John Muir bio kicks off lecture series

Noted sci-fi writer and UC San Diego John Muir College alumnus Kim Stanley Robinson kicked off the new Environments in Motion: Understanding and Protecting Our Planet Lecture Series on Nov. 8, addressing a full house at Ledden Auditorium on the Muir College campus.

Robinson, who is perhaps best known for his Mars Trilogy series: “Red Mars,” “Green Mars,” “Blue Mars,” discussed the life and writings of John Muir, the Sierra Club’s founder and first president, and one of the world’s first environmentalists.

The Environments in Motion lectures, which will be held periodically throughout the year, will feature renowned speakers addressing environmentally relevant topics. Muir College and its Division of Arts & Humanities will sponsor the series.

Muir College Provost John Moore said, “The Environments in Motion lectures will include five to six talks on a variety of topics, such as water, global warming and environmental justice.”

The new dean of the Division of Arts & Humanities, Christina Della Coletta, noted, “We are delighted to start off with a talk by Kim Stanley Robinson, one of our alumni, whom we consider to be a very valuable asset to the university.”

Robinson said he volunteered to talk about John Muir because he admires Muir’s environmental activism and, like Muir, is enchanted with the Sierras.

“I love the Sierras and spend a lot of time hiking there. Many of the descriptions in the books of my Mars Trilogy are taken directly from my experience in the Sierras.”

According to Robinson, John Muir grew up in Dunbar, Scotland in a three-story white brick house. As a young man, he memorized the whole New Testament and two-thirds of the Old Testament. His favorite activity was climbing, then known as “scooching.”

When he was 11 years old, Muir’s family moved to a farm in Wisconsin. Single-handedly, Muir cleared 40 acres for the farm. In his spare time he read and designed all kinds of steam punk-like mechanical devices and contraptions that were more for looks than utility.

When he was 22, Muir enrolled in the University of Wisconsin, and when the Civil War broke out, he moved to Canada to avoid the conflict.

After the war, Muir moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, where he was temporarily blinded in a factory accident. The blinding had a profound effect on him and when his sight returned, he set off on a thousand-mile walk to the Gulf of Mexico where he boarded a ship headed for the Amazon with the intention of studying its plants and animals.

A bout with malaria changed his mind and he took a sailing ship up to San Francisco. After reading a magazine article about Yosemite, he decided to walk there by crossing the great Central Valley on foot and ended up spending five years studying nature in the Sierras.

His primary interest was the formation of the mountains and valleys, which he theorized was due to the chiseling action of glacier ice. His writings about Sierra glaciers, which changed the prevailing scientific notion, were characterized by a rare combination of technical precision and spiritual passion. These writings, which were published by his friend and confidant, Jean Carr, made him a famous public figure.

Later in life, Muir founded the Sierra Club and wrote more about the Sierras, promoting the conservation and protection of its forests and animals. He once spent three days camping alone with President Theodore Roosevelt and undoubtedly influenced Roosevelt’s decision to create a system of national parks.

Pat Adams, who has been the resident dean of Muir College for the past 37 years, attended the lecture and noted, “I learned a lot about the different aspects of Muir’s life that I was not familiar with.”

Daryl DeVinney, a Revelle College graduate, was also at the lecture and said he’s been a friend of Robinson’s since they were UCSD students on the fencing team. He often goes hiking with him in the Sierras.

Maria Winters, a Muir College transfer student from Redlands, said, “Learning about John Muir at this lecture made me feel proud to be a John Muir student.” Fellow undergraduate, Amanda Dieterle added, “It was a very refreshing to hear that Muir was a man who followed his passion and made a positive impact on the world.”

—For news about forthcoming lectures, visit the UCSD Division of Arts & Humanities website at