Printer-friendly version Share:  Share this page on FacebookShare this page on TwitterShare this page by emailShare this page with other services

A Tribute to John Muir:

Naturalist, Writer, and Man

by George Hamlin Fitch

From San Francisco Chronicle, Vol, CV, X, No. 196, December 28, 1914, pg. 9.


Of all that has been written of the scenic beauty and grandeur of the California High Sierra, the work of John Muir will live the longest, because it is close to the primeval rocks and trees that he loved so well. For years I had read everything that Muir wrote and I recall vividly the delight with which I reviewed his first book on "the Mountains of California." It displaced in my affections Clarence King's "Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada," because in some subtle way Muir seemed to be nearer to those lonesome peaks among which he was fond of living, even in midwinter. Even better than this book were "My First Summer in the Sierra" and "The Yosemite." Into these he seemed to pour all his deep love of the mountains, and it must be a cold and unresponsive reader who does not get some thrill of that spiritual fervor which sawed Muir in the presence of the everlasting, snow-capped summits of the High Sierra.

The methods of Muir in getting the secrets of nature were as primitive as those of the Indian. He went to the sources: in other words, he lived among the mountains, and thus accumulated a mass of information, which would have lasted him throughout a life as long as that of Methusaleh. He was n ot contented with one or two visits to the Yosemite, but he built a shack in the great valley and lived there for ten years, winter and summer, studying the aspects of nature in all seasons and storing up mental pictures with which he afterward enriched his books. Perhaps the most characteristic thing in his book about the Sierra is a chapter in which he tells of his experiences during an unexpected snowstorm. He was far up in the High Sierra above the rim of the Yosemite when he was suddenly overtaken by a severe storm. He had only a few crackers, some cheese and a bit of bacon, and no means of making a fire. So he made a bed in a snow bank and for three days lived as a bear would live in such a driving snowstorm. Wild animals he saw during this time, but no human being was within miles. Yet he records his observations with the same delight that Thoreau would have felt under similar circumstance.

Muir never carried a weapon during all his rambles in the mountains, and he seldom made any provision for food beyond crackers, cheese, bacon and beans.

To my mind, John Muir is the finest naturalist California has produced and one of the greatest men. Although he came here in his maturity, he has been so closely associated with the State for over forty years that we may claim him as a Californian. Here he made his home and here his life work was done, a life work so fine and enduring that it will exist long after any monument of marble or bronze has vanished. That is the surpassing reward of the man who can write really great books. Although John Muir did not have the keen literary faculty of John burroughs, he was the master of a fine literary style, which in its simplicity and charm seemed to reflect the character of the man. With never a trace of self-consciousness he poured out the stores of his observation, and his enthusiasm over the grand scenery of the Sierra Nevada has stimulated thousands to follow in his footsteps and get inspiration from the sources that fed his spirit. The Sierra Club is one of the fruits of his works: an organization whose annual trips to the mountains of California are attended every year by increasing numbers of those who delight to lift their eyes to the everlasting hills. This club, which owed its existence to Muir's teachings, has had a potent influence in cultivating a love of primitive nature. It has proved that a summer outing in the High Sierra is capable of coloring and enriching a whole year of routine life and work in the city.

Muir gave the world in his "Story of My Boyhood and Youth" glimpses of his hard early life in Scotland and Wisconsin, but shining through this life of work and hardship was the lad's eager desire for beauty and knowledge. This compelling desire drove him from the remote farm to the University of Wisconsin and made him first an accomplished botanist and then a great geologist. But above all it made him a lover of trees and mountains and it inspired him to preach the gospel of beauty in nature that moved the heart of the whole world. In this work he lost all consciousness of self, all desire for profit. Hence his strength was as the strength of a legion, because of his purity of heart and purpose. With the faith of a little child he looked upon the mountains and the forests, and they taught him the wisdom of the ages.

As a man Muir was greater than as a naturalist. When you talked with him you felt instinctively that here was a man consecrated to his great work. Absolutely without any pretense, free from all self-consciousness, he met everyone in the simple spirit of brotherhood. All that was necessary to make him your friend was a love of nature.then, if he was in the mood, he would talk as if inspired of rare days he had spent in Yosemite and rare nights under the stars on the slopes of Tyndall or Lyell. His fine eyes would grow luminous and in them you saw the spirit that made him a revealer of the secrets of the trees and the mountains.

My best recollection of Muir is of meeting him and Robert Underwood Johnson, then and until very recently editor of the Century, on their return from a rapid trip to the Yosemite. They took dinner with me in Jules' old restaurant on Pine street. Muir was in great spirits and he talked as I never heard him talk before or since - with the happy rapt face of a seer, as though the vision of the majestic mountains and the great trees that were saplings when Rome was founded was actually before his eyes. that is the way I like to recall him - as a man moved by the spiritual forces that he actually compelled a careless nation to preserve the Yosemite valley, the Big Trees and the Yellowstone Park as an everlasting heritage of the people.


Source: San Francisco Chronicle, Vol, CV, X, No. 196, December 28, 1914, pg. 9.

See also in this issue:

Muir Laid to Rest Across the Bay - [Report of John Muir's Funeral] - San Francisco Chronicle - December 28, 1914


Home | Alphabetical Index | What's New  


Sierra Club® and "Explore, enjoy and protect the planet"® are registered trademarks of the Sierra Club. © 2014 Sierra Club.
The Sierra Club Seal is a registered copyright, service mark, and trademark of the Sierra Club.