A forest and a purpose

November 3, 2011

If you’re one of those people who doesn’t mind going off the beaten path to find a nugget, I’ve got a great place for you.  And no matter which direction you come from, the drive will be outstanding because teeny Valton in southern Wisconsin is in the heart of one of the most secluded and beautiful areas of the state.

Nestled in a small valley in the northwestern panhandle of Sauk County, near rural hamlets of Cazenovia, Hillsboro, LaValle and Yuba, is an historic fraternal meeting place with a very uncommon story, one of an itinerant painter who stayed for two years.

A common exterior........

Modern Woodmen of America Camp 6190 was one of numerous fraternal organizations whose buildings were common in communities in the 1800s.  The organization provided brotherhood and life insurance and the building served the community as well as lodge members.

Going into the Painted Forest is like entering the cocoon to see the butterfly.  The commonness of the exterior gives way to an explosion of color inside.  It’s all around you, truly an environment.  You walk in from outside and might think you’re back outside.

An uncommon interior

After the initial awe, the skill of artist Ernest Hupeden manifests itself in detail.   Hupeden started by painting the stage curtain in exchange for lodging at a local hotel.  His work so impressed the camp members that they further commissioned Hupeden to continue his painting and adorn the walls.  After a couple of years the work was finished. Hupeden had literally covered every inch of wall space including the arched ceiling, window frames, wainscoting and curtains. The vivid imaginative scenes depict a remarkable vision of life, death, initiation rituals, and the aspirations of the Valton M.W.A camp members.

The John Michael Kohler Art Center in Sheboygan has works by Hupeden and you can view two of his paintings – The Valley Where the Bluebird Sings and The Bolton Landscape on the website of the Wisconsin Historical Society.  (Click here for the collections page, then click “search” and type “Hupeden”.)  The Kohler Foundation website also contains information on the artist and his work.

In and of itself the Painted Forest is quite a story.   Edgewood College of Madison cares for the site and another chapter of the tale is how they’ve added to the history and made it a significant rural art resource.

In 2004 they constructed the Art Studio and Study Center about a block away from the old camp building.  The facility provides space for interdisciplinary workshops, lectures, retreats, and artist residencies.   This modern facility doesn’t look “new”, it looks like it has been part of the village for decades.  Very nice.  It has bathrooms, a full kitchen, a sleeping loft and an activity space that can accommodate up to 25 people.

I was there recently for a meeting of the Wisconsin Art Environment Consortium, a group representing nine art environments around the state.  We helped produce the Wandering Wisconsin tours, which includes the Painted Forest, to help build awareness and appreciation of these Wisconsin wonders.

Members of the Wisconsin Art Environment Consortium at work in the studio

The group connects regularly to share tips about site operation and conserving the art we’re entrusted to preserve.  Through Wandering Wisconsin and with the help of the staff of the John Michael Kohler Art Center, the consortium produced thousands of maps with suggested tours and great information about the environment builders and nifty places to visit near each site.  We were able to accomplish this with a grant from the Wisconsin Department of Tourism, which now includes the Wisconsin Arts Board.  Both are great supporters of local arts organizations.  The consortium is working on more marketing plans for 2012 and perhaps some summer opportunities for artists near each site as well.

Ernest Hupeden died in 1911.  It is said he froze in a snow bank by Hillsboro, but no one is certain.  One hundred years after his death we learned that he is buried in an unmarked grave in the potter’s field at the old Richland County Farm/Home near Richland Center, sharing a single marker with over 60 others.

Art Studio and Study Center

Some of Hupeden’s amazing art has been found and conserved but the thought is that many pieces remain in the Valton area, perhaps lost in attics or hidden behind paneling.  Recently a Hupeden mural was found in a bar.  Poor Ernest, he was freed from prison in Germany for a crime he did not commit.  After he was exonerated he came to America and painted his way west.  Now, a hundred years after his death, his genius is beginning to attain broader exposure but it is unsettling that his earthly remains have yet to gain the respect we often take for granted.

The Painted Forest is open Saturdays between Memorial Day and Labor Day or by appointment.  Contact David Smith, director, with questions about the site or access to the studio.  It is a remarkable resource in an uncommon, but equally remarkable setting.  The journey and destination are both enveloped by Wisconsin’s natural beauty – truly conducive to serenity and inspiration.

