A sage in the wilderness

On the 21st of this month, little, if anything, will be happening in John Muir’s East Lothian home town of Dunbar. But across the United States ... well, quite a lot will be going on to commemorate the birthday of the Scots-born wilderness sage, pioneering environmentalist, father of America’s national parks system, explorer, author, geologist, botanist and mountain man.

Fourteen years ago, the Senate and House of Representatives decreed that "21 April, 1988, is designated as ‘John Muir Day’, and the president is authorised and requested to issue a proclamation calling upon the people of the United States to observe such day with appropriate ceremonies and activities". These appropriate activities emphasise Muir’s importance as wilderness guru and proto-conservationist. In American schools - some 30 of which bear his name - myriad classroom projects and outings will be under way, while in the Sierra Nevada, under the towering granite buttresses and waterfalls of Yosemite, among the awe-inspiring "redwood cathedrals", ranger-led tours will evoke the lean, rangy, bearded Scot who fell in love with the area in 1868 and went on to celebrate it in passionate articles that would help secure Yosemite as a national park.

He may be venerated in his adopted homeland and hailed as the Greatest Californian but until two or three decades ago, Muir, born in 1838, was a classic case of the prophet without honour in his native country. His profile has been raised by the establishment in the mid-1970s of the 1,660-acre John Muir Country Park - modest by Yosemite standards - outside Dunbar, and by the formation of the John Muir Trust, which purchases and manages outstanding Scottish wild places such as Knoydart, Sandwood Bay in Sutherland and, in Skye, the Torrin, Strathaird and Sconser estates.

Less positively, Muir has also hit the headlines through controversial proposals to gut the house in which he grew up in Dunbar’s High Street and install a hi-tech, interactive visitor centre. The proposal has enraged many Muir enthusiasts on both sides of the Atlantic. Supporters of the project point to the extensive conversion undergone by the premises since the 1960s and argue that claims of desecrating the authenticity of Muir’s home are ill-founded. The controversy smoulders on, although the project now has planning permission, and a 300,000 Heritage Lottery grant. A considered compromise that will placate both sides may be too much to hope for.

Muir was just ten when he was uprooted from the East Lothian fishing port. His family made the gruelling, six-week voyage from Glasgow to New York, then sailed up the Great Lakes and rode a wagon to Wisconsin, where from the ages of 11 to 21, Muir laboured, unpaid, on the family farm.

His father, Daniel, a grain dealer, was a stern, uncompromising man who made his sons learn the Scriptures "by heart and sore flesh", as Muir would later recall wryly. In fact, perhaps the most remarkable thing about Muir is that despite the sanctioned thrashings, at home and school, of his harshly Calvinist upbringing, he never lost the youthful sense of wonder that informed his early and sometimes perilous wanderings along Dunbar’s precipitous sea cliffs.

"I loved to wander in the fields, to hear the birds sing, and along the shore … and best of all, to watch the waves in awful storms thundering in the black headlands and craggy ruins of old Dunbar Castle," recalled the visionary, who found in the Sierra Nevada his "mountains holy as Sinai" and discovered the breathtaking realm of Yosemite in the late 1860s. "When he entered Yosemite on a fall day, the valley brown, crisped, waiting for first snow, he was an unknown itinerant labourer looking for work," writes his biographer, Frederick Turner. "Five years later, when he left the valley for civilisation, he was a naturalist with standing in American scientific circles, the acknowledged expert on the life of the Sierras, and a writer of reputation."

Those Yosemite years were crucial not just for Muir’s fortunes, Turner says. He believes they constituted "the most significant portion of his intellectual and spiritual life". Ironically, it was a spell as a shepherd that brought Muir to the Sierra Nevada, but he took a scunner to the "silly sheep", and his appreciation of what the overgrazing was doing to the alpine meadows would inform his later campaign for a Yosemite national park, at a time when land use was characterised by greed and cynicism.

The impact of overgrazing, and of the clear-felling of his beloved sequoias, was repugnant to a man who had cast off the shackles of his unforgiving upbringing to embrace a near-transcendental sense of the interconnectedness of all things.

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find ourselves hitched to everything else in the universe," he wrote in My First Summer in the Sierra, later reaffirming this one-ness: "When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dew-drop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with all other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty."

Muir’s journey to the Sierras and beyond was extraordinary. Having finished working on his father’s farm (where he almost died from choke damp while digging a well), he left home to exhibit the results of his penchant for invention at a State Fair, then enrolled at the University of Wisconsin for two and a half years. He avoided the Civil War draft by making the first of his epic walking journeys, through Iowa, Illinois and Canada. Supplementing his science studies by teaching himself geology and glaciology, he further exercised his ingenuity working for a carriage parts manufacturer in the railroad town of Indianapolis.

