John Muir (b. 21 April 1838–d. 24 December 1914) was one of the foremost naturalists in the United States, widely known for his early advocacy and efforts to preserve wilderness, in particular, forests of the West. Born in Dunbar, East Lothian, Scotland, Muir’s family immigrated to the United States in 1849 and settled on a farm in Portage, Wisconsin. As a young adult, Muir attended the University of Wisconsin–Madison for two years, inspired by courses in botany, chemistry, and geology. Although he did not graduate with a degree, he learned enough to inform his later independent studies in the natural world and met his writing mentor, Jeanne Carr. Before he dedicated himself to those pursuits, however, he spent several years in Canada and parts of the United States working in sawmills and factories, all the while pursuing his interests in botany and exploration on the side. After two significant health issues—the first, a factory accident in which he injured his eye, and the second, malaria infection contracted while working in a sawmill in Florida—he made his way indirectly (via Cuba and New York) to California. There he began the explorations and descriptions of wild places that would make him famous. John Muir authored twelve books and over 300 articles describing the places and organisms that he encountered, as well as his philosophy about the power of exploring the wilderness and what it does for the human spirit and senses. He was also one of the cofounders of the Sierra Club, one of the largest environmental organizations worldwide with approximately 2.5 million members. The organization has worked to establish many national parks and protect still other significant natural areas. This article highlights important sources from and about the life and work of Muir, written by him and those that knew him well.
General Overviews and Biographies
The available overviews and biographies of John Muir’s life rely heavily on the extensive written material that he generated himself—books, essays, articles, and letters. Selections included in this section are those that are particularly thorough, but also provide different perspectives on Muir. Gifford 1996 provides a particularly comprehensive biography, incorporating many of Muir’s original writings. Similarly, Holmes 1999 and Worster 2008 offer well-written takes on Muir’s life and work. Brennan 2014 presents an autobiographical account of Muir, reconstructed from nonfiction and primary source material, with particular emphasis on his childhood in Scotland and Wisconsin. Two works provide interesting introductions to Muir’s writing: Mighetto 1985 provides a look at Muir’s perspective on wildlife, which is not often highlighted as one of the naturalist’s primary foci, and Teale 2001 is an accessible introduction to some of Muir’s most famous published stories. Finally, two featured resources are particularly pertinent to young children: Lasky 2014, an illustrated biography of Muir, and Keithcart 1995, a curriculum guide for John Muir Day, created by the Sierra Club.
Brennan, S., ed. 2014. An autobiography of John Muir. New York: Skyhorse.
An autobiography reconstructed from the nonfiction works of Muir. This book conveys the experiences of his childhood in Scotland and Wisconsin, and adventures around the world. 288 pp.
Gifford, T., ed. 1996. John Muir: His life and letters and other writings. Seattle, WA: Mountaineers.
An extensive omnibus that includes two biographies, as well as a large collection of Muir’s own writings about the Sierras (California), Scotland, and Alaska. This book is unique in that it also includes a section of tributes to Muir, written by notable environmental writers. 912 pp.
Holmes, S. J. 1999. Young John Muir: An environmental biography. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press.
An account of John Muir’s relationship with the natural world, as told by one of his most well-known, well-respected biographers. It offers both a unique perspective on Muir’s character, as well as insight into his significant experiences exploring the western United States. 336 pp.
Keithcart, B. 1995. John Muir day study guide. Sacramento: Sierra Club California.
Curriculum exercises for grades K-12 to recognize John Muir Day (April 21) or for year-round use in environmental studies. Topics and themes are tied in by grade level to California State guidelines for the history and science curriculum. Includes classroom activities with all materials required. Available online. 39 pp.
Lasky, K. 2014. John Muir: Candlewick biographies: America’s first environmentalist. Somerville, MA: Candlewick.
A great biography written from Muir’s journal entries with acrylic illustrations by Stan Fellows. This book is for children, ages 8–12, and ideal for use in the grade school curriculum. 56 pp.
Mighetto, L., ed. 1985. Muir among the animals: The wildlife writings of John Muir. San Francisco: Sierra Club.
This anthology focuses on the essays of Muir’s that describe the animals he referred to as his “horizontal brothers.” These essays are spirited tributes that reveal Muir’s interest in wildlife issues.
Teale, E. W. 2001. The wilderness world of John Muir. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
This anthology of Muir’s writings is held up as the best introduction to his work available to date. It contains a biographical introduction and is interspersed with interpretive comments, which provide a comprehensive overview of Muir’s life and his ideals. This would be a great volume for teaching a college-level course on Muir. 352 pp. Reprinted from a previous version in 1954.
Worster, D. 2008. A passion for nature: The life of John Muir. 1st ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
A powerful biography of Muir’s life. It gives particular attention to the fraught relationship between Muir and his father, his famous journey from Indianapolis to Florida, and adventures around the world, most notably California and Alaska. 544 pp.
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