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On John Muir's 180th birthday, Cat Webster revisits his roots in the UK and how his passion developed for protecting and exploring wild places.
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity” - John Muir
Stroll along Dunbar High Street and it’s hard to miss the birthplace of John Muir, the coastal town’s most famous son.
The whitewashed three-story building at number 126 has been lovingly restored as a museum dedicated to the life of the man who became known as the father of America's great national parks and founder of the modern conservation movement.
Today, April 21, marks exactly 180 years since Muir’s birth in the East Lothian town where his love of nature was first awoken in childhood explorations of the surrounding fields, cliffs and rock pools.
His remarkable life saw him leave Scotland in 1849 at the age of just 11, bound for America and a new life of toil establishing a family farm in Wisconsin.
There he worked backbreaking 16 hour days in the fields, but still found time to wonder at the unfamiliar flora and fauna of his new homeland.
Finding there were not enough hours in the day for his studies, Muir began to get up at 1am to read and invent ingenious clocks and machinery - including a design to tip a person out of bed at the required time.
He later had his first botany lesson while studying at the University of Wisconsin, which he said triggered a "wild enthusiasm" that is evident in all his writings.
After a factory accident which caused him to go temporarily blind in one eye Muir dedicated his life to the study of nature.
Over decades he wandered alone, documenting his explorations of Yosemite and the wild places of California.
He once spent hours clinging to the top of the tallest tree he could find in a storm, just to see what it was like to be battered by the elements.
Muir eloquently captured the passion he felt for the landscapes and wildlife he encountered as well as his fears for their destruction and degradation.
His concerns about the impact of sheep herding, logging and mining led to his involvement in the creation of Yosemite National Park and the co-founding of the Sierra Club “to do something for wildness and make the mountains glad”.
Muir’s achievements in securing the protection of wild land rightly mark him out as one of the world’s first great conservationists.
But it is his passionate writing on the beauty of the natural world and its benefits for body and soul that have captured the imagination of millions, inspiring generations to care for wild places.
His arguments for the importance of experiencing and protecting nature are as relevant today as they were when they were penned in the mountains and forests of the American wilderness in the late 1800's.
In our fast-paced, high-pressure digital age it seems more crucial than ever to, as Muir put it, "keep close to nature’s heart and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods”.
So on this John Muir Day why not celebrate the life of the great naturalist and mountaineer in the most fitting way...
...switch off, get outside and “wash your spirit clean".