A photographer follows the example of early conservationist John Muir and finds beauty in subtle landscapes.
By Tom Persinger
It will take just over two hours to reach the old farmstead. I left before dawn and the sun is rising behind me as I drive west on Highway 94. I always enjoy driving with the sun illuminating the route stretched out before me in long, cool rays of golden light.
Unlike when early conservationist John Muir first made this journey in 1849, my trip is easy. Developed highways and well-marked secondary roads paved with asphalt carry me the distance. Muir’s 100-plus mile trek from Milwaukee to the farm via a hired wagon took place in early spring on recently thawed roads. They were thick with mud and not easy for travelers to navigate. Muir’s father, like many homesteaders, compounded the problem by bringing far too much luggage, including a cast iron stove and cookware set that weighed several hundred pounds. The Muirs paid a wheat farmer 30 dollars to ferry them in his wagon to their new home. The combination of poor road conditions and excessive baggage had the farmer in fits. He fumed and declared that he would “never again be tempted to haul such a horse-killing load.”
The Muir family’s journey had begun just over six weeks earlier on February 19, 1849 when they sailed from Scotland to America. John Muir, his father Daniel, sister Sarah and brother David — leaving his mother and four other members of the family behind in Scotland until the new homestead was ready — arrived in New York after rough travel over the wild Atlantic Ocean. From New York City they traveled by steamer ship to Buffalo and then on to Wisconsin. Muir’s father had left Scotland intending to become a wheat farmer and settle in Canada, but while in Buffalo he heard of the abundant grain harvests in Wisconsin and Michigan, changed his plans and headed toward Milwaukee.
I’m in Milwaukee for a few days visiting family for the December holidays and decided to take a long day and travel to the site of John Muir’s boyhood home. The lake and 150-acre area around it is now a protected park that I’ve long wanted to visit. Many agree that this is where Muir’s revolutionary idea to preserve lands for their own sake first took shape. If you like cold and snow, December is a terrific time to travel in Wisconsin. If not, you might be best served waiting for warmer months. This particular day is biting cold with an occasional stiff, chilly wind.
Shortly after I drive through the small town of Portage I turn on to County Road F and cross the mostly frozen French Creek Wildlife area. The wildlife area is a 4,000-acre marsh filled with a great variety of plants and animals. A native sedge known as wiregrass was once farmed here and made into grass rugs. Bald eagles also make their homes here, but sadly none reveal themselves to me today. A few minutes after passing the wildlife area, I turn into the park’s snow-filled parking lot.
The entrance is not well marked and is easy to miss. Today’s snow isn’t deep, but it’s crusty and slippery. Fortunately, my car has all-wheel drive and I skate up the slight hill, pull over towards the left, and park near the trailhead to admire the magnificent view of the prairie through the windshield. Sipping hot coffee, I eat the last of a breakfast sandwich and reflect on the land before me. It was carved over 12,000 years ago by the retreating Green Bay Lobe of the Wisconsin glaciation. When huge pieces of ice began to recede here they exposed an area of bare sand and gravel that concealed a large chunk of buried ice. The buried ice gradually melted and formed the lake that now, partially frozen, sits placidly to the right.
I open the car door and step out. The cold air fills my lungs and the snow squeaks underfoot. The squelch of snow with each step indicates that the pressure from my boot isn’t melting the snow, but is crushing it which means the air temperature is not warmer than 14°F. I grab my day pack, camera gear and tripod and walk down the small hill onto the prairie. In the spring and summer, this area is alive with the magnificent colors of false indigo, butterfly milkweed, bergamot, prairie coneflowers and many other brilliant blooming prairie plants. Today, however, it’s a glorious snowfield under an open sky interrupted by brambles and branches from trees and plants dormant for the long winter.
The trail is a loop slightly less than three miles that circles the 30-acre Ennis Lake. It might be short, but it contains a stunning number of plant species and traverses a surprising variety of landscapes: prairie, willow groves, oak, pine and tamarack forests, a sedge meadow and an open bog. Even though the area is varied, diverse and beautiful by today’s standards, some might find it easy to overlook as a fairly unremarkable place. There are no grand vistas or majestic cathedral mountains, no geysers, canyons, hot springs, glaciers or soaring waterfalls. In this place, beauty is found in the details. For the young John Muir this “glorious Wisconsin wilderness” was filled with everything “new and pure.” It was a world away from the streets and alleys of Glasgow, Scotland.
The snowy trail I walk marks a division in the land: to the right lie the remains of a native mesic prairie while the land to the left, once part of the same prairie, was developed but is no longer used for farming. Mesic prairies, characterized by good drainage and high moisture levels throughout the growing season, are the most threatened types of prairie land because many were converted for agricultural use. They also generally display the most diverse wildflower populations. The former prairie-turned-farm may recover, and nonprofit restoration efforts are underway, but it’s a long, arduous process with no guarantee.
