John Muir: A Legacy That Will Always Be Relevant

Muir, John; Muir Woods National Monument (c.1902)
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (digital. id. cph 3b00011)

I am John Muir, I Speak for the Trees

By Madison Morgan MacLeod

              By the turn of the 20th century, the very notion of a pro-environmental attitude was still in its infancy. Great difficulty was found in trying to influence all members of society to consider nature without alienating any one group, be it industrialist, farmer, or the poor and working-classes whose economic struggles were prioritized above all. Scotch-American immigrant John Muir managed to transcend the stigma of the privileged transcendentalist detached from the working-class struggle, just as he transcended the stereotype of an uneducated middle-class immigrant. Through self-education and hard labor, Muir would master skills and interpret ideas that would shape his understanding of nature and inspire the concept we now know as environmentalism. Unlike other notable naturalists of his time, Muir’s biblical and persuasive writing, amalgamated with a hint of madness and penchant for adventure, would leave a lasting impression on the world and forever alter the perception of man’s place in nature.

In order to ascertain the reasoning behind a person’s influence, it is imperative to uncover the history of that individual’s life and the circumstances that may have shaped his or her ideology. In the case of John Muir (1838-1914), unique childhood experiences would forever impact the man he was to become. Muir was born to a lower-class family in Dunbar, Scotland and was brought up under the strict disciplining of his father, a devout Church of Scotland practitioner who believed education was an instrument of the devil.[1] Arising at one o’clock in the morning, while his father slept, John taught himself mathematics and physics, and as a young child became quite an impressive inventor. Developing combinations of barometers and thermometers to be utilized on his family farm, the word “genius” was often thrown around by those who knew Muir.[2] However, Muir’s love for nature would be developed by his Grandfather who would take long walks with his grandson, sharing his passion for the wild. When Muir was eleven, his father announced the move to America and his grandfather describes the land as having “…boundless woods full of mysterious good things.”[3] Though this concept of the wild as a positive is not an unusual statement in modern times, in the 1850s the common perception of “boundless woods” was often perceived as a negative, as witnessed in Christopher Ely’s 2002 work This Meager Nature. Ely quotes a 19th century traveler’s response to the bountiful forest in Russia as “…a perpetual forest of perpetual waste.”[4] Clearly Muir’s passion for nature manifested early in life and would only amplify as he ventured across North America.

In 1860, while attending the University of Wisconsin, 22-year-old Muir studied botany, read the works transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau, and developed an uncontrollable urge to find himself alone in nature.  Upon graduation, he turned to the family farm for more intense hard labor, and discovered that his only joy was found alone in nature. These days of manual labor under the strict authority of his father came to a sudden halt when a file on an industrialized sewing machine pierced Muir’s eye, leaving him blind for four weeks. In that time, Muir claims he saw visions of Yosemite and he learned his true calling: to see the world before it got dark.[5] Despite his father’s objections, Muir left the family farm, deciding “to make and take one more grand Sabbath day three years long.”[6] In a testament to his future reputation for outrageousness, Muir walked over a thousand miles from Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico. However, after falling severely ill from Malaria, Muir instead decided to sail to California via the Panama Canal, and in 1868, arrived in San Francisco, where he then walked to Yosemite.

Muir’s inner-conflict with Christianity and his father would be pacified by the beauty of Yosemite, as Muir later states that the wilderness became his church and the mountains his temple.[7] As he traveled, he described the flora and fauna in his writings as if he were meeting new friends on his journey, “Another conifer was met to-day… a worthy companion of kingly sugar and yellow pines.”[8] Accompanied with Muir’s own sketches, even a reader with no prior knowledge of Yosemite’s attributes would have been captivated. Muir had memorized the entire New Testament, and in his travels across the United States, the bible was one of only four books he carried with him on his journey, along with poetry by Scotsman Robert Burns, Englishman John Milton’s 1667 work Paradise Lost, and a handbook on botany.[9] Indeed, the influence each of these works can be witnessed in both Muir’s sketches and writings, especially when he writes about an experience in the Sierras, exclaiming “Another glorious day, the air as delicious to the lungs as nectar to the tongue.”[10] Muir’s illustrative words inspiring those who would never imagine that they, too, could one day see such a glorious place.

Unlike other naturalists and transcendentalists of the 19th century, Muir’s humble beginnings inspired the working-class, whereas philosophers like Henry David Thoreau, whose opinions about hard labor and economic struggle seem priggish even today. Denouncing the working class for their monotony, Thoreau decided to briefly live a life he deemed spiritually meaningful and moved into a cabin on his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson’s pond, a property that was within ear shot of the local commuter rail. Still having his mother occasionally clean his laundry whilst criticizing industrialized society for their materialism, Thoreau’s lack of persuasion on the class he judged so harshly is understandable.[11] In his 1854 work Walden, Thoreau states “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”[12] It is easy to sit on a cloud above economic hardship and attest that materialism occludes spiritualism. However, when faced with starving children or disease, it is insulting to state that money is a hindrance and strongly reflects on Thoreau’s detachment from the working-class struggle. Juxtaposed to Thoreau’s beliefs, Muir states, “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.”[13] Unlike Thoreau, Muir recognized the importance of both nature and struggle and thus did not alienate the working class from his writings.

