The following is an abridgement of a much longer article on
It is not only difficult to cope with the personal challenges of losing vision later in life but it is also daunting to adjust to continuing a successful professional career. Bill Muir did both and in a profession that is highly visual as well as physically demanding. It is important to notice that, while requiring some assistance to do his work, Muir, nonetheless, remained independent and productive finding creative ways to accomplish tasks that, on the surface, might appear impossible.
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 . . ..
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 . . ..
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 . . .. 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 as his assistant . . .. [The assistant] paddled stern and Bill and Libby alternated paddling bow . . ..
Bill Muir described the summer botany courses at the . . . 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. . . ."
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 . . . 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.
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.
Bill was with his family . . . when he died from complications of diabetes in 1985.
Libby Muir has continued to canoe in the Boundary Waters area. Last summer she continued her long tradition of taking a trip into the [area] 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."
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