Today is John Muir Day in both Scotland, where he was born, and the United States. By a happy coincidence, tomorrow is Earth Day 2018. Overlapping the two, our planet will experience one of the best meteor showers of the year. The 2018 Lyrid meteor shower actually started last weekend, and it will continue until the end of April. However, the peak viewing time will begin tonight and it will last through tomorrow morning. During that period, astronomers expect up to 20 meteors (“shooting stars”) per hour.
As part of your celebration of both John Muir Day and Earth Day, try to find a place away from the city lights. Night owls will get the best view after the moon sets. Bruce McClure of EarthSky writes that you might see 10 to 20 meteors an hour during the early hours of April 22. And, unlike a solar eclipse, it is safe to view a meteor shower with the naked eye. Just don’t keep staring skyward after the sun comes up.
Although the shower is viewable around the world (at least in the northern hemisphere), the chance of seeing the meteors is poor in the south-central states and only fair in the mountain states. But Californians will have an excellent opportunity to view the show, as long as atmospheric conditions don‘t interfere. John Muir would have been ecstatic.
Climate Education Week
It is not by coincidence, however, that this has also been Climate Education Week. The Earth Day Network sets its sights on schools during the week leading up to Earth Day because, “Education focusing on environmental issues is paramount to a sustainable future led by environmentally literate citizens,” according to its website. This year’s theme is “End Plastic Pollution.”
The organization claims, “By equipping students with knowledge, skills, and motivation, they will be ready and able to tackle complex topics such as climate change, natural resource sustainability, and a prosperous global economy.” To accomplish these goals, the organization’s 2018 “toolkit” includes a variety of age-appropriate activities that deal with understanding the production, use, and disposal of plastic products.
The Earth Day Network claims that by “understanding the complete life cycle of plastic products that we use every day, we can begin to understand the impacts those products have on our climate, our environment, and our bodies.” There are seven teaching principles presented by the Learning Zone: the Sun is the primary source of energy; climate is complex; life affects climate and climate affects life; climate is variable; we are capable of understanding climate; humans affect climate; and climate change has consequences.
Of course, none of this knowledge is new. Each principle that has been elaborated by the Learning Zone was quite well understood more than 150 years ago by the Scottish-American naturalist, author, environmental philosopher, glaciologist, and early advocate for the preservation of the wilderness, John Muir.
John Muir was born in Scotland in 1838 and migrated to the United States with his family in 1849. During his early 20s, he took a variety of science courses at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After a few years, he left the college to join his brother in Canada, where he became interested in collecting geological and botanical samples. In 1866, he returned to the United States and began working at a wagon wheel factory. While doing his job, a tool that he was holding slipped and struck him in the eye. A doctor confined him to a dark room for six weeks while his wound healed, but he was unsure as to whether he would ever be able to see again.
When his sight returned, he wrote, “This affliction has driven me to the sweet fields. God has to nearly kill us, sometimes, to teach us lessons.” He decided “to be true to myself and follow my dream of exploration and the study of plants.” After walking about 1,000 miles to Florida, and studying flora along the way, he spent time in Cuba, studying shells and the botanical gardens in Havana. Upon his return to this country, he booked passage on a ship to California and settled in San Francisco.
Almost immediately, he left for a week-long visit to Yosemite. He was captivated by the entire experience, as is evident in this sample of his writing: “I was overwhelmed by the landscape, scrambling down steep cliff faces to get a closer look at the waterfalls, whooping and howling at the vistas, jumping tirelessly from flower to flower.”
Later, he returned to Yosemite, worked as a shepherd, and built a small cabin, which he lived in for two years. During that time, he wrote “First Summer in the Sierra.” Gradually, his interest turned from botany to geology, and then to glaciology. His observations of Yosemite Valley convinced him that the valley had been sculpted by the movement of glaciers. This was in stark contrast to the accepted theory of the day, but it was substantiated by Louis Agassiz, a noted geologist of the late nineteenth century.
Yosemite National Park
In 1889, Robert Underwood Johnson, the influential associate editor of “The Century” magazine, camped with Muir in Tuolumne Meadows and listened to Muir’s idea about turning the area into a national park. In 1890, Johnson used the magazine to support a bill that was introduced to Congress to make the Yosemite area into a national park, modeled after Yellowstone. During that year, he published “The Treasures of Yosemite” and “Features of the Proposed National Park,” but the bill left control of certain areas to the State of California. Consolidation occurred later as California ceded lands to the federal government.
In 1892, San Francisco attorney Warren Olney formed the Sierra Club, and John Muir served as its president until his death in 1914. The organization proposed a number of plans to preserve the Yosemite area and also opposed the construction of the Hetch Hetchy Dam, which inundated Yosemite Valley.
In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt visited Muir in Yosemite, and Muir convinced him that the best way to manage the wilderness was through federal control. Roosevelt decided to stay for awhile and camp with Muir. Perhaps that helped with federal support. So, tonight, as you enjoy the meteor shower, imagine John Muir being with you to appreciate the earth, nature, and the splendor of the universe.
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Jim Glynn may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.