Bill Muir: Boundary Waters Botanist

Bill Muir

From 1971 to 1975, Bill Muir was the staff botanist at the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM) Wilderness Field Station on Basswood Lake. For those five summers, Muir, a Biology professor at Carleton College, taught a field course in botany. During this time he travelled over two thousand miles with his students in the BWCAW and Quetico.

Muir introduced hundreds of students from a variety of small midwestern colleges to the joys of canoeing and studying plants in the Boundary Waters area. Many of them still return to this area, and a few of them now teach at the ACM Wilderness Field Station that is now located on Low Lake, just outside the BWCAW.

Although he travelled extensively throughout the Boundary Waters area, Bill Muir never saw any of it. Professor Muir was totally blind when he spent those five summers teaching a field course in the BWCAW and Quetico. He had never visited the Boundary Waters area before he became blind and therefore never saw the border country that he grew to love.

Muir slowly lost his sight from complications from diabetes and was totally blind by 1968. When he was asked in the fall of 1970 to work at the field station on Basswood Lake, he later recalled that: “It was ridiculous to even think about it.” However, his wife Libby assured him that she would act as his eyes, and their four children were ecstatic at the thought of spending their summers on Basswood Lake.

With his family’s support and encouragement, he accepted the job. In order to lead expeditions into the varied habitats along the Boundary Waters, Bill obviously had to be able to canoe, portage, and camp out for days and weeks at a time. He was able to accomplish this, to a large extent, with his wife’s assistance. He also hired a former field station student, George Wittler, as his assistant. George paddled stern and Bill and Libby alternated paddling bow. George went on to receive a Ph. D. in Biology, is now an Associate Professor of Biology at Ripon College, and has been director of the ACM Wilderness Station off and on since 1979.

Bill Muir described the summer botany courses at the ACM field school in a Carleton College publication in 1972. “Classes visit a wide variety of habitats, including evergreen and hardwood forests, forest edge, sites of former forest fires, rocky cliffs and outcroppings, marshes, bogs, and lakes and streams both high and low in their levels of living and dead organisms. Types of communities living in such locations are studied, and attempts are made to perceive inter-relationships and interactions. Much material usually is brought back to the station for further analysis in the laboratory.” Bill was definitely not content with staying at the lab and analyzing plant specimens. He insisted on travelling and experiencing plants in their natural environment. The difficulties associated with canoeing and camping were, in his eyes, minor compared with the rewards.

He learned to identify many plants by touch, and could also identify some plants by their smell. However, diabetes negatively affects the circulatory system, and this decreased his sense of touch. The Muirs’ had camped in northern Minnesota prior to his blindness and he was familiar with most of the Boundary Waters plants. He usually identified plants for students by listening to their description of the plant. He also felt that having students accurately describe a plant helped them to become more observant. Another blind biologist, Geerat Vermeij, recently explained why he insisted on doing field work in spite of his lack of eyesight. “All the world’s creatures live and evolve in a context. They are not little worlds unto themselves, isolated from one another and from the forces of wind, water, and earth. Instead, they persist, resist, respond, and perpetuate themselves in an environment rife with challenges and opportunities. Biologists seeking to document and explain patterns of evolution must penetrate and observe the world from the organism’s perspective. Much can be learned from books, but the knowledge thus gained is inevitably filtered through someone else’s facilities. There is simply no substitute for making one’s own observations in the wild.”

Bill Muir canoed into the BWCAW and Quetico so that he could make observations in the wild. He had a special love of bogs and he almost always took his students into them on their trips. Some of Quetico’s largest and most diverse bogs are along the Wawiag River and this area was a particular favourite of his. It was there that he first met Shan Walshe, another botanist with a strong affinity for bogs.

George Wittler recalled the first meeting of Bill and Shan. “We were camped in Kawa Bay near the mouth of the Wawiag River. On our first morning we paddled as a class up the river for group exploration. A small creek seemed interesting so we paddled up about half a mile. While looking at a small spruce bog and examining the unusual vegetation from the canoes we heard a rustling in the bog forest. Expecting a moose or similar beast to emerge, we waited very quietly in our canoes. Who should pop out right by us but this strange man with his hat pulled down over his eyes. Without a moment’s hesitation, this person looked at us and said, “There is a spruce grouse in a black spruce that was so close to me, that I could hit it with a paddle.” The Muir and Walshe families developed a strong friendship, and Libby Muir and Margie Walshe still keep in touch.

Special adaptations were made so that Bill could travel through habitats, such as bogs, that he liked to explore. He used a 5 foot 8 inch long piece of aspen as a probe to test the depth of water and the surface of bogs and other surfaces that he was walking on. He called this all-purpose wooden shaft his “cudgel”.

Libby tried using small bells on her pants so that her movements could be heard by Bill. They found that having Bill hold onto the strap of her pack as she walked ahead of him on portages worked well. When traversing particularly difficult terrain, he would put his hand on Libby’s, or George Wittler’s, or on some other person’s shoulder. The person would then describe the obstacles, such as boulders, deadfalls, and low branches, as they moved along. With the assistance of others, Bill Muir could travel through most of the Boundary Waters’ habitats. He could then share his vast knowledge of plants and plant ecology with his companions and students.

