nature, apart from which they are only a few logs and boards rudely joined…." Muir finds Humanity a poor thing, sustained by the beauty of Nature that is "universal and immortal, above, beneath, on land and sea, mountain and plain, in heat and cold, light and darkness."

Born in Scotland in 1838, Muir came to the country at the age of 10 with his family. He and his father spent their first years felling trees and taming the wilderness of the Wisconsin frontier. But Muir went on to develop a wider vision as he saw the devastation the pioneers were bringing about. He raised his voice at a crucial time for America, and it interesting that the very qualities that make his writing seem "old-fashioned"-the animism of Nature, his belief in the Oneness of all things-may be the source of his conviction that political America was approachable and educable. He wrote to influence Presidents, but he organized and educated the public. "Any fool can destroy trees, " he wrote. "They cannot run away." He became a co-founder of the Sierra Club and is responsible, in part, for the establishment of Yosemite, Sequoia, Mt. Rainier, Petrified Forest and Grand Canyon National Parks.

In today's world, there are still ways to feel closer to the spirit of Muir. The John Muir trail stretches one hundred eighty-five miles along the western crest of the Sierra Nevada from Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney. Some hikers undertake this route over a series of summers, arranging drop-offs and pick-ups from willing friends and spouses. A second opportunity exists in the High Sierra Loop trail, a 50-mile walk beginning in Tuolomne Meadows with six hostelries, each a day's hike from the last. The Loop Trail is managed by a lottery. Interested hikers may call the High Sierra desk at Yosemite Reservations (209-253-5674) to request applications, which are accepted between September 1 and November 30. An application can request space for up to eight people. Winners, about 850-900 per year, are notified on February 1.

An outstanding book, American Wilderness, published by Running Press, Philadelphia, in 1997 (ISBN 1-56138-744-4) combines the photographs of Ansel Adams with text by John Muir. The Muir House immediately off the Alhambra Exit of Highway 4 in Martinez can be seen between 10:00 AM and 4:30 PM Wednesday through Sunday, except on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. One can also visit his gravesite at the nearby Muir-Strentzel Cemetery. And, of course, everyone can join the Sierra Club, with national headquarters at 85 Second Street, San Francisco, CA 94105; telephone (415) 977-5500.

Final resting place for John Muir and his wife, Louie Strentzel Muir.

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