John Muir’s America – Part 1
Have you heard this man’s name? He was just like you. He loved nature – with a PASSION! He is so special that I want you to meet him, and I will try to help you get to know him through his own words, which are very beautiful.
Dear Cub kids,
I wish you and I could go out for a walk with John Muir.
Johnnie Muir was born in the little village of Dunbar, Scotland in 1838. As a grown man, he remembered his earliest adventures outdoors hand-in-hand with his gentle grandfather. Life at home and school was rigorous, full of Bible study and beatings, but the crags, and moors and wild coastline were always calling, and Johnnie and his boyhood friends spent every waking minute they could outdoors.
John Muir (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
…no Scotch boy that I know of ever failed to listen with enthusiasm to the songs of skylarks. Oftentimes on a broad meadow near Dunbar we stood for hours enjoying their marvelous singing and soaring. From the grass where the nest was hidden the male would suddenly rise, as straight as if shot up, to a height of perhaps thirty or forty feet, and, sustaining himself with rapid wing-beats, pour down the most delicious melody, sweet and clear and strong, overflowing all bounds, then suddenly he would soar higher again and again, every higher and higher, soaring and singing until lost to sight even on perfectly clear days…
When John was eleven, his father suddenly moved the entire Muir family to Wisconsin, in America. In 1849, Wisconsin was still very much “untamed.” John reveled in the wilderness around his family’s homestead, and in this passage, reveals a little more of what was to become a lifelong love for what he called “bird people.”
It was a great memorable day when the first flock of passenger pigeons came to our farm… Of all God’s feathered people that sailed the Wisconsin sky, no other bird seemed to us so wonderful. The beautiful wanderers flew like the winds in flocks of millions… I have seen flocks streaming south in the fall so large that they were flowing over from horizon to horizon in an almost continuous stream all day long like a mighty river in the sky, widening, contracting, descending like falls and cataracts, and rising suddenly here and there in huge ragged masses like high-plashing spray.
When Muir grew up, he left his father’s farm, studying for four years at the University of Wisconsin. Young John was a gifted scholar and inventor, and when he turned to factory work in order to support himself, he showed a remarkable gift for increasing the efficiency of each workplace that employed him. But whenever John wasn’t studying or working, he was wandering through forests and fields. Nearly blinded in a factory accident, he spent nearly a month in agony, afraid that he would never see his beloved birds and flowers and wide-open sky again. But John was lucky. When his eyes healed, he vowed to leave factory life and the classroom behind, and set out on a 1,000-mile walk from Indiana to Florida. Before long, life brought him, by ship, to San Francisco. As legend has it, he asked the first man he met to show him the quickest route out of town. “Where do you want to go?” the man asked. “Anywhere that’s wild,” John replied.
John headed east toward the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada. But before reaching the famous mountains, John was captivated by the wildflowers in California’s great Central Valley.
California was one sweet bee garden throughout its entire length, north to south, and all the way across the snowy Sierra to the ocean. Wherever a bee might fly within the bounds of this virgin wilderness—through the Redwood forests, along the banks of the rivers, along the bluffs and headlands fronting the sea, over valley and plain, park and grove, and deep, leafy glen, or far up the piney slopes of the mountains—bee flowers bloomed in lavish abundance… broad, flowing folds hundreds of miles in length—zones of polleny forests, zones of flowery chaparral, stream tangles of rubus and wild rose, sheets of golden compositae, beds of violets, beds of mint, beds of bryanthus and clover… During the months of March, April, and May, the great central plain was one smooth, continuous bed of honey bloom, so marvelously rich that, in walking from one end of it to the other, a distance of more than four hundred miles, your foot would press about a hundred flowers at every step. The radiant, honeyful corollas, touching and overlapping, and rising above one another, glowed in the living light like a sunset sky—one sheet of purple and gold.
Yes, for John Muir, unspoiled nature was quite literally heaven on earth. When I write to you in the next issue of Cub, be ready to follow our friend John into the mountains that became his home, and that he dedicated the rest of his life to protecting.
Jennifer Scarlott is based in New York City, and is Director, International Conservation Initiatives, Sanctuary Asia. You can contact her at
Author: Jennifer Scarlott, First appeared in: Sanctuary Cub, May, 2011.