When I was a boy in Scotland I was fond of everything that was wild, and all my life I’ve been growing fonder and fonder of wild places and wild creatures. – John Muir
John Muir wrote the words above in late life, looking back on the forces that shaped him. They form the first lines of the autobiographical The Story of My Boyhood and Youth (1913), and for me they perfectly capture the youthful enthusiasm for the natural world that never left Muir.
His work to preserve the Yosemite Valley, his push for a system of wilderness preservation that became our national parks, his leadership of the Sierra Club from its founding in 1892 until his death in 1914, and his beautiful writings have all earned the Scot-born Muir a place in the hearts of so many.
Ken Burns who made the widely seen 12-part documentary about our national parks believes Muir is even more important than his reputation suggests. Burns said that during the making of the documentary, “as we got to know him” Muir began to seem an equal to the “highest individuals in our country . . .people who have had a transformational effect on who we are.”
(The photo on the left, made by Francis M. Fritz in 1907, is from Wikimedia Commons.)
A Scottish Boy on the Wisconsin Prairie
Not surprisingly, some of Muir’s most ardent admirers today are here in Wisconsin – based in Marquette County where the Muir family settled when they emigrated from Scotland in 1849. John was a lad of 11 then and his official school days were behind him, but some of his happiest boyhood years still ahead. The family of Daniel and Ann Muir, including 3 sons and 5 daughters (the youngest, born in Wisconsin), faced long, hard days working to build a home and farm on the Wisconsin prairie.
As the oldest son, John in particular felt this burden,nonetheless he still managed to educate himself in geometry, literature and philosophy, and perhaps even more importantly, “to botanize.” That was a favorite activity of John’s and the term he used again and again, to describe his happy wanderings and investigations into the natural world he loved so much.
Sources for the biographical details of Muir’s life can be found so many places, but you shouldn’t miss the John Muir Exhibit at the Sierra Club website. Before you go exploring there, however, I hope you’ll linger here a while to learn about Muir in Wisconsin.
The Wisconsin Friends of John Muir
There are still today many descendants of the Scotch and Irish immigrants that were the Muirs’ neighbors in the 19th century. Contemporary residents give a lot of attention to their shared John Muir legacy, I was told by Kathleen McGwin, a descendant of one Muir neighbor. There are always new plans afoot to spotlight the locations and landscapes in Marquette County that are part of John Muir’s story.
Two years ago citizens calling themselves the John Muir Legacy Group decided to adopt a more formal structure, and they’ve incorporated as the Wisconsin Friends of John Muir. Tiffany Lodholz, president of the Friends, said they have 60 active members, as well as nearly 200 Facebook fans, and a busy calendar of hikes, parties, and educational talks.
What drew Tiffany and Kathleen to John Muir in the first place? I asked them via email, and both responded that it was his writings. “I was first inspired by Muir when I read his works in college as an environmental earth science student,” said Tiffany, adding that “moving to the community he grew up in was incredibly serendipitous. . .”
Kathleen McGwin, active with the Montello Historic Preservation Society, as well as Wisconsin Friends of John Muir, is a writer herself. Together with fellow WFJM board member Daryl Christensen, she has published Muir is Still Here: A Marquette County Journal of Discovery, a book described by the Sierra Club as “part travel guide, part chronicle of the past, part guide to self-discovery.”
The Seeds of an Idea: the National Parks
When he was 22. John Muir left Marquette County and attended the University of Wisconsin for nearly three years before beginning a series of wanderings and epic walks that eventually led him to California and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Though that is where he found his life’s true purpose, Muir scholars routinely credit his growing-up years in Wisconsin for planting the germ of an idea – parks to preserve wild things – in the young boy’s mind.
Muir wrote enthusiastically of his those years in The Story of My Boyhood and Youth:
The sudden plash into pure wildness – baptism in Nature’s warm heart – how utterly happy it made us! Nature streaming into us . . .Oh, that glorious Wisconsin wilderness!:
And in a speech to the Sierra Club in November, 1895, he too, credited Wisconsin for planting the seeds of wildlife preservation:
The preservation of specimen sections of natural flora–bits of pure wilderness–was a fond, favorite notion of mine long before I heard of national parks. When my father came from Scotland, he settled in a fine wild region of Wisconsin, beside a small glacier lake bordered with white pond-lilies…
Marquette County and John Muir’s Legacy
Muir made several well-documented, but unsuccessful attempts during his lifetime to purchase and protect some of the Wisconsin landscape he loved. Over time, though, this wish of Muir’s has materialized, and by 1957, Marquette County had acquired enough of the land that the Muirs had originally settled on to establish the John Muir Memorial Park. In 1972, though still owned by Marquette County, the park was named a state natural area, and in 1988, the Sierra Club purchased additional land which became the park’s restored prairie.
(The photo above is from Joshua Mayer’s photostream at Flickr.)
Though located right in the busy southern half of the state, Marquette County today still seems like a place that would please John Muir. It’s true that a 60-minute drive in almost any direction from Montello, the county seat, will end in a busy metropolitan area, but within the county itself you’ll never be far from wildlife and nature preserves; this is a place where you might even encounter some of Wisconsin’s precious few whooping cranes.
Just ask the president of the Wisconsin Friends of John Muir. Tiffany Lodholz has seen them – whooping cranes in the wild: “for the first time last summer with my 3-year-old daughter. They were in a field down the road from my house. It was amazing!”