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Featured Biography: John Muir was inspired by beauty

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
~John Muir, in My First Summer in the Sierra

Kirsteen Wolf
The Broadside

Photo courtesy of US National Park Service

John Muir was inspired by natural beauty. We can thank him and others for introducing us to the concept of preservation when, in his time, the natural world seemed endlessly exploitable. Muir saw something else: sanctuary. One of his most revered places has been saved for us to find the same kind of comfort and peace that John Muir so eloquently wrote about: Yosemite National Park.

Muir (21 Apr.1838-24 Dec. 1914) had an early life of hard manual labor under a very strict father. He was made to memorize a Bible chapter a day. When he was 11, the family moved to Wisconsin but the hard work and the harsh treatment didn’t end. As a way to escape, Muir devoted himself to reading books. He was also a designer. In the wee hours of the morning before chores, he used his penknife to carve out devices on chips of wood. His designs grew more complicated.

In 1860, at the age of 22, Muir’s designs for various inventions —ranging from clocks, barometers and table saws— gained the attention of the University of Wisconsin. They admitted him as a student and he enrolled but he had other plans. Adventure plans.

From a life planted on a homestead, Muir transformed himself into a “pedestrian,” a long distance walker who used the trips he took to follow his love of botany and geology. He famously walked from Indiana to Florida, keeping a journal along the way.

When Muir was 30, he headed to California where he fell in love with the Yosemite Valley, lived there for six years, and took up its protection as his cause.

Muir married when he was 42 and had two children with Louie Wanda Strenzel. A year after getting married, while employed by United States Coast and Geodetic Survey, he left for an arctic expedition. From his travels he became an expert on glaciers and developed theories as to how Yosemite was formed, later proving the scientists of the time wrong. By now a master horticulturist, he returned to make his home in Martinez, California. He still wandered though— in the southwest and then Europe, Asia New Zealand and Australia.

In 1890, Yosemite National Park became a reality. Muir was 52. Two years later he formed the Sierra Club and served as its president until his death. He was influential in the creation of the precursor to the national forests. A camping trip with Theodore Roosevelt led to the creation of more national parks.
At the age of 73, Muir went on a thousand mile journey up the Amazon in South America.

Just before his death, Muir lost the battle to save a beautiful area called the Hetch Hetchy Valley outside of San Francisco and it was used as a reservoir site. But we must look at his successes and celebrate those. It is no wonder he is referred to as the first environmentalist.

For John Muir, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.”

You may contact Kirsteen Wolf at kwolf@cocc.edu

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