Conservationist, explorer, author and environmental philosopher John Muir was born nearly two centuries ago on April 21, 1838, in a small coastal Scottish town.
Today, Muir is remembered for his profound influence on the American environmentalist movement, considered by many the "father of our National Park System," a "wilderness prophet" and "the patron saint of environmentalism."
Studying the "inventions of God"
Muir found his love for the natural world as a young man in the wake of a dramatic engineering accident.
As a boy, Muir was far more interested in man-made inventions, constructing intricate wooden clocks and even a "loafer’s chair" designed to reinforce good posture by triggering a pistol to fire blanks if its occupant slumped.
In college, Muir used his dorm room at the University of Wisconsin, Madison as a workshop, continuing to build clocks, including a particularly handy alarm clock that literally launched him out of bed, lit his lamp and served up his textbooks on a preset schedule.
Though his sight eventually returned, Muir wrote this incident inspired him to bid "adieu to mechanical inventions" and "to devote the rest of (his) life to the study of the inventions of God."
Over the course of his lifetime, Muir became a diligent student and defender of nature.
He founded the prominent environmental organization the Sierra Club, convinced the U.S. government to preserve Yosemite, Sequoia, Grand Canyon and Mount Rainier as national parks and traveled the country preaching his gospel of conservation.
Muir was also a prolific and eloquent, albeit reluctant, author. In "A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir," biographer Donald Worster notes that even though Muir "would rather be climbing some remote peak," he "worked hard at becoming a writer who could effectively explain and defend nature to the public … ."
Muir published dozens of books and articles documenting his travels. While he is primarily known for his writings on Yosemite Valley and the Sierra Nevada mountain range, he traveled as far as Africa and Australia — and even spent time touring Utah.
John Muir in Utah
Muir visited Utah briefly in the spring of 1877 to write four articles for the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin, which were printed in May and June of that year and reprinted in the book "Steep Trails" after his death.
Worster speculates that Muir may have been sent to cover potential conflict between the Mormon Nauvoo Legion and federal troops in the Utah Territory, as several other reporters were called upon to do during this time.
But if the paper was expecting a gripping report of bloodshed and political conflict, Muir’s stories would have been a great disappointment. He was much more interested in documenting Utah’s rocky peaks and fertile valleys, with an occasional observation on the peculiar Mormon families he met.
According to Worster: "Utah did not figure largely in his life work, nowhere near as much as California or Alaska. But John Muir did leave a small pile of words about Utah, published and unpublished, words that are worth uncovering. He was one of the first to celebrate the incomparable wild beauty of this place."
Here's a look at what Muir had to say about his brief time in Utah, as recorded in both his published articles and personal journals.
Bathing in the Great Salt Lake
Today the Great Salt Lake is known for its swarming flies and corrosive waters, but Muir couldn’t resist taking a dip when he first encountered it.
Muir described his experience as "a glorious baptism" and wrote when you wade into Salt Lake "you are hugged and welcomed, and swim without effort, rocking and heaving up and down, in delightful rhythm, while the winds sing in chorus and the cool, fragrant brine searches every fiber of your body; and at length you are tossed ashore with a glad Godspeed, braced and salted and clean as a saint."
After his exhilarating swim, Muir concluded that "thousands of travelers, sick and well, would throng its shores every summer were its merits but half known."
Climbing Utah’s mountains
According to Muir’s accounts, it seems the only aspect of Utah that rivaled the Great Salt Lake was the territory’s towering mountains. When describing Salt Lake City, Muir observed that "the mountains rise grandly round about this curious city, the Zion of the new Saints, so grandly that the city itself is hardly visible."
Describing the rocky peaks after a storm, Muir noted "the gray sagey slopes from the base of the Oquirrh Mountains were covered with a thick, plushy cloth of gold, soft and ethereal as a cloud, not merely tinted and gilded like a rock with autumn sunshine, but deeply muffled beyond recognition. Surely nothing in heaven, nor any mansion of the Lord in all his worlds, could be more gloriously carpeted."
To Muir, the Wasatch and Oquirrh ranges, formed "far the grandest series of glacial monuments (he had) yet seen this side of the Sierra."
In his writing intended to focus on Salt Lake City, Muir wrote he "meant to describe the city, but in the company of these noble old mountains, it is not easy to bend one's attention upon anything else."
Salt Lake City
When he wasn’t mesmerized by mountains, Muir did take time to describe the territory’s human activities.
Salt Lake City, he observed, "cannot be called a very beautiful town, neither is there anything ugly or repulsive about it."
Muir was impressed by the city’s simple homes and intricate irrigation system, although he was not pleased to see streams "used to some extent as sewers" and manifesting "the consequence of contact with civilization."
He was most taken with the city’s leafiness and the Saints’ many flower gardens.
"Scarce a home, however obscure" was without a "simple, unostentatious" flower garden full of daisies, mint, lilac bushes and English tulips, Muir wrote.
Muir admired this "love for flowers by people comparatively poor" and noted that he had never seen lilacs and tulips "in greater perfection."
Meeting Mormon families
When observing Mormons themselves, Worster writes that Muir "took a rather ambivalent view of the Mormon people, liking and disliking them in about equal measure."
In his personal notebook, Muir narrated his stay in Nephi at the home of a 73-year-old Mormon bishop, his five wives and 41 children.
Muir was impressed by their prosperity, calling them "the best fed(,) best clad(,) happiest (and) most self-respecting poor people I ever saw." He attributed this material success to their orderly domesticity and strong work ethic.
Unlike many other Americans at the time, Muir didn’t seem troubled by the morality of polygamy. He did, however, worry about the physical toll it took on its practitioners, observing that the women were perhaps "patiently carrying burdens heavier than they were well able to bear."
Yet Muir was particularly enchanted with the many Mormon children he encountered, or what he called "Utah’s best crop."
"But however 'the peculiar doctrines' and 'peculiar practices' of Mormonism have affected the bodies and the minds of the old Saints, the little Latter-Day boys and girls are as happy and natural as possible, running wild, with plenty of good hearty parental indulgence, playing, fighting, gathering flowers in delightful innocence," Muir wrote.