Getting into character: Carbondale's John Wallace plays conservationist Muir
Carbondale's John Wallace poses as legendary conservationist John Muir. Wallace travels throughout Illinois portraying Muir as part of the Illinois Humanities Council's Road Scholars program.

(Pamela Kay Schmalenberger / The Southern)

The illusion is startling.

When John Wallace of Carbondale leans heavily over his walking stick, he appears to be John Muir. When he affects a Scottish accent to dispense a bit of Muir wisdom, the illusion is complete.

"God never made an ugly landscape," Wallace states matter-of-factly in a thick Scottish brogue. "All that the sun shines on is beautiful, as long as it is wild."

Wallace travels throughout the state portraying Muir as part of the Illinois Humanities Council's Road Scholars program.

"It's a program that is designed to offer humanities speakers and lecturers a venue to present throughout the state for a relatively inexpensive fee," Wallace said. "I believe there is a $50 fee that an organization pays to apply for a grant to bring in a Road's Scholar.

"It has to be a not-for-profit organization. It needs to be open to the public and the Humanities Council needs to be acknowledged in advertisements. For doing that, the Humanities Council will play the speakers a stipend and expenses."

For Wallace, the portrayal of Muir, a noted 19th century naturalist is a labor of love.

"John Muir was really my first true introduction to environmentalism," he said. "I was on a vacation in the late 1980s to southeast Alaska and was told I should read John Muir's 'My Travels in Alaska.'

"All my life, I've enjoyed the natural world and spent a great deal of time out in nature; I never really had an appreciation for conservation or environmentalism. He gave me perspective. He's an incredible writer."

Wallace, an environmental activist in Southern Illinois, gets into character.

"It's a very effective educational tool," Wallace said. "I dabbled a little into living history with maple syrup making. I always thought if I do a historic character, one figure in particular, I'd like to do Muir because he influenced me so much.

"As time passed, I continued to read as much Muir as I could. One day, I looked in the mirror and thought I started to look like the guy. As the beard started turning white, I thought I need to let it grow a little bit."

Although he's worn a beard for years, Wallace let his whiskers grow longer and shaggier to lend more credence to the illusion.

Although he confesses his costume isn't authentic period clothing, it is representative, down to the sprig of greenery in his lapel.

"He always used a sprig of greenery," Wallace said. "Someone asked him about it one time. He said that's his one effort toward vanity."

Wallace's presentation normally lasts 35-45 minutes.

At the end of the performance, Wallace normally entertains questions which he addresses in character. Then, time permitting, he steps out of character and answers questions as John Wallace.

However, Wallace said his presentation is true to the writings of Muir.

"He said the battle for conservation will go on endlessly," Wallace said. "It's part of the university warfare between right and wrong."

That's a philosophy Wallace embraces.

"When I first got involved in environmental issues, I thought we'd win, we'd win the issue and could go home and not have to worry about it," he said. "That was very naïve. It's a constant battle. We have human beings that will take more than they give back to the natural world."

And, portraying Muir allows Wallace to spread that message.

"I told my wife long ago when I started doing this, as John Wallace I'd be laughed out of a meeting saying these things," he said.

"As John Muir, people listen. When I'm portraying him, it's passionate. I like to think that comes out. I try to stay as true to his writings as I possibly can."

For more information on the program, go to www.prairie.org.

(618) 529-5454 ext. 5088

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