Elephant Rock - on the way to Valton from the south

Edgewood College has proven to be an exceptional steward of the Painted Forest and then some.   The vision of folks there has enhanced a remarkable facet of Wisconsin’s history.  In partnership with the Kohler Foundation, Edgewood has added contemporary uses to historic preservation.  They’ve made a place that you could see into a place where you can also do, a resource to share with artists, writers and even a baseball team seeking a retreat venue.

As the old guys on the park bench say, “It ain’t what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it”.

Rick Rolfsmeyer, Hollandale, WI


Sauk County ‘DTour’

October 11, 2011

Wayfinder, by Terrence Campagna.

Now through Oct. 16, as part of its 2nd Annual Fermentation Festival, Reedsburg is offering the Farm/Art DTour, a 50-mile circular excursion through rural Sauk County. The tour winds through the county’s less-traveled roads, past tidy farms and tiny towns, to flaunt the season’s explosive color. What makes this particular drive so exceptional, though, is more than two dozen farm-based art installations and other attractions–from Roadside Culture Stands selling local produce to music and theater performances in the fields along the way.

At its core, the Reedsburg Fermentation Festival is a showcase for fermented food and drink (beer, of course, plus cheeses, yogurts, sauerkrauts and more). But organizers have billed the fest as a “live culture convergence,” connecting culture of the microbial sort with cultivation of the earth and cultivation of the mind and soul. By embracing the roots of the word culture, or “the action of cultivating land” in 12th-century Anglo-Norman, the event helps clarify relationships among where we live, what we eat and what we grow–as well as what we create, and what we love.

Boots, by Christopher Lutter-Gardella of Puppet Farm Arts

To make the most of festival offerings, I recommend planning ahead; many events require registration. For example, if you’re a fan of  fermented cabbage, you can participate in Saturday’s ‘Powerkraut‘ workshop. Love kombucha? Find out how to make the fermented beverage at home from a Madison-based kombucha company, also scheduled for Saturday. Opportunities for less adventurous tasters include yeast breads, honey, yogurt, wine and beer presentations.

"Field Notes" installation interpreting a hayfield for tour takers.

If you take the Farm/Art DTour, try scheduling your trip around one of the pasture performances. On Saturday, Nath and Marnie Dresser present ‘Some Kind of Sign,’ a story told in poetry and song. And Sunday, the Madison-based band Graminy performs. Download a map and take a self-guided tour, as we did, or sign up for a guided bus tour on Sunday, Oct. 16, that includes a stop at Carr Valley Cheese Factory in LaValle.

As of today, the weekend forecast for the Reedsburg area calls for sunshine with highs in the 60s. Not quite the balmy weather we enjoyed for last Saturday’s drive (car windows wide open in October!)–but still, near perfect conditions for a fall day trip.

–Tammy Kempfert

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Black Ash Basketry

September 13, 2011

By Emily Umentum, guest contributor

Basketry is one of the oldest crafts in human history, and yet the knowledge of making these simple, and once essential, vessels has become a rarity in the modern age. Of the available basket-making materials, the flexibility and durability of black ash is unsurpassed; baskets woven of black ash splints can endure extreme compression and load and yet quickly spring back to their original form and strength, even after having been in use for years or even decades!  This beautiful, yet useful art has been making a renaissance in Northern Wisconsin since a few individuals have taken the time to seek out those who know the craft and are willing to pass it down to others.

April StoneDahl, a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa (Ojibwe) is currently the only black ash basket weaver of her band.  Studying and weaving since 1998, she has also been teaching basketry in northern Wisconsin and upper Michigan since 2000. April takes great pride in weaving quality utilitarian baskets which are meant to be used. I first encountered April more than a year ago when I visited the annual Traditional Ways gathering held on the Bad River Reservation near Ashland, Wis. My first impressions of her dedication to craftsmanship, durability and sustainability have been proven accurate in all my dealings with her since.

During the year after I first visited Bad River, I have been serving as a VISTA with Northwoods NiiJii, a Wisconsin tribally-affiliated nonprofit based on the Lac du Flambeau Reservation. VISTA is a federal service program charged with fighting poverty, in my case, by helping develop a community-oriented art center and gallery known as the Woodland Indian Art Center . In the course of helping build infrastructure and form community partnerships, I have had the opportunity to engage various artists from communities outside Lac du Flambeau as well. Luckily for us, April was one of those artists.

Those in attendance at the August 26, 2011, Black Ash Basket class at the Woodland Indian Art Center were able to witness this tree’s amazing properties firsthand as they learned the preparation of materials and crafted their own baskets! The instructors, April and Jarrod StoneDahl of Woodspirit (www.woodspiritgallery.com), began by discussing the habitat, behavior and current threats to this singular and historic tree.

