Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.
He has been called the "greatest Californian," "the father of our national parks," and "protector of the wilds." But John Muir saw himself as an ordinary citizen of the universe, and in fact wrote his address as "John Muir, Earth-Planet, Universe."
John Muir combined a traditionally romantic and radically new vision of man's place in nature. Writing in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth, his was at once a scientific and a poetic voice for preservation of the natural environment. John Muir saw nature as not just a storehouse of raw materials for man's economic needs, but as a spiritual resource as well. He wrote, with characteristic humor, "Our crude civilization engenders a multitude of wants, and lawgivers are ever at their wit's end devising. The hall and the theater and the church have been invented, and compulsory education. Why not add compulsory recreation?"
But Muir wasn't talking here of mere escapism, for the recreation he advocated was in reality discovering what makes life most worthwhile for many people -- the wondrous beauty of the forests, the mountains, the wild places. "Keep close to Nature's heart... and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean..." Muir lived these principles himself in his adventurous life -- whether climbing the Sierra peaks, traversing Alaskan glaciers, riding an avalanche down a mountain and surviving, exploring the source of waterfalls, or traveling all over the world to see trees and mountain landscapes.
John Muir's radicalism manifested itself in the non-anthropocentric view of nature which saw man as part of the natural world rather than the center of it. He noted: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe." This was a remarkable insight for a man who was born 150 years ago, who lived when industrialism was just getting into full swing.
He recognized that all living things were a part of a whole, and that if we lose that whole we lose part of ourselves. "There is not a 'fragment' in all nature, for every relative fragment of one thing is a full harmonious unit in itself." For Muir, this was not a matter of merely conservation of natural resources, but a matter of human physical and psychic survival. Muir wrote, "I know that our bodies were made to thrive only in pure air, and the scenes in which pure air is found." He advocated preservation of natural areas for reasons of mental health: "Come to the woods, for here is rest. There is no repose like that of the green deep woods. Here grow the wallflower and the violet. The squirrel will come and sit upon your knee, the log cock will wake you in the morning. Sleep in forgetfulness of all ill. Of all the upness accessible to mortals, there is no upness comparable to the mountains."
Muir's insights were landmarks in the history of environmental conservation. The words and deeds of John Muir led to the establishment of the U.S. National Park System, (including, during his lifetime, Yosemite, Sequoia, Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest, and other parks). He was the founding president of the Sierra Club, which remains today the leading American grassroots organization for protecting wilderness and the human environment. He was not always successful, however, and some say he died of a broken heart when his beloved Hetch Hetchy Valley, within Yosemite National Park, was lost to a dam and a reservoir for a San Francisco water supply, even though less damaging options existed. But that loss inspired conservationists to work tirelessly to prevent dams in other national parks, like the Grand Canyon and Dinosaur National Monument.
John Muir's life and voice remain a continuing inspiration to people today all over the world who are striving to protect the last fragments of living wilderness. Teaching us that nature is not just a commodity but an integrated whole, Muir showed us that it is the flow of life itself which must be preserved if humanity is to continue to thrive on this planet. He envisioned Earth as a divinely-appointed home of natural beauty, if we would only keep it that way:
"When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty."
Is it any wonder that all of Muir's books are still in print? New biographies about him are still being written and published, and people from his birthplace home in Scotland have formed Dunbar's John Muir Association. His ranch-home in Martinez, California, is the home of the John Muir Memorial Association, and his name is still invoked by those who believe that nature's treasures deserve protecting.
Muir's heroic life is recognized in the geography of many places, including the Muir Glacier in Alaska, Muir Memorial Park in Wisconsin, and in California by such places as Muir Woods National Monument, the John Muir Trail, the John Muir Wilderness, and the John Muir National Historic Site. In his birthplace of Dunbar, Scotland, there is a Muir Country Park, and his birthplace home is now a museum. Scotland also boasts a John Muir Trust which works to preserve nature in the United Kingdom much as the Sierra Club does in the United States, Canada, and through global partners all around the world.
Further, our appreciation for Muir is not confined to geography, for in California and elsewhere his birthday, April 21, is recognized as "John Muir Day," a day to recognize the modern ecological insight that man is a part of nature, and that our well-being - indeed our very survival - depends upon an ecologically sound natural environment. Students and teachers can learn more about celebrating John Muir Day through the John Muir Day Study Guide.
Finally, the John Muir Trust in Scotland and the Sierra Club in the U.S.A. are now launching a new John Muir Youth Award to encourage young people to get involved in discovering and protecting wild places as Muir did.
John Muir is a hero who can best be honored by each of us doing what we can to live his message and protect the environment.