“And into the forest I go, to lose myself and find my soul”.
This inspirational and moving quote, and others like it by John Muir, have regained popularity in the last year. As scores of people longed to escape the confines of their city and town dwellings during COVID, these words resonate deeply. They speak of the possibility of not only reconnecting with nature, but also one’s self. But who was John Muir, who spoke so eloquently of the natural world? How has he inspired so many to rediscover themselves now, such a long time after his death?
Read my short bio of the man behind the words, who lived a rich and varied life.
He was born in Dunbar, Scotland, and his family emigrated to the U.S. when he was 11 years old. Despite leaving at such a young age, he retained a deep affection for his birth-place. He is equally revered in Scotland to this day.
His interest in the natural world was first piqued in a Botany lesson at University. Despite his passion for Botany and Chemistry, he was an erratic student and never graduated. It was, however, the foundation for his love of nature and some of his most important life-long friendships.
He suffered a serious accident while working at a wagon-wheel factory, which caused him to reevaluate his life and pursue his passion for the study of plants instead. He left his job in Indiana to walk 1,000 km to Florida, and from there he travelled to Cuba, on to New York and eventually landed in California, where he settled.
He wrote his first book in 1911, called First Summer on the Sierra. It was an account of his two years living in Yosemite Creek in a cabin he built himself. Over the subsequent years, he travelled extensively alone, climbing a number of mountains and hiking the trails. He developed a deep knowledge of the local geography and became well-known as a guide, story-teller and geologist. As a writer, he would publish 12 books and hundreds of articles during his lifetime.
Artists, scientists and writers sought him out. Ralph Waldo Emerson even offered him a teaching job at Harvard University, which he declined. In 1903, the then President Theodore Roosevelt accompanied him on a visit to Yosemite, and they camped together for a night in the back-country. They both would later speak of it as a moving experience which they never forgot.
He was a preservationist. Much of his focus was devoted to the Yosemite and Sierra Valleys, speaking and writing about the destruction that the expansion of farming and domesticate livestock would cause to the land. He campaigned for the Yosemite Valley to be made into a national park like Yellowstone. He also co-founded the Sierra Club, an environmental organisation still in existence today, with over 2.4 million members.
Raised as a child in a strict Protestant faith, as he grew older his own faith in the divine was intertwined with his deep love of the natural world, which he called “The Book of Nature”, and the belief that the order of the “wild world” was far superior to civilisation.
He married relatively late in life, in his early 40s, to Louisa Strenzel. He partnered on his father-in-law's fruit farm north-east of Oakland. He and his wife had two daughters together. Despite remaining a devoted and present father and husband, his wife indulged his need to escape up to the mountains when he became restless in the “civilised” world. The house and ranch are still standing today, and are a historical site you can visit.
His works are still considered hugely influential today, and he is widely considered the “patron saint” of the American wilderness and modern environmentalism. He rekindled in people a love and appreciation of natural parks and the sacredness of nature. California celebrates John Muir Day on the 21st of April ever year since 1989.
Some of my favourite moving and inspirational quotes…
“The mountains are calling and I must go”
“The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness”
“The sun shines not on us but in us”