Oct 12, 2009

John Muir and Florida

John Muir was a great naturalist and a large reason the USA has an offering of large tracts of land prevented from development by the government, ie our National Parks. He traveled to our state, Florida, at a young age. Here is a short study of his adventures.
If you have never been, Muir Woods, outside San Francisco and named in honor of him, is outstanding

Just about this time of year, in October 1867, a young man who had grown up in Wisconsin stepped off a steamship named the Sylvan Shore onto the soil of Florida, land of his dreams.

John Muir, then 29, had envisioned Florida as a bright, sunny landscape bursting with trees, each one in bloom.

But that wasn't the "gate by which I entered the promised land," he wrote of his arrival at Fernandina. Instead, he found low salt marshes, gray vistas belonging more to the sea than the land.

Muir bought a loaf of bread at a Fernandina bakery, ate some for breakfast and then set off on foot across the tangled peninsula to Cedar Key.

This is the same John Muir who was such a central figure in the recent PBS series The National Parks: America's Best Idea, the same John Muir hailed as the "father of the National Park System" and a founder of the Sierra Club.

On Saturday, the club's Northeast Florida group celebrated the Florida adventures of the man who would become America's most famous naturalist with a family walk in the woods.

But we can all experience Muir's account of wild Central Florida in the years after the Civil War by dipping into the book he left us, A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf.

Although Muir landed in Florida on a steamer from Savannah, most of his 1,000-mile journey was indeed made on foot. Taking off from Indianapolis about Sept. 2, he covered about 25 miles a day, stopping often to "botanize," as he called it — examining and making notes about plants.

"I was a few miles south of Louisville when I planned my journey," he later wrote. "I spread out my map under a tree and made up my mind to go through Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia to Florida, thence to Cuba, thence to some part of South America."

He never made it to South America on that trip. Florida greeted him not only with many wonders but with the mosquito-carried malaria that plagued early settlers. Muir recovered, cared for by the Hodgson family of Cedar Key, and journeyed to Cuba after some months. He still wanted to head south, but fate intervened when he spotted an ad for cheap ship fares to California. There, in the mountains of Yosemite Valley, Muir found his true home.

Ingenious inventor

What a fascinating fellow he was. Born in 1838 in Dunbar, Scotland, he emigrated to Wisconsin at age 11. Working long hours on the family farm, the young Muir managed to educate himself through early-morning reading and close observation of nature.

He also became an inventor, "a carver of curious but practical mechanisms in wood," according to his biography at SierraClub.org.

"He made clocks that kept accurate time and created a wondrous device that tipped him out of bed before dawn."

In 1867, Muir's life seems to have been changed forever by an accident at a carriage-parts shop where he was working. He lost his sight and, when he regained it a month later, vowed to use his eyes to explore the wonders of nature. Soon he was off on his thousand-mile trek, only a satchel in his hand.

And it was after his visit to Florida that Muir seems to have first expounded the view that nature is valuable for its own sake.

Many men "are painfully astonished whenever they find anything, living or dead, in all God's universe, which they cannot eat or render in some way what they call useful to themselves," Muir wrote.

Muir didn't see it that away. Nature's grandeur was much larger than man. In the notebook he used on his Florida trek, he signed his name "John Muir, Earth-planet, Universe."

"He never was and never could be a parochial student of nature," wrote Muir's editor, William Frederic Badè.

"Even at the early age of 29, his eager interest in every aspect of the natural world had made him a citizen of the universe."

Orlando Sentinel 10/11/09
Joy Wallace Dickinson can be reached at jwdickinson@earthlink.net

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