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Letterbox Back Story: John Muir -- "Going to the Mountains Is Going Home"

08/31/2002
by Silent Doug

Today's environmentalist movement can be traced back more than 100 years to the founding of the Sierra Club in 1892. One of the group's co-founders and its first president was John Muir. Muir played an important role in the earliest efforts at preserving America's natural wild spaces, and his work and writings led to the creation of the National Park Service shortly following his death in 1914.

Born in the fishing port of Dunbar, in East Lothian, Scotland in 1838, John Muir arrived in America as an eleven-year-old, but his childhood was largely spent doing the work of an adult on his family's hardscrabble farm. Muir cleared forests, plowed fields and dug wells through bedrock, all under the stern eye of his father, a religious zealot. Though the young Muir developed an interest in nature during these years, he also invented various mechanical devices, including a self-regulating study desk, an alarm clock bed (which tipped over at the appropriate time, dumping the sleeping person onto the floor!) and an automatic cow feeder.

On the basis of these inventions, Muir was accepted at the University of Wisconsin, even though he had not been formally schooled past the age of eleven. While a student from 1860 to 1863, Muir studied natural science along with a mix of other subjects, and worked as a machinist and mechanic for many years following his departure from Madison.

In 1868, however, an industrial accident left Muir temporarily blind. As his sight slowly returned, Muir decided that he wanted to see the sights of the world -- the forests, lakes and mountains of unspoiled nature. After planning a cross-country walk of a thousand miles, he ended up in Yosemite.

The beauty and wonder of Yosemite touched Muir and became the central focus of his life for many years. During his Yosemite years, he worked as a shepherd, operated a sawmill, and served as a guide for luminaries such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, all the while studying the wonders of the mountains and all they contained. In 1880, he married and moved to Martinez, California, 35 miles from San Francisco. He continued making regular trips to Yosemite, and made his first activist efforts. In 1892, Muir helped form the Sierra Club, whose goal was the preservation of the Sierra Nevada. Muir began to lead groups of "Sierrans" on trips to the mountains. The Sierra Club grew in popularity, due in large part to Muir's gentle yet passionate leadership on these treks. These trips affected Muir on a deeply spiritual level, as he wrote, "Going to the mountains is going home."

In 1901, Muir and the Sierra Club publicly fought plans for a dam on the Tuolumne River at the mouth of Hetch Hetchy Valley -- a project that eventually put a large section of the Yosemite Valley under water. The defeat, though crushing for Muir, was the first attempt at "grassroots lobbying." Americans citizens "woke up" to the notion that they could help prevent the destruction of natural areas, and The Sierra Club subsequently led successful efforts to prevent dams in the Grand Canyon and the Dinosaur National Monument.

Muir died in Los Angeles, California, in 1914. But his legacy lives on today in his writings, including Travels in Alaska, The Mountains of California, My First Summer in the Sierra, Story of My Boyhood and Youth, The Cruise of the Corwin and A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf.

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