Thoreau was born wealthy and had never experienced hard labor, when he was done with his camping experiment, he could return to his family home without any financial consequence. Even today, the average American would not be able to afford such an experience without some economic burden.  Perhaps upon reading Thoreau’s works while attending the University of Wisconsin, Muir realized the influence of flowery, persuasive writing as well as the importance of not offending a social class. Unlike Thoreau, Muir did not ask the reader to denounce their material life for a life in the wilderness, a life Thoreau would give up on after two years. Instead, Muir asked the reader simply to experience nature in its pristine form, to appreciate the geological structures he described as God’s temples, and to realize that man is not separate from nature unless he chooses to separate himself from nature. In addition to Thoreau, Muir was greatly influenced by the transcendentalist writer Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), whom he wrote frequently and in 1871, eventually persuaded to visit Yosemite, with Muir as his tour guide.[14] After a brief excursion in the valley, Emerson was captivated by Muir’s passion for Yosemite. In his 1893 article “John Muir,” written by Muir’s personal friend John Swett, Emerson stated about Muir, “He is more wonderful than Thoreau. He is the Sequoia of the human race.”[15] Even Thoreau’s close friend and leader of the transcendentalist movement could not help but favor the Scottish adventurer.

A self-described poetico-trampo-geologist-botonist and ornith-naturalist, Muir had a technique for persuasive writing that managed to inspire people from many walks of life, rich or poor, and did not alienate any one group, except perhaps those he perceived to be destroying his beloved nature. A mysterious Scottish man who wrote beautiful English prose, a brilliant inventor, and a solo wanderer whose adventures unnerve even the modern explorer, Muir personified both romanticism and the sublime. All these elements established Muir’s reputation and eventual influence.  Perhaps one of Muir’s most unmentioned likable qualities lies in his accent, a thick Scottish brogue. The Scotch accent being particularly thick to average American, it is simply delightful reading the dialogue in Muir’s work, almost hearing the trilling of burrs when Muir exclaims, “Weel, there’s na use pursuing this subject ony further.”[16] Immediately returning to his novelistic style writing in the next sentence, the reader is reminded that the speaker and narrator are one and the same, giving Muir multiple dimensions as both relatable everyman and inspired adventurer and observer.   His audience ascertained that under this blanket of environmental Biblicisms, Muir was an admirable character, and most importantly, a hard-working farmer who got his hands dirty. No doubt Muir’s existence could have easily been mistaken for a work of fiction merely due to its outrageousness. However, when the land Muir love was threatened by industry, his authenticity would be unmistakable and his purpose was no longer to simply have America fall in love with nature, he was out to save it.

(c.May 29, 1912).
George Grantham Bain Collection/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (digital. id. ggbain 06861)


After over a decade-long hiatus in which Muir left Yosemite to raise a family and work his wife’s family’s orchard, his musings and publications of nature dried up from newspaper columns, as his efforts were now focused on flowering fruit, not words. However, as Muir grew older, he longed to revisit the wilderness of Yosemite, and in the summer 1889, he traveled with Robert Underwood Johnson, the associate editor of Century magazine, to behold a horrifying site. Muir was appalled by the anthropogenic destruction that had been occurring in the valley in the form of deforestation, sheep grazing, pig farming and commercial development.[17] Encouraged by Johnson, Muir agreed to write two articles for Century magazine, in attempt to inspire the establishment of the entire Yosemite region as a national park. Meanwhile, Johnson went to Washington D.C. to lobby for Yosemite and in 1891, congress approved the bill. Yosemite was officially a national park and Muir’s reputation exploded in popularity, his influence achieved by the stroke of a pen. A year later in 1892, Muir founded the Sierra Club, an organization initially established to protect Yosemite from boundary reduction but would go on to endorse the protection of all wild places on Earth.[18]

Muir’s testaments that nature must be left pristine, or at the very least, conserved so that future generations could appreciate the same qualities, inspired the concept we now know to be sustainability. Additionally, his notion that man was not above nature, but a part of nature, spawned the public desire to conserve the environment, and spawned the first environmentalists. However, when Muir’s beloved Hetch-Hetchy valley was under threat of being dammed in order to provide San Francisco Bay with a larger water supply, Muir was outraged. Enacting the support of the Sierra Club, Muir managed to stall the establishment of the dam. However, after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, pro-dam lobbyists argued that the water supply would have helped put out fires and saved thousands of lives had it been created.[19] Despite Muir’s continued efforts, in December 1913, permission was granted by congress to dam Hetch-Hetchy valley. A year later, John Muir died from pneumonia, though many assert he died of a broken heart.[20] This of course was not true, though very poetic, it exemplifies the public’s acknowledgement of Muir as a man who truly loved the wilderness. The loss of his beloved valley and his subsequent passing would forever martyr John Muir in the eyes of all who deeply appreciate nature and believed in preserving it.