The Black Ash, Fraxinus nigra, is a deciduous (seasonally leaf dropping) tree native to cool, wet regions of the Northeastern United States and Southeastern Canada. It is currently threatened by an invasive insect known as the Emerald Ash Borer, whose larvae are spread by the movement of firewood from park to park. The best chance we have of preserving the black ash from complete destruction is to encourage campers to only purchase firewood locally, instead of transporting it. Why all the fuss over this one tree species?

This tree is unique among all North American trees because its growth rings (the seasonal trunk growth produced by the tree) are not connected to each other by fibers, as are other trees. As mundane as such a distinction may seem to the average person, for basket-makers it means that the rings may be separated from each other and made into splints for baskets. Without this tree, this particular type of basketry is in danger of disappearing.

Jarrod explained that Black Ash trees form annual growth rings of two types of wood: spring wood is a rapidly laid-down, loose connective layer which links each year of more robust summer growth to the next. He stated that by soaking the trunk in water and then pounding it with a rounded steel mallet, the spring connective layer is crushed and allows for the summer wood to be peeled off in long strips. The weaker bond of the connecting fibers is what allows the summer wood strips to separate. These strips, or ‘splints’, as they are called, vary in color according to where they lie in the tree; sap wood, the outer layer where moisture is currently flowing in the tree, is a lighter color, and heart wood, which lies at the core of the tree where moisture once flowed, is darkened with age. Trees are typically harvested in late spring or early summer (because the bark can slip off with prodding of the hands), and pounded right after harvest.  Although spring and summer is the ideal time, trees may be harvested throughout the year as needed.

After receiving the lecture and viewing some very artistic diagrams on the Art Center whiteboard, the class wandered outside to test the theory for themselves on a soaked and freshly-peeled black ash log set up for the occasion. Jarrod began the demonstration and each student tried a hand at pounding; the consensus was that despite an absence of fibers, separating the layers still was a lot of work! Who knew basket-making could be so vigorous?

The class was told that the strips were further refined by scraping and splitting, typically with a stout knife, in order to give one side of each strip the satiny-smooth finish characteristic of the exterior of black ash baskets. Splints are then rolled up and may be stored indefinitely. After experiencing only a fraction of the prep work involved in pounding and a demonstration of splitting, the class was grateful for their pre-pounded, scraped and split materials!

The first step in weaving a basket is to select and trim the splints to a desired length, in this case, a little longer than the width of the bottom, plus twice the height of the basket. These strips are generally thicker because they will be bent to become the vertical portion, or the ‘uprights’ of the basket’s walls. They must be trimmed along their length as well, because uniformity of width helps guarantee the tightness of the basket’s weave, especially on the bottom.

Trimmed splints are then soaked in a basin of water until they are pliable, and woven into a mat in which the small squares between the weave are kept the same. One of the future ‘uprights’ is then split in two, the long way, down to the bottom of the basket; this now-uneven number of uprights guarantees that the basket’s horizontal weave will stay uniform.

The next step in weaving is to decide on the width of the ‘weavers’ or horizontal splints in making the basket; different looks are achieved by trimming weavers to be thicker, narrower, or the same as the width of the uprights. The first weaver is always the trickiest, as the uprights are not yet bent upwards! After the first weaver goes all the way around the basket and crosses two consecutive uprights, then the uprights may be bent into their true upright position. Eventually, the uprights are held in place by the weavers, and the basket comes together quickly.

When the basket has reached its desired height, the uprights are trimmed and tucked away to leave a smooth surface for the rim. The inner and outer rims, typically cut from a thicker splint, are positioned and held in place with spring clips until they are firmly lashed into position with a very narrow, pliable strip of splint wrapped one way, and then the other.

Everyone in the class was pleased with their durable and attractive new baskets; students left both creatively and ecologically informed about this singular tree and its uses. Given the skills of April’s apprentices and captivation of her students, the black ash in our region will certainly have a fighting chance! We hope to have April and Jarrod back again soon; stay tuned for upcoming announcements on future black ash basket classes! Please feel free to stop in at the Woodland Indian Art Center, located at 562 Peace Pipe Rd. in downtown Lac du Flambeau or call us at 715-588-3700 for more information.

***********

Emily Umentum is a VISTA member serving at the Woodland Indian Art Center in Lac du Flambeau, WI.  There she helps develop community partnerships, organizational capacity and arts programming. She has worked and volunteered with a number of community arts and education organizations in the Midwest and abroad; from puppet theaters to women’s shelters, organic farms to language schools, she brings a diverse array of experiences to bear in her writing. See her original post, with additional photos, at the Woodland Indian Art Center blog.


