Jo Moulin: Dunbar boy who is a hero to US nature lovers

John Muirs Birthplace in Dunbar, where the coast and fields inspired his love of the outdoors

John Muirs Birthplace in Dunbar, where the coast and fields inspired his love of the outdoors

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Today, libraries, parks and schools from Selkirk to San Francisco are holding ­special events to mark John Muir Day, in honour of the man who has been described as ‘the patron saint of environmentalism’.

He is a national hero in the USA, where his legacy consists of 650 million acres of protected public lands – mountains, rivers, forests, deserts, and coastline.

John Muir

John Muir

But it was on the east coast of ­Scotland that John Muir’s ­passion for nature and the outdoors took root. He honed his climbing skills on the crumbling crags of ­Dunbar Castle, a five-minute walk from his home, with “red blooded playmates, wild as myself”. He went for long walks with his grandfather through the fields of East Lothian, identifying birds and other wildlife. He explored rock pools near his home “to gaze and wonder at the shells and seaweeds, eels and crabs”.

For many decades after his death, John Muir was a forgotten figure in his native land, while thousands of miles away in California, schools, libraries, streets, health centres, colleges, parks and even a mountain have been named in his honour.

Although still not a household name, he has been rescued from obscurity in recent years. That’s partly thanks to the work of John Muir Trust and the John Muir Award which it runs, completed by 15,000 people in Scotland last year.

It’s also been helped in the past couple of years by the creation of the coast-to-coast long distance trail, the John Muir Way, between ­Dunbar and Helensburgh. Starting on 21 April, 2013 – the 175th ­anniversary of his birth –John Muir Day became an annual celebration in Scotland.

Jo Moulin is a member of the board of trustees at the John Muir Trust, and Museums Officer East with East Lothian Council based at John Muirs Birthplace

Jo Moulin is a member of the board of trustees at the John Muir Trust, and Museums Officer East with East Lothian Council based at John Muirs Birthplace

His memory could easily have faded on both sides of the Atlantic. Many important historical figures lose their resonance over time, as the world moves on.

But with John Muir, the opposite has happened. With economic growth ever more frenzied, nature has come under siege as never before. Species are disappearing, climate change accelerating and natural resources diminishing.

Muir’s philosophy looks even more relevant in the 21st century, and the writings of the pioneering conservationist, still fresh and vibrant, are becoming more popular.

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe,” he wrote, in an early insight into the global ecosystem.

So where can you find out more about the man, his life and work?

A good place to start is the town where he spent the first ten years of his life, in a house a few minutes’ walk from the historic harbour. In 2003, the building was transformed into John Muir’s Birthplace, a three-storey interpretation centre that takes visitors on a journey through his life, from boyhood in Dunbar to fame in the USA as a writer, explorer, naturalist and campaigner.

Over the years, the museum has been at the heart of a series of exhibitions and other events commemorating Muir’s life and work. It has showcased his botanical collection – plant specimens, drawings and journal notes – and, focusing on a lesser known area of his interests, his weird and wonderful inventions.

Last year, the museum put on a special exhibition to mark the ­centenary of the US National Park Service, which Muir helped to establish. Starting today, it will host a special exhibition devoted to the Sierra Club, the organisation founded by Muir in 1892, which has since grown into the biggest and most influential grassroots environmental organisation in the US, with millions of members and supporters.

Further north, in the town of Pitlochry, the John Muir Trust has a separate visitor centre focusing on the relevance of Muir’s ideas to 21st century Scotland. Through film, audio, photographs and paintings, Wild Space tells the story of Scotland’s wildest places and the work to protect, conserve and enhance them.

Over the centuries, Scotland has produced many famous figures – writers, inventors, philosophers and scientists – and John Muir is up there with the best of them.

Jo Moulin is on the board of trustees at the John Muir Trust and Museums Officer East with East Lothian Council, based at John Muir’s Birthplace.

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