This week will see the life and times of one person whose impact on Scotland and the wider world continue to reverberate to the present day, and will do so beyond, mulled over and reflected upon at great length. This is not a reference to the Iron Lady, however, who will be buried at considerable public expense amidst a cavalcade of pomp and circumstance midweek. The individual to whom I refer was born 175 years ago, on 21 April 1838, and is known everywhere as the father of America’s National Parks. More than that this Scot, whose family left Dunbar bound for Wisconsin, via Glasgow and New York, was a prolific writer and environmental campaigner, before such a thing existed, and his work in the Sierra and Yosemite Valley on the USA’s west coast kickstarted the nature conservation movement as we know it today.
John Muir’s work is of particular interest to me this week, following a conversation I had on a visit to the pacific state recently, when I got into a discussion on the subject of John Muir’s legacy with a local in modern society’s official meeting point, the supermarket. The conversation involved myself being encouraged to pay a visit to Yosemite National Park, being so close to where I was at the time, and my noting that of course it was a Scot who founded the Park in the first place. Interestingly, I thought, my friendly local knew well enough that John Muir was the godfather of Yosemite National Park, but hadn’t realised he was in fact a Scot. I took much pleasure in pointing this out at the time – there’s something inherent in every Scot I think, which perhaps is our recompense for having an embarrassingly unclear understanding, even ourselves, of what our place is in the world right now, which makes us feel a tad ashamed, that when given the opportunity to rally on about how we invented everything, we grasp it fervently – and in this instance I was met by ‘oohs’ and ‘aah really’s?’
Anyway, this conversation did get me thinking about the peculiarly Scottish trait of not making enough of a song and dance about our greatest men and women. In the US, anyone remotely interested in the country’s history would be able to tell you who John Muir was and some of his achievements. American history, culture and a pride in their place in the world is drilled into children practically as soon as they are born.
John Muir’s life is a fascinating story and one that should be much better known in the country of his birth. One need only note that in the UK a National Parks Act was first put in place in 1949, whereas Yosemite gained its status in 1890, and Yellowstone before it as far back as 1872. In Scotland, it took over 100 years after John Muir’s success with Yosemite, to 2002, before our first National Park at Loch Lomonds & Trossachs was officially recognised by government. This is despite the fact that since the very early Victorian days Scotland was a tourist destination renowned for its natural beauty and unique, mysterious landscape.
And John Muir himself, already an old hand in the fight to preserve America’s natural splendour, visited Scotland in 1893 and wrote to his wife describing the beauty of the country which produced him. That we took so long before finally making moves to protect our fantastic landscape does leave me wondering precisely why?
The Sierra Club, also founded by John Muir in 1892, continues to this day with a statewide network of members and activists, to promote and educate on the importance of environmental protection and understanding the flora and fauna of the country.
One of John Muir’s greatest coups, and which contributed in many ways to advancing his reputation as the father of America’s National Park network, was when he took new President Theodore Roosevelt camping for three days in Yosemite, in an effort to get all of the area back in federal government control. It worked, and thus has John Muir remained at the forefront of consciousness amongst adventurers and environmentalists the world over ever since.
This Sunday therefore I suggest we ignore the farce of Maggie Thatcher’s not-quite state funeral, and remember instead the birthday of one great man, without whom many wildernesses and areas of unimaginable natural beauty could well have been left to the mercy of exploitative prospectors, and whose legacy continues in our efforts today to prevent the destruction of natural habitats across the globe.
And remember, of course, should the opportunity arise, to remind people his ideas were very much born and bred in Scotland.