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John Muir Exhibit:
Using John Muir to Promote Environmental Awareness

By Dr. Barbara Mossberg

John Muir's inspiring life makes for a wonderful organizational theme around which schools, youth organizations, or Sierra Club chapters and groups can promote environmental awareness. John Muir as an inspirational concept encompasses several kinds of activities.

Muir as Writer: Essay Contests

Because he was unusually famous as a writer, the idea of an essay contestis perfect. Students could be asked to write an essay about one aspect of nature they care about and want others to care about, after first reading Muir's pieces on the juniper tree or grasshopper or lying on the ground looking up at the stars; they could be asked to write letters to the editors expressing their own value of the environment in their communities; and so on.

Muir as Journalist: Nature Journals

Students could look at examples from Muir's journals, with both sketches and observations, and take them on trips, hikes, excursions, or even into the schoolyard. It was said that he was such a keen and enthusiastic observer that it took him ten hours to walk a mile. People could stake out 100 yards with a journal and write on what they see going on in the environment, everything they see going on at once; advanced work on this could be theories of how whatever they are looking at came to be (using Muir's observations on glaciers, for example, as a model). See Keeping a Nature Journal by Bonnie J. Gisel.

Muir as Backpacker: Planning an Expedition

After a reading from A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf, or Chapter 5 of The Life and Letters of John Muir, for example, students could design the contents of their own backpack if they were to undertake a similar botanical, geological, wilderness expedition -- or any kind of expedition in life.

The contents might include:

  • equipment for collecting or other scientific activities (water testing, soil samples, etc.)
  • a blank journal (write on flyleaf their own poetic "address" - Muir had written "Earth-Planet, Universe")
  • three books they cannot leave home without (Muir had chosen a copy of The New Testament, Milton's Paradise Lost, and Burns's Poems), and
  • a few other indispensable items; perhaps crackers, dried fruit, etc.

After completing this exercise, students could bring their backpacks and discuss what is in them and why. There could be a kind of gallery show of the backpacks, with people explaining the contents of their backpacks.

Muir the Exuberant: Tree Yearbooks

Read of Muir's enthusiastic responses to nature, and develop dramatic skits, songs, and programs in which people express responses to the environment.

Read some of Muir's inspirational passages, and note his use of words to inspire value for what we see in the environment. Make blank journals with some of these quotes from Muir on the tops of pages. Then walk outside in a park or garden, preferably a place with trees. "Behold" the trees and write your own thoughts alongside Muir's. People could then write in other people's journals their thoughts about the trees, so they could go home with a book which includes not only Muir's words and their own but those of their friends and schoolmates and members of their communities.

Other Ideas

What if there had been a Sierra Club when Muir was growing up? He essentially experienced one through his readings that inspired him to get outside and behold nature and educate about it and advocate on its behalf. Consider a library project in which people contribute titles or actual copies of works that have inspired them to value and/or work on behalf of nature; community groups and schools could show these as exhibits, and additional projects could emerge from those.

There are so many ways from pre-K to adult, to use Muir to inspire activities; as someone himself who is shaped by his educational experiences, he is a terrific model on which to base activities to inspire leadership, science, and arts and humanities about the environment. Today we see how closely related these are to the Sierra Club's educational mission and values.

See many more project ideas in our John Muir Lesson Plans.

Dr. Barbara Mossberg
Professor, Integrated Studies
California State University Monterey Bay
100 Campus Center Seaside, CA 93955

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