“New beauty meets us at every step in all our wanderings.”
— John Muir
The Muir Woods Oak Project
In 1859, the hillside now known as Muir Woods was an open oak savannah, with stands of red and white oak trees mixed in with the prairie that descended to the Lake Mendota shore.
UW–Madison was a mere decade old then, consisting of a handful of buildings on the far side of the hill. Sometime during the spring of that year, an acorn sprouted on the hillside and, as the years went on, grew to become a towering red oak.
Fast forward 143 years, to fall 2002. In the woods behind the Social Sciences building, the same red oak tree had reached the end of its life, its branches bereft of leaves. Looking at the tree — afflicted by a fungus called oak wilt — and two older oaks dying nearby, Daniel Einstein decided that he would find a way to save the “history in the wood.”
Einstein, campus environmental management coordinator and arborist, enlisted Bjorn Karlsson, an associate researcher in horticulture who runs Urban Forest Furniture, a small business that salvages dying historic trees for reuse as custom furniture projects.
It was decided that the Muir Woods oaks would be cut down and transformed into paneling for the Red Gym, itself a 109-year-old, historic campus landmark. The idea seemed to fit the history of trees and the memory of Muir Woods’ namesake John Muir, who, before his days as a famed naturalist, walked among them as a student.
“It was a perfect arrangement,” Einstein says, noting that many sick trees are simply cut and used for firewood. “We found a higher use for the wood.”
Last month, after a lengthy process of milling the lumber into boards, drying them and precisely cutting them into paneling, the wainscoting was installed in the On Wisconsin Room of the Red Gym.
In a new form, the trees are again looking out over Lake Mendota. And thanks to the generosity of the Morgridge Center for Public Service, which funded the project, the ancient red oak has been preserved as a part of the university’s history.