Researching and writing about the Sierra Club inspired me to read John Muir: The Eight Wilderness Discovery Books.
I could have read each book separately but decided to immerse myself in John Muir’s writing by reading the 1030-page tome containing all eight books. It was an adventure that spanned over a month as I traveled with Muir from his early childhood home in Dunbar, Scotland to the frozen realm of Glacier Bay, Alaska.
“When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.”
— John Muir (Travels in Alaska)
John Muir carried a journal with him throughout his life, filling it with observations, stories, and sketches. He began his writing career in 1866 with a newspaper article entitled The Calypso Borealis and his first book The Mountains of California was published in 1894.
The books in John Muir: The Eight Wilderness Discovery Books are organized roughly in chronological order of Muir’s life (1838-1914). Three of the books were published after his death.
- The Story of My Boyhood and Youth (1913)
- A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf (1916)
- My First Summer in the Sierra (1911)
- The Mountains of California (1894)
- Our National Parks (1901)
- The Yosemite (1912)
- Travels in Alaska (1915)
- Steep Trails (1918)
John Muir’s early life was filled with hard physical labor, exploring the wild, and reading when he probably should have been sleeping.
He was eleven when his family moved from Scotland to Wisconsin in hopes of carving a farm out of the wilderness. It was brutal work. Learning was accomplished through observation, trial, and error. Muir taught himself from whatever books he could lay his hands on. He tinkered around with odd bits of wood and metal and invented a number of useful devices including the “early-rising machine.”
While showing a few of his inventions at the state fair, Muir earned public notice and a place at the University of Wisconsin in Madison where he studied chemistry, mathematics, physics, botany, and geology. He did not stay to receive a degree and later said, “But I was only leaving one University for another, the Wisconsin University for the University of the Wilderness.”
Muir embodied what we call traveling light. He seemingly existed mostly on tea and bread, climbed mountains and glaciers with only an ax and rope for equipment, and often left his coat back at camp so he could climb unencumbered. He took risks but was not careless and survived several brushes with death. Muir said he was lucky throughout his life.
Writing was a way for Muir to share his love of everything wild and engage the public in enjoying and protecting it. He founded the Sierra Club to advocate for national parks and wilderness conservation.
During his time in the Sierras, Muir witnessed the destruction caused by sheep herding and gold mining, watched as agriculture’s encroachment destroyed the habitat of bees and other wildlife, and perceived global warming through his study of glaciers.
These observations occurred over 100 years ago but could have happened just yesterday.
The Bottom Line
Before reading John Muir: The Eight Wilderness Discovery Books, I knew John Muir traveled and lived in California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range, was instrumental in the establishment of Yosemite National Park, and founded the Sierra Club. I’ve since been introduced to him as a Scotsman, inventor, botanist, glacier expert, and writer.
Although he was born 175 years ago, I can easily imagine running into John Muir on a trail in Yosemite, sitting down on a log, and talking with him about sugar pine trees or global warming.
I believe John Muir’s books would appeal to a wide audience including history buffs, scientists, mountaineers, environmentalists, and wilderness enthusiasts. John Muir: The Eight Wilderness Discovery Books should be required reading for all government officials, especially those charged with protecting our public lands.
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.”
— John Muir (The Yosemite)
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