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Restoring the Fountain of John Muir's Youth

by Erik R. Brynildson

As a boy in Dunbar, Scotland, John Muir read of a wonder-filled country with boundless forests full of mysterious good things: trees full of sweet sugar growing in soils filled with gold, where hawks, ospreys, eagles, and passenger pigeons darkened the sky like storm clouds, and millions of birds' nests were scattered about the entire wild, happy land. Still in his tenth year, John, with his father Daniel, sister Sarah, and brother David "sailed away from Glasgow, carefree as thistle seeds on the wings of the winds, toward the glorious paradise over the sea." Five other members of the Muir family stayed in Scotland until a homestead was readied. The transatlantic voyage lasted six and a half weeks, and as the sailing vessel approached the New World mainland, the immigrants aboard watched "whales, dolphins, porpoises and countless seabirds." Daniel Muir originally intended to settle in the "backwoods of Upper Canada," but after listening to grain merchants tell of the abundant wheat harvests in the "western States like Wisconsin and Michigan," he was persuaded to venture there. After they arrived in Milwaukee by steamer, a wheat farmer from Fort Winnebago, near Portage, Wisconsin, agreed to haul the family with their "formidable load of stuff" to the little town of Kingston in Green Lake County, a distance of about 100 miles, for thirty dollars. Once they were in Kingston, a local land agent told Daniel Muir of Alexander Gray, a farmer who could help him locate a suitable farmstead site. After a few days, a "fine quarter-section of land was found, in a sunny open woods beside a lake." Daniel Muir left his family at the Gray farm and, with the help of some other area homesteaders, erected a small log shanty of bark-clad bur oak and hewn white oak. John Muir wrote:

"To this charming hut, in the sunny woods, overlooking a flowery glacier meadow and a lake rimmed with water lilies, we were hauled by an ox-team across trackless Carex swamps and low rolling hills sparsely dotted with round-headed oaks. . .This sudden plash into pure wildness--baptism in Nature's warm heart--how utterly happy it made us. . .Everything new and pure in the very prime of spring when Nature's pulses were beating highest and mysteriously keeping time with our own. Young hearts, young leaves, flowers, animals, the winds and the streams and the sparkling lake, all wildly, gladly rejoicing together. Oh, that glorious Wisconsin wilderness!"

The Wisconsin Territory had received statehood status less than a year before the Muirs' arrival in the spring of 1849. Their chosen region, known then as "the District of the Sands," was an unsettled landscape mosaic of riverine wetlands and kettle lakes, dry to wet prairies, and oak-hickory savanna. Ecologically, Daniel Muir could not have selected a richer place for son John's nursery and perhaps a poorer place for a farm. The Buffalo Township, in south-central Marquette County, lies within what is known as Wisconsin's sand counties. This is the area that Aldo Leopold referred to as "poor land, but rich country." Leopold's sandy Wisconsin River farm, with its now famous shack, is less than thirty miles west of the Muir farm.

Due to the many bubbling springs or fountainheads located in the "garden meadow" just downslope from the Muir homesite, all of which feed the lake beyond, Daniel Muir named the lake Fountain Lake and the farm Fountain Lake Farm.

Soon after the Muirs arrived, John, the eldest son at eleven, was sent out to clearcut the savanna and break the prairie sod. Not yet tall enough to see over the handles of the moldboard plow, he learned to till a straight furrow by watching the horse's mane. By the autumn of 1849, a substantial frame farmhouse was completed. Some dour desire for aloofness and independence, likely brought down from feudal times, prompted Scotch immigrants to build their houses far from the road and always on a hill with a wide view. The carpenters described the Fountain Lake farmhouse as "a palace of a house, with 8 full rooms--the best and fanciest in the Town of Buffalo." Those same carpenters, John Muir later recalled, "noticed how the sedges sunk beneath their feet, and thought that if they should ever break through the bouncy mat, they would probably be well on their way to California before touching bottom."

Upon completion of the "fancy house," the "softer side" of the Muir family, consisting of mother Anne Gilrye-Muir and children Margaret (Maggie), Daniel Jr., twins Mary and Anna (Annie), arrived in pioneer Marquette County. One more child, Joanna, was later born at Fountain Lake Farm. Eventually, a group of simple farm buildings surrounded the house, and another quarter-section of land to the northeast was acquired, increasing Fountain Lake Farm to 320 acres.

