Whenever I need to relax and destress, I head for the woods. Being surrounded by the glory of nature puts my worries and problems in perspective. When I’m out among the trees, on top of a mountain, or beside a stream, I feel closer to God.
John Muir also found God’s presence in nature. The happiest times of his life were spent wandering the wilderness. He wrote multiple books and over 300 articles describing the beauty he encountered. He was one of America’s first conservationists, and helped establish our national park system. In short, he was the patron saint of the wild.
John Muir was born in Scotland in 1838. When he was 11, his family immigrated to Wisconsin. Even as a child, John loved to wander outdoors. This displeased his strict father, who ordered his children to stay inside and memorize the Bible. But his father’s whippings didn’t keep John from roaming.
He went to the University of Wisconsin, but never graduated. He considered himself a student of the “University of the Wilderness,” and went “flying to the woods and meadows with wild enthusiasm” whenever he could.
After Muir left college, he worked in a wagon-wheel factory. But after an on-the-job accident nearly blinded him, he considered it a divine signal to spend his life exploring instead. “God has to nearly kill us sometimes, to teach us lessons,” he explained.
After regaining his sight, Muir walked 1,000 miles from Kentucky to Florida along the “wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way I could find.” From there, he went on several sailing voyages and eventually wound up in San Francisco.
From there, he soon discovered the Yosemite Valley. Muir was entranced by its wild beauty, calling it “the grandest of all the special temples of nature.” His biographer Frederick Turner said that Muir’s journals about encountering Yosemite had “the authentic force of a conversion experience.”
He lived most of the next six years in the Valley, exploring the wilderness. Muir believed he had found paradise. As he wrote to a friend, “I am feasting in the Lord’s mountain house, and what pen my write my blessings?”
To Muir, the wilderness was placed by the hand of God. “God never made an ugly landscape,” he once said. “All that the sun shines on is beautiful, so long as it is wild.” He considered himself a latter-day John the Baptist, immersing people in pure nature.
Scientists and artists visiting the Yosemite Valley sought Muir out as a guide and companion. One of those was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who invited Muir to teach at Harvard. Muir wasn’t interested, however, later saying: “I never for a moment thought of giving up God’s big show for a mere profship!”
Over time, Muir felt called to protect the divine wilderness from destruction at the hands of humanity. “Man as he came from the hand of his Maker was poetic in both mind and body,” he once said, “but the gross heathenism of civilization has generally destroyed Nature, and poetry, and all that is spiritual.” With that in mind, he devoted the rest of his life to preserving nature.
First, he sought to protect the Yosemite Valley from threats such as livestock, which he called “hoofed locusts.” After a multi-year campaign, Muir persuaded Congress to make Yosemite a national park in 1890.
A couple years later, Muir co-founded the Sierra Club, one of the world’s first environmental preservation groups. With the Sierra Club, he hoped “to do something for wildness and make the mountains glad.”
Muir continued to lobby the federal government to preserve the nation’s forests. In 1903, he and President Theodore Roosevelt spent three days camping in Yosemite, where Muir laid out his vision. Roosevelt was deeply moved by the experience, and he became a champion for expanding the park system. With the president’s backing, Muir helped create national parks at Sequoia, Mount Rainier, the Petrified Forest, and the Grand Canyon.
Muir’s last great campaign opposed a proposed dam of the Hetch Hetchy Valley to provide water for growing San Francisco. “Dam Hetch Hetchy!” he cried. “As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the hearts of man.” Though Muir and the Sierra Club fought it for years, the dam was ultimately built in 1913. Muir died of pneumonia the following year at age 76.
John Muir’s legacy is as vast as his beloved wilderness. The Sierra Club is still going strong today, with over 750,000 members. The national park system is also going strong; there are national parks in 30 US states. Those of us who, like me, enjoy escaping into the wilderness owe John Muir a debt of gratitude. He knew that nature is the truest expression of the beauty of God’s creation.
Watch this segment on video (starting at 3:06):