The authors featured in our exhibit American Voices represent the evolution and flourishing of American writing. Writers of the 1600s and 1700s borrowed forms and themes from Europe, applying them to New World settings and issues. Then, over the course of the 1800s, a new, democratic style emerged, rooted in the way Americans talked and thought. Previously underrepresented voices began to be heard, culminating with an explosion of perspectives in the modern era. Taken together, this rich literary heritage reflects America in all of its complexity: its energy, hope, conflict, disillusionment, and creativity.
Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
An immigrant from Scotland, John Muir transformed the way America perceived nature. As a young man he walked across much of his adopted nation, seeking adventure and “the heart of the wilderness.” He later lived as a shepherd in California’s rugged Yosemite Valley. Throughout, Muir kept a detailed journal that expressed his profound love of nature and mediated on humankind’s place in the universe.
Muir’s writing is lyrical and energetic, with a hunger for authenticity. It alternates between personal, spiritual, and scientific perspectives. His insights on glaciers altered our understanding of geology, while his advocacy for conservation helped create the National Park Service.
In 1903, Muir (right) served as the guide for President Theodore Roosevelt (left) on a three-night camping trip in Yosemite Valley, California. Muir used their time together to argue for a larger Yosemite National Park.
“Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot defend themselves or run away. And few destroyers of trees ever plant any…Through all the eventful centuries…God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand storms; but he cannot save them from sawmills and fools; this is left to the American people.”—John Muir, “Save the Redwoods” (1920)
It is important to note Muir’s legacy in terms of nature conservation, but also equally important to acknowledge his racist views. In addition to stereotypical and disparaging comments toward Black and Indigenous people in his own writing, Muir maintained friendships with known white supremacists and supporters of eugenics. In the summer of 2020, the Sierra Club, which Muir co-founded, released a statement acknowledging the Club’s and Muir’s shortcomings when it came to racial equality: “Muir was not immune to the racism peddled by many in the early conservation movement. He made derogatory comments about Black people and Indigenous peoples that drew on deeply harmful racist stereotypes, though his views evolved later in his life. As the most iconic figure in Sierra Club history, Muir’s words and actions carry an especially heavy weight. They continue to hurt and alienate Indigenous people and people of color who come into contact with the Sierra Club.”
Fast Facts about John Muir
- He was born on April 21, 1838 in Dunbar, Scotland and died December 24, 1914 in Los Angeles, California.
- California celebrates John Muir Day annually on April 21. There are also a number of mountains, trails, parks and more named after him in the United States, as well as his birth country Scotland.
- Muir co-founded the Sierra Club in 1892 and was elected its inaugural president, a position he held until his death in 1914.
- He published more than 300 articles and 12 books during his lifetime.
- He was also known by the nicknames “John of the Mountains” and “Father of the National Parks” and “patron saint of the American wilderness.”
Photo from the Library of Congress