One woman’s conservation legacy: making it home with Jean Clausen

“Every individual matters. Every individual has a role to play. Every individual makes a difference.”
Jane Goodall

In previous posts I’ve written about the need to begin “making it home” again; that is, the necessity of turning our backs on the war we’ve long been waging against our home planet and home lands, and returning to the values — especially the Golden Rule — that we like to say are paramount to us. Such a journey home involves more than a metaphorical about-face. It involves literally turning our attention and our energy back to the particular places we call home.

I recently met a woman who has spent the better part of 95 years doing just that.

When I set out to create a blog that examines the local and personal dimensions of the climate crisis, I expected to connect with many passionate and committed readers and bloggers, but I did not expect my first blogger buddy to be almost 100 years old.

I’ve known of Jean Clausen for almost as long as I’ve lived in Sauk Prairie, because of her popular and long-running column in one of our community’s two weekly newspapers. But until recently I had not had the pleasure of meeting her. Nor did I know she had her own blog. But when I bumped into a mutual acquaintance at the grocery store a few weeks ago and told her about my blog, she told me that Jean had one, too. As soon as I got home, I checked it out.

Like her newspaper column, Jean’s blog From the Riverbank includes observations from Jean’s 30 years of life along the Wisconsin River. When I saw that one of her recent posts touched on the topics of phenology, Aldo Leopold and climate change, I decided I needed meet this exceptional woman. Perhaps she could teach a young punk of 44 a thing or two.

When I called Jean, she was quick to invite me out to her airy, rustic home for a chat. Although she gets around with the help of a walker now, she still met me at the door to welcome me in. On a sturdy table next to one of the large windows facing the river rests an open notebook in which the comings and goings of fifteen other visitors, all species of birds, had been recorded in Jean’s clear and steady hand. Just how steady both of her hands are is evident when she lifts a pair of large binoculars to her eyes to scope a UFO that’s landed on a gravel bar at the water’s edge.

Jean looks surprised when she notices that I’ve brought a notebook of my own. It seems I’d forgotten to tell her that I hoped to do a more formal interview. But she is gracious and tells me I’m free to ask her whatever I want. It turns out that Jean, like me, is relatively new to the blogosphere. She started her blog last winter, and although a friend of hers took care of the initial set-up, and another friend helps with photographs, Jean maintains her blog and provides all the written content. Despite her steady hands and fine penmanship, she prefers to do her composing at a keyboard. “I do all of my best thinking through my fingers,” she tells me, waggling the digits in front of her the way Wallace does when he tells Gromit about a particularly fine piece of Wensleydale cheese.

I quickly learn that Jean grew up on the shore of Lake Michigan between Racine and Kenosha and that she gets her love of nature from her parents. She earned a degree in sociology from the University of Wisconsin as a young woman, and it was her salary as a social worker that supported her young family while her husband Norman, a physician who died in 1993, finished medical school and served a two-year tour of duty in the Navy during World War II.

Jean and Norman raised four children together before moving permanently to their cottage on the river in 1976. One of their daughters and Jean’s son-in-law own the property next door, much of which they are restoring to native priairie. Jean and her husband were the first property owners to sign an easement granting ownership of their land, in as natural a state as possible, to the people of Wisconsin in perpetuity as part of the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway. It’s because of the riverway, legislated into existence in 1989, that Jean believes people will probably always be able to paddle the 93 miles from Sauk Prairie to the Mississippi River without ever encountering a dam or other unsightly development. Jean and Norman first paddled the entire stretch in 1960.

Although she enjoyed writing as a girl, it wasn’t until she found her life “bounded by dishes, dustpans and diapers” that Jean decided to take up the craft in earnest. It was Norman who suggested she enroll in a writing class through the UW Extension. To date Jean has authored two books, To Thank a River and Eagles Over the River. Her regular column has run for a total of 35 years in two area newspapers.

Jean is quick to point out that she does not consider herself a “KP” (her shorthand for a knowledgeable person) when it comes to the environment. Rather, she describes herself as an “ONN,” or “Other Nature Nut.” Yet it’s clear from Jean’s writing and what I’ve already learned about her that her passion and curiosity are matched by a knowledge as broad–if not as deep–as the river on which she lives. When it comes to the birds that inhabit south-central Wisconsin, she definitely qualifies as a KP. She is a founding member of the Ferry Bluff Eagle Council and a long-time supporter of the Friends of the Lower Wisconsin (FLOW). In 2007 Jean was named one of two River Champions by the River Alliance of Wisconsin for her consistent commitment to protecting and restoring Wisconsin’s flowing waters.

When I ask Jean who has influenced her the most over the years, naturalists and writers fill the list: Thoreau, Muir, Leopold, Nelson and Goodall. She tells me she’s optimistic about the future because in the last few years it’s become cool to be green. “It used to be you were thought to be a nerd if you paid attention to the scientists.”

Ever the writer, Jean is quick to edit herself. “I suppose you would have to say I’m cautiously optimistic.” There are still a lot of big problems, she admits. The water quality of the Wisconsin River, which she says is getting worse due to development in places upstream, troubles her. As does the fact that “kids today learn all about the rainforest but don’t know what trees are growing in their own yards.”

On the topic of climate change, Jean notes that things are getting pretty bad when you have to feel guilty about going for a Sunday drive. Such drives were one of the ways Jean’s own love for the natural world was kindled as a young person.

Jean has always liked going places. Once she was asked why she preferred the Wisconsin River to the Lake Michigan of her youth. She replied, “Because it’s going somewhere!” The irony is that it’s Jean’s deep attention to the lands and waters within a few mile radius of her home on the river that has largely defined her life.

When I ask Jean about the kind of legacy she hopes to leave, she looks away and doesn’t respond for several seconds. I begin to worry that my question has troubled her. She finally answers, her eyes still focused on the far bank of the river she loves so much, a river whose waters eventually reach the sea at the Gulf of Mexico.

“That I opened a lot of people’s eyes to the beauty of nature.”

Jean Clausen has indeed opened a lot of people’s eyes to the beauty of nature. She’s also been instrumental in preserving a good bit of the natural world. With her attention, passion and commitment to the particular part of the planet she’s inhabited for most of her long life, Jean Clausen exemplifies what it means to “make it home.”

A person of Jean’s years might understandably be preoccupied with the hereafter, with what might be around the biggest of bends. Although she has always cared deeply about the future, Jean’s focus is still very much on the here and now and on the Wisconsin River valley in which she has spent the last half of her long, rich life.

It’s hard to imagine how our generation and our children’s generation will overcome these challenges without a lot more of us becoming as commited to “making it home” as Jean Clausen is.

Photo by Rick Chamberlin