Hixon House, La Crosse, Wisconsin

August 19, 2011

By Brian D’Ambrosio

Gideon Cooley Hixon (1826-1892) accumulated a fortune in lumber, finance, and business, and this nineteenth-century baron utilized the very best of the La Crosse, Wisconsin area’s wood for his own home. The Hixon House reflects Hixon’s contemporary preferences while providing a peek back in time at an authentic Victorian existence.

Hixon House

Begun in 1859, the Italianate house features gorgeous woodwork, opulent interior decoration, and an abundance of local wood – including a walnut entry, oak and birch parlor, and stunning cherry dining room – at a time when the sawmill was king. Gideon’s wife, Ellen, lovingly adorned the Hixon House in the Aesthetic fashion. There is a pervasive Oriental and Arabic influence in the house décor, which includes a teak ivory desk imported from China and parquet flooring.

The Turkish Nook room features a gold-gilt ceiling nook lined with anaglypta, a thick, embossed paper, covered in aluminum leaf and coated with a layer of amber-tinted varnish.

For the Hixon House restoration of 2005, the Turkish Nook’s surface was cleaned and repaired. Portieres were reproduced for the doorways leading into the nook. The kilm carpets that cover the banquette were cleaned and repaired. The Turkish Nook also includes a harem screen, a portable wall used to keep women from entering or peeking into the men’s private area.

Hixon House, La Crosse, Wisconsin

The dining room of the Hixon House features a wall covering of leaves that was likely painted by interior designer Joseph Twyman’s daughter in 1900-01; the chandelier is made of red pebbled glass.

The Hixon House is filled with dim, masculine colors and leather, which would have been appropriate to the turn of the twentieth century. The folio in the library room is stacked with sumptuous books, including rare sets describing east coast American architecture and foreign antique collections.Over the marble fireplace is a photo of Gideon Hixon.

The Gideon Hixon home stayed in the family until it was donated to La Crosse in 1962. “When the Hixons turned the house over to the historical society,” said Dan Moen of Moen Preservation, owner of the Artisan Preservation, the company which restored the Hixon House (interview with author June 2010). “the house had been intact and unchanged for at least 40 years.”

Hixon House, Wisconsin

Today, it stands a National Landmark Historical site, an excellent example of true Victorian architecture and “original” Victorian furnishings and clothing.

“About 90% of the furnishings in the house are original,” says Moen. “This is a really big deal because it shows that this house has not changed much since the turn of the twentieth century. Honestly, the same elements are in existence, and everything is here. From its inception, the house museum has adhered to the guidelines for historical preservation, and (the house) maintains that strong sense of antiquity and preservation.”

The two-year-long, $1.844 million restoration Moen performed from 2003-2005 included cleaning and rebuffing light fixtures, replacing old and faded carpets with exact reproductions, and reupholstering and reproducing different fabrics. He was especially careful not to undermine the structure’s evocative nature or the aesthetic wholeness of its history.

“Dark corridors remain dark corridors,” says Moen. “I believe that historical sites like this one should exude the feel and idea of total immersion. Here, you are on a little journey.”


Fiber mill in a village that rocks

May 10, 2011

I came to see machinery but before I was there five minutes I met a goddess.  I think Argyle is that kind of place.  You’ve gotta love these creative, entrepreneurial types.

From Michigan, the note in the box says, "State Fair #1"

The term “Fifty-mile Fiber” brought me here to check out the Argyle Fiber Mill, one of those great little destinations well off the thoroughfare.  Salt-of-the-Earth kind of people.   They raise animals – alpaca, Icelandic sheep and llamas –  in addition to cattle, pork and fowl of all kinds.  The Mill purchases fiber locally – thus the Fifty Mile goal – and provides retail services, consignment opportunities and a great place for aficionados to gather.

You can buy great yarns, including 100% Icelandic, 100% alpaca, blends using both or even the “houseblend”, which can include Icelandic, alpaca, llama, mohair, merino and whatever else they have small amounts of leftover.

The Mill does custom processing, mostly for breeders with small flocks.  They process fiber based on the specific needs of each customer and produce clouds, roving, batts and yarn.  When you deal with the Argyle Fiber Mill, you’re assured that you will get your own wool back.  “No minimum, no blending, your animal,” states a succinct Kristi.

