The Other UW: John Muir’s University of the Wilderness

John Muir National Monument, Marin County, Calif.

Whenever I leave the state, it seems I take a little Wisconsin with me–and a brief trip to San Francisco last month was no exception.

Besides enjoying the more popular Bay Area tourist spots, my family and I spent a day hiking through Muir Woods National Monument. These woods, just a short drive north of San Francisco–past expensive homes and enticing overlooks on Marin County’s winding roads–contain one of the region’s last uncut stands of old-growth redwood trees. They’re named for famed American naturalist John Muir.

Americans refer to Muir as the “Father of the National Parks,” and Californians claim him as champion of Sequoia National Park and other wild West Coast places. But as Wisconsinites know, John Muir also had strong Wisconsin ties.

In 1848, the Scottish-born Muir immigrated with his family to Marquette County, Wisconsin, where he grew up from age 11 on. His engaging memoir, The Story of My Boyhood and Youth (which you can read online at Project Gutenberg), describes early experiences with coons and snakes, shrikes and stumps, glacial lakes, Wisconsin winters and hard prairie living–all of which had certain impact on his later activism. In fact, Wisconsin authors Kathleen McGwin and Daryl Christensen have written a book called Muir is Still Here about these early influences.

John Muir. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

Muir eventually left his family home at Fountain Lake Farm to study geology and botany at UW-Madison, but he never graduated. The last lines of My Boyhood and Youthrecount his wistful farewell to campus. “I was only leaving one university for another, the Wisconsin University for the University of the Wilderness,” he wrote. From then on, he left his gentle footprint all over North America, wandering the U.S., Canada, Panama and Cuba, and eventually winding up in California.

While I’m grateful to Muir for my memorable day in the California woods, I’m also grateful to philanthropists William and Elizabeth Kent. They donated the property then known as Muir Woods to the federal government in 1907, at which time President Theodore Roosevelt suggested renaming the place Kent Monument. In a charming exchange of letters, William Kent declined the tribute. He explained:

I have five good, husky boys that I am trying to bring up to a knowledge of democracy and to a realizing sense of rights of the “other fellow,” doctrines which you, sir, have taught with more vigor and effect than any man in my time. If these boys cannot keep the Kent name alive, I am willing it should be forgotten.

At the Muir Woods National Monument Visitor Center: a shelf-full of books on Muir.

For his part, on learning that the monument would retain his name, Muir expressed gratitude. “This is the best tree-lover’s monument that could possibly be found in all the forests of the world,” he wrote.

Muir would be so honored many times, with parks, trails and schools (and apparently even a minor planet) bearing his name. Wisconsin alone has John Muir Park in Green Bay; John Muir Drive in Middleton; John Muir View in Poynette; and of course, the family’s homestead site in Marquette County, Muir Memorial Park. I’m sure there are others.

In California, along a section of boardwalk at Muir Woods National Monument, we came across a new mom pushing her sleeping infant in a stroller. While stopping to admire the baby, I  wondered if the long shadow of the sequoia would imprint her newly born subconscious. How will the rush of Redwood Creek and the cool cyprus-scented air shape her development? Perhaps this nursery school of the wilderness is how the likes of John Muir are formed.


If you’d like to learn more about Muir or the National Park System, watch these two excellent videos: The National Parks: America’s Best Idea and National Parks: Wisconsin. Also, read Kathleen McGwyn’s day trip tour of Marquette County on Portal Wisconsin. Then, hit the trails!

–Tammy Kempfert


One Response to The Other UW: John Muir’s University of the Wilderness

  1. easylifestyles says:

    Another great post. Thanks for sharing this. Spending time traveling with my family is something that truly makes me happy in life. I enjoy reading your blog very much.

    Check out these Vacation and Travel Tips

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