He’s a recently discovered Scottish hero. But we are finally making up for our neglect with the first ever John Muir Day – Sunday 21st April, the 175th anniversary of his birth. The world’s first conservationist and founder of the National Parks movement is finally being honoured in his own land.
This weekend there are events being held around the country. There’s a special exhibition in the house where John Muir was born in 1838 in Dunbar. The Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh has a “big tree” celebration. There’ll be a bonfire at Flanders Moss near Stirling, a “nature event” at the Falkirk Wheel, walks on Schiehallion and Beinn Eighe, a beach clean on the Isle of Rum, a boat trip to the Isle of May, a treasure hunt at St Cyrus near Montrose, a theatrical production at the Burn O’ Vat in Aberdeenshire, a “slow marathon” along the river Deveron to Huntly and the opening of a new visitor centre at the John Muir Trust headquarters in Pitlochry. It’s all part of the Year of Natural Scotland.
John Muir’s father took the family to America when the wild, beachcombing, cliff-climbing boy was just 11 years old. They were in search of a religion a little more robust than the mere Presbyterianism Dunbar had to offer. They ended up on a farm in Westconsin with only hard work, the Bible and Burns’ poetry for company.
John eventually made it into the University of Westconsin but he was an indifferent student, only interested in geology and botany. He and his brother Dan fled to Canada to avoid the military draft and ended up working in a saw mill. This was to be his trade and he became a useful inventor of new tools and timber processing methods.
One day he suffered an accident at work when a sharp file punctured his eye and, as part of his own recovery programme, he set out in September 1867 on a thousand mile walk from Indiana to Florida. It turned him into a conservationist and a writer. Apart from a ten year period running his wife’s family fruit farm, he was the spend the rest of his life wandering in the mountainous wilds of California.
The wilderness became his religion, he worshiped the rocks, the trees, the birds and animals he found there. Here he is talking about his beloved Yosemite valley: “No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite. Every rock in its walls seems to glow with life. Some lean back in majestic repose, others absolutely sheer, or nearly so, for thousands of feet, advance beyond their companions in thoughtful attitudes, giving welcome to storms and calms alike, seemingly conscious, yet heedless of everything going on about them.
“Awful in stern, immovable majesty, how softly these mountain rocks are adorned and how fine and reassuring the company they keep – their feet set in groves and gay emerald meadows, their brows in the thin blue sky, a thousand flowers leaning confidingly against their adamantine bosses, bathed in floods of booming water, floods of light, while snow, clouds, winds and avalanches shine and sing and wreathe about them as the years go by. Birds, bees, butterflies and myriads of nameless wings stir the air into music and give glad animation.”
Muir wrote 12 books and over 300 magazine articles, championing the cause of nature in a society which had become madly materialistic. He was co-founder of the Sierra Club, the first conservationist organisation in the world. And in 1903, he famously took President Theodore Roosevelt on a camping trip into the Yosemite valley and persuaded him to make it, along with the Sequoia, the first two National Parks in the United States.
There are now over 3,500 national parks in the world. But only two of them are in Muir’s native Scotland and they were only created in 2002, one of the first fruits of devolution. In contrast, there are 10 national parks in England and three in Wales and most have been in existence since the 1950s.
The John Muir Trust was only formed in 1983 and only in recent years has it become a major conservation charity in Britain. It now has 10,000 members and owns 12 reserves, including Ben Nevis, Knoydart, parts of Skye and Schiehallion. Over 100,000 school pupils have now taken part in the John Muir Award scheme. The charity’s latest campaign is to have whole areas of Scotland designated as “wild land”, not to be spoilt by wind farms, industry or over-development but to be preserved as areas for recreation, wildlife and peace of mind.
In parallel, there is a campaign being run by the Scottish Campaign for National Parks to have a further seven parks created over the next few years: Ben Nevis, a marine park around Mull , the Cheviots, Galloway, Glen Affric, Harris and Wester Ross. And next year, it’s hoped the John Muir Way will be extended to create a coast-to-coast trail from Dunbar to Helensburgh.
Finally we are following John Muir into the wilderness and hopefully finding the inspiration, adventure and peace he found there.