John Muir, the man, was a study in contradictions.
Accomplished botanist and brilliant all-around scientist, Muir was not in fact a college graduate, but was largely self-educated. Having grown up in a household nearly devoid of books, he studied at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but left without a degree after only two-and-a-half years.
Deemed one of California's most important historical personages, Muir was actually born in Scotland, grew to manhood in Wisconsin, and did not set foot in California–nor set his eyes on his beloved Yosemite—until he was 30 years old. He only became a U.S. citizen at age 65.
Renowned naturalist, early champion of wilderness conservation, and founder of the Sierra Club in 1892, Muir was a mechanical genius as well—an inventor of barometers, hydrometers, table-saws, and assorted machines, including a much-celebrated device he called his "early-rising machine." Essentially a bed incorporating a clock and gear mechanism, the "early-rising machine" would turn and dump its occupant onto the floorboards at an appointed hour, thus guaranteeing that he or she would wake up. Muir was such a talented engineer, he earned a living in his youth by conducting time-and-motion studies for factory-owners, streamlining their industrial processes and increasing their profits. How different might history have been had the call of the wilderness not been so strong for Muir.
Wilderness was essential to John Muir. Unconventional, resourceful, and a truly original thinker, he was happiest when tramping through uncharted wild lands, scaling mountains and glaciers, or on the pitching deck of a ship in a tempest. Wilderness renewed and inspired the man. You might even say it healed him from the pain of a difficult childhood at the hands of a harsh, punitive father.
John Muir was born on April 21st, 1838, first son and third child to Daniel and Ann (née Gilrye) Muir in Dunbar, a small fishing and farming village on the southeast coast of Scotland. Initially, Daniel Muir supported his family, which eventually grew to include eight children, through a grain and feed store he inherited from his first wife after her untimely death. In 1849, after potato crop failures raised the specter of famine in the British Isles, and lured by promises of prosperity in the New World, Daniel Muir emigrated with his family to America, in the end settling in Marquette County, Wisconsin.
Muir’s Dunbar childhood seems to have been—if not carefree—at least less onerous than what awaited him in Wisconsin. In Scotland, he attended Dunbar’s primary school, performed chores, and on off-hours roamed with playmates in the surrounding fields, hills, and shoreline—where the seeds of his love for nature were first sown. The close proximity of his maternal grandparents served to mitigate his father’s notorious strictness.
No such protection existed in America. The elder Muir, by all accounts, was a cruel and unyielding man whose treatment of his wife and children would by today’s standards be called abusive. He frequently beat his eldest son, only stopping when the younger Muir’s strength came to match his own. Likewise, beginning at an early age he demanded the boy work 16-hour days at hard, physical labor. While beatings were a dreadful feature of 19th century European childrearing practices and hard labor a necessity on America’s frontier, Daniel Muir seemed to have carried both far beyond what was considered typical for the time.
Worse still for his intensely curious son was the elder Muir’s opposition to formal education once the family reached America. This opposition, born partially of religious extremism, included an objection to the presence of books other than the Bible, in the home, along with a constant belittling of Muir’s intellectual inquisitiveness. In the end, Daniel Muir’s cruelty drove his son to cut off all contact in his late twenties, a rupture not mended until the elder Muir lay on his deathbed.
As he was growing up, however, Muir met the challenge of his father’s demands by pushing himself to excel at hard labor. “I was,” he later wrote, “foolishly ambitious to be first in mowing and cradling, and by the time I was sixteen led all the hired men.” (Frederick Turner, John Muir: Rediscovering America, 1985, p.58) At 18, Muir’s enthusiasm almost cost him his life when, while digging a well by hand, he was overcome by fumes. Nearly unconscious at the bottom of the deep shaft, the teenager was only just able to climb into the bucket, where he was hoisted to the surface. He spent the next several days in bed, hovering on death’s doorstep, before making a recovery.
As for his father’s anti-intellectualism, Muir fought back by borrowing books from the more erudite of their neighbors and squeezing a reading regimen into the nooks and crannies of his backbreaking workdays. It was around this time that Muir invented his "early-rising machine," known thereafter to his siblings for its noisy dumping of Muir onto the hard, cold floorboards in the wee, dark hours preceding dawn, so the young man could fit in some valuable reading-time before starting his chores.