When John Muir was seventeen, his father again purchased more land. The fragile sandy soils of Fountain Lake Farm gave out under the intensive growing of winter wheat. And in a chain of sequences somewhat like that of the "House That Jack Built," the Muirs had felled the trees that housed the birds that would have eaten the larvae that grew into the bugs that ate the whet. As John was later fond of saying, "everything is hitched to everything else." In his autobiography The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, published in 1913, just a year prior to his death, John Muir recalled the move to the second Muir farm:

"After 8 years of this dreary work of clearing the Fountain Lake Farm, fencing it and getting it in perfect order, building a frame house and the necessary outbuildings for the cattle and horses,-- after all this had been victoriously accomplished, and we had made out to escape with life; father bought a half-section of wild land about 4 or 5 miles to the southeast and began all over again to clear and fence and break up other fields for a new farm, doubling all the stunting, heartbreaking chopping, grubbing, stump-digging, rail-splitting, fence-building, barn-building, house-building, and so forth. . .We called our second farm Hickory Hill Farm, from its many fine hickory trees and the long gentle slope leading up to it. Compared with Fountain Lake Farm it lay high and dry. The land was better (for farming), but it had no living water, no spring or stream or meadow or lake."

When the Muirs moved to Hickory Hill Farm in 1857, Sarah Muir had just married David Galloway, and together they took over the Fountain Lake Farm. With the move to Hickory Hill, John longed for the original farm with all its natural delights. He would regularly walk back to "botanize" and saunter about the lake and spring meadow. After receiving his first formal lesson in botany at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, he rushed back to his precious boyhood meadow to apply the new knowledge. Later, as an independent man, he tried several times to purchase and preserve that portion of the Fountain Lake Farm containing his sacred garden. Each time he was unsuccessful, which seems ironic when one considers the fact that John Muir, perhaps more than any other person, was responsible for the acquisition and preservation of millions of acres of national parklands and wilderness reserves.

Aldo Leopold, in his classic A Sand County Almanac mentions Muir's pioneer attempts at saving pure wildness for its own sake. In the essay "Good Oak," Leopold gives a cultural chronology while sawing through eighty years of oak growth to fell a recent storm casualty. When he reaches the point where the tree is finally severed--the very core of the "good oak," he writes:

"The saw now severs 1865, the pith year of our oak. In that year, John Muir offered to buy from his brother-in-law, who then owned the home farm 30 miles east of my oak, a sanctuary for the wildflowers that had gladdened his youth. His brother-in-law declined to part with the land, but he could not suppress the idea: 1865 still stands in Wisconsin history as the birthyear of mercy for things natural, wild, and free."

A year before A Sand County Almanac was published, Leopold wrote a letter to Wisconsin Conservation Department (WCD) Director Ernie Swift proposing that the old Muir farm on Fountain Lake be designated as Wisconsin's first state natural area. One week after the letter was written, Leopold died, on John Muir's birthday, April 21, in 1948. Three years later the state got its first natural area at Parfrey's Glen in Sauk County, an effort spearheaded by UW-Madison botanist Norman Fassett. Another famed ecologist of the "golden era in ecology" at the university had an active interest in Fountain Lake Farm and its natural virtues. Botanist John Curtis, who wrote the "bible of Wisconsin plant ecology," The Vegetation of Wisconsin, maintained a research site on a portion of the Fountain Lake Farm "home 80." Curtis monitored plant community dynamics on a remnant of wet-mesic prairie adjacent to Fountain Lake. In the mid-1950s, another UW- Madison botanist, Hugh Iltis, completed a botanical inventory of the site, identifying over 300 species around the farm and lake area. At the same time, a local grassroots preservation effort was underway to protect Fountain Lake and its surrounding landscape in perpetuity. As a result, in May, 1957, the first forty acres of Muir Memorial County Park were dedicated. John Muir's granddaughter gave the keynote speech.