The trail moves through a clump of willows and then on toward a cluster of oak trees. It’s possible that these trees once marked the western edge of the Muir property line. Looking at the trees, I wonder if Muir may have walked here as a boy doing chores. There are bur and black oaks and, down the way, a shagbark hickory or two. Each has distinctly different leaf shapes and is easy to identify, but bur oaks also have a unique, thick, cork-like bark that is deeply grooved. It’s because of their unique bark that bur oaks can survive the hot, intense wildfires of the prairie.
I continue on through the snow and come to a simple wooden footbridge that crosses a small, frozen stream. I walk to the middle of the bridge and pause to look toward the north. The stream slides down a hill out of a sedge meadow that holds more than a few dogwood trees. Just up the hill and beyond the meadow is the place where Daniel Muir built the first family homestead. Here, on a hot Wisconsin summer night, the young John Muir watched what appeared to be millions of fireflies flickering and illuminating the meadow. Later, he would write that the event was “so strange and beautiful it seemed far too marvelous to be real.” Today, only a few nuthatches and chickadees flit among frozen trees; otherwise, it is quiet and still. A light snow begins to fall.
I turn and glance toward the lake. The place where the stream joins the frozen waters isn’t far, but the distance between is filled with trees and bushes including a clump of now bare tamarack. I’ve long found the tamarack to be a curiosity. It is a coniferous tree by classification and appearance, but one that drops its leaves in autumn like its deciduous cousins. Though I can’t see the confluence from here, I know this stream is one of many that feed the lake. Now called Ennis Lake after a later landowner, Muir’s father named it Fountain Lake because of the many springs and streams that bubbled up and ran over the ground, feeding the lake a steady diet of fresh, cold water. It’s not miraculous, but it is beautiful.
I look off to my right and see the dog-like track of a coyote. The fresh snow reveals which travelers have passed, and I have seen many animal tracks today including deer, raccoon, fox, turkey, rabbit and squirrel. The trail begins to gently rise up a slight hill that’s slick with snow and ice. I scramble to the top and walk through a pleasing forest of mixed oaks. It’s a nice walk through some tall trees with a terrific view of the lake. After a short while, the trail descends to lake level, skirts the bottom of a hill of oaks and follows the outside edge of a sedge meadow. This trail most likely follows the lake’s old shoreline, but the sedge that now lies between the trail and the water has been gradually expanding. It has moved further and further into the lake and filled the open water with layer upon layer of peat. Over thousands of years, an entire lake can be consumed by a growing sedge meadow.
From here the trail follows the edge of the sedge around the southern end of the lake before entering a woodland of young oaks. This young forest is on the opposite side of the lake from the Muir homestead, but I expect that John Muir spent time walking and exploring here. Their nearest neighbor was four miles away, so there was ample space for exploration, but time was always a problem. Daniel Muir was a firm task master who often kept John and his siblings occupied with long, arduous days of farm chores. There was often some free time after church on Sunday and occasionally some time was granted in the evening to hunt or fish, but mostly their days were filled with farming. John’s days were so full that to find some time for himself he would often rise at 1 a.m.!
Following the trail around the lake, I emerge on the western side and circle a very large spring fen. A fen is a type of wetland characterized by marshy land that lacks tree cover and is filled with living peat-forming plants and pH-neutral to alkaline water. I soon arrive at another footbridge that affords passage over a small, snow-rimmed stream. Its bubbling, clear, cold water runs swiftly over the sandy dark brown and black stream bed. The view east over the cattails of the fen and toward the hills of the oak forest is terrific. The winter landscape is a muted palette of pale whites, browns and beige brought alive by splashes of deep burgundy branches.
The Muirs would only live at Fountain Lake for about eight years. Despite all of their hard work — and perhaps also because of it — the thin, sandy soil was quickly farmed out. Around 1857, when Muir was 17 years old, they moved six miles southeast to a new farm. But it was the memory of Fountain Lake that Muir carried with him as he walked to the Gulf, spent a summer in the Sierra, when he camped with Theodore Roosevelt, and while he tirelessly advocated for the preservation of American wild places.
There are many who feel that this land and lake was as important to Muir as Walden Pond was to Thoreau. There are three occasions when Muir tried to purchase the land from his brother, but was refused each time. The area is a wonderful collection of various plant communities and wetlands. It is now owned by Marquette County and has been protected as a State Natural Area since 1972. In September 2014, negotiations were completed with a private land-owner who owned a section of the Muir homestead to the north of the existing park, and that land will soon become part of the preserved property. It is currently slated to be dedicated in the spring of 2015.
After crossing the bridge, the trail opens into a field and from behind a tree my car comes into view. As I approach my vehicle, I reflect on this place. John Muir made this space a place of significance for the entire country. Its beauty is subtle, but striking for those willing to take the time to look. Muir changed the way we consider open spaces. He intensely advocated to preserve them for themselves, beyond any idea of economic use or function. Today, I wonder about the place where I live. It’s easy to take for granted the familiar places we see every day, but what if we took a moment to get out and turn over stones, do a little research and consider them with fresh eyes — the kind of eyes with which John Muir saw wild places? We might be as inspired by our own “ordinary” backyards as young Muir was by his.
Tom Persinger is a photographer and writer based in Pittsburgh, Pa. Read more at www.tompersinger.com.