In 1860, at age 22, Muir traveled to Madison, Wisconsin, to exhibit several of his inventions at the state fair. It was a turning point, for not only did he receive public recognition for his intellectual pursuits for the first time—in the form of a newspaper article praising his creations—but he met the earliest of a series of important mentors. Jeanne Carr, amateur botanist and lover of nature, and her husband, Dr. Ezra Carr, became Muir’s lifelong supporters and friends. Over time, Jeanne introduced Muir to many influential people, including his future wife, Louie Wand Strentzel, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. She also encouraged and advanced Muir's literary career. As time went on, Muir’s long list of friends and mentors grew to include botanist, Asa Gray; public educator, John Swett; California rancher and politician, John Bidwell, and his wife, Annie; conservationist and mountaineer, William Gladstone Steel; editor, Robert Underwood Johnson; zoologist and paleontologist, Henry Fairfield Osborn; geologist and naturalist Joseph LeConte; and naturalist and essayist John Burroughs.
Madison gave Muir his first taste of freedom out from under his oppressive father. Although he returned home after the fair, it was only a matter of time before Muir would break free for good. Just before his 23rd birthday, he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Studying at the institution, which he described as, “next to the Kingdom of Heaven,” he distinguished himself by his intelligence, self-motivation, fascination with the natural world, and predilection for hands-on experimentation. So filled were the shelves of his university room with glass tubes, retorts, jars, botanical and geological specimens, and mechanical gadgets that his quarters were sometimes mistaken as a museum. After five trimesters, however, his education was cut short by the looming threat of conscription into the Civil War. Muir’s pacifist leanings and skepticism toward politics in general prompted him to depart to Canada for the last two years of the war.
While there, he roamed hundreds of miles of untamed forests, studying wildlife, collecting plants, and coming to the realization that he could survive on his own beyond the reach of civilization. He earned the occasional salary as a hired farm or factory worker, expanding his reputation as a mechanical engineer, and when the war ended, returned to the United States. In the industrial hub of Indianapolis, the simmering struggle between the two poles of his personality—hardworking, conscientious, practical Scotsman vs. poetic lover of nature and rolling stone—reached a crisis when, laboring as a foreman at a carriage factory, Muir’s hand slipped and he drove the point of a file into his right eye.
The injury left Muir temporarily blind in both eyes. In the dark days that followed, he kept to his room with the shades drawn, contemplating the prospect of never again viewing flowers, trees and his cherished wildlife. While his sight gradually returned over the course of several weeks, Muir’s dilemma steadily resolved itself and Muir emerged back into the sunlight with his mind made up: wilderness exploration, not factory work, was to be his calling.
He convalesced further at home, then set in motion a dream he’d held since he was a boy in Dunbar, listening to stories of famous Scottish explorers: he decided to travel to South America. He embarked upon the first leg of his journey by walking an epic 1,000 miles from Indianapolis, Indiana, to Cedar Keys, Florida. His route took him through territory and populations devastated by the Civil War, concluded only three years earlier. The poverty, destruction, and despair he witnessed left a strong impression on Muir.
In late October, 1867, he reached the coast and ecstatically immersed himself into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. His elation was short-lived, however, for within days, he collapsed with what nearly became a fatal case of malaria. Watched over by a benevolent factory-owner, Muir pulled through and by January, 1868, although still frail, he boarded a ship and set sail for Cuba. After gathering shells and plants along Havana’s tropical beaches for a month, trying to recover his strength, Muir sought passage on a ship bound for the Amazon. It may have been for the best that no ships were to be found, for his health remained fragile enough to make the journey’s outcome uncertain.
The near-fatal bout of malaria and dearth of Amazon-bound vessels off Havana in early 1868 changed the trajectory of Muir's life. Instead of proceeding farther south, Muir booked passage to New York City, and from there, south again, through the Isthmus of Panama, and up the Pacific coast to San Francisco. Pausing barely a day in the bustling Gold Rush capital, Muir set off for a place he knew only from written words and his imagination: Yosemite. He was just shy of his 30th birthday.
Muir’s first glimpse of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains took place as he and a companion climbed the Pacheco Pass and beheld the snowy peaks some 100 miles in the distance across the San Joaquin Valley. For Muir, it was love at first sight—an affair that lasted his entire lifetime.
