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A Visit to John Muir's Wisconsin Farm

by Bill Tweed

It is never easy to understand the origins of genius. Why is it that occasional individuals rise out of seemingly average childhoods to see the world in ways the rest of us usually miss?

These thoughts were on my mind two weeks ago as I stood on the shores of an unremarkable lake in the midst of central Wisconsin's lush and fertile farm country. Around me, simmering in the damp heat of a Midwestern summer, were low, rolling hills covered with lush, green pasture land and eager corn stalks.

The lake itself, perhaps 5 or 6 acres in extent, was graced by water lilies and large dragonflies. Hardwood trees surrounded it.

Nothing about the site suggested anything special. Yet, here, on the shores of this common Wisconsin lake, the famous naturalist John Muir spent much of his childhood.

Muir came to Wisconsin from Scotland at the age of 11 in the company of his father.

Seeking opportunity, and following in the footsteps of millions of other European immigrants to the New World, the elder Muir uprooted his family from its Scottish roots and moved to what was then the western frontier of the United States.

The year was 1849.

The Muir family's new home -- they called it Fountain Lake Farm -- literally had to be hewn out of the oak woodlands of central Wisconsin. Muir's father set the family to work at this task for eight years or until it was brought under thorough cultivation. Then, as Muir later explained, "feeling the need of more work he purchased half a section of wild land about four miles to the eastward of the farm, to which he removed his family and began building, breaking, fencing and planting anew." At this second farm - named Hickory Hill Farm - there was no adjacent lake, so Muir nearly lost his life as he excavated by hand a 90-foot-deep well to provide the farm with water.

Yet even as he labored to convert the previously wild landscape to the goals of husbandry, Muir marveled at the rich natural world in which he found himself.

Half a century later, Muir would recall the day he and his younger brother first arrived at Fountain Lake: "Then we ran along the brow of the hill that the shanty stood on, and down to the meadow, searching the trees and grass tufts and bushes, and soon discovered a bluebird's and a woodpecker's nest, and began an acquaintance with the frogs and snakes and turtles in the creeks and springs. This sudden splash into pure wilderness -- baptism in Nature's warm heart -- how utterly happy it made us!"

The New World was for young John Muir just that -- new! For his first eleven years, Muir had lived in the deeply humanized landscapes of Scotland. In his boyhood home at Dunbar, on the shores of the North Sea, Muir had known a world where human roots were deep -- a land where castles crumbled on coastal bluffs and where a farmer might find a Roman coin if he plowed up a corner of his sheep pasture.

In Wisconsin, young John Muir reveled in the wildness of frontier America. It was, at first, literally beyond his wildest dreams. Over the next decade he came to love this landscape deeply.

Even as an old man, he would be able to pull its details from memory and write them out in loving longhand. The books are still with us.

As he reveled in the wildness of Fountain Lake and Hickory Hill, Muir learned another lesson. It was impossible for him not to realize that every day he and his neighbors worked ceaselessly to destroy the very wildness he so loved.

This, too, deeply affected Muir. Even as a teenager, he had begun to develop a deep and instinctual sense of loss.

Muir left the family farm in the early 1860s to attend the University of Wisconsin.

He studied there for four years, working part-time to support himself. Then, as he would write later, he left to attend another university, the "University of the Wilderness."

In the coming years, Muir would make his way to California, explore the Sierra Nevada, name Sequoia National Park's "Giant Forest," make a fortune raising fruit in Martinez, found the Sierra Club and become the best-known California naturalist of all time. By the time he died in 1914, he was a famous man.

Yet, that boyhood spent beside the lake in Wisconsin never left him.

As the decades passed, he simply honed the lessons of Fountain Lake and Hickory Hill Farms -- that nature brings joy and that humans, if they are not careful, will destroy the very things they love.

These two lessons, polished over the decades, formed the essence of Muir's genius.

We remember Muir because these two key ideas remain highly pertinent to our modern lives.

Today, Fountain Lake Farm is a quiet county park with a rolling hilltop lawn and picnic shelter and a ramp that allows one to put a canoe on Muir's lake The day I visited, one family was enjoying a picnic beneath the warm Midwestern summer sun. Down by the lake, the white water lilies were getting ready to bloom.

Bill Tweed is the chief naturalist at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.
To ask him questions, write: Bill Tweed, Visalia Times-Delta, P.O. Box 31, Visalia, CA 93277.

Originally published Saturday, July 31, 2004 in the Visalia Times Delta, and revised for the John Muir Exhibit.

Reprinted on the John Muir Exhibit by permission of Bill Tweed.

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