John Muir (21 April 1838 - 24 December 1914)
An American naturalist, Muir was born in Dunbar, Scotland, one of eight born to Daniel and Ann Gilrye Muir. His siblings were Margaret, Sarah, David, Daniel, Ann and Mary (twins), and Joanna. In 1849 his family emigrated to a farm near Portage, Wisconsin, in the United States - their Fountain Lake Farm now is a National Historic Landmark.
Historian Stephen Fox has told students at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California that Muir's father, finding the Church of Scotland insufficiently strict in faith and practice, emigrated and joined a congregation of the Campbellite Restoration Movement. He adds that
- by age 11, young Muir had learned to recite “by heart and by sore flesh” all of the New Testament and most of the Old. But in maturity, Muir was never confused by orthodox beliefs. In a letter to his fond friend Emily Pelton of May 23, 1865, he wrote "I never tried to abandon creeds or code of civilization; they went away of their own accord ... without leaving any consciousness of loss."
- Elsewhere in his writings, he likened the conventional image of a Creator "as purely a manufactured article as any puppet of a half-penney theater."
A deist and naturalist, Muir was a conservationist and crusader for national parks and reservations. He traveled, often by foot, throughout the country. The glacier he discovered in Alaska is called Muir Glacier. The Muir Woods National Monument is also named for him. John of the Mountains (1938) describes his scientific naturalism, although he did not use that terminology.
Reviewing Donald Worster's A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir (2009), Stanford University's Robert Pogue Harrison notes:
- One of Worster's main arguments is that Muir's passion for nature was in the best tradition of American democratic liberalism, and that it was related to the egalitarian ideals born in the revolutions of the eighteenth century> He cites a seldom-noted chapter in Tocqueville's Democracy in America where the Frenchman argues in Worster's paraphrase, that "democracy was in love with nature, and nature was the natural and logical religion of democracy." Perhaps the chapter is seldom noted because its thesis is untenable. Unfortunately not all passionate democrats are passionate lovers of nature, by any means. If pantheism is the spiritual correlate of democracy, as Tocqueville himself suggested, then we do not live in a real democracy, for, as Muir came to discover, there are few pantheists among us. Muir indeed saw nature as the deific site of God's presence, a place where "divine love spreads through all of nature equally and indiscriminately." This meant that materialism, especially in its crass capitalist forms, was sacrilegious. There was plenty of sacrilege to go around in Muir's democratic America, and things were getting worse, not better.
Toward the end of his life Muir's disappointment was partly political. He felt betrayed when, in 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt redefined the conservation project as a matter of resource management. "We have become great in a material sense," Roosevelt said to some governors.
Muir died of pneumonia in a Los Angeles hospital. It was a unexpectedly prosaic end for a man who had repeatedly faced death on rocky crags and icy glaciers, who braved Alaskan storms with a crust of bread in his pocket. In the years since, his legend has grown. In 1976, the Calfiornia Historical Society voted him "The Greatest Californian." The U.S. Geological Survey has suggested an even greater mark of his fame. In their guidelines on naming mountains and lakes after individuals, it gives Muir as the example of someone who has had so many things named for him already that they would not be likely to approve any further such commemorations.
- The Mountains of California (1894)
- Our National Parks (1901)
- Stickeen (1909)
- Edward Henry Harriman (1911)
- My First Summer in the Sierra (1911)
- The Yosemite (1912)
- The Story of My Boyhood and Youth (1913)
(See The New York Times obituary.