The spirit of John Muir floated on clouds reflected in his favorite kettle lake. It danced with the Milkweed swaying in the prairie. It whistled while sauntering along the Ice Age National Scenic Trail which now loops through land he dearly loved.
It was felt in the breeze which kicked up and helped blow out the 100 candles on the National Park Service Centennial Celebration birthday cake.
The event was designed to recognize the National Park Service’s century’s worth of profound work establishing and supporting America’s national parks. It appropriately recognized the vast contributions of John Muir, co-founder of the Sierra Club and “The Father of our National Park System.” Fittingly, the event was held on Muir’s old stomping ground, his boyhood home, on what is now the grounds of John Muir County Park in Marquette County.
It was a well-orchestrated, homespun celebration spread out on an expanse of lawn complete with a yellow and white striped tent providing shade. Members of the Marquette County Chapter of the Ice Age Trail Alliance handily stepped up to assist with logistics of the event. Grilled brats and homegrown, farm-fresh veggies comprised the picnic-style lunch topped off by a dessert buffet. A small army of women known fondly as “the church ladies” served treats from popular recipes known to date back to John Muir’s youth.
Reverence for Muir’s far-reaching legacy of environmental conservation and advocacy was clearly alive in the tributes of those who took to the podium. Partnering organizations – the National Park Service, the Ice Age Trail Alliance, and the Wisconsin Friends of John Muir – recognized their work is made possible, in part, by standing on the broad shoulders of Wisconsin’s conservationists who have gone before, including Aldo Leopold and Senator Gaylord Nelson.
The day’s theme, weaving the words and speeches together, was a call to continued action and effort, in service of future generations. In the words of Senator Tammy Baldwin, “This is personal to me. I take the responsibility I have to carry on our state’s tradition of leadership and commitment to protecting the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the natural resources that we all cherish, very seriously.”
Historian and author, Kathleen McGwin, urged us to consider how we encourage and support today’s youth in their journey to connect with nature and their own passions.
“Children need new experiences. They need encouragement to learn and participate. If no one tells them about the rich history of the Fox River and the special place they live, they may never know it. If no one points out the birds that migrate through their own back yards, they’ll miss them now and not miss them if they disappear from the skies someday. They need someone to say, “Cool,” when they find a colorful rock or weird caterpillar and they need someone to tell them how that caterpillar will provide food for a bird or will change into a butterfly that wings it all the way to Mexico. If they don’t learn the marvels of the natural world they’ll only know the virtual one on their phones or tablets.”
Yet, the question is, how do we strengthen the connection to nature for today’s youth who live in suburbs and cul de sacs, surrounded by manicured lawns and sidewalks? Truly gone are the days of wild rambling land where earlier generations lived, deeply rooted by the need for sustenance – space for gardens, woods for hunting.
Thus the need, even more profoundly, for public land like the John Muir County Park which preserves a kettle lake surrounded by prairie and woods, gentle rolling drumlins, and a home to wildlife.
“Our world and future generations depend on that connection being re-forged. So we do it by walking. We do it by sauntering,” as Luke Kloberdanz, Outreach and Education Director of the Ice Trail Alliance, pointed out. To “Saunter” being the preferred word, not “hike”, of John Muir. A saunter then, along the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, through the Saunter’s Program, is one entry point for youth, back into the wonders of nature, providing them with a “snapshot of nature’s vastness”.
Truly, the spirit of John Muir was present in the celebrations of the day. It was felt in the promise to future generations to be the broad shoulders for today’s young Muirs. It was in the commitment, echoed by numerous speakers, to continue working together to protect nature, to provide places to revel in its un-manicured glory. In the words of Muir, quoted more than once throughout the day, “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”