Since that time, the park has gradually grown to its present size of 162 acres and contains all of the peripheral lands surrounding 30 acre Fountain Lake, now controversially renamed Ennis Lake after a later landholder. John Muir's inspirational boyhood sedge meadow, with its network of bubbling fountains, along with a fen and shoreline bog mat, was finally designated as a state scientific and natural area in 1972. The original 80 acres of the homestead that include the Muir building sites and springs were dedicated as Fountain Lake Farm National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service in the spring of 1991.

It was the boyhood "garden meadow" that most influenced Muir throughout his life. As a boy, he would climb atop the roof of the bur-oak shanty and watch courting cranes dance as a river of passenger pigeons roared by overhead. John Muir later journeyed around the world, but his memories often took him home:

"When we first saw Fountain lake meadow, on a sultry evening, sprinkled with millions of lightning bugs throbbing with light, the effect was so strange and beautiful that it seemed far too marvelous to be real. . .Once I saw a splendid display of glowworms in the foothills of Calcutta, but glorious as it appeared in pure starry radiance, it was far less impressive than the extravagant, abounding, quivering, dancing fire on our Wisconsin meadow."

On a gentle south-facing slope just above this "firefly meadow" was located the Muir's Fountain Lake Farm homesite. Since late 1986, I have owned this 17.11 acre piece, the only portion of the National Historic Landmark that is not publicly held.

The sand prairie sod, tilled in youth by the "father of our national parks" and co-founder of the Sierra Club, has remained fallow since 1949, when a small yield of corn was harvested. Then in 1960, like so many prairie places throughout the sands, another monoculture was planted in the old furrows. Twenty-seven years later I clearcut this dense crop of red pine (Pinus resinosa) to prepare the site for a return to the spring of 1849. A commercial operator removed and burned all the pine stumpage and slash, then rough-disced the prairie-savanna seed bed. In the spring of 1988 the site was fine-tilled several times by a neighboring farmer, then hand-planted in honor of John Muir's 150th birthday. Future stewardship efforts will include the control of black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) and cypress spurge (Euphoria cyparissas), a Muir garden escapee. Burning and mowing rotations will be designed and implemented to enhance not only botanical species, but the whole flowing community.

In mid-summer, 1988, the Mecan River Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) cut and piled hundreds of eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginianus) trees in an adjacent Marquette County-owned old field to encourage grassland components. Miles of barbed wire have also been removed from the area. In September, 1988, approximately 200 bobwhite quail were released at selected sites around the farm environs. Numerous wood duck, kestrel, screech owl, squirrel, house wren, and bluebird nestboxes have been placed at appropriate locations. Courtship songperches to facilitate prairie avifauna were sculpted from the stems of eastern red cedars. Many of the historic views, especially those enjoyed by John Muir from his boyhood farmyard out onto his formative meadow, have been restored by clearcutting obstructive vegetation.

I also have a special interest in reintroducing prairie grouse to the region. Such attempts represent the frontier of modern landscape ecology and need trial-and-error experimentation. Resuscitating land is a complex and intricate undertaking. Our prairie foundation, the rich black mollisols and the "poor" dry sands, was fed and formed by more than the roots of silphium and bluestem. These soils were enriched by passenger pigeon guano, bison dung, and the bones of old Winnebagos as well. Native landscape restoration efforts must not stop with pretty prairie facades--we must breathe life back into them too! The boom of the prairie grouse and the yip-yapping of fox pups must be included.

The pair of lilacs that once flanked the Muirs' bur-oak shanty, planted in the spring of 1849 by John Muir's sister Sarah, still bloom along the approach lane to my small residence. In addition to the lilacs, several enormous silver maple trees, originally planted by the Muir family to provide the sunny farmyard with fast-growing shade, still filter the light from the existing house. This dwelling was built in 1947 and sits directly atop the Muir farmhouse cellar depression site. Thus, it is identically site-oriented to the original Muir home. The Muir pioneer plantings, I believe, are priceless. Stewardship burns in fields adjacent to the historic homestead site must take optimal precautions to insure against runaway fires.

The dream shared by Muir and Leopold to restore and preserve the Fountain Lake Farm is finally evolving toward reality. To admit our ecological mistakes and subsequently to correct our historical atrocities toward nature signifies genuine growth as a people. Native landscape restoration symbolizes a new era in ecological awareness and sensitivity; the rehabilitation of earth is our new frontier. It would further represent an enlightenment in our understanding of where and how we, as a single species, belong.

