Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The Year of John Muir



The coast at Dunbar where John Muir first explored the outdoors

With the official opening of the John Muir Way last weekend as part of the John Muir Festival and much attention being paid to John Muir in the media (even an editorial in The Guardian) here's my contribution - a piece I wrote for The Great Outdoors earlier this year. The John Muir Way was opened by Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond. Hopefully he will heed the words of Muir and protect Scotland's remaining wild land. Otherwise this gesture is meaningless. 

This year is the centenary of the death of John Muir, arguably the most influential defender of wild places ever and whose legacy is still relevant and important today. Born in Dunbar in Scotland, Muir emigrated to the USA when he was eleven and lived there the rest of his life. He's still not that well-known in Britain, unlike the USA, where he is regarded as the 'father of National Parks'. In Martinez in California where he settled there are John Muir roads and businesses and the house where he lived is now the John Muir National Historic Site. The Sierra Club, which Muir founded in 1892, is one of the USA's leading conservation organisations and does much to keep Muir's memory alive. Scotland is slowly catching up with John Muir's Birthplace, a statue of the young Muir and the John Muir Country Park in Dunbar plus now the John Muir Way. And of course there is the John Muir Trust, founded in 1983 to campaign for wild land.

I discovered Muir many years ago, not with a sudden revelation but slowly as I came across the name again and again and he seeped into my consciousness. I didn't really pay him much attention though until I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, which in the High Sierra in California runs through the John Muir Wilderness and follows the John Muir Trail (which must be one of the most beautiful backpacking routes in the world). Just who was this John Muir who was so clearly important I wondered.  From signs and leaflets and talking to other hikers I began to learn a little about the man. A few years later I came across a second-hand copy of The Mountains of California (books by Muir were hard to find in the 1980s) and began to read Muir's own words. Immediately I was taken with his passion and devotion to nature and wild places. I went on to read his other works, some several times. The language can be flowery for modern tastes in places but his eye for detail and his love of everything natural shine through. (I'd recommend My First Summer In The Sierra as a first book to read - all of them are available on the Sierra Club website). I also read books about Muir, wanting to know more about this iconic figure. I think the best of these is Michael P. Cohen's The Pathless Way: John Muir and American Wilderness, which goes more deeply into Muir's dilemmas and contradictions than other biographies.

Muir is to be admired not just as a conservationist, not just for his love of nature, key though these are to his greatness, but also for his outdoor adventures and experiences. Long before any of the equipment we take for granted, or the guidebooks, maps and paths, Muir would head off into the wilderness on long solo treks and climbs. From a boy scrambling on the cliffs and castle walls of Dunbar to the adult mountaineer making a daring first ascent of Mount Ritter deep in the High Sierra (a climb described superbly in The Mountains of California) Muir revelled in exploring wild places. He didn't just look at them or study them he went into them - climbing trees in a storm, edging out on narrow ledges to look down a waterfall, climbing rock faces, crossing glaciers, sleeping out wrapped in a coat (his minimal equipment makes today's ultralight backpackers look burdened down). He walked long distances as well - A Thousand-Mile Walk To The Gulf describes his journey from Indianpolis to the Gulf of Mexico in 1867. And when he arrived in California a year later he walked from San Francisco to Yosemite Valley. There followed many trips into the then still little-known Sierra Nevada mountains and in later years further afield, especially Alaska (as told in Travels in Alaska).

Muir was not just concerned for the conservation of wilderness for its own sake and the sake of the animals and plants that lived there. He was also concerned for its conservation for the sake of humanity. He was not a conservationist who wanted to exclude people but one who wanted to share his joy in nature with everyone. He led trips for the Sierra Club and his writing was aimed at encouraging people to visit wild places as well as persuading them they needed protection. He wrote in The Yosemite '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' and in Our National Parks, a book intended to encourage visitors to the parks, 'Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.'

Much will be written and said about John Muir this year. What should be remembered is that his vision of the necessity of wildness and nature is as valid now as it was 100 years ago.

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