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

April 6, 2011

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

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Let’s Go to the Film Festival?

February 16, 2010

An article earlier this month in the New York Times about the Sundance Film Festival, held annually in January, and about film festivals in general asked: Are they still necessary?

I think it’s a valid question, though I certainly hope the answer is yes. Or that they are at least still considered a pleasant and worthwhile way to spend a weekend. I am coordinating four film festivals this March and April here in Wisconsin.

Ghostbird film still

"Ghostbird," the movie, will screen at three of the Making it Home Film Festivals. See film information on the Making it Home Film Festival Website at http://www.MakingWisconsinHome.org.

The festivals are called Making it Home, and they each will use a variety of films, from Wisconsin and around the world, to explore the many ways people and place affect one another. The first festival opens during Aldo Leopold days and the fourth and final festival takes place during the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. The environmental themes of the Making it Home Film Festivals make it especially important to ask out loud: Should we all save the carbon output by staying home and ordering up movies on Netflix?

The Wisconsin Humanities Council strives to support strong communities with public programs that encourage the use of history, culture, and conversation. We understand that films are powerfully good at telling stories and giving people something to talk about. We also figured that communities around the state would enjoy seeing free films and that, considering the strong tradition of caring deeply about the Wisconsin landscape and its natural resources, Wisconsinites would be eager to see some of the latest, most exciting new films from filmmakers around the world.

Robert Redford, founder of the Sundance Institute, which includes the annual festival and the Sundance Channel on cable, chooses to embrace technologies that allow people greater access to non-hollywood films. “Opening new vistas,” he is quoted as saying to describe his approach to the broad distribution of Sundance selections. He believes that the more access people have, the greater their overall appetite for independent film. The Making it Home Film Festivals draw from the Tales from Planet Earth Film Festival produced by the UW-Madison Nelson Institute in Madison.

Whats on your plate stars

The film "What's On Your Plate?" will screen at Making it Home Film Festivals, followed by family-friendly conversations about food! Film info at http://www.MakingWisconsinHome.org.

Ultimately, the goal and the appeal of film festivals like Making it Home and Sundance is to bring folks together to spend some time sitting still, in a darkened theater, to share the experience of a well-told story. Because when people gather, and feel moved or inspired, they are inclined to turn to one-another, friends and strangers, to talk.

The Making it Home Film Festivals, organized by the Wisconsin Humanities Council with local partners in Baraboo, Dodgeville, Milwaukee, and the Chequamegon Bay (Ashland/Bayfield), have been designed by and for those communities. Films were selected and events planned specifically to meet the interests of the people living in those regions, making the drive downtown to the main street theater worth the time (and energy). And while you can go to the Making it Home Website and watch trailers for some of the films, as well as short films made by Wisconsin filmmakers that will be interspersed throughout the festivals, I would agree with the Sundance fans: Attending a film festival is a life experience for which there is no substitute.

By Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs, Wisconsin Humanities Council.


The pigs know…it’s all about dirt

September 23, 2009

A friend of mine just started farming his parent’s land and he invited me out to help dig potatoes last weekend.  Before we got down on hands and knees in the dirt to unearth the tubers, he said the pigs needed a shower.

The three dudes, as he calls them, were weighing in around 200 pounds after about 8 months of eating. On Sunday, when I arrived, they were lumped together in the shade. Pigs don’t sweat, my farmer friend told me. When he got the hose out, they came trotting out in a hurry to splash around and get their snouts down in the newly created mud puddle.

As I spent the next hours harvesting purple, red, and gold potatoes, all found like prizes hidden within the rich soil, I thought about Will Allen.

Will Allen is a very successful farmer in urban Milwaukee. Will inspires people to garden, to grow food, and to improve their landscapes and lives. And he says, with impressive conviction, that to grow food in poor or tainted soil is irresponsible.

His main message is this: It’s all about the dirt.

Will Allen bought the last parcel of agricultural land in Milwaukee and, back in 1993, connected with teens from the surrounding neighborhood to provide work restoring the soil and the greenhouses to grow food. It was an area of the city where people needed jobs and that offered residents no other options for fresh veggies. That was the beginning of Growing Power.

To hear Will go through a brief history of the past sixteen years is jaw-droppingly inspiring. Now he travels the world sharing his techniques for creating huge quantities of high quality soil, putting it to high-density use, fertilizing it with worm castings, and changing the landscape for the better.

