John Muir, considered by
many the founder of America's conservationist movement, is
best known as an advocate for and protector of wilderness
areas of Western states, as well as founder of the Sierra
He was born in Dunbar, Scotland,
in 1838 but moved to a Wisconsin farm with his family eleven
years later. Despite a limited education and difficult childhood,
Muir was already a budding inventor by his mid-teens. By his
mid-twenties, though, his love of machinery was rivaled by
his increasing love of the earth sciences—geology, ornithology,
and, most of all, botany.
After more than two years of study
at the University of Wisconsin and work experience at a sawmill
and factory in Ontario, Canada, Muir arrived in Indianapolis
in 1866. He intentionally selected Indianapolis as a suitable
place to live and work, not simply because Osgood and Smith
manufacturing would make good use of his talents in machine
invention, but, more importantly, because the city's surroundings
would allow him to pursue his interests in botany.
in the natural beauty that enveloped Indianapolis—the
remnants of a great deciduous forest
that once covered the entire area. He wandered the fields
and woodlands for early morning walks, studying the plant
and tree species found there
(see table). Amidst "the beautiful
flowers and trees of God's own garden, so pure and chaste
and lovely," he wrote to his sister Sarah, he shed "tears
of joy" (qtd. in Turner 122). Happy to share the beauty
he observed, Muir took his Sunday school classes of women
and children to the forest to learn from nature as the best
of all possible teachers.
Yet, as much as he relished his
hobby as a naturalist, John wrote, in a letter to Sarah, of
"restless fires" within that urged him to pursue
a career in "noisy commercial centers," even though
such a career diverged from his "real wishes."
"[N]ow that I among machines," he told her, "I
begin to feel that I have some talent that way, and
so I almost think, unless things change soon, I shall turn
my whole mind into that channel" (qtd. in Turner 121-22).
As the next year passed, Muir found
himself even more deeply enmeshed in his professional life
as a sawyer and inventor at the factory. He wrote his brother
Dan, "I mean now...to give my whole attention to machines
because I must[.] I can not get my mind upon anything
else..." (qtd. in Turner 123).
But in March of 1867, fate seemed
to step in and wrench Muir back to the single-minded pursuit
of nature. At the Osgood and Smith factory one day, in tightening
a new belt on a machine, Muir accidentally let the pointed
end of a file fly upward, which struck the cornea of his right
eye. As the white vitreous humor of his eye dripped out, one
of his co-workers heard him whisper, "My right eye is
gone, closed forever on all God's beauty" (qtd. in Turner
Muir in his "Scribble
Within a few hours the left eye,
in what's now considered a sympathetic reaction, also failed,
and Muir was entirely blind. A doctor's examination assured
him that his vision in the left eye would quickly return,
and that he would regain most of his vision in the right eye,
all of which proved to be true over the coming days and weeks.
During his recovery he was offered charge of a new machine
shop for Osgood and Smith, but Muir's mind was only on nature.
"I wish to try some cloudy day to walk to the woods,"
he wrote to his friend Jeanne Carr, "where I am sure
some of Spring's fresh born is waiting" (qtd. in Turner
When Muir finally returned to
the fields, a month after his accident, the direction of his
life was decided: he chose nature over the world of machines,
resigning from Osgood and Smith and completing his recovery
in Wisconsin. After reveling in his returned sight in Illinois
and Wisconsin, he began his famous "thousand-mile walk,"
from Jeffersonville, Indiana,
to Cedar Keys, Florida, in just under two months. It was the
first of Muir's many long walks through wilderness areas of
North and South Americas and the subject of his book A
Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf (1916).
In the years to come, Muir established
his place among America's great naturalists. In addition to
founding the Sierra Club,
he is credited for influencing the creation of Yosemite,
Sequoia, Mount Rainier, Petrified Forest, and Grand Canyon
National Parks. His published writings, now collected
in a dozen volumes, tell of his great passion for wilderness,
especially in the American West.
Muir's one-and-a-half years in Indianapolis,
while admittedly brief and absent from his later writings
about the natural environment, actually ended up being the
turning point in his life. If not for the carriage factory
accident, Muir's debate between a life devoted to machines
and a life devoted to nature might not have been decided so
assuredly and swiftly.
Frederic. The Life and Letters of John Muir. Boston:
Houghton Mifflin, 1924.
"The Life and Contributions
of John Muir." John Muir Exhibit. 5 Oct.
2002. The Sierra Club. 17 Oct. 2002 <http://www.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/index.html>.
Turner, Frederick. Rediscovering
America: John Muir in His Time and Ours. New York: Viking,
Wilkins, Thurman. John
Muir: Apostle of Nature. Norman, OK: U of Oklahoma P,
Wolfe, Linnie Marsh.
Son of the Wilderness: The Life of John Muir. New
York: Knopf, 1945.
Bancroft Library Collection,
U of CA Berkeley. In "Photographs of John Muir."
John Muir Exhibit. 5 Oct. 2002. The Sierra Club.
17 Oct. 2002 <http://www.sierraclub.org/
Muir, John. Series No.
3/1. U of Wisconsin Archives. In "John Muir in His 'Scribble
Den.'" 5 Oct. 2002. Wisconsin Electronic Reader. 27 Sept.
Muir Exhibit (the seminal website on Muir, created by
the Sierra Club)
Muir Memorial Association