The legacy of John Muir

John Muir is a household name in the US, but few in Britain are aware of the Scotsman’s legacy. With The John Muir Way long-distance footpath opening in Scotland in April, Aaron Millar looks at the life of the man who changed the way we interact with nature

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the death of John Muir: one of the world’s greatest explorers, philosophers, and environmental activists. Thanks to him, the United States has a national parks system and our relationship with wild spaces has evolved from one of utilisation and taming to one of treasuring and preservation. In America he’s a household name, but here, in the country of his birth, we are taught almost nothing of his legacy.

His was a simple message, one that – in this pivotal ecological time – we would do well to remember and share: love the natural world. All conservation springs from these simple roots. Explore, discover and cherish the Earth around you.

First and foremost, Muir was a traveller. In a time before airplanes and cars he dipped his toes in the freezing waters of the Caspian Sea and sweltered in the heat of the Amazon basin. He was looking for beauty in nature, something that he considered as important to human existence as food and water. Modern science would agree: disconnection from the natural world – an increasing phenomenon in western society – has been correlated with a number of mental health issues, including depression and anxiety. But the antidote is simple, and the results, according to Muir, are spectacular. “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings,” he writes. “Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.”

But connection to nature was about more than just personal happiness for Muir; it was a profound expression of spirituality. Wandering among the rocks and streams of his home, the Sierra Nevada mountains of northern California, he came to understand that he was an integral part of the natural world: joined to a harmonious whole, rather than a separate entity entitled to subjugate the environment around him.

This was an utterly radical idea at the time. From this belief sprang more than 300 articles and ten major books, the establishment of Yosemite National Park and the founding of the Sierra Club, which to date has over 1.3 million members and is the largest and most influential grassroots environmental organisation in the US. And it all began with a simple walk in the mountains.

Positive travel is about connecting with the world in meaningful ways. Whether discovering new landscapes on the other side of the Earth, or just scaling the summit of a local hill, it begins with the same state of mind: one that is open, and searching – just like John Muir – for the beauty in the natural world, wherever that may be. “Keep close to Nature’s heart,” he tells us, “and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” If we do, we may find that we heal not only ourselves, but the planet too. Conservation is fed by a love of the outdoors; apathy can be starved with a single sunset.

“Conservation is fed by a love of the outdoors; apathy can be starved with a single sunset.”

The John Muir Way is a new long-distance footpath opening this April, and a great place to start connecting with nature. Travel 133 miles from Muir’s birthplace in Dunbar on the southeast coast of Scotland, through Edinburgh and the wild Campsie Fells, to Loch Lomond and Helensburgh at the end of the route. Stay in hostels and B&Bs, or do as Muir would have done – wild camp along the way. A great many suggestions can be found at Visit Scotland.

Plan a trip to coincide with The John Muir Festival, which takes place between 17-26 April, with activities and celebrations planned along the length of the John Muir Way.

If you’re inspired to get involved with wilderness conservation, The John Muir Trust runs regular volunteer conservation trips, from February to November, in some of Scotland’s most beautiful wild places. Participants will help to plant trees, mend paths and preserve natural landscapes that are owned, and protected, by the trust.