In modern times, Muir’s name has been associated with privilege, with arguments that only the upper-class get to experience Yosemite, often due to the expenses associated with getting to the park and the equipment needed to explore and camp there. In a 2014 LA Times article, historian Jon Christensen of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability states, “Muir’s vision of wilderness is rooted in economic privilege and the abundant leisure time of the upper class.”[21] However, with permit costs around five dollars and the fact that Yosemite is accessible by car and tour bus, it is difficult to argue that only the very rich can afford to experience it.[22] Considering Muir climbed mountains without equipment and camped with little more than a make-shift tent and wool sweater,[23] perhaps the modern-day expenses and innovations associated with camping equipment are unnecessary, and simply a marketing ploy that has disillusioned the would-be explorer into thinking that they simply cannot afford to see these natural wonders.  Muir should never be associated with privilege, he never attempted to ostracize the poor from visiting Yosemite. Instead, Muir believed it should only be viewed by those who truly wanted to experience it, who made sacrifices to journey there, and would ultimately inherit the same respect for nature in its pristine state as he had decades ago. Desire for adventure transcends all classes, just like Muir’s own writing, which resonated in the hearts of readers over a century ago and continues to inspire new generations of environmentalists today.

Because of Muir’s efforts, Yosemite, King’s Canyon, and Sequoia National Park have been conserved to be enjoyed and explored as Muir so passionately encouraged the curious adventurer to do. John Muir was born a naturalist and died an environmentalist. Influential transcendentalist writers like Emerson who once inspired Muir would later go on to be inspired by Muir and his undying passion for nature. Other writers like Thoreau would never hold a candle to the light Muir’s words shone upon the hearts of every class, rich and poor. Muir’s influence was substantial and allowed the reader to consider his or her place within nature, not above nature. Muir understood that everything was connected and that no action was without consequence. These concepts are now the very core of Environmentalism, an ideological movement Muir will forever be associated with. Indeed, Muir’s influence will forever be relevant until man is no longer a threat to nature.









End Notes

[1] Muir, John. Nature Writings (New York, NY: Literary Classics of the United States, 2007), 26-28.

[2] Ibid., 837-838.

[3] Ibid., 30-32.

[4] Ely, Christopher “Russia, Landscape, and National Identity,” introduction to This Meager Nature: Landscape and National Identity in Imperial Russia (Northern Illinois Univ. Press, 2002), p. 3-26.

[5] Wolfe, Linnie Marsh. Son of the Wilderness: The Life of John Muir (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), 331-333.

[6] Muir, 840-841.

[7] Muir., 727-730.

[8] Ibid., 842.

[9] Ibid., 840.

[10] Ibid., 231.

[11] Donovan. “Everybody Hates Henry.” New Republic. October 21, 2015. Accessed November 28, 2017.

[12] Muir, 231.

[13] Ibid., 257.

[14] Wood, Ellen and Auchter, Harold, “Ralph Waldo Emerson.” (People, John Muir Exhibit. Accessed November 17, 2017).

[15] Swett, John, “John Muir” (The Century Magazine, May 1893), 120-123.

[16] Muir, p. 32-33.

[17] Ibid., p. 844.

[18] Brune, Michael. 2017. “History Lessons and Future Dreams.” Sierra 102, no. 3: 6. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (Accessed December 10, 2017), p. 6-7.

[19] Labonte, Julie et all., “The Tunnel beneath,” (Civil Engineering, no. 2: 2002), p. 56-63.

[20] “Mammoth.” PBS.

[21] Sahagun, Louis. “John Muir’s legacy questioned as centennial of his death nears.” Los Angeles

Times. November 2014.

[22] “Wilderness Permit Reservations.” National Parks Service.

[23] Muir, p. 327.



Brune, Michael. “History Lessons and Future Dreams.” Sierra 102, no. 3 (May 2017)

           Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost(accessed December 10, 2017), p. 6-7.

Donovan. “Everybody Hates Henry.” New Republic. October 21, 2015. Accessed November


Ely, Christopher “Russia, Landscape, and National Identity,” introduction to This 

         Meager Nature: Landscape and National Identity in Imperial Russia. Northern Illinois

Univ. Press, 2002, p. 3-26.

Labonte, Julie., Wong, Johanna., Torrey, Irina P., and Martin Dorward, “The Tunnel

Beneath.” Civil Engineering (08857024) 82, no. 2: 2002, p. 56-63.

“Mammoth.” PBS.


Muir, John. Nature Writings. New York, NY: Literary Classics of the United States, 2007,

pp. 26-28, 30-33, 231, 257, 327-330, 840-844.

Sahagun, Louis. “John Muir’s legacy questioned as centennial of his death nears.” Los

Angeles Times. November 13, 2014. Accessed December 06, 2017.


Swett, John. “John Muir.” The Century Magazine, May 1893, p.120-23.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden, or, Life in the Woods. London: J.M. Dent, 1908.

“Wilderness Permit Reservations.” National Parks Service. Accessed December 06,


Wolfe, Linnie Marsh. Son of the Wilderness: The Life of John Muir. Madison: University of

Wisconsin Press, 2003, p. 331-333.

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