Featured Author: John Muir

John MuirJohn Muir (1838–1914) was the next great figure after Thoreau in the parade of American environmentalists. He is most celebrated for his practical achievements: founding the Sierra Club (he served as its president for 22 years until his death) and preserving Yosemite. But he is a literary hero as well. Beyond its pragmatic force, Muir’s prose introduced an ecstatic new grammar and vocabulary of wildness into the American imagination: in some sense, every national park on the planet owes its existence to the spell he cast. Muir was born in Scotland, but moved to a Wisconsin homestead at the age of 11.

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His father was abusive, working his son long hours and beating him until he had memorized most of the Bible. He rebelled by becoming a vagabond, and by asking powerful questions about the orthodoxies of his day and ours, especially the notion that people stood at the center of the universe. His A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, written in 1867, is especially trenchant in its sympathetic portrait of the alligator: “Honorable representatives of the great saurians of an older creation, may you long enjoy your lilies and rushes, and be blessed now and then with a mouthful of terror-stricken man by way of dainty!”

Muir’s evident pleasure in the prospect of an occasional successful alligator attack foreshadows current ideas about “anthropocentrism” among deep ecologists. His writings also anticipate the ecologist’s sense of interconnectedness: “When we try to pick out anything by itself,” he wrote in My First Summer in the Sierra (1911), “we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Muir’s wanderings eventually led him to California, and then Yosemite, where he helped Louis Agassiz prove his controversial theories about glaciation. But he was more and more disgusted by the way that flocks of sheep were trashing the backcountry, and so he began writing a series of articles that led to the creation of the Sierra Club and the further protection of Yosemite.

He was a friend of Theodore Roosevelt, but a sworn enemy of Roosevelt’s chief forester, Gifford Pinchot, who had no use for pristine wilderness. His later years were saddened by the losing fight to save Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley, which San Francisco dammed as a water source. But his long treks across the granite fastness of the Sierra had doubtless left him with joy enough for one lifetime: “This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on seas and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.”

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