The Wisconsin Humanities Council brought Will Allen to Madison last week as a pre-event for the Wisconsin Book Festival (October 7-11 in Madison). The room at the Goodman Community Center was overflowing with fans, followers, and some new faces (now known as the recently converted). Forget about fire code, people were crammed in there! By the end of his talk, Will had everyone happily yelling “Soil!” when he asked, “What is the key to feeding everyone healthy food?”

And what do soil, dirt, and farming have to do with the a statewide cultural organization like the Wisconsin Humanities Council?

Dena Wortzel, the director of the WHC, may have said it best when she explained, “For our part, what we hope to do is help folks in Wisconsin use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone.”

The event was planned to bring people together to talk about what’s going on, what people are excited about, and how new ideas can be realized. This conversation, on-going and building, is part of a history, heritage, and legacy in Wisconsin.

“I don’t know if it is in the air, the water or the soil,” Dena continued, “but for more than a hundred years, Wisconsin has been home to visionaries of land and community, from John Muir to Aldo Leopold, to Will Allen – as well as less publicly known, but equally passionate people like all of you.”

I’m with Will on this one: it must be in the soil!

By Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs, Wisconsin Humanities Council


Gone Fishin’

July 21, 2009

Work before play was the ethic of the Victorian era, but not everyone subscribed.

A Wisconsin Central Railroad train at the depot in Colby, Wisconsin. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

A Wisconsin Central Railroad train at the depot in Colby, Wisconsin. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

Take the fellow known to Ashland County historians only as  “Mr. Merrill of Prairie du Chien.” A few months after the first cars of the Wisconsin Central Railroad reached the Lake Superior shore in spring 1877,  he traveled halfway across the state to board  the train running north from Marshfield to Ashland.  At a spot in the forest yet to be disturbed by logger’s axe or farmer’s plow, but where the locomotive was obliged to stop, Merrill hopped off the train and headed down the trail running due west.

Leaves were already turning in the softening September light. Canoe birch to bright yellow, soft maple in the lowlands to scarlet, hard maple on the uplands to burnished gold. White pine needles stayed green but added a wintry caul of dusky blue.

After a trek of about five miles, Merrill reached his destination, Butternut Lake. One thousand acres of gravel bars and rice beds, rocky dropoffs and reedy shallows, all overlain with a flawless mirror of clear water capturing images of the sky.

He set to his task, but not to work. He laid no traps to extract beaver pelts,  chipped no rocks in search of copper or iron ore, appraised no trees for their content of lumber in board feet,  stretched no chains to mark forties for farms or town lots for sale, scooped up no soil to assess its capability for corn.

He went fishing. In waters yet to be sullied by logging slash or camp debris, or marred by farm runoff, wetland drainage or village trash.  All that and more would come to Butternut and thousands of other virgin lakes in the north, but not in 1877.

Only Merrill of Prairie du Chein, who did very well with his hook and line. The Ashland Press reported that he caught “eighty pounds of musky.”  He probably hooked as much or more of walleye, pike or perch, but even in 1877, the tiger fish of the north was the catch most coveted.  He lugged his haul out to the railroad, packed them in a barrel full of ice and shipped them home to Prairie du Chien where they enlivened the catfish-rich dinner tables of his family and friends.

“Time is the pool I go fishing in,” wrote another lake lover thirty years prior to Merrill’s expedition to Butternut Lake.  For Henry David Thoreau, how we use our time on this earth was the elemental question.

In September 1877, Merrill of Prairie du Chien fished in the pristine pool of Butternut Lake. His choice was well-timed. 1878 would have been too late.

 issued by the Land Department of the Wisconsin Central Railroad in order to promote the sale of railroad-owned land in northern Wisconsin.

An advertisement issued by the Wisconsin Central Railroad promoting the sale of railroad-owned land in northern Wisconsin. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

–Michael Goc


On Birds and Bards: Central Wisconsin’s Prairie Chicken Festival

April 17, 2009
A territorial encounter between male Greater Prairie Chickens.  Photo: Len Backus.

A territorial encounter between male Greater Prairie Chickens. Photo: Len Backus.

Birding enthusiasts who hoped to take part in Greater Prairie Chicken watching at the Central Wisconsin Prairie Chicken Festival can sleep in this weekend: all four viewing venues are filled to capacity.

