Saturday, April 21, 2007

Happy Birthday to John Muir

Today is the birthday of John Muir (1838-1914). A native of Scotland, Muir settled in this country first in Wisconsin and later made his way to California. Once in California, he worked a series of odd jobs while pursuing his real passion - studying the natural wonders of the Yosemite Valley. His studies convinced him that the ecosystems at Yosemite required protection from livestock grazing and other forms of human encroachment. After a long campaign and a personal intervention with President Theodore Roosevelt, Muir succeeded in his goal of designating Yosemite as a national park. In the course of his life, John Muir founded the Sierra Club and helped shape ideas about conservation.

Though best known for his writings on environmental preservation, Muir was also an enthusiastic observer of birds. In his book, Mountains of California, Muir devotes a chapter to the "Water-Ouzel," now known as the American Dipper.

He is the mountain streams’ own darling, the humming-bird of blooming waters, loving rocky ripple-slopes and sheets of foam as a bee loves flowers, as a lark loves sunshine and meadows. Among all the mountain birds, none has cheered me so much in my lonely wanderings, —none so unfailingly. For both in winter and summer he sings, sweetly, cheerily, independent alike of sunshine and of love, requiring no other inspiration than the stream on which he dwells. While water sings, so must he, in heat or cold, calm or storm, ever attuning his voice in sure accord; low in the drought of summer and the drought of winter, but never silent.

During the golden days of Indian summer, after most of the snow has been melted, and the mountain streams have become feeble, —a succession of silent pools, linked together by shallow, transparent currents and strips of silvery lacework, —then the song of the Ouzel is at its lowest ebb. But as soon as the winter clouds have bloomed, and the mountain treasuries are once more replenished with snow, the voices of the streams and ouzels increase in strength and richness until the flood season of early summer. Then the torrents chant their noblest anthems, and then is the flood-time of our songster’s melody. As for weather, dark days and sun days are the same to him. The voices of most song-birds, however joyous, suffer a long winter eclipse; but the Ouzel sings on through all the seasons and every kind of storm. Indeed no storm can be more violent than those of the waterfalls in the midst of which he delights to dwell. However dark and boisterous the weather, snowing, blowing, or cloudy, all the same he sings, and with never a note of sadness. No need of spring sunshine to thaw his song, for it never freezes. Never shall you hear anything wintry from his warm breast; no pinched cheeping, no wavering notes between sorrow and joy; his mellow, fluty voice is ever tuned to downright gladness, as free from dejection as cock-crowing.