They support and supply local fiber producers and artisans, although they have customers from throughout the Midwest and all around the country.  I kept thinking of how many neat knitted creations I’ve seen in shops recently that might have had some connection to this place.  Kristi says, “There isn’t a soul who doesn’t appreciate a hand knit item from someone they know and love.”

Kristi sets-up the spinning machine

I did get to see some neat equipment, by the way.  The Mill is a full-service operation located in an old hardware store.  The production action is in the rear of the building, and the techno-nerd in me loved the spinning machine, although there were quite a few other pieces of equipment there to wash and prepare fiber.  Nothing is wasted, and the day I visited they had some lesser quality fiber ready for making rugs.

The Mill sponsors a number of classes from time to time, but Wednesday nights have become a special time for gathering.  Argylia, Goddess of Knitting, Wine and Laughter, presides over a comfy spot in the lower level where people gather every Wednesday evening to knit, spin and chat.  They are the Argylian Society of Knitters.  Folks come quite a distance and represent a wide variety of ages, viewpoints, communities and expertise.  Most have animals.  The group makes items to donate, and has helped organizations like the Special Olympics, the Veterans Hospital and members of the armed forces.  Who would have thought about the need for a nice, knit helmet liner!

Argylia - Goddess of kintting, wine and laughter

I asked Kristi pointedly if it was true that Wednesday nights are when women gather to complain about their husbands and she said, “yup”.  Hmmmmm.  But she hit on the success of the group when she said, “Knitting remains a relaxing, soothing, comforting constant – and at the end of the day, you have something!”

The Argyle Fiber Mill represents more than just entrepreneurship; it is a place with a heart and a purpose beyond a job.  The people who run the place realize they are part of something bigger, certainly in the geographical sense and something larger attitudinally as well.  A community of spirit: People who support each other’s creativity.

And by the way, behind the door with the “Art Inside” sign is a great little studio where Pam works and plans community art classes.  So the Fiber Mill can probably also claim it is a business incubator, because I know that in that room they’re hatching some great ideas for community art projects.

Argyle is a postcard picturesque little community of about 800, on the Pecatonica River in Lafayette County.  It has its own hydroelectric plant on the river (how cool is that?), and was for a time the home to Wisconsin’s own Fighting Bob Lafollette.   Its community school survives and thrives – every kid in the district in one building that shares the playground with the village park next door.  The Pecatonica River winds through town and its wetlands grace the perimeter.  And you’ve got to see the turtle – designed and built by the students, local artists and artisans and scads of community members.  It took years but most everyone got involved in one way or another.

Historic Partridge Hall

Entrepreneurial communities are those places that create an environment that attracts, retains and supports talent.  I’ve seen some neat, thriving places in my time and Argyle is definitely an entrepreneurial community.  It is an industrious place with great history – something fairly common in agriculture country – but also welcomes new folks and new ideas and, frankly, the mixture makes the Village glow.

The Argyle hydro plant

By the way, if you’re into community development, don’t miss the 2011 regional conference, Building Economic Strength Together (BEST), held this year in Argyle on May 24.  There will be two business tours: the Fiber Mill and another excellent local business – the Thunder Bridge Trading Company.  Click here for more information.

The famous Argyle Turtle, designed and built by students, teachers, local artists and just about everyone else. Yup, you can crawl right through it!

Give Argyle a visit sometime soon.  It’s near Monroe, Darlington and Blanchardville and other neat places in southwest Wisconsin.  Together, they’re great day trip material.  You’ll find scores of shops and hundreds of creative, innovative people.

And you can also connect with the Fiber Mill folks through their Facebook page.

Do you know of an entrepreneurial community, either an urban neighborhood or a rural place?   Let us know about it.

Rick Rolfsmeyer, Hollandale, WI


Owen Conservation Park

May 10, 2011

By Brian D’Ambrosio (Author, Madison For Dads: 101-Dad-Related-Adventures

One of Madison, Wisconsin’s most dearly held secrets, the hiking and panorama at Owen Conservation Park offer great scenery of mixed woods and prairie, and a city skyline overlook. The view of the city shows only a scant percentage of the buildings and gives the impression that there is very little around but forest and country.

History of Owen Conservation Park

Madison has certainly grown since the early 1900s. On a summit showcasing the city’s west side, this 84-acre park was once the summer retreat of former University of Wisconsin French professor Edward T. Owen (1850 – 1931). He named it Torwald. Owen was not only an educator but also real estate investor and conservationist. He feared that unchecked urban development would ruin the natural beauty of Madison. With associates John Olin and Edward Hammersley, he donated land for a 12-mile pleasure drive on the west side. Owen heavily influenced the creation of the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association, which bought and preserved acreage for public parks and drives decades before the city comprehended the meaning and import of such ideas.