Don’t be discouraged, though, because there are many ways to participate in this annual celebration of the state’s grassland habitats. Each of seven locations will host its own variety of activities that incorporate art, science and literature, including a day-long “non-urban” literary festival featuring Wisconsin bards and book authors.

The festival began at dawn this morning (April 17) with the first Prairie Chicken viewing experience. Those lucky enough to have made a reservation to the Buena Vista Wildlife Area event–the early birds, you might say–saw male Prairie Chickens vying for female attention. Part of this annual mating ritual includes an activity called “booming:” the male inflates the orange-colored air sac on his neck, emitting a sound that can be heard as far as a mile away. Additional tours of the Prairie Chickens booming grounds are scheduled for Paul J. Olson Wildlife Area in Rudolph and Mead Wildlife Area in Milladore–but again, they’re booked solid.

Everyone can still attend the Wisconsin Center for the Book‘s Literary Bash taking place tomorrow (Saturday, April 18) at Grant Elementary School in Wisconsin Rapids. Featured speakers include the Cooperative Children’s Book Center‘s Megan Schliesman, who will recommend nature books for youth; travel writer Mary Bergin; Wisconsin Public Radio reporter Glen Moberg; and others.

Booming Bob greets a 2008 festival goer. Photo: Jodi Hermson.

There’s lots for kids to do, too: arts and crafts activities, maple syrup tasting, bird-banding demonstrations and guest appearances by festival mascot “Booming Bob.” At the Literary Bash, poster contest winners from Grant Elementary’s “Celebrating Grasslands” competition will be honored, as will the youth winners of the Letters about Literature competition, a state and national student writing contest coordinated by Wisconsin author Tom Montag.

And this evening, Rapids Mall hosts a Nature Art Crawl where festival goers can purchase the works of central Wisconsin artists and learn from area conservation organizations. In addition, enjoy a screening of the film “Northern Harrier” by Wild Journey Films and the performance “Red Land” by Academie de la Dance.

In its fourth year, the festival has rapidly gained in popularity, even as Greater Prairie Chicken numbers in Wisconsin have declined. Last year’s estimate put the population at 1,000 in Wisconsin, down from 55,000 in 1955. One of the main goals of the annual festival is to support the efforts of landowners who wish to preserve the habitats of the Greater Prairie Chicken and other wildlife. Festival activities will include information on land management practices and programs that can assist them in their efforts.

Soon after the dust settles on the booming grounds this year, planners will begin preparing for the 2010 event. So if you want an up close look (and listen) at the Prairie Chicken in Wisconsin, remember to plan early for next year’s fest. Meanwhile, here’s a YouTube video from the Missouri Department of Conservation to show you what you can expect to see.

–Tammy Kempfert


Always Bring Binoculars

March 11, 2009

Getting caught without binoculars is, to a birder, a “cardinal sin.” That’s according to Andy Paulios, a DNR bird conservationist recently featured on Wisconsin Public Television’s On the Trail: An In Wisconsin Special. While Paulios may not have intended the pun, he is serious about protecting bird habitats in Wisconsin–both on public and private lands.

In Wisconsin producer Jo Garrett followed Paulios to Cook Arboretum for a segment of the program, which airs on WPT Thursday, March 12, 7:00 p.m. Carrying binoculars might be a nature lover’s version of the Scout motto, “Be prepared,” but experienced birders come to rely on their ears at least as much as their eyes, Paulios says. An acadian flycatcher, for example, will trill “peet-zaah!” and an Eastern towhee will loudly chirp “drink-your-TEEEA!” (Surely, though, the Wisconsin translation of towhee-speak must be “cheddar CHEEESE!”)

Cook Arboretum near Janesville is a stopping point on the Great Wisconsin Birding and Nature Trail that links the best places for observing birds and other wildlife around the state. In Wisconsin viewers can follow the trail with Garrett to see and hear great blue herons, saw whet owls, sandhill cranes and other birds that make their home here–and just this once, no binoculars necessary. It’s well worth a watch, especially for those who crave the birdsong of spring after a long Wisconsin winter. (The entire special is streamed online as well.)

As for the trail, it reaches every area of Wisconsin by highway. Maps and guides are available through the Department of Natural Resources.