Biography of Environmentalist John Muir

One of our first environmentalists, John Muir is almost unknown today

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

John Muir was one of the most influential environmentalists in America, if not the world. His writings and activism inspired a generation of conservationists -- from presidents to Boy Scouts -- yet he's largely unknown today. Who was John Muir, and how did he further the cause of environmental preservation?

The Early Life of John Muir

Muir was born in Dunbar, Scotland on April 21, 1838, the third of nine children.

His father Daniel Muir was a harsh disciplinarian who insisted on a strict religious upbringing for his children, and he wasn't reluctant to reinforce his stern biblical zealotry with violent beatings.

The Muir family emigrated to America in 1849, settling on a farm near Portage, Wisconsin. Though his family's life was hard, John Muir was nonetheless able to spend time exploring the wilderness around Wisconsin, which instilled in him an early love of nature.

As a young man, Muir displayed an unusual gift for mechanics, and he won several prizes for his inventions, including hand-carved wooden clocks that kept accurate time and a device that tipped him out of bed in the morning.

He carried this interest in inner workings of things, as well as his love of the natural world, to the University of Wisconsin in 1860, where he studied geology, botany, natural history and other subjects.

Muir left the university a few years later without a degree, and began working as a mechanic in a factory.

An industrial accident in 1867 left him blind in one eye; it forced him, however, to rethink his ambitions, and he resolved to follow his dreams and study nature. "This affliction has driven me to the sweet fields. God has to nearly kill us sometimes, to teach us lessons," he later wrote.

The young Muir's wanderlust could not be easily contained, and he left the Great Lakes area in 1867, traveling south to the Gulf of Mexico, over to Cuba, then west into the land that eventually became his physical and spiritual home: California.

Muir in California

Muir first traveled from San Francisco to Yosemite Valley in 1868, and the spectacular scenery caused a near-religious experience in the overwhelmed young man: "We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us," is a famous John Muir quote.

Muir stayed in Yosemite for several years, exploring the region, studying its geology and plant life, and writing in a series of journals about how the mountainous wilderness affected him on a spiritual level. Many of these writings were published in East Coast magazines like Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, earning Muir some fame as a backwoods scientist and philosopher.

Many well-known Easterners came west to see California; among them were Theodore Roosevelt and Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom Muir admired greatly. Both men were profoundly influenced by Muir, and Roosevelt later established Yosemite as a national park, thanks in large part to Muir.

In 1880, Muir married Louie Wanda Strenzel and settled on a fruit farm in Martinez, near San Francisco Bay. In time, the couple had two daughters, and the farm was successful enough to allow Muir to take numerous trips back into the Sierra Nevada mountains he loved so much.

Muir and the Conservation Movement

Through his writings, Muir influenced a generation of political leaders and ordinary citizens to respect and preserve America's wilderness treasures. But he wasn't afraid to do battle on behalf of nature: though he was an early supporter of Gifford Pinchot, a forestry expert and conservationist, he locked horns with Pinchot over the best use of wilderness.

Pinchot advocated for sustainable timber interests, whereas Muir saw intrinsic value in leaving nature alone and valuing the wilderness for its spiritual properties. Over time, Muir angrily broke off all contact with Pinchot and never looked back.

In 1892, Muir co-founded the Sierra Club, to encourage people to "do something for wildness and make the mountains glad." Muir served as the club's president for the rest of his life; the Sierra Club has grown to become one of the most powerful environmental organizations in the world.

John Muir and Hetch Hetchy

One of Muir's last conservation battles was over Hetch Hetchy, a valley as glorious as Yosemite. City leaders in San Francisco sought to dam the valley and create a water source for the growing Bay Area population. Muir proclaimed, "Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people's cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man."

After a long and vigorous fight, in 1913 the decision was made to dam the valley, which devastated Muir. "It's hard to bear," Muir later wrote. "The destruction of the charming groves and gardens, the finest in all California, goes to my heart."

Muir died one year later while visiting his daughter in Los Angeles. In addition to the hundreds of articles and dozens of books he penned, Muir's legacy is most deeply felt in the wilderness he always considered his home. Several nature preserves -- including Muir Woods near San Francisco, Mount Muir in the Sierra Nevada range, the John Muir Trail and the John Muir Wilderness -- are named in honor of the man who devoted his life to preserving nature around the world.