Sun is breaking through the morning mist as I arrive at John Muir Park on October 27. I walk down the hill to what the Muirs called Fountain Lake, now known as Ennis Lake, and see streams of holy light raking the fog-shrouded waters.
Though no structure remains, I know the Muirs’ farmhouse, built in 1850, was somewhere nearby. I picture young John getting up on a day like today with the inside of the house about the same temperature as the outside: 34 degrees. The one stove in the house was only for cooking, according to John’s father, Daniel.
The Scottish family made a farm here in central Wisconsin, their first home in America, when John was 11. He and his brother attended school in Scotland, but in Wisconsin they were too busy doing farm chores and building a house. Later, when the land wore out, the family moved to nearby Hickory Hills and John dug a well by hand through 90 feet of soil and stone. He was almost worked to death, but the land and trees always revived him, as he wrote, remembering, “Young hearts, young leaves, flowers, animals, the winds and the streams and the sparkly lake, all wildly, gladly rejoicing together!”
As the mists lift, so do flocks of small birds, moving from shore grass to lofty treetops all gold and red with autumn leaves. A marsh hawk flies by and I hear Sand Hill Cranes calling from the Fox River across Highway F. I’ve come to commune with nature–and the spirit of John Muir. As offerings, I have two of his favorite foods: bread and apple slices.
Moving away from the lake, I follow a mowed path. A section of the Ice Age Trail goes around Ennis Lake, kept up by volunteers in order to highlight the history of the glaciers in Wisconsin. I go over a hill and down to two spreading oak trees, still hanging onto their leaves. As the sun brightens the sky, the tan leaves glow as if fresh-baked and buttered. The trees are so big, surely they were around when young Johnnie Muir was here. I offer chunks of spelt bread and Fuji apple. I throw in an almond for good measure.
Driving home, north along Tenth Road, I finally see some Sand Hill Cranes. There are dozens of them milling about in an open field bordered by corn. Usually the cranes pair off in separate fields, but at this time of year they gather to prepare for their migrations to Texas or points further south. They call to each other, a deep chortle like rusty hinges on a creaky door.
With almost no traffic I am free to linger along the side of the road, watching. Three cranes glide by my car window, sailing along just to stretch their wings. In the field, two elegant, gray cranes face each other and bow. One flaps its wings, then the other. Then there is bobbing all around followed by a minute’s rest. Then more bobbing and flapping. It is quite a dance.
I drive home to the cabin, munching the remains of the apple I shared with John Muir and the oak trees. During his lifetime, Muir helped create national parks such as Yosemite, but he was unable to preserve this patch of land that had been so dear to him as a boy. He tried, but it wasn’t until 1957 that it became John Muir Memorial Park, where anyone can visit and make their own connections with the natural beauty that helped form a passionate conservationist.