We believe that all the Muir farm buildings were gone shortly after the turn of the century. The last passenger pigeon died in the Cincinnati Zoo in the autumn of 1914; John Muir died that following Christmas eve.

These humble sands are indeed "poor" agriculturally; it's simply harder to fill a silo in sand. They do yield fewer bushels of tangibles per acre, but, I believe, yield bumper-crops of intangibles like landscape perception and compassion for all life. Their richness is in their poverty. Muir, as well as Leopold, came to understand the sand and the secrets it holds. The sand has been the salvation of wildness, a wildness still heard when the March mist is cracked by a bugling crane.

It is a special privilege to be a part of the place so dear to John Muir. Even today, one can sense the power of the place and its historical sacredness. There are times when the spirit of "John of the Mountains" can still be felt in the sand underfoot. In late 1895, in a speech to the Sierra Club in San Francisco, Muir recalled the evolution of his preservation ethic:

"Saving 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 region of Wisconsin, beside a small glacier lake bordered with white pond lilies. And on the north side of the lake, just below our house, there was a carex meadow full of charming flowers. . . And when I was about to wander away on my long rambles, I was sorry to leave the precious meadow unprotected; therefore I said to my brother-in-law, who by then owned it, 'Sell me the 40 acres of lake meadow, and keep it fenced and never allow cattle or hogs to break into it, and I will gladly pay you whatever you say.' 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 lilies and orchids is 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."

All my quotations are from The Story of My Boyhood and Youth by John Muir, published in 1913 by Houghton Mifflin, Boston, or from Muir's articles published primarily in Century (Scribner's) or in Overland Monthly Magazine .


1. In September 1987, I drafted a proposal to designate the Muir Memorial Park and the privately owned homesite acreage as a national historic site. The proposal was unanimously endorsed by the fourth World Wilderness Congress, which met in Estes Park, Colorado, last fall. The proposal was also approved by the Marquette County Board in January, 1988, and then won the enthusiastic support of U.S. Senator Robert Kasten. Both Wisconsin U.S. Senators, Kasten and William Proxmire, as well as Representative Thomas Petri, have given the idea their strong backing, and recently they cosponsored an appropriation of $30,000.00 for the National Park Service (NPS)to conduct a new areas feasibility study. NPS Director William Penn Mott has called the project the "number one priority facing staff in the NPS Omaha regional office." In 1985, the local John Muir Chapter of the Sierra Club led a drive to acquire a twenty-seven acre parcel that immediately adjoins both the Muir Park and the Fountain Lake Farm "home 80." The piece was then deeded to The Nature Conservancy and will eventually be donated to Marquette County to increase the park acreage from 135 to 162. Across the county highway from Muir Memorial Park is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Upper Fox River National Sandhill Crane Refuge. This area supports the greatest density of nesting sandhills in Marquette County, the county which consistently ranks highest in the annual statewide crane count. At present, I am coordinating an effort to add several hundred additional acres to the existing refuge. With the assistance of the Cleveland, Ohio, office of the Trust for Public Land, we hope to have secured these lands by late 1988.

2. These species Muir wrote about finding on the Fountain Lake Farm are now absent from that area; many other plants and animals not specifically mentioned in John Muir's writings are long gone as well.

Locally extirpated plants
Wild rice
Lady's slipper orchid (rose-white)
Indian moccasin orchid (yellow)
Grass pink orchid
Rose pogonia orchid
Locally extirpated animals
Gray fox
Winnebago and Menominee People
Black bear
Prairie grouse
Common loon
Eastern hognose snake
Extinct animals
Passenger pigeon

Erik Brynildson is a landscape architect and consulting ecologist who specializes in native landscape restoration and wildlife habitat enhancement. He owns and operates Daycholah Designs, Inc. in Green Lake, Wisconsin.

This article originally appeared in the Wisconsin Academy Review , 1988 December, the quarterly journal of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, 1922 University Avenue, Madison, Wisconsin 53705. Copyright 1988 Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters. Used with permission. Revised by the author for the John Muir Exhibit, 1996 January.

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