John Muir: Inspiration and a Legacy Left

“Right now there is some lesson that I haven’t quite learned and the answers are on the walls or in the mountains, and I think that is why we keep going back is to try to figure it out, try to have some higher meaning in life.”

-Dean Potter

What drew Dean Potter to speak these words? Dean Potter spends more time in the mountains than the average person; he is a professional climber and a humble one at that. Blessed with ample opportunity, Dean has searched many walls and mountains for answers to his life’s questions. What he learns with every journey to the mountains keeps him coming back. What he experiences there is his own, no one can intercept his experience and similarly he cannot force the experience upon himself; naturally, we learn from the mountains.  For centuries people have journeyed into the High Sierra to try and discover a higher purpose, to “climb the mountains and get their good tidings,” to search the walls for answers. No one has searched and in return found more of their true self than John Muir. Muir’s journeys and travels into the mountains taught him a great deal about their “good tidings” and an even greater deal about himself. What he learned from the wilderness inspired all that he is known for: journals, books, political arguments in the defense of nature, an unparalleled devotion to the preservation of wilderness. This beckons the question: What did John Muir discover in the mountains of the High Sierra? What can we find there?


John Muir saw the High Sierra as a place to grow and learn. It was here that he learned what true peace felt like, what tranquil waters sounded like, what true beauty looked like; he learned compassion for all living things, from a single flower to a Giant Sequoia. Most importantly he learned that places with this beauty and tranquility need to be protected. This seemingly small event propelled his lifetime of preservation efforts and would eventually earn him the title, “Father of the National Parks.” Why do we need the mountains? Why are we draw to wilderness and if we are so drawn to wilderness, why do we have to work so hard to protect it?


Unfortunately, too many people suffer from what author Richard Louv calls, “Nature-Deficit Disorder.” This is not suffering caused by deterioration of the body but of the spirit; too many people lack respect or admiration for nature. What would happen if we returned to nature? What could we learn? What can our society as a whole learn from the wilderness? The truth is that we need mountains and we need nature; this is a fundamental part of our being. The greatest example we have is John Muir himself. His life, his accomplishments, his dreams and admirations, his thoughts and writings have so much relevance to, not just the environment, but, our daily lives; we all too often chose to ignore it. Muir has inspired some of the greatest naturalists and conservationists who have ever lived; he also inspires countless numbers of nature loving – nature respecting – outdoor oriented writers, athletes, travelers, and other outdoor enthusiasts.


All of these people that Muir has inspired, how are they utilizing their inspiration? What are they doing? These are the people on the front lines of the war on wilderness. The Sierra Club, 1% for the Planet, The National Wildlife Fund, Green Peace, National Geographic Society, and many other organizations; with activists such as David Brower, Richard Louv, Yvonne Chouinard, Captain Paul Watson, Amory Lovins, and again many others are upholding the calling left by Muir. Why is their fight so hard? What are they even fighting for? There are flaws in the protection of wilderness; this stems back to the hardest battles Muir ever fought: preservation v. conservation and the greed that is in all humans. This battle still rages today; unfortunately, stronger than ever. Development both on the park borders and within them is beginning to deteriorate the ecosystems of our National Parks. Areas surrounding the Grand Canyon are being mined for uranium, Canada is trying to exploit the gold and copper out of North America’s largest pit mine which boarders Alaska’s Lake Clark National Park. Land from the National Parks is even being leased to companies so they can exploit resources found within the park. Why are we letting this happen? Who knew this was even happening? Should keeping protected wilderness, or wilderness in general, pristine be a priority? A huge question on the table is, should we preserve or conserve the wilderness?

One of the biggest problems facing the National Parks and Forests is staring us right in the face: too many people in the parks. Yosemite is a place with a power that can be found no place else on earth; however, 3.8 million people visiting Yosemite in one year has a huge impact on the ecosystem, especially when visitors are oblivious to the effects of their carelessness. Education plays a huge role in creating a society that cares for the protection of wilderness. How can you enter a place like Yosemite and not feel guilty permanently scaring the landscape by chipping rock, leaving trash, or carving your name into a tree. The magnitude that a single scar on a tree can have is enormous, it can lead to invasive bark beetles that can very well destroy thousands of acres of trees; people don’t know this, however. People wanting to snowmobile Yellowstone, bike in Arches, climb Half Dome, fly over the Grand Canyon is not bad; we must understand the impact that these activities have. A way a regulating the use of wilderness needs to be instated and people need to understand that protected wilderness is not a playground but a sanctuary. After all, this planet does not only belong to just us.

The many people and originations that were listed above do a great deal to stop the destruction of pristine wilderness. John Muir would be proud to see their efforts I can assure you of that; however, it is not enough. There is much more that needs to be done to be able to preserve wilderness for the future generations. Thankfully for us we have the greatest example of all: John Muir. He not only left us with his legacy and an example, he left us with a calling. His calling was to, first and foremost, get out and experience the mountains, be in nature, and to “climb the mountains and get there good tidings.” He wants us to do this because he knew that if we did we would have an untamable desire to preserve what we had seen, felt, heard, touched. One of the most important things that John Muir learned on his journeys was that the one thing that could save nature was the experience of the nature itself.

Those of you who have read this far have encountered the feelings that come with being in pristine wilderness. Don’t you want to protect it? Are you not called upon to give wilderness the voice it needs to be protected, called by John Muir? You may also be asking yourself, “did Muir fail, or have we failed Muir?” This essay asked a lot of questions and did not give very many answers, but it did lead you to a trail. This trail is the very same that John Muir walked over a century ago, it winds through meadows, over mountains, along ridges, past towering trees and domes, down valleys, and across rivers. On this trail Muir’s biggest questions were answered and here I hope to answer big questions, too. This is where I will begin to explore the journeys that John Muir took over his life time, through the exploration of these journeys I hope to kindle the fire that burns in all of us who long to return to the wilderness.  Here starts Muir’s journey into his first summer in the Sierra…


“The Mountains are calling and I must go.”


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