Blinded in a workshop accident, he recovered his sight after weeks of agony and, forsaking industry to devote himself to the study of nature, embarked on a 1,000-mile journey to Florida and Cuba, intending ultimately to reach South America. Having visited Cuba and Panama, he landed in San Francisco in March 1868 and, while there would be other long-distance journeys, California cast a life-long spell over the wandering Scot.

It was to Yosemite that Muir would bring Ralph Waldo Emerson - an important influence on him, along with that other New England nature poet and essayist, Henry David Thoreau. While Emerson did not camp there, President Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt did. Having helped found the Sierra Club, America’s primary environmental lobbying organisation, and campaigning passionately for the extension of Yosemite’s protected area as the United States’ second national park (Yellowstone was the first), Muir spent three days and nights at Yosemite in 1903 with the president, whose sympathies lay with the emergent conservation movement.

Imagine the two figures illuminated by the camp fire, amid the sequoias: the austere, craggy immigrant Scot, at 65 still sporting traces of his East Lothian accent, which he would broaden for effect; the burly, huntin’, fishin’ New Yorker, 20 years Muir’s junior, his own Scots ancestry mingled with Dutch. Both were formidable talkers, each perhaps finding his match in the other, sharing their views on the unremitting encroachment of cattlemen, sheep farmers and loggers as they sat under the humbling, starry arch of the Yosemite sky.

Almost a century later, on 15 April, 2000, President Bill Clinton proclaimed a Giant Sequoia National Monument. Muir was instrumental in starting the process, when he urged Roosevelt to protect the US’s treasures through the Antiquities Act of 1906.

It was not all victory, however. Late in life, Muir experienced bitter defeat in his defence of the Hetch Hetchy valley, within the Yosemite park area, against plans to dam and flood it as a water supply for San Francisco, following the disastrous earthquake and fire of 1906. Muir regarded those behind the dam project as "temple-destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism". He wrote: "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."

Amid the radical, environmental rhetoric and richly celebratory nature writing, we tend to forget that Muir was a perceptive, self-taught geologist, who expounded theories of glaciation that were initially derided by "real" geologists, before being vindicated by Louis Agassiz, the pioneer of glaciology. And Muir was a formidable climber in the days before mountaineering was regarded as a sport. In his introduction to a recent Canongate collected edition of Muir’s Wilderness Journeys, Graham White, a Dunbar-based authority on Muir, reminds us that Muir made the first ascent of the 13,000ft Mount Ritter, the first ascent by the eastern route of Mount Whitney (14,500ft) and early ascents of Mounts Shasta and Rainier. He was also the first to climb the giddying Cathedral Peak in Yosemite. These exploits, often undertaken without ropes or crampons, writes White, went beyond mere summit-bagging: "He climbed in order to understand the geography of the unmapped areas he was exploring. But a deeper need also drew him to these remote summits, for here he found the beauty, cosmic mystery and spiritual insight which gave him his deepest fulfilment."

Muir may have been anyone’s match on the Sierra slopes but, as Turner recounts in John Muir: From Scotland to the Sierra, "the old wilderness wanderer was comically helpless in any city". Turner describes how Muir had difficulty locating a San Francisco hotel in which he was meeting his friend and editor, Robert Underwood Johnson, for dinner. He also gives an evocative description of Muir, then in his fifties: "The man Johnson welcomed into the haven of the hotel room seemed on first glance a farmer, casually - almost negligently - dressed in a rough blue suit and black slouch hat, his shaggy beard greying, his face weathered by the sun and wind. Johnson noted his bright blue eyes, one of them slightly off [the result of his industrial accident], and hollowed temples that seemed to speak of age and anxieties. A torrential talker, Muir plunged directly into a monologue almost without greetings ..."

The "dauntless soul", as Roosevelt called him, who so many years before had forsaken the clamour of kittiwakes beneath the ruins of Dunbar Castle for the shriek of the blue jay, died of pneumonia in Los Angeles on Christmas eve 1914. His home for his last 24 years, at Martinez, California - now twinned with Dunbar - is preserved as a national shrine, where visitors can see the inner sanctum, his "scribble den", where he wrote hundreds of articles and ten substantial books, which so eloquently promoted the concept of ecology and sustainability long before such terms had been invented.

Many of his observations could have been written today: "Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilised people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life."

Now, in the US, there is John Muir Day. More than 200 places and sites bear his name. There are even those who, amid this Saturday’s Tartan Day extravagance, will be sporting what we are assured is the Californian state tartan, based on that of the Muir clan.

All of this attention - the memorial sites, the websites, and the current stramash over his childhood home - would have bemused Muir no end, for although he was a match in conversation for poets and presidents, his approach to life was essentially uncomplicated.

As fellow Sierra Club founder Robert B Marshall put it: "His simplicity was his power."

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