Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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John Muir
Nature Bulletin No. 601 April 23, 1960
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Daniel Ryan, President
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist

JOHN MUIR: NATURALIST - 1838 - 1914
Some of John Muir's own friends called him mountain-drunk and tree- drunk. His eyes, ears and entire being could never get their fill of native land-scape and all the living things that go with it. He wandered America throughout a long life, usually alone and on foot, sleeping where darkness overtook him, and, more often than not, eating only dry bread dipped in tea. In later life he drew on the diaries kept during these trips to write several widely read magazine articles and books attacking the growing exploitation of America's natural beauties and resources by miners, lumbermen, ranchers and the encroaching cities.

No tongue-tied hermit, Muir's convincing sincerity and wealth of firsthand experience brought many powerful friends to the cause. People who appreciate our natural resources and love the out-of-doors should thank John Muir as much as anyone for our great systems of national parks and national forests.

In 1849, when John was eleven years old, the Muir family migrated from their native Scotland to clear a farm on the thin soils of the "oak opening" country of central Wisconsin. The youngster gloried in the great flocks of passenger pigeons and the abundant bird life of the New World. The father was a religious fanatic and harsh to his children -- beating them outrageously for every misdeed or bit of forgetfulness.

The machine age was dawning in the Middle West. John dreamed of becoming an inventor. With naturally skillful hands and a fine sense of mechanics, he managed to steal time and, with crude farm tools, fashioned machine after machine from wood and scraps of metal. In 1860 he escaped his father's tyranny. Two homemade clocks and a very sensitive thermometer exhibited at the State Fair in Madison attracted wide attention. For three years he earned his own way at the University of Wisconsin. Then began a series of botanical and geological trips -- to the Mississippi, to Lake Superior, to Canada. Working in a sawmill in Ontario and, later, in a carriage factory in Indianapolis, he perfected several labor-saving inventions which he refused to patent for his own profit.

After an accident in the factory which almost cost the loss of an eye, he abandoned his interest in machinery, Taking a train to the Ohio River opposite Louisville he started a thousand-mile walk to the Gulf, avoiding cities and towns, by "the leafiest, wildest, and least trodden way I could find. " He carried only a plant press, a change of underclothing, a comb, brush, towel and three small books He botanized, made friends along the way, and reached the Gulf after two months. Soon, he took passage to Panama and up the Pacific coast to San Francisco.

In California he fell in love with the Sierras which he called the "Range of Light", with glaciers, and with the giant Sequoias. His studies furnished proof that the Yosemite Valley was glacier-made and not the results of earthquakes. Though he traveled the wild places of the world throughout the remainder of a long life, after the age of thirty, California was to be his home base. Editors, administrators, teachers and scientists came from distant parts of the country to listen to him and be shown the way to conserve the beauties of nature. During four days with President Theodore Roosevelt, in Yosemite, they hiked, camped, talked and saw eye to eye. John Muir spoke with a soft Scotch burr, had piercing blue eyes, silky reddish brown hair, and he never shaved.


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