Hiking and Birding at Owen Conservation Park

Today, prairie and oak savanna have reclaimed Owen Conservation Park. Native prairie plants, aquatic plants, trees and shrubs envelop or blanket the ponds. The three wildlife ponds completed in 2008 give permanent water habitat to migratory waterfowl and other wildlife, including deer, turkey vultures, herons, wood ducks, and shorebirds. Goldenrod, coneflowers and bluestem are among the scores of plants that generate a reward of rotating color and consistency throughout the year. The park features 3.4 miles of trails of packed dirt, grass, and wood chip. Trail traffic is light and all of the loop options are easy. No dogs or bike allowed. Trails are groomed for cross-country skiing in winter. Access is limited from 4 a.m. to one hour after sunset.

Owen Conservation Park Directions

Various entry trails from all sides give community-park accessibility to Owen Conservation Park. High trees around its boundary give the impression that much of the enveloping world is primitive and countrified. From its intersection with University Avenue on the west side, follow Whitney Way south 0.2 miles to Old Middleton Road. Go west (right) 0.6 miles to Old Sauk Road. Turn left and at 0.4 miles the park entrance, 6021 Old Sauk Road, appears on your left. Follow the park road to the parking lot. The trailhead is to the right of the lot entry in the northwest corner of the lot.


“Oh that glorious Wisconsin”….landscape.

April 26, 2011

Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society.

April the month of Earth Day is about to close and we ‘Sconies should be proud of the attention paid to our conservation trinity of Nelson, Leopold and Muir. Gaylord Nelson got his customary credit as the father of Earth Day, while John Muir and Aldo Leopold were the subjects of new, nicely produced video biographies.

As the videos showed, Muir and Leopold were scientists and philosophers, but also eloquent and lyrical writers. No line in either man’s work, so strikes us home state folks like Muir’s ecstatic, “Oh that glorious Wisconsin wilderness,” where the Scotch farmer’s son experienced, “Nature streaming into us, wooingly teaching her wonderful glowing lessons.”

Glorious it was and in Wisconsin, the Muir family farm, but it was not wilderness—at least if you define wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”  That’s how the United States government defines it in the Wilderness Act of 1964 and I think most of us would agree that wilderness presumes the absence of “man.”

The Marquette County where the Muirs settled in the 1840s was a mix of woodland, grassland and wetland as yet largely “untrammeled” in the negative sense posed by the Wilderness Act. But “man” was much more than “a visitor” here. Native people had been living on this land, managing and shaping it for thousands of years before the wagon bearing the Muir clan bounced onto the premises. The sedge meadow flanking Fountain Lake, the bluestem prairie where young John and his brothers wrestled, the patches of tough oak and hickory “grubs” that persuaded Muir to keep his breaking plow “trimmed” so they might be more easily sheared off, were components of a landscape created by earth, water, climate and the hands of men and women.

Fire was their chief tool, and the grasslands—prairie, savanna, wet meadows–covering nearly all of southern Wisconsin until the arrival of immigrants like the Muirs, their handiwork. As Muir wrote, “Had there been no fires these fine prairies, so marked a feature of the country, would have been covered by the heaviest of forests.”  He went on to say that the “farmers prevented running grass fires,” and as soon as they did so, “the grubs grew up into trees and formed tall thickets so dense that it was difficult to walk through them and every trace of the sunny openings vanished.”

Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society.

The farmers may have prevented the grass fires, but not by swatting at them with wet blankets or organizing bucket brigades. They stopped the fires by plowing and clearing away the grass and shrubs that were their fuel and by removing the people who ignited them. In 1848, one year before the Muirs settled on their farm, the last natives to hold a recognized claim to land in the vicinity, the Menominees, were ordered north to their reservation on the Wolf River. With them, they took the fire that shaped the landscape.

Muir had a blind spot when it came to recognizing the landscaping work of native people. He always saw the direct hand of god at work, and did not admit that god’s work could be and was performed by skin clad natives who were as ingenious and—for all we know—as spiritually-minded as he. I wish that Muir had recognized the role native people played in creating the first patch of earth he came to know and love, but his omission does not invalidate his experience or his message.

As shaped by native people, the Muir farm was the glorious place where nature streamed into a young man’s soul and wooingly taught him wonderful glowing lessons.

–Michael Goc

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