Log jam on the St. Croix River
Steve O'Toole, Director
In the Chicago metropolitan area there are things called “Forest Preserves”. Growing up there, I lived by one and my friends and I would frequently ride our bikes through its dirt trails pretending we were deep in exotic rain forests.
In fourth grade, in spring of 1970, I vaguely recall the nuns asking us to color a globe in honor of Earth Day. Subsequently, I remember many social studies assignments requiring us to make collages of pollution and environmental waste. In my mind’s eye, I can still see very clearly the photos in LIFE of factories billowing poisonous smoke along the shoreline of Lake Erie, sewage spewing out of drain pipes into its rivers and consequently how they deemed Lake Erie dead.
I remember how my next door neighbor, Mrs. Stanish , a mother of six and whose husband worked in a waste management facility in South Chicago, would wash and reuse paper plates! At the time my child mind thought it odd; and I am now pretty certain her choice to do that had to do more with economics than with environmental concerns. But in her way Mrs. Stanish practiced her own version of conservation, in an age of newly discovered TV dinners and Bounty.
This was the extent of my awareness of environmental issues.
I moved to the twin Cities in the early 80’s and was delighted to discover that upon crossing on 94 from Wisconsin to Minnesota, one viewed this sky blue, iridescent river! (Took me a few months to realize it was called the St. Croix and not the Mississippi.)Soon one of my favorite day trips was to Stillwater and taking the drive up to Taylors Falls. I would deem that one of the must see places I would take out of town guests to prove how exquisitely beautiful this part of the Midwest is. (Relax, Wisconsites. The drive from Hudson to St. Croix Falls puts the other side to shame…)
I read Happy and the River and immediately became intrigued by the history of the St. Croix River Valley and Gaylord Nelson’s journey to make his prophetic wisdom a reality. In pre-production, I met some very passionate people, dedicated to preserving the natural beauty of the St. Croix River Valley and I spent a delightful day with Charlie and Ardeth Clark of Clear Lake, Wisconsin.
Charlie shared many stories, some of which are depicted in the play, of his life long friendship with Gaylord and Carrie Lee Nelson. Charlie’s love and admiration for this man is very apparent. He and Ardeth have founded and now operate a museum dedicated to Sen. Nelson’s memory, along with another Clear Lake celebrity, baseball legend Burleigh Grimes.
From what I gleaned from the Clarks, Gaylord was a humble, affable man truly interested in people’s stories, and everyone’s connection to the natural environment. Often using self effacing humor, Sen. Nelson had a gift of diffusing potentially volatile discussions about his mission to save the planet. Sen. Nelson was essentially a quiet man, not needing to offer his opinion on every subject just to hear himself talk or to inflate his own self -importance. Yet, when it came to these issues near and dear to his heart, Sen. Nelson was unapologetically passionate about his views, fierce in his pursuit to enact public policy to ensure them, and effective in rallying people around his cause.
In my own research, I was struck by the very “spiritual” bent in Sen. Nelson’s environmentalism: all life forms are interconnected; human’s charge for responsible stewardship practiced with humility, generosity and gratitude; and that it is a fundamental right for every person to have access to a quiet , undisturbed place in nature.
I am grateful for the foresight and prophetic vision of Gaylord Nelson, the Chicago area park board members who thought of the concept of Forest Preserves, and the Mrs. Stanishes of the world who instinctively know to conserve and reuse resources, and reduce waste.
Which reminds me: cheese curd? Anyone?