According to an old biblical saying, a prophet is never honoured in his own country. Not so long ago, these words could have applied to John Muir, who was born 180 years ago tomorrow and rose to become a national hero in the United States after emigrating there with his family at the age of ten.
Today his portrait hangs in the Class 1 exhibition room of the California Hall of Fame, ahead of John Wayne, Jane Fonda and Jack Nicholson – and the story of the boy from Dunbar who became an accomplished ecologist, geologist, explorer, mountaineer, writer and campaigner would make an epic movie in its own right.
He walked 10,000 miles from Indianapolis to the Gulf Mexico. He scaled mountains considered inaccessible. He pioneered the scientific study of glaciers. He founded the Sierra Club, now the largest and most influential environmental organisation in the world, with three million members and supporters. Famously, he took President Teddy Roosevelt into the mountains for three days and convinced him to launch a programme of wilderness protection.
Unfortunately, his legacy has recently come under threat in his adopted homeland as the current US administration seeks to roll back a century of progress in protecting and conserving vast areas of wild land and wilderness across the country.
In Scotland, fortunately, the spirit of Muir is being revived rather than exorcised. A decade ago, his name would have provoked head-scratching in the average pub quiz. Today his profile is higher than ever in his native land, thanks to initiatives like the John Muir Way, the John Muir Birthplace Museum in Dunbar and the expansion of the John Muir Award environmental scheme run by the John Muir Trust.
Each year, tens of thousands of people walk at least part of the John Muir Way, the long distance footpath that winds across Central Scotland from Dunbar to Helensburgh. Every week of the school year, between 300 and 400 pupils gain John Muir Award certificates for exploration and conservation of wild nature. In Makars Court in Edinburgh, a commemorative flagstone was laid in his honour in 2013, alongside literary giants such as Robert Burns, Walter Scott, Hugh MacDiarmid, Sorley Maclean, John Buchan and Muriel Spark.
The John Muir Trust itself has been around for 35 years, campaigning to protect wild places in Scotland and managing land in a way that reflects his philosophy. We do not have the vast wildernesses that Muir encountered, where the human imprint was minimal, but we are striving to diversify our landscapes to ensure that nature has the space to flourish alongside people and communities.
John Muir left something more than a distant historical memory. He left a legacy of ideas, set out in eloquent, readable prose in the hundreds of articles and books he wrote, which remain in print today.
His lyricism helped sway public opinion when the written word was the sole means of mass communications. His passion for the landscape, his beautiful descriptions of nature and his encyclopaedic knowledge of the biology and geology of the mountains have helped most of his writings stand the test of time.
Of course, he was a product of the attitudes and prejudices of the society in which he lived. In one early journal, My First Summer in the Sierra, he praised the Yosemite Mono tribe for their light ecological footprint – “Indians walk softly and hurt the landscape hardly more than the birds and squirrels” – while elsewhere in the same volume, he expressed repulsion at their dirty appearance.
Yet, as he became older and wiser, Muir wrote sympathetically about the misery inflicted upon native tribes by European settlers, and allied himself with Charles Fletcher Lummis, the outspoken campaigner for the rights of Native Americans.
As for their appearance, Muir, it has to be said, was not exactly a model of sartorial elegance, and once quipped that he could have been a millionaire but chose instead to become a tramp.
The world has moved on, beyond recognition since the day John Muir set sail for a new life across the Atlantic. Yet in our mass consumerist society, which threatens the long-term health of our planet with climate change, pollutes our seas with chemicals, fells our forests, exterminates our species and depletes our natural resources, the voice of John Muir still rises above the commotion to remind us of the important things in life.
Find out more at www.johnmuirtrust.org
Peter Pearson, chair, John Muir Trust.