Printer-friendly version Share:  Share this page on FacebookShare this page on TwitterShare this page by emailShare this page with other services

Who Was John Muir?

See Also: John Muir, a Brief Biography

John Muir (1838-1914) was America's most famous and influential naturalist and conservationist. He is one of California's most important historical personalities. He has been called "The Father of our National Parks," "Wilderness Prophet," and "Citizen of the Universe." He once described himself more humorously, and perhaps most accurately, as, a "poetico-trampo-geologist-botanist and ornithologist-naturalist etc. etc. !!!!" Legendary librarian and author Lawrence Clark Powell (1906-2001), (anticipating an event that was not to occur until 2006), said of him: "If I were to choose a single Californian to occupy the Hall of Fame, it would be this tenacious Scot who became a Californian during the final forty-six years of his life." More recently, famed documentary film maker Ken Burns said, "As we got to know him... he [John Muir] ascended to the pantheon of the highest individuals in our country; I'm talking about the level of Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, and Thomas Jefferson, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Jackie Robinson -- people who have had a transformational effect on who we are." John Muir remains today an inspiration for environmental activists everywhere.

As a wilderness explorer, he is renowned for his exciting adventures in California's Sierra Nevada, among Alaska's glaciers, and world wide travels in search of nature's beauty. As a writer, he taught the people of his time and ours the importance of experiencing and protecting our natural heritage. His writings contributed greatly to the creation of Yosemite, Sequoia, Mount Rainier, Petrified Forest, and Grand Canyon National Parks. Dozens of places are named after John Muir, including the Muir Woods National Monument, the John Muir Trail, Muir College (UCSD), and many schools.

President Roosevelt met John Muir in Yosemite 100 years ago

His words and deeds helped inspire President Theodore Roosevelt's innovative conservation programs, including establishing the first National Monuments by Presidential Proclamation, and Yosemite National Park by congressional action. In 1892, John Muir and other supporters formed the Sierra Club "to make the mountains glad." John Muir was the Club's first president, an office he held until his death in 1914. Muir's Sierra Club has gone on to help establish a series of new National Parks and a National Wilderness Preservation System.

Muir's last battle to save the second Yosemite, Hetch Hetchy Valley, failed. But that lost battle ultimately resulted in a widespread conviction that our national parks should be held inviolate. Many proposals to dam our national parks since that time have been stopped because of the efforts of citizens inspired by John Muir, and today there are legitimate proposals to restore Hetch Hetchy.

Perhaps his greatest legacy is not even wilderness preservation or national parks as such, but his teaching us the essential characteristic of the science of ecology, the interrelatedness of all living things. He summed it up nicely: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."

John Muir may have died in 1914, but his spirit lives on in so many ways. Perhaps the best known way of connecting John Muir with the present is through the continuing activity of the Sierra Club. The Sierra Club still conducts outings to wild places, just as it did in Muir's time, and continues to work to protect our wild places and natural heritage. Furthermore, John Muir would be proud that his Sierra Club has evolved to address the other pressing environmental issues of our time, including the global threat of climate change and loss of biodiversity, and also to work in favor for racial and environmental justice. The Club embraces Muir's most essential wisdom as exemplified by his own life, to "explore, enjoy and protect the planet." Indeed, his legacy points to important solutions. As author Raymond Barnett has argued, "If the looming catastrophe of climate change is to be resolved, Muir's two legacies - Earth Wisdom and the environmental movement - must both play key roles."

John Muir's life reminds us of the important things that just one person can do:

"If you think about all the gains our society has made, from independence to now, it wasn't government. It was activism. People think, 'Oh, Teddy Roosevelt established Yosemite National Park, what a great president.' BS. It was John Muir who invited Roosevelt out and then convinced him to ditch his security and go camping. It was Muir, an activist, a single person."
-- Patagonia founder and outdoor enthusiast Yvon Chouinard in a recent Sierra Magazine interview.

But Muir had the foresight to realize that it could not always be just what "one person can do." Collective action is necessary, which is why John Muir agreed, in 1892, to be the first President of the Sierra Club, and served in that capacity for the rest of his life. John Muir can be readily seen as the founding inspiration for the environmental movement, which continues to address the need for ecological harmony.

John Muir is as relevant today as he was over 100 years ago when he met with President Theodore Roosevelt in Yosemite. Many of today's headlines have Muir to thank for their inspiration. See our Chronology of of the Life and Legacy of John Muir, 1838 -2019.

Recently, some have questioned Muir's outlook, arguing that his writing discriminated against native peoples. As the John Muir Trust in Scotland explains: "Some of the remarks that Muir made historically about indigenous peoples are not acceptable and can seem out of touch and out of date. Muir was a human being with flaws and faults, not a saint or prophet. Later in life, his views evolved. He outgrew a very strict upbringing and became close to native peoples. He grew to admire indigenous communities for their light ecological footprint and careful stewardship of the land. He also wrote sympathetically about the impacts of colonialism on native peoples and joined indigenous rights organisation The Sequoya League. Muir's work as a scientist and advocate for nature has continued relevance in modern environmental campaigning. An openness to different points of view and a capacity to change one's mind when presented with new information are character traits to be welcomed, while a focus on protecting nature for the health of the planet and all its inhabitants is more relevant now than ever."

The Sierra Club's own History and Future Task Force concluded in 2021, "John Muir, one of the Sierra Club's founders, sparked the movement to preserve millions of acres of land from logging and mining, and inspired generations of people to protect nature. The Sierra Club recognizes the importance of Muir's conservation efforts with regard to designation of national parks, national forests, and rangelands, which prevented hundreds of millions of acres from being privatized and transferred into the hands of white logging, mining, and livestock grazing corporations enabled by 19th century colonization laws like the Timber and Stone Act, Homestead Acts, and Desert Lands Act. John Muir is a complex historical figure and a symbol of the early conservation movement. The Sierra Club acknowledges that John Muir used derogatory language about Black Americans and Indigenous people that created harm. Muir later recognized and appreciated the achievements of Indigenous people and spoke about the equality of all people and the importance of making public lands accessible for all."

Sierra Club® and "Explore, enjoy and protect the planet"® are registered trademarks of the Sierra Club. © 2024 Sierra Club.
The Sierra Club Seal is a registered copyright, service mark, and trademark of the Sierra Club.