Wisconsin’s John Muir: An Interview with Michael Edmonds
Editor’s note: The National Park Service is celebrating its centennial this year, as August 25, 2016 marked its 100th anniversary. This is the second of three posts in an Edge Effects series about the National Parks.
I spent much of last fall doing research for the Wisconsin Historical Society for an exhibit on one of Wisconsin’s most important environmental figures, John Muir. In the winter of 2016, the exhibit, “Wisconsin’s John Muir,” started its tour of 26 communities around the state. Every two weeks, Michael Edmonds, the Society’s Director of Programs and Outreach, travels to a new location alongside the exhibit in order to meet the community, give a lecture on Muir, and speak with participants in the accompanying book club.
As part of Edge Effects’ series celebrating the centennial of the National Park Service, I sat down with my former boss to talk about the exhibit, Muir’s legacy, the national parks, and what’s next for the Wisconsin Historical Society as it continues its mission to enrich people’s lives through creating connections to the past.
Bailey Albrecht: Where did the idea for an exhibit on John Muir originate?
Michael Edmonds: Last year Matt Blessing, head of the Library-Archives Division, came up with the idea. He thought that if there would be national attention on the centennial of the National Parks Service, then why don’t we celebrate our Muir collections here at the Historical Society, which total over a 125 original letters from Muir, plus some of his artifacts, and also many of his drawings. So, Matt’s idea was that we could cover these two things, the centennial of the national parks and Muir’s Wisconsin connection.
ME: Really it was just Muir because of the national parks anniversary. We always intended to connect the dots. The lineage, in my mind at least, really starts with Increase Lapham, who was one of Wisconsin’s earliest naturalists. It goes Lapham, Muir, Leopold, Nelson, and you could include Sigurd Olson as well, between Leopold and Nelson.
BA: Speaking of Wisconsin’s environmentalists, the name of the exhibit is “Wisconsin’s John Muir,” but many people know Muir best for his writing on California and what would become Yosemite National Park. What does focusing on Muir’s youth in Wisconsin highlight that we might otherwise overlook?
ME: Well, particularly for a Wisconsin audience, it’s a natural topic. People all over Wisconsin want to claim Muir as a native son. Wisconsin residents have loved to claim that the state was the birthplace of many important people, who then left: Thornton Wilder, Georgia O’Keeffe, Orson Welles. They say “Yeah, Wisconsin gave the world these people,” but the truth is, as soon as they turned 18, most of these figures fled. The same is true for Muir, who left and hardly came back once he did. So, to Wisconsinites, he’s ours, but to most people around the country and the world, he’s California’s. They don’t really have any idea where he grew up, or what influences he was subjected to.
Despite this, I think many of his ideas can be traced back to his childhood in Wisconsin. Many of his statements about nature are ultimately traceable to the experiences he had growing up on a Wisconsin farm in the 1850s. For example, his general attitude towards nature is a spiritual attitude, one that is primarily motivated not by conservation of economic resources but by spiritual or mystical or religious experiences he had out in nature. His childhood in Wisconsin was intensely religious, and that spills over into his belief that spending time in nature becomes a way to know God.
BA: The exhibit travels every two weeks, and will eventually reach 26 communities in Wisconsin. How did the Historical Society decide which communities to bring the exhibit to?
ME: We were not that interested in making sure that people living in suburbs of Madison and Milwaukee had yet another program to choose from. We were much more interested in putting the exhibit in small public libraries in places like Crandon or Reedsburg, where they don’t normally get experiences of this kind. In other words, we wanted to make sure that the Wisconsin Historical Society, through the Muir exhibit, really was serving all the people of Wisconsin, not just those that live in its largest communities.
BA: The exhibit is accompanied by a reading group, and participants are given free copies of Muir’s Story of My Boyhood and Youth. In addition, you give a lecture on Muir in each community. What aspects of his life and work have you highlighted through the exhibit and the accompanying talks?
ME: The exhibit highlights his connections to national parks, because these served as the initial reason for the program. It quotes from his journals and his writings on forestry and birds, because bird lovers are everywhere. There is a panel about climate change and his writings on glaciers. The exhibit is meant to be a 30,000-foot overview of his career as it relates to national parks.
The book discussion and the presentation that I give are much more about his ideas, particularly the religious motives that he had—his spiritual attitude towards nature. It works well, as soon as I bring up the word “God,” because most people who come to a public presentation in a library or another public setting don’t expect to hear about God. You’re not supposed to talk about religion with strangers. So, to throw him out as somebody who saw nature as just God turned inside out—that nature is the divine creation, and that he wanted to get back as close to the book of Genesis and see nature untrammeled by human intervention—people light right up at that.
