This column originally appeared in the Oct. 24, 2017, issue of the Portage County Gazette. The Muir traveling exhibit hasn’t disappeared, though — it can be booked through the Wisconsin Historical Society for those interested in exhibiting it.
It’s the last weekend to see the state historical society’s exhibit on John Muir while it’s in Stevens Point, but that doesn’t mean it’s your last chance to get a little closer to understanding what he was about.
The eight-panel exhibit, set up through Oct. 21 in the lobby of the library at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, focuses on Muir’s youth in Wisconsin, his advocacy for the U.S. national parks system and his thoughts on environmental issues.
The exhibit’s next stop is UW-Parkside in Kenosha, where it will reside from Oct. 24-Nov. 11, but anyone can get a slightly different take – and likely a more brisk one – by taking a walk at his boyhood home at John Muir Memorial County Park south of Montello.
Frequent hiking buddy Chris Sadler and I made the hour-long drive to Marquette County to take in the early fall air and see where the 10-year-old Muir learned to swim and loved to explore the natural world.
Muir was, of course, one of those pesky immigrants, a Scotsman who made the United States a much better place to live. He did this primarily through his classic nature writings and by promoting the idea of setting aside our most wonderful natural spots as public parks, protected for our enjoyment and spiritual, emotional and mental health.
The memorial park includes a portion of the homestead purchased by Muir’s father when the family arrived in Wisconsin in 1849. It is a beautiful little site for short walks or a daylong picnic, as well as birdwatching and other activity.
There are much more grand monuments to Muir, starting with Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, whose links to the inventor-turned-naturalist are well established, even if those places are not monuments to him in name.
Still, it seems almost a shame that, for a guy with such enduring links to Wisconsin, this 152-acre park is about the extent of the land we have set aside to pay homage to him.
It was on my Wisconsin bucket list both because it’s part of the Ice Age Trail and because Muir is one of my personal heroes. His story reminded me to follow my own dreams of a career tied to things I care about, rather than those that might be more lucrative.
His book The Story of My Boyhood and Youth details his time in Marquette County, as well as some at the university in Madison, where his genius for invention led to a bed-tipping “alarm clock” and desk that placed, open and closed books at regular intervals for study.
He left school to wander and eventually work, helping manage an Indiana factory, but an industrial accident led him to reconsider his purpose. He set out on a walk to Florida, bound for Cuba. There ensued a fascinating history that made him America’s leading environmental proponent.
The park’s Fountain Lake, now called Ennis Lake, played no small role in his choices. It was only one of the wonders of nature which captivated him at Fountain Lake Farm.
It doesn’t take long to see most of what the park has to offer, and the Ice Age portion is a mere 1.8 miles of trail. That goes from a parking lot in the memorial park, around the lake through fens, sedge meadows, an oak woodland, oak savanna, and prairie, and to a second parking lot not far to the north in the Fox River National Wildlife Refuge.
The county park is itself a separate state natural area. Both the natural area and the refuge have exhibits on Muir and life there before they became protected.
Muir tried to set the land aside himself, attempting to buy it more than once.
He wrote, “And when I was about to wander away on my long rambles I was sorry to leave that precious meadow unprotected … I want to keep it untrampled for the sake of its ferns and flowers; and even if I should never see it again, the beauty of its lillies and orchids are so pressed into my mind I shall always enjoy looking back at them in imagination, even across seas and continents, and perhaps after I am dead.”
It’s easy for many of us to feel that way about virtually all of Wisconsin, and much of that is only because of Muir and others like him.
All the state’s citizens owe themselves a visit to this humble, yet beautiful and inspiring location. A few moments’ reflection here can help us imagine a 10-year-old’s adventures that set him off on a lifetime of grand accomplishments for the benefit of all.