The year John Muir traveled through Union County, Georgia was 1867. The nation was recovering from ravages of the Civil War, and life in the nation was going through major transitions. Who was this man, John Muir, and why was he interested in making a thousand mile walk to the Gulf, recording what he learned about nature and the environment?
He was born April 21, 1838 at Dunbar in East Lothian, Scotland. His father was Daniel Muir and his mother was Ann Gilrye Muir. John Muir had two brothers and five sisters.
When John Muir was eleven years of age, his parents migrated to the United States, settling in Wisconsin where his father purchased land and farmed. John was an astute student, especially in the area of earth sciences. He attended the University of Wisconsin, but decided, rather than graduate from what he called “a man-made school,” he wanted to enroll in “the university of the wilderness.” To get money for the journey he wanted to make, he worked for parts of 1866 and 1867 as an industrial engineer in a factory in Indianapolis, Indiana. It was there an accident almost cost him his eyesight but fortunately he recovered so that he could see the beauties of nature he so much admired. In 1867 he set out from Indiana on his way to the Gulf Coast of Florida, a thousand mile trip by foot.
We can imagine the angular John Muir, at age twenty-nine, already with a beard (how would he take time to shave on this 1,000 mile trek to the sea?) for which he was still noted in his later life. In his knapsack he had a press where he preserved foliages of various specimens that interested him. He wrote friends and relatives that he would travel through Murphy, NC, Blairsville, GA and Gainesville, GA, and advised them to address letters to him at Gainesville, for he was “terribly letter-hungry.” Muir averaged traveling twenty-five miles per day on this journey, a good speed, considering the mountains through which much of his trek lay.
Along his route, he talked to strangers and many befriended him, taking him into their homes for meals and lodging. On September 19, 1867, a “mountaineer” near Murphy, NC, along the Hiawassee River, told him about the gap south of Blairsville and the strange tracks on the rocks there. Going by what Muir called “Track Gap,” he saw the indentations in the rocks, and as his mountaineer host had explained, there were “bird tracks, bar tracks, hoss tracks, men tracks, in solid rock, as if it had been mud.”
He continued his journey, admiring the Blue Ridges that stretched before him in grandeur. He stopped at a home near Yonah Mountain near Cleveland, GA in the evening of September 22, 1867. He wrote in his journal that he “had a long conversation with an old Methodist (former) slaveholder and mine owner.” He enjoyed homemade cider with his host.
As Muir met people on his travels throughout the Blue Ridge mountains, he must have felt a kinship with them. For many of the settlers in the coves and valleys of the land he traversed had been immigrants from Scotland as had he and his family.
He wrote much on this trip to the Gulf. I have selected two significant quotations for they seem to give us the heart of John Muir’s philosophy about nature:
“There is not a ‘fragment’ in all nature, for every relative fragment of one thing is a full harmonious unit in itself.”
He must have encountered death on the journey—death of wildlife, death of people, death of trees, shrubs, plants. He wrote introspectively of death:
“On no subject are our ideas more warped and pitiable than on death. Let children walk with nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless, indeed, and as beautiful as life, and that the grave has no victory, for it never fights. All is divine harmony.”[Both quotations are in A THOUSAND MILE WALK TO THE GULF published posthumously in 1916.]
When Muir arrived at the Gulf in Florida, he had hoped to go on to South America from there and take another thousand-mile journey on that continent, studying botany and the landscape as he had from Indianapolis to Florida. But he took malaria, and the illness prevented his going further. He got passage on a ship and arrived at San Francisco, California in March, 1868.
He was captivated by the Yosemite Valley, and spent most of the remainder of his life until his death December 24, 1914, working with President Theodore Roosevelt and others in getting a bill passed in Congress to set up Yosemite and other National Parks, saving the giant Sequoia trees, and trying to prevent a dam on the Tuolumne River and using the Hetch Hetchy Valley as a water reservoir for San Francisco. He organized the Sierra Club and was its first president. He wrote books and articles on conservation and preservation.
John Muir and Louisa Wanda Strentzel were married in 1880. They reared two daughters, Wanda and Helen. President Woodrow Wilson succeeded President Theodore Roosevelt and signed the bill into law on December 19, 1913 to create the Hetch Hetchy Valley dam. When Muir died a year later, one of his admirers and fellow conservationists said he “died of a broken heart” from the destruction of the valley by the water reservoir.
John Muir did not live to see the National Forest Preserves in many of the states he traversed in his trek from Indianapolis to the Florida Gulf in 1867. As we in Union County enjoy the Chattahoochee National Forest and the wilderness areas of North Georgia, we can be grateful that the early naturalist walked through our mountains and saw them as “a full harmonious unit.”
c2005 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published January 5, 2006 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.