Author: Lucy Dawson

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Friday, June 23rd, 2006 at 10:38 am
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The Legacy of John Muir

Many people may have heard of the world-re nowned conservationist, John Muir, and his pioneering work as the ‘father of the US National Park system’, but not everyone knows that he started life in the East Lothian town of Dunbar in a tiny flat at 126 High Street, and later moved next door to 130.

John Muir was born in Dunbar on April 21st 1838 and spent his first eleven years there. Scotland is where his love of nature was born; and in many of his later writings he would recall his childhood memories of Dunbar – particularly the seashore – where he spent much of his spare time.
Dunbar is so proud of its famous son that it has recently developed John’s birthplace on the High Street into the John Muir Birthplace Museum. There is also a statue there depicting John as a boy. He also has other legacies: the John Muir Trust which was founded in Scotland in 1983 to protect wild places; the John Muir National Historic Site Visitor Centre, in Martinez, California (where John evenutally settled). And finally the Sierra Club which John was one of the founding members.
The ‘John Muir Birthplace Trust’ (JMBT) was established in September 1998 in a partnership project involving East Lothian Council, the John Muir Trust and Dunbar’s John Muir Association.
The Trust was instrumental in raising enough money to transform the birthplace into a permanent museum to pay homage to one of Scotland’s most important sons and the centre was finally able to open in August last year.
However, Dunbar was merely the starting point for a long and exciting life for John Muir. His love of nature, particuarly botany, started at an early age as he scrambled about the seashore in his home town.
He later wrote, “When I was a boy in Scotland I was fond of everything that was wild. I loved to wander in the fields to hear the birds sing, and along the shore to gaze and wonder at the shells and the seaweeds, eels and crabs in the pools when the tide was low, and best of all to watch the waves in awful storms thundering on the black headlands and craggy ruins of old Dunbar Castle.”
John travelled much in his lifetime and was later to settle in Martinez, California. He died at the age of 76 in a hospital in Los Angeles. However, it is apparent that wherever John travelled he left a legacy or a lasting impression.
In 1849, when John was eleven, he emigrated with his parents to the United States. They first travelled across the Atlantic by ship on a six week journey to New York, which must have been an adventure in itself. They then travelled by wagon via the Great Lakes to Wisconsin. His father was a hard worker and even as a young boy John and his brother were made to work in the fields: but when he wasn’t working he wandered the countryside taking in the rich flora and fauna. He also became interested in inventing and carved amazing devices – clocks that kept time and a device which tipped him out of bed!
At the age of 22, in 1860, John left home to exhibit his inventions in Madison, Wisconsin where he won prizes at the state fair. He also enrolled in the University of Wisconsin and graduated in 1863.
In 1867, at the age of 29, while working in a shop in Indianapolis, John suffered a serious eye injury which was to change his life dramatically. When he regained his sight a month later he resolved to see the world through different eyes. And so began years of travelling … to Panama, Cuba, and walking a thousand miles from Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico, observing the ‘fields, mountains and forests’ along the way. Eventually John settled in California and it was the Sierra Nevada and Yosemite that truly captured his heart. By 1871 he had found living glaciers in the Sierra and had conceived his controversial theory of the glaciation of Yosemite Valley.
In 1874 he started his career in writing. He wrote about his extensive travels and on the environment, his naturalist philosophies and on botany. In fact, in his lifetime he had over 300 articles and 10 major books published.
But John is best remembered for his work in conservation and without his dedication some of America’s most important environments may have been destroyed.
With the help of one of the editors of Century magazine, Robert Underwood Johnson, he fought to bring the devastation of mountain meadows and forests by sheep and cattle to public attention. In 1890, largely due to their hard work, an act of Congress created Yosemite National Park which would further protect this area from the devastating affects of farming. The park is forever preserved for many future generations to visit.
His work in this area earned him the title of ‘the father of our National Park system’. He was also personally involved in the creation of Sequoia, Mount Rainier, Petrified forest and Grand Canyon national parks. His work laid the foundations for the creation of the National Park Service in 1916.
In 1892 John Muir and some of his supporters founded an environmental organisation called the Sierra Club, in John’s words “to do something for wildness and make the mountains glad.” He served as its president until his death in 1914. The club still exists today and continues important conservation work.
In 1901 John published a book ‘Our National Parks’ which brought him to the attention of president Theodore Roosevelt, and in 1903 the president visited him in Yosemite where they discussed plans and ideas for the many conservation programs which Roosevelt undertook.
John spent his whole life in tireless conservation to protect natural heritage which had no voice of its own. He remains the most famous and influential naturalist and conservationist in the US. And his legacy lives on in Scotland, where it all began. The John Muir Trust was formed in 1983 to ‘protect and conserve wild places’ and to increase the awareness and understanding of the value of such places. It protects seven key areas of wild land in Scotland through ownership and management. Since its inception the Trust has ‘dedicated itself to making Muir’s message a reality within the United Kingdom’. They also encourage youngsters to enter the John Muir award scheme which over 12,000 people enter each year.
Even new California Govenor, Arnold Shwarzenegger, recognises the work of John Muir. He has chosen an image of John posed against Yosemite’s Half Dome for California’s new 25 cent piece which will be issued from Jan 2005.
Local Californian newspapers reported the Governor saying “Muir has been a role model to generations of Californians and to conservationists around the World.”
High praise indeed for a man from a little Scottish town from the giant of
Hollywood actors.

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