Muir knew that the wilds surrounding him not only fed his soul but sustain us all. Too many of our current elected officials have forgotten his lesson. They seek to sell off our public lands throughout my western home to view them as little more than sources of oil and gas, and to strip federal oversight that has kept these lands there for all of us, generation after generation.
Every time I watch my children run ahead in the mountains above my Colorado home I know why those public lands matter. My training in earth sciences only reinforced what’s always been personal. I’m a mother, a scientist, an educator, and like Muir of late, facing the call to fight for the treasures we all need.
Every year, I take more than my children to the lands around me. I take groups of undergraduate students out of the classroom and into the open spaces around the University of Colorado. I give them their assignment: observe the landscape closely and formulate a question, hypotheses.
Then I hand them shovels and bags and vials. I teach them how to collect soils, plants, water.
They work enthusiastically, even joyously. Then they take their labeled samples to the lab where those vials and bags become data points, data points become graphs, and graphs become the foundation for scientific narrative.
In telling a story of the landscape through data, my students follow their curiosity first and learn to think critically. And though they don’t know it, I am starting a movement in my classroom to encourage the growth of more keen observers who turn their knowledge into action.
I want my students to value the beauty of wild open spaces, to know why they matter. I want them to pass what they learn on to friends and family. And I want them to understand that the pressures Muir faced are even greater today, but that we can balance human needs while holding onto nature. But toss out the latter, and the former will begin to erode too.
The wild lands around us that purify our air and water keep us healthier each day even when we cannot be amidst them. According to Muir, the lands feed our souls, bond our families, and open our hearts. I cannot imagine a world where generations to come don’t know how it feels to wander into the wilds without another person in sight.
Now is a critical time to recall the legacy of John Muir: our public lands are not commodities to be bought and sold. They are not part of a real estate empire. They are as inalienable to our nation as the fundamental pillars of our constitution. We must commit to taking the long view and protect public lands, open and free.
One day my children will be grown and able to camp alone under a wide, starlit sky. I want them to know that this gift, initiated by Muir, was stewarded through the years. That I stood up for safeguarding the cool air, the towering trees, the shadowy canyon walls that surround them. And that millions of others did too.
Featured image credit: U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt and nature preservationist John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, on Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park. In the background: Upper and lower Yosemite Falls, 1906. Photo by Underwood & Underwood, Library of Congress. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.