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 John Muir  (1838 - 1914)

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Lived/Active: California/Wisconsin / Scotland      Known for: modern conservationist, western landscape drawings

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:

John Muir (April 21, 1838 – December 24, 1914) was one of the earliest, and perhaps the most important of, modern conservationists.  His letters, essays, and books telling of his adventures in nature, especially in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, were read by millions and are still popular today.  His direct activism helped to save the Yosemite Valley and other wilderness areas, especially through two highly influential persons who spread the word of Muir's dedication after visiting him at Yosemite:  Ralph Waldo Emerson and Teddy Roosevelt.

In the spring of 1871, Ralph Waldo Emerson, transendentalist philosopher known as "the sage of Concord", traveled across America to Yosemite where Muir spent time with him, giving him lengthy explanations of the geological features.  Their meeting is described as a critical moment in American history in that from that time Emerson had intense commitment to Muir and his dedication to preserving natural beauty:  "Emerson, the embodiment of American transcendentalism, had met Muir, who would embody what came to be called American environmentalism. . . .After their farewell, Muir would go on to succeed Emerson as the nation's representative thinker on nature."(Scott, 10)

In 1903, Theodore Roosevelt, then President of the United States, traveled to Yosemite, which in 1890, had been declared a national park thanks to the lobbying of John Muir working with Robert Underwood Johnson, editor of Century magazine.  However, Muir was highly concerned by the fact that human activitity was destroying the ecology of Yosemite.  He and Roosevelt went deep into the backcountry, and as a result of that trip, Roosevelt transferred all administration of the park to the federal government, away from the state of California, which had continued to administer portions of it.  The result was Congress creating the National Park Service, with civilian park rangers to administer Yosemite and other national parks.

The Sierra Club, which Muir founded in 1892, is now one of the most important environmental organizations.  But more than that his vision of nature's value for its own sake and for its spiritual, not just practical, benefits to humankind helped to change the way we look at the natural world.

Sources include:
Amy Scott, Editor, Art of An American Icon-Yosemite


Biography from Palm Collection:
A little known aspect of this famed naturalist, conservationist, and author is that he was also a fine artist.  Like other ‘explorer artists’ of his time, his art was drawn more for ‘informational’ reasons: to record a landmark; note scientific ideas he observed, such as the pattern of a creek’s drainage, a mountain view, or a heavy storm.

Born in Scotland, Muir immigrated to the United States in 1849 when his family started a farm in Wisconsin.  He attended the University of Wisconsin for several years, and then left to walk from Indiana to Florida, studying firsthand ‘the university of nature’. It was a thousand mile walk in 1867, about which he authored a book: A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf.  His intent was to continue on to South America, but he fell ill with malaria, so decided instead to go to California.

His many drawings of the Mount Shasta region (about fifteen of them) created between 1874-1875 attest to his artistry.  Other views which he drew of the Yosemite Valley are extremely detailed and picturesque.  Informational or not, his art was influenced by the splendor of his surroundings, which is evident in Muir's drawings.

Many of the early explorer artists of the West experienced this phenomenon, and their art was enhanced by the power of the grand vistas before their eyes.  Muir was among the long line of talented and inspired scientist-artists.  He spent much of his life in the outdoors, and his drawings give a glimpse into his inner vision as much as do his writings.

John Muir was a writer, a lecturer, a geologist, a botanist, a glacier expert, an explorer, a school teacher, a Sunday school teacher, and inventor.  He was a complicated, multi-talented man.  He worked in sawmills, on farms, in a broom factory, in a carriage factory, as a sheepherder.

In 1880 Muir married Louisa Wanda Strentzel, and from 1882 spent 8 years managing a ranch and fruit farm near San Francisco. During this time two children were born to the couple.  Later he retired from the farm to concentrate on his writing and conservation projects.  Artist William Keith was a friend who often visited Muir at his home in Martinez, California.  Muir referred to Keith as a ‘poet painter’, and the two were among a group that founded what was to become the Sierra Club.

He traveled widely, and his last trip was an extraordinary one. Leaving from Brooklyn, New York, in August 1911, Muir, at the age of seventy-three and traveling alone, embarked on an eight-month, 40,000-mile voyage to South America and Africa. His 1911- 1912 journals and correspondence are reproduced in a volume titled John Muir’s Last Journey, (by Michael Branch) and cover his travels up the Amazon, into the jungles of southern Brazil, to snowline in the Andes, through southern and central Africa to the headwaters of the Nile, and across six oceans and seas in order to reach rare forests he had long wished to study.

Frederic Turner, John Muir: Rediscovering America
The Mt. Shasta Companion
The National Parks Service website
The website of St. Mary’s College

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