Looking eastward from the summit of Pacheco Pass one shining morning, a landscape was displayed that after all my wanderings still appears as the most beautiful I have ever beheld. At my feet lay the Great Central Valley of California, level and flowery, like a lake of pure sunshine … And from the eastern boundary of this vast golden flower-bed rose the mighty Sierra, miles in height, and so gloriously colored and so radiant, it seemed not clothed with light but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city.... Then it seemed to me that the Sierra should be called, not the Nevada or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light. And after ten years of wandering and wondering in the heart of it, rejoicing in its glorious floods of light, the white predilection beams of the morning streaming through the passes, the noonday radiance on the crystal rocks, the flush of the alpenglow, and the irised spray of countless waterfalls, it still seems above all others the Range of Light." — from The Yosemite (1912), chapter one.
Muir’s first eight-day expedition into the mountains, during which he contentedly subsisted on bread and water, cost him only $3.00.
During the next several years, his primary challenge became making some sort of a livelihood that permitted him to reside in and explore his treasured Sierras. His occupations included breaking horses, herding sheep (which, due to their voracious appetites he dubbed, “hoofed locusts”), lumberjack, farmer, and tour-guide. Throughout this period, he broke away at every opportunity to study the mountains. Following early habit, he typically took along only bread and water and as few necessities as possible, both to minimize costs and to travel light and far. He soloed peaks, collected plants, examined in minute detail the habits of animals and insects, studied the area’s geology, explored glaciers. Once, he climbed hundreds of feet into the pitching branches of a redwood in a storm, to experience what the tree felt as the gusts assailed it.
As time went on, word spread of an exceptional man who was making himself an authority on the geography, plants, animals, and other natural phenomena of the Yosemite area. In due course, at the urging of his friend, Jeanne Carr, and others, Muir began submitting essays and articles to various publications. His reputation grew, influential people sought him out, and he gradually moved away from his more rough-and-ready occupational pursuits to focus on exploring, writing, public-speaking, and conservation. The transition from shepherd to renowned naturalist was not without struggle, however. The dilemma he first addressed in his early youth, to strike a balance between work and family obligations, and his intense desire—need, even—to experience the wilderness, remained with him throughout his life.
In fact, as a reflection of this struggle Muir did not marry until he was nearly 42 years old. His bride, Louisa Wanda (Louie) Strentzel, 33, had defied convention also by waiting to marry late. The newlyweds set up housekeeping on Louie’s parents’ farm in Martinez, California, where Muir rented land from his new father-in-law and took up fruit farming. The pair made something of an odd couple, set as they were in their respective ways, with Muir’s extroversion and Louie’s shyness, and Muir’s predilection to disappear for long periods while Louis preferred the comforts of home. On the other hand, they shared a quiet nonconformity, intellectual curiosity, and kind dispositions that made for a good match. They eventually raised two daughters, Wanda (b. 1881) and Helen (b. 1886).
Muir continued to write and became more and more widely published. As his reputation as a naturalist grew, he began to work in concert with others toward the conservation of wilderness for both humanity’s benefit and for the sake of wilderness alone. His efforts contributed greatly toward the establishment of America’s national parks: Yellowstone (1872), Yosemite and Sequoia (1890), Mount Rainier (1899), Petrified Forest (1906), and the Grand Canyon (1907).
In late May, 1892, Muir, in partnership with magazine editor and friend, Robert Underwood Johnson, and San Francisco attorney, Warren Olney, filed the articles of incorporation that transformed an informal network of hikers and university intellectuals into what has since become America's oldest and largest grassroots environmental organization: the Sierra Club. It’s stated purpose was to promote the exploration and enjoyment of the mountain regions of the Pacific, and also to “enlist the support and co-operation of the people and the government in preserving the forests and other features of the Sierra Nevada Mountains….” (Frederick Turner, John Muir: Rediscovering America, 1985, p. 291.)
Muir served as the Sierra Club’s first president until his death in 1914, at age 77. He had survived Louis by nine years when he succumbed to a case of pneumonia on Christmas eve in a Los Angeles hospital bed. The great man was laid to rest beside his wife in the Strentzel family cemetery, in Martinez, California.
In addition to John Muir College, dozens of places are named after Muir, including the Muir Woods National Monument and the John Muir Trail. Muir published a total of 14 books and numerous articles. Nearly a century after his death, he remains widely quoted, deeply admired, and has inspired generations of conservationists, naturalists and wilderness explorers.
For more Information about John Muir...
- John Muir National Historic Site, Martinez, California
- The John Muir Birthplace Trust, Dunbar, Scotland
- Yosemite National Park
- The John Muir Trail
- Muir Woods National Monument