Human fame is a fleeting and unpredictable phenomenon. Persons famous in one time or place can often be unknown in other settings. Until recently, such has been the case elsewhere for one of California’s most famous historical residents.
For those who enjoy the natural world, no California name carries more weight than that of the famous naturalist John Muir. More features bear his name, it has been calculated, than the name of any other historic resident of the Golden State. We have John Muir schools and hospitals; trails, passes and peaks celebrate his memory; we have even named a freeway after him.
Cultural historians often identify Muir as a seminal figure in the development of modern America’s attitudes toward nature and wilderness. No other similar figure looms as large.
Muir lived more than half his life here in California, but he began his adventures far from the Golden State. Born in 1838, Muir came into this world in Scotland, and he spent the first eleven years of his life there. He would not arrive in California until he was thirty years old.
Muir’s Scottish birth makes it more than a little surprising that until recently this famous California resident was almost unknown there and, in fact, little known or appreciated throughout the British Isles. Now all that is changing.
As I discovered during my spring visit to Scotland to speak at a national park conference, Muir’s reputation there is undergoing a renaissance. The Scots, it appears, have finally noticed the international importance of their native son.
Scotland sent numerous boatloads of immigrants to North America during the middle years of the nineteenth century. These additions to the populations of Canada and the United States added much to both nations. Even in this often-august company, however, Muir stands out.
He is, it can be argued, one of the two most significant Scottish immigrants ever to be received by this country. Only the industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie stands as large in our history, if for very different reasons.
Now, the Scots have begun to appreciate Muir and what he accomplished here. This renewed interest in Muir began when a small group hoping to protect key natural sites in Scotland formed the John Muir Trust in 1983.
Today, this group has grown to over 10,000 members, all committed to protecting nature in the Scottish part of the British Isles. Working much like the non-profit land trusts we have in this country, Scotland’s John Muir Trust both acquires land for public purposes and works with private landowners to perpetuate natural values.
California has the 212-mile-long John Muir Trail linking Yosemite with Mt. Whitney in Sequoia National Park. Now, Scotland has the 134-mile-long John Muir Way, which stretches from Muir’s birthplace at Dunbar on the North Sea westward to Helenburgh on the Irish Sea. The trail’s full length was dedicated just three months ago in a ceremony presided over by Scotland’s first minister.
And just as we preserve John Muir’s California home at the John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez so, too, do the Scots preserve the house in which Muir was born. Under the care of the John Muir Birthplace Trust, the old house in Dunbar where Muir came into the world is now a museum dedicated to the famous naturalist and his worldwide significance.
Muir’s rediscovery by the land of his birth reinforces the naturalist’s belief that the many elements that make up our world are all interconnected. As he wrote long ago in one of his most famous quotes: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
Now, through the life of this nineteenth century immigrant, Scotland and California are “hitched” a bit closer together.
© Wm. Tweed