Social Studies

How John Muir and Rachel Carson Planted the Seeds for Earth Day

5 Min Read
Muir Carson2

In celebration of Earth Day, I thought we could take a moment to celebrate the two great HMH authors who had an indirect hand in its creation: John Muir and Rachel Carson.

I say indirect because both Muir and Carson died before the first Earth Day was established in 1970, but their commitment to preserving the natural world, as well as their powerful writing styles, were often cited by Earth Day founders as the motivation behind the holiday. Published by HMH, Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring is credited with igniting the environmental movement of the 1960s, and Earth Day’s date was chosen in part because it fell close to Muir’s birthday on April 21.

John Muir

John Muir was born in Scotland in 1838. When he was 11, Muir moved with his family to a farm in Wisconsin that is now a National Historic Landmark. It was there that Muir spent many hours exploring the fields and forests surrounding the farm.

Muir Books2

Muir attended the University of Wisconsin to study botany, chemistry, and geology. Though he never earned enough credits to graduate, Muir continued his education outside of the classroom, as explained in his 1913 memoir The Story of My Boyhood and Youth:

From the top of a hill on the north side of Lake Mendota I gained a last wistful, lingering view of the beautiful University grounds … But I was only leaving one University for another, the Wisconsin University for the University of the Wilderness.

In September 1867, Muir walked the roughly 1,000 miles “along the wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way I could find” from Indiana to Florida, which he later recounted in his book A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, published by HMH after his death in 1916.

From Florida, Muir eventually found his way to California and his life’s work: preserving the forests and other wild areas from industrial encroachment. In 1890, Yosemite was named a national park thanks to his advocacy, and in 1892, he founded the Sierra Club. Muir lobbied Congress extensively and wrote numerous essays and articles all in support of establishing more national parks and protecting more wildlife.

In 1903, Muir spent three days with President Theodore Roosevelt camping in Yosemite, and successfully convinced him to include the Yosemite Valley in the already established Yosemite National Park. Below is an image of Roosevelt and Muir posing on Overhanging Rock in Yosemite.

Muir And Tr

Only after his death in 1914 were most of Muir’s writings published. Though he was an avid writer, he did not see the value in publication. In his words, "I have a low opinion of books, they are but piles of stones set up to show coming travelers where other minds have been. … One day’s exposure to mountains is better than cartloads of books."

Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson was not an activist in the manner of Muir. She did not lobby or place herself at the front of the advocacy ranks, but her eloquent words and the information she painstakingly researched and presented in Silent Spring sparked an environmental revolution. Though Carson and her book were fiercely attacked by chemical companies who disputed Carson’s claim that pesticides were destroying wildlife, her publication ultimately resulted in a nationwide ban on DDT and other pesticides, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the environmental movement that inspired Earth Day.

2 Silent Spring

Carson had two interests—writing and science—and she was very good at both. She began as a biologist working for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries and wrote several pamphlets on aquatic life for the agency. She then became a full-time writer in the 1950s, winning a National Book Award for her exploration of marine life in The Sea Around Us, published by Oxford University Press in 1951. Carson’s first book published with HMH was The Edge of the Sea, published in 1955.

Edgeof Sea

Through her study of the sea, Carson became acutely aware of the harm human behavior was causing to marine life and thus, she began to build her case against the use of pesticides, resulting in, of course, Silent Spring.

Rachel Carson died on April 14, 1964, and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter.

You may be wondering why, in writing about Earth Day and HMH’s long history of publishing environmental writing, I haven’t mentioned Thoreau or Emerson. There is no doubt that both men’s writings about nature had a huge influence on future generations. They form the philosophical foundation of the environmental movement. John Muir was a great admirer of Emerson, and the two met in 1871 when Emerson and a number of friends from Boston went to Yosemite. According to legend, Emerson was delighted by Muir and even offered him a teaching position at Harvard University. Muir declined, saying (or so he wrote later in his journals): "I never for a moment thought of giving up God's big show for a mere professorship!"

It is this sense of work to be done and the necessity to advocate for the environment that Earth Day celebrates and that defined both John Muir and Rachel Carson. It is a legacy of which to be proud.


Want to further immerse your students in history? Learn more about the HMH Social Studies program for students in Grades 6–12.

This blog post was updated in March 2019.

Related Reading

Summer learning activities for elementary and middle school students

Brenda Iasevoli
Shaped Executive Editor

Summer learning activities for elementary and middle school students

Brenda Iasevoli
Shaped Executive Editor