John Muir didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. Until he blinded himself.
As a youth, he loved wandering the hills and woods around his native Dunbar, Scotland. He had a passion for doing the same in the Wisconsin countryside where his family settled after emigrating to the U.S.
But exploring wasn’t a job. And despite his intelligence and an inventive streak, he didn’t have a clear career direction.
Then, while working for an Indianapolis carriage maker in 1867, Muir accidentally stabbed himself in the eye with a file. The remaining eye lost its sight too, plunging Muir into total darkness and depression.
Some months later, Muir’s uninjured eye regained its vision. Feeling as if he’d been reborn, he vowed to spend the rest of his life gazing at the natural beauty he’d been denied while recuperating from his injury.
His aim established, Muir (1838-1914) devoted the rest of his life to preserving and conserving that natural beauty on a large scale. His efforts led to the formation of the U.S. National Park System and the U.S. Forestry Service. He also founded the Sierra Club, a grass-roots organization for protecting wilderness and the environment. He headed it until his death.
Muir spent his childhood preparing to be the inventor, naturalist, explorer and writer he became as an adult, he wrote in his 1913 book, "The Story of My Boyhood and Youth." While sweating in the fields for his father, Muir built the stamina he’d later rely on during his travels. He watched the natural world and mentally filed his observations: The way mice scurried as they stole the grain that fell from his reaper, the tang of the autumn air.
Innately curious, Muir loved to learn. He had little formal schooling after age 11, but that didn’t matter: He lobbied his father to let him get up at 1 a.m. — hours before the rest of his family — so he could read. He also tinkered with his inventions, such as the "early-rising machine" he built that tipped him out of bed.
"I had gained five hours, almost half a day! Five hours to myself!" Muir wrote in one of his notebooks. "I can hardly think of any other event of my life, any discovery I ever made that gave birth to joy so transportingly glorious as the possession of these five frosty hours."
Muir’s first journey after recovering from his injury was a 1,000-mile walk from Kentucky to the Gulf Coast, and he intended to keep walking down to the Amazon.
But after catching malaria while in Florida, he decided to explore by sea and eventually found his way to San Francisco. He asked directions to the most beautiful area: On the advice of a stranger, he walked through waist-high brush and wildflowers in the San Joaquin Valley to Yosemite.
Its magnificent vistas captured his heart immediately. "It seemed to me the Sierra should be called not the Nevada, or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light . . . the most divinely beautiful of all the mountain chains I have ever seen," he wrote.
Muir took jobs in Yosemite as a sheepherder and a sawmill hand to learn as much as he could about the area, biographer Don Weiss noted in a 1997 Ecology Hall of Fame article. Muir spent his days working and studying; at night, he carefully wrote down his observations and thoughts in a series of notebooks.
The Industrial Revolution was chugging ahead full steam: Muir feared that the hunger for more resources would strip the natural world of its wonders like Yosemite. It wasn’t just conservation: Muir believed that humans needed to connect with nature for mental, physical and spiritual health, noted biographer Harold W. Wood, Jr.
"Keep close to nature’s heart . . . and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods," Muir wrote. "Wash your spirit clean . . . Come to the woods, for here is rest."
He scaled numerous peaks, riding an avalanche down a mountain and hunting out the source of waterfalls.
When Muir wanted to draw more attention to the devastation wrought on the Sierra by sheep and cattle, he wrote a series of articles for the then-influential Century magazine called "Studies of the Sierra." He also wrote to public officials, urging them to help.
But the best way to sway others was Muir’s full-immersion treatment. Mother Nature would do most of the talking.
"He told me that when (Ralph Waldo) Emerson came to California, (Muir) tried to get him to come out and camp with him, for that was the only way in which to see at their best the majesty and charm of the Sierras," President Theodore Roosevelt recalled in "Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography."
The Great Communicator
Muir didn’t just encourage philosophers and world leaders to come camping. He held camping trips for Sierra Club members to show them what they were working to save.
Once he had someone by the campfire, Muir started talking. He underscored the importance of conservation, relying on solid scientific facts he’d researched but avoiding strident or harsh tones.
"Muir bore himself with dignity in every company. He readily adjusted himself to any environment," Century magazine publisher Robert Underwood Johnson wrote in a 1916 Sierra Club Bulletin.
The approach worked like a charm. After a three-day camping trip, Roosevelt and Muir devised a conservation plan. During his term, Roosevelt established 148 million acres of national forest, five national parks and 23 national monuments, including Yosemite, Sequoia, Grand Canyon and the Petrified Forest.
"John Muir talked even better than he wrote. His greatest influence was always upon those who were brought into personal contact with him," the 26th president wrote in Outlook magazine in 1915.
While thousands lauded his efforts, Muir preferred to downplay his influence. "Muir saw himself as an ordinary citizen of the universe, and in fact wrote his address as ‘John Muir, Earth-Planet, Universe,’ " Wood wrote.
Muir felt the credit belonged elsewhere, said Wood. "To some, beauty seems but an accident of creation: to Muir it was the very smile of God."