Later during the presentation I also talk about the damming of the Hetch Hetchy Valley in California, and before I do that I elicit from the host what a local controversy is in town that highlights the tension between preservation and use. In some towns it’s been a historical building on Main Street. In one town it was a centuries-old oak tree that had to be cut down when they widened the only highway that ran through town. In other places it has been the filling of a wetland. In one town it was a golf course that had been there for a hundred years that developers wanted to turn into condos. But in every town we visit, there are local sites that echo the Hetch Hetchy tension; do we preserve this or do we use it? I like to end that discussion by saying these questions aren’t easy, though that usually become obvious from the preceding conversation. Similarly, we all think global warming is bad, but we’re all going to stand up when I’m done talking and put our keys in our cars. These are just not easy problems to work on. This point then loops back around to Muir and the disappointments of his final years as he battled unsuccessfully to stop the damming of Hetch Hetchy.
BA: Since your travels around the state put you in a unique position to comment upon this, what are the environmental concerns you see voiced most often in Wisconsin communities?
ME: Besides the preservation concerns that I mentioned, in almost every group there will be people who either come up afterwards to debate climate change with me, or there will be people who, when I bring up the melting of the glaciers, their body language will shift. There are people who just don’t believe it’s real and think that we are all being hoodwinked. In every community there appears to be perhaps one person in ten to whom climate change is just a nonsensical left-wing Madison issue. But, they’re there, and I take their concerns seriously.
BA: Are people seeing connections between the problems Muir faced and environmental issues today? Have these issues changed drastically since Muir’s time, or are they similar?
ME: It depends on how high up you want to go with your generalizations. When I was in Crandon, in northern Wisconsin, the audience was probably three-quarters people who had opposed the Crandon mine in the early 2000s. But, there were some people who had backed the idea of the mine because of the jobs it would bring to the area. So, the idea that the mineral resources near Crandon should be consumed even though we pay a high environmental price for them, that tension was still represented.
The tension between preservation and use is still there, but I also think there are a lot more people who just love the outdoors than there were in Muir’s day. The children of Gaylord Nelson, the grandchildren of Nelson, those generations my age and younger. There are many more of us now than there were in 1905.
BA: What’s next for the Wisconsin Historical Society?
ME: Last spring we launched a second exhibit called “Great Lakes, Small Streams,” which is twice the size of the Muir exhibit. It travels to community centers and public libraries telling the story of the importance of water to Wisconsin’s history. It’s mainly about maritime history. It was so well received that the Wisconsin Humanities Council gave us money to produce a second copy of the exhibit, which is now traveling to schools in the lakeshore communities from Kenosha to Green Bay. We will follow these exhibits up next year with an exhibit on drinking water and the history of how people have obtained their water in Wisconsin. It’s actually a pretty interesting history. There were resorts where people came just to drink the water, and there have been various water controversies, including the current one in which Waukesha wants to take water from Lake Michigan. There are also crises like the current one in Kewaunee County, where you can’t drink the water because the aquifer is so polluted. So with next year’s exhibit about drinking water, we hope to put these current issues in historical context. Then, when people talk about the current problems in their towns, they will also have a wider perspective on the problems they face.
The Wisconsin Historical Society will also continue its mission to enrich the lives of Wisconsinites by connecting them to their past in other ways. Aside from our library archives, where the Muir documents are held, the Wisconsin Historical Society Press publishes between 15-20 books annually. We also have 11 state historic sites and two museums in Madison that are worth visiting if you’re in Wisconsin.
BA: Finally, because Edge Effects is doing a series on the national parks, and because the Parks’ centennial was the impetus for the Muir exhibit, what do you think the impact of the National Parks Service has been?
ME: Every time I give my presentation, I ask, “How many of you have been to Yosemite?” Probably 25% of every audience has actually been to Yosemite. I think that even in small towns in the Midwest, little places in central Wisconsin, there are people who have deliberately gone around the country visiting national parks. They have a great pull, a great draw. Muir was probably right that natural places have this civilizing influence, and that the desire for such places is inherent in us. We need to go to natural places in order to be renewed and restored. The fact that everywhere I go I see people who have made a great effort to do that confirms this instinct.
Featured Image: Portrait of John Muir. Public Domain.
Bailey Albrecht is a PhD student in the History Department interested in how people have shaped environments. In her current research, she explores how developed nations like Japan are able to green themselves in part because they rely on the natural resources of less developed nations, such as Indonesia. Contact.