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Finding John Muir’s Tree

For Earth Day, we set out to find the Black Locust that inspired John Muir to his life’s work.

Jason Krause '96
April 19, 2015

A descendant of the same Bodhi Tree where Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment still lives in Bodh Gaya, India.

Several English cities claim to have the apple tree that helped Isaac Newton work out his theory of gravity.

And right near the top of Bascom hill is a black locust tree that may be a clone of the one that inspired John Muir to become an environmentalist.

Seed of a Revolution

It was beneath a black locust tree near North Hall that Muir had his first botany lesson from a fellow student in 1863. Here is Muir's account of the incident from his autobiography, The Story of My Boyhood Home and Youth:

I received my first lesson in botany from a student named Griswold... One memorable day in June, when I was standing on the stone steps of the north dormitory [North Hall], Mr. Griswold joined me and at once began to teach. He reached up and picked a flower from an overspreading branch of a locust tree, and handing it to me said, "Muir, do you know what family this tree belongs to?"

"No," I said, "I don't know anything about botany."

"Well, no matter," said he, "What is it like?"

"It's like a pea flower," I replied.

"That's right. You're right," he said, "It belongs to the Pea Family."

"But how can that be," I objected, "when the pea is a weak, clinging, straggling herb, and the locust is a big, thorny hardwood tree?"

This revelation inspired Muir so deeply that he says it "sent me flying to the woods and meadows in wild enthusiasm."

The tree by North Hall, which came to be called the John Muir Black Locust, was cut down in 1953. However, a young black locust on Muir Knoll across from North Hall is perhaps a descendant of the same tree Muir admired 152 years ago. According to UW naturalists "black locust trees are notorious for spreading asexually and sprouting new trees at some distance to the parent tree." If this is an asexual descendant of Muir's tree, it will have the same genetic material, meaning it is a clone of the very tree that helped push Muir down the path to becoming one of the great naturalists in American history.

The Next Generation

In honor of Earth Day (April 22) and Muir's 177th birthday (April 21), we went up Bascom Hill to find that tree.


Looking through the UW Archives, we found this picture of the dedication ceremony for Muir Knoll, which preserved the area around North Hall in honor of John Muir.  The speaker at the podium is believed to be Judge Griswold, the man who first inspired Muir. The bronze bust of Muir, on the left side of the image, was created by C.S. Pietro in 1916. The sculpture is now located on the mezzanine at Birge Hall.


On the right side of this image is the John Muir Black Locust, at the edge of Observatory Drive. This picture was probably taken in 1953, around the time the locust was removed. The steel ski jump that was once part of Muir Knoll  is visible across the road, nestled among the trees. (Source: UW Archives)


Today the knoll includes several tree specimens marked by short posts topped with a small red sign detailing each tree's scientific name and native range. These signs were installed for a nature walk established as a university sesquicentennial project in 1999. Unfortunately, the accompanying brochure is now out of print.

We found this marker for a black locust propped up against a tree on the very edge of Observatory Drive. It was the only tree labeled black locust.  


Stepping back, you can see the tree that may be a clone of Muir's black locust as it begins to sprout leaves. The adjacent rock says "Muir Knoll," and the marker leans against the base.

It is gratifying to see that thanks to the natural wonders preserved around UW-Madison campus, new generations of naturalists continue to find the campus inspiring.

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