Bill had a distinguished career as a researcher and college teacher before he came to the ACM camp. He received a degree in plant pathology from the University of Wisconsin in 1955. While he was a graduate student he was the first person to successfully grow plant tissue cultures from individual cells. This was a major breakthrough that has lead to many advances in plant research.

He became a botany professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota in 1957, and he spent his entire career in their Biology Department. Everyone that knew Bill mentioned his obvious enthusiasm for biology and his outstanding ability to motivate students. He was also extremely successful in infecting other people with his enthusiasm for plants. At least 19 of his students went on to obtain graduate degrees in botany, and another 50 went on to careers in some aspect of botany. This is an astonishing number from a small college and a real testimony to his teaching abilities.
In 1964, Bill began to lose his vision and it became apparent that it would be difficult to continue teaching courses that required a substantial amount of lab work, including the use of microscopes. Libby, who already had a degree in Biology, then began attending his lectures to renew and update her knowledge of plants. She also returned to school and obtained a teaching certificate. She was then qualified to conduct the labs and generally act as her husband’s eyes and hands in the lab and classroom.

They successfully “team taught” botany courses at Carleton College from 1968 until Bill retired in 1984. This adaptive and innovative solution allowed Bill to continue to effectively teach for almost twenty years after becoming blind. As usual, the Muirs dealt with the complications from Bill’s diabetes with resourcefulness rather than assuming nothing could be done.

In 1976, the year after his last summer at the ACM camp, the Muirs built a cabin north of Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Bill, Libby and their four children constructed a simple, rustic cabin where they could live a simple life close to nature. There was no running water and they cut and split wood to heat the cabin. Bill once said that “light is provided for those inferiors that need it by kerosene lamps”.

They spent a lot of time, in both summer and winter, at this cabin that Bill named “Lycopodium Lodge” in honour of the club mosses that are so common in the north woods. Bill was with his family at Lycopodium Lodge when he died from complications of diabetes in 1985.

The summers at the ACM camp instilled a deep love for the Boundary Waters in Bill and Libby Muir. They worked long and hard for the preservation of the BWCAW and Quetico as wilderness areas. John Muir, the famous naturalist, writer, and conservationist was a distant relative of Bill’s and they shared the love of wild places. Bill testified before House and Senate committees in favour of limiting motor access to BWCAW lakes. He even testified against making exceptions for handicapped people, and in 1977 he stated that “when I am no longer able to paddle over Basswood Lake or portage down the Basswood River, then I will be happy to content myself with travel over and along more civilized waters.”

Libby Muir has continued to canoe in the Boundary Waters area. Last summer she continued her long tradition of taking a trip into the BWCAW and she plans on returning again this summer.

My memories of Quetico, those things that immediately come to mind, are almost exclusively visual. I can close my eyes and picture the bays of Basswood Lake. I can mentally paddle and portage down the Basswood River to Crooked Lake. Bill Muir also paddled these same waters. However, it is difficult for me to imagine how he experienced the lake and the river without their visual aspects.

There are undoubtedly unique impressions of Basswood that are experienced without the need of sight. The visual impact of a place is always mixed in with its sounds, smell, and “feel”. The sounds of rapids, of water lapping at the base of cliffs, of wind blowing through the large pines and of ravens’ wings overhead, are only vague in my memory but would have been foremost in his mind. He’d have been more aware of the flow of the water under the canoe, the feel of the lichen-encrusted cliffs, the touch of the wind on his face, and the smell of the different habitats.

Bill Muir learned how to identify more plants by touch than I know by sight. Just knowing this can spur me on to use my other senses more. This summer, I’m going to explore the trunks of trees with my hands, touch the cracks and indentations in cliffs, and feel the difference between granite, greenstone, and Knife Lake siltstone. I’m going to run my fingers over saw-tooth edges of poplar and birch leaves, and learn to distinguish between red, white, and jack pine needles by their shapes and textures.

I’m going to kneel down and smell moccasin flowers, twin flowers and others that I’ve looked at but have no idea of their odour. I’m going to crush the leaves of sweet gale and sweet fern and inhale their strong, pleasant smell. I’m going to listen to the sounds of water cascading over Silver Falls and the more muted sounds of small creeks meandering over rocks. Hopefully, I can still learn something from Bill Muir.

In 1972, Bill Muir wrote about his previous summer’s experience at the ACM camp: “At the conclusion of such an adventure one is not simply aware of this habitat or that. Rather, the traveler comes away with a sense of awe and reverence for the whole of nature, with its complex relationships, its harmonious transitions and its right to be.” Last summer, I went to the ACM Field Station on Low Lake and found a small but dedicated community of staff and students. They have been sending people into the BWCAW and Quetico since 1962 and they have compiled a staggering amount of information on the ecology of the Boundary Waters area.

The staff that I talked to knew about Bill Muir and were aware of the impact that he had on the school. The location is different than when Bill Muir worked there, but the emphasis on combining wilderness exploration and scholarship remains the same. This is a legacy that Bill Muir would be proud of.

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