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Thoughts on the death of John Muir, Christmas Eve, 1914


John Muir’s Earth

One of the most poignant of the stories that have emerged from the commemorations marking the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War is the one about German and British troops laying down their arms and emerging from their trenches to exchange greetings and share rations on the Western Front on Christmas Eve 1914. Some even say that a football match took place though the evidence is scant. If it did, what a pity it wasn’t a game played for two years each way. Football could then truly have justified its claim to be ‘the beautiful game’. The sad irony is that this spontaneous outburst of goodwill lasted for only a few hours and foresaw four years of senseless slaughter and destruction resulting in the deaths of tens of millions, leaving much of central Europe as a vast wasteland.

Against this background the peaceful death of one man some 6000 miles away seems relatively insignificant, but John Muir was no ordinary human being, for his legacy was the prevention of even more senseless destruction in the name of so-called ‘progress’. Although much of what he preached about the conservation of our natural heritage only came into being after his passing, nevertheless his influence is felt to this day. And we can be thankful for that.

It is said that ‘history teaches fools’ and ‘those who forget it (history) are doomed to repeat it’. And doomed we might have been if not for this eccentric genius and a remarkable three days spent by two men in the wilderness of North America.

John Muir was born in Dunbar, East Lothian, Scotland in 1838 and emigrated with his family to the United States of America in 1848. Throughout his life he developed an ever-growing fondness wild places and wild creatures. Largely self-taught this son of East Lothian became a poet, philosopher, preacher, inventor and mountaineer, as well as an expert in the fields of botany and geology.

His journeys into the vast wilderness of 19th.Century America brought him to discover the oneness and order of the natural world in which ‘every rock, plant and animal is a golden thread in the infinite fabric of life, and from which no fibre can be pulled without spoiling the whole.’

‘When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with all the other stars, all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty. This show is eternal.

This extraordinary man, regarded today as the ‘Father of Conservation’, was truly ahead of his time. His passionate concern for the future of our planet, allied to a unique clarity of thought and expression, enabled him to influence the world’s most powerful men. His legacy in the form of America’s National Parks is there for all to see and enjoy. There is no actual record of their conversations, but perhaps by sprinkling a little Muir-esque imagination into what we do know, we can glean how they might have felt and corresponded.


Scenes from Yosemite – Photographs courtesy of Ken Paterson

The following postcard was written by John Muir to his wife Louisa at their family home in Martinez, California. Muir was spending two nights in the wilderness of Yosemite with President Teddy Roosevelt.

muir tartan

It is generally understood that it was this ‘adventure’ that persuaded Roosevelt to introduce the concept of ‘National Parks’ in the USA.

The following postcard was written by President Roosevelt to John Muir a few weeks after he returned to Washington.

muir postcard

The John Muir tartan was created in 1998 by David McGill for the 150th anniversary of John Muir’s arrival in the United States and was launched at a reception in the San Francisco Bay area City of Pleasanton in 2002 when Muir’s grand-son accepted an inscribed tartan clock and the picture frame on behalf of the Muir family. It is registered on the Scottish Tartan Register No.2682

The colours in the John Muir Tartan were chosen to represent what Muir first saw, and invited us all to see, long before man walked on the moon: the earth spinning silently through infinite space.” The postcards to his wife Louisa, depicted above were distributed at the exhibition – “In the Footsteps of John Muir” –  by Scottish photographer Ken Paterson at Federal Hall in New York City in April 2013. Framed copies of Ken Paterson’s photographs are available and can be seen at www.kenpaterson.co.uk. The exhibition “In the Footsteps of John Muir” will be on display in the Scottish Parliament this January.