Lesson Plan

Pathways to Discovery – Muir’s Trees and Writing Activity


Use America's largest national park as a pathway to discovery!

In this lesson, students take part in a writing activity which allows them to reflect on some of their thoughts about trees.


  • To familiarize students with the structure, function and importance of trees.

  • To develop identification skills.


Explain to students that throughout time many people have gone to the woods for retreat and to be inspired. Trees have provided inspiration for many people. What is it that makes trees impress and inspire us so? Ask them if they know who John Muir was.


Journal or paper and pencil


Read the following story about how John Muir gained his inspirations:

John Muir: Nature’s Visionary

“I have not yet in all my wanderings found a single person so free as myself,” he confided to a friend. Of all American naturalists, Muir was the wildest; he was also the most active, the most self-reliant, and the most persuasive, probably because his knowledge came from nature, not simply from books. In the endless pursuit of wisdom, John Muir rejected creature comforts, preferring instead to live on “essences and crumbs.” His beard and hair grew shaggy; his clothes became equally scruffy. But Muir’s rough-hewn exterior and free-form life-style never prevented him from succeeding. He lived his own life, following the direction of his heart for good or ill—and yet he still brought lasting changes to the world.

Whether camping among the sequoias or scaling an unclimbed peak, Muir went alone, continually exposing himself to what others might consider unthinkable dangers: avalanches, bears, frostbite, isolation, fierce storms. But to Muir, such dangers were merely grand opportunities to explore the mysterious natural world that served him as both laboratory and temple. When a winter storm descended on the Yuba River valley of northern California, he “lost no time in pushing out into the woods to enjoy it.” Nature’s raw power fascinated him with scenes of “pine six feet in diameter bending like grasses.” Falling trees crashed about him. “The air was mottled with pine tassels and bright green plume, that went flashing past in the sun-light like birds pursued.” But that was not enough; the wild-spirited Muir needed to immerse himself in the storm’s very heart “and get my ear close to the music”—and so he climbed a hundred-foot Douglas fir tree, its wind bullied top “rocking and swirling in wild delight.” Here he spent much of the afternoon, captivated by “so noble an excitement of motion.”

Yet Muir’s senses tuned in to the wonder as well as to the terror. From his lofty perch he sorted out faint fragrances borne on raging gusts. “Winds are advertisements of all they touch,” he noted, his nose telling him that “this wind came first from the sea, rubbing against its fresh, salty waves, then filtered through the redwoods, threading rich ferny gulches, and spreading itself in broad rolling currents over many a flower-decorated ridge of the coast mountains, then…into these piney woods with the varied perfume gathered by the way.” Such sensitivity of feeling and thought deepened throughout Muir’s life, reflecting a delightfully child-like wonderment, not only in storms but in anything wild.

A single flower, a bumblebee, a foamy waterfall all were to him great marvels, each a tiny but indispensable part of nature’s grand harmony. And so he never tired of climbing the next ridge—or of campaigning for its preservation. In his day, many people considered the wilds valuable only for their own gain. John Muir began to open their eyes. “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness,” he would preach. “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows in trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”

—From John Muir’s Wild America by Tom Melham Published by: The National Geographic Society, 1976


After reading the story, give students a sheet of paper and ask them to find a comfortable spot near a friendly-looking tree or do this back in class.

Ask them to write a story, a poem or just some of their thoughts about trees. If they are having trouble, give them one of these starting ideas to finish: Trees are important because… If I were a tree I would tell the world… I wish I were a tree because… A tree is like a…


Gather the group back together and encourage students to share what they have written about trees. Ask them if they think our planet is caring for its trees like it should. How could we do better at caring for our trees and forests?

Additional Resources

This lesson is part of our "Pathways to Discovery" unit. The individual lessons can be done individually or as a larger unit of learning. They encourage the development of a student’s awareness and appreciation of the natural world and people’s relationship and role as a part of that natural world.

The lessons are a series of shorter activities that have been blended together under a specific theme with the intent that the activities will be coordinated with units in the existing school curriculum and texts. The materials are organized by grade level, but can actually be adapted for use at any grade level. Check out the full Pathways to Discovery unit of lessons, as well as links to other stand-alone lessons like this one.