John Muir (1838-1914) is remembered as one of the country's best conservationists, responsible for inspiring some of the country's earliest conservation legislation with his writings about nature and his travels around the world. Today, Muir would have turned 172. In California, residents still celebrate John Muir Day to recognize his contributions to preservation.
But long before he took on conservation as a cause, Muir was an inventive craftsman whose job almost made him lose the very gift that made him such a successful conservationist: his sight.
In 1867, John Muir, a Scottish immigrant, was working as an engineer at a carriage factory in Indianapolis. Inventive by nature, Muir was charged with creating a way to produce the carriage parts more efficiently. But on March 5, an awl (a sharp hand tool) pierced the 28-year-old's right eye, and immediately, both of his eyes went blind.
Bedridden, Muir vowed to leave factory work and travel the world if he regained his ability to see. Miraculously, he did two weeks later, and set out on one of the earliest of his most famous travels: a 1,000 mile walk to Cuba.
His journal from that trip turned into a book, called A Thousand Mile Walk Into the Gulf, which chronicled his journey as he sketched new plants, explored Mammoth Cave, slept in a Georgia cemetery and fought off malaria.
He spent the summer of 1869 in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, writing of the experience in a book he later called My First Summer in the Sierra, where with his recovered sight he was able to produce some of the most inspirational and poetic prose ever to be written about the landscape:
"The pale rose and purple sky changing softly to daffodil yellow and white, sunbeams pouring through the passes between the peaks and over the Yosemite domes, making their edges burn; the silver firs in the middle ground catching the glow on their spiry tops, and our camp grove fills and thrills with the glorious light. Everything awakening alert and joyful …"
During the next few years, Muir enchanted politicians, scientists and residents around the country as he chronicled his journeys into mountaintops and rivers. He began to lead tours of the Yosemite region and by 1876, he was advocating for a federal program that would protect the country's forest from destruction—he warned that without action, much of the country's natural beauty would perish.
And there were many people that heard him. In 1890, Congress approved the creation of Sequoia National Park, followed shortly by the creation of Yosemite National Park.
Over the years, Muir was visited by many famous figures, including writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. But perhaps his most significant visit was a camping trip with former President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903. For three days, the president and the Scottish-born writer traveled the Yosemite Valley alone, envisioning what kind of national system would be able to protect the country's forests. Roosevelt went on to establish 150 national forests, 18 national monuments and five national parks, which amounted to 230 million acres of American soil.
The president honored Muir in 1908 by naming a donated redwood forest near San Francisco "Muir Woods."
Among the places protected because of Muir's influence are Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks; Mount Rainer; Petrifed Forest; and Grand Canyon national parks. And the Sierra Club—which he co-founded in 1892—is still a successful preservation organization that today includes outreach programs to engage people young and old in nature.
Today, Muir is known as the "Father of the National Park Service." Though the service wasn't created until 1916, two years after Muir's death, many say it is largely thanks to him that the organization, which today protects nearly 400 National Parks, exists. Here in Washington, the service also protects all of the national monuments on The National Mall. So on Wednesday, stop by as a birthday tribute to Muir—much of the country's preserved parks and landmarks wouldn't be possible without him.