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  • Writer's pictureDan Robinson

Hope and Action: a Conversation with Jane Elder

You wouldn’t think a place called “Mosquito Beach” could be considered sacred, but that’s exactly how Jane Elder describes it. Located on the shore of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Elder laughed, saying, “I love the name because it keeps people out. But where the river comes into Lake there, that is one of my sacred places. And not the only one but it's probably one of my most treasured places in the Great Lakes Basin. Again, the beauty, the power of the Lake, the scent of the air, the lightness on your skin. It's a place I love and will always love and always try to protect.”

The first recipient of the Sierra Club’s Michael McCloskey award for a distinguished record of achievement in national or international conservation causes, Elder served as the founding director of the Club's Great Lakes program and also led several projects related to advancing the goals of the U.S. Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, and the U.S.-Canada Great Lakes water quality agreement. On December 1 of this year, she’ll be retiring from her current position as Executive Director of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, a nonprofit organization focused on the arts, sustainability, science and culture.

A wave on Lake Superior (photo by Dan Robinson)

A Personal Connection

Like a lot of people, Elder’s connection to the Great Lakes is very personal, starting when she was a child. Her mother was from Marquette, MI, in the Upper Peninsula, and she moved to southern MI during World War II with other members of her family to find work in the auto industry. She eventually married and the family settled on Pine Lake just outside Linden, MI, but would take occasional trips to the U.P. with their children.

Elder was around the age of four or five when she took the first of those trips. “I remember the first time the waves were coming in. We had no experience as kids, and my brother was smarter than us,” Elder recounted. “I just walked up to the edge of the lake. And the first thing that happened was a big one just hit me right across, knocked me down. Icy cold Lake Superior water. I shrieked, but it was also kind of wonderful, for nature to have that kind of power. And so I'll never forget that cold encounter with the big lake. And because of (my Mom’s) enthusiasm, and other reasons, I just have had that connection.”

More People Need to Love Them

Of course, many people have similar stories about their connection to the Lakes. Fast forward to her work as an adult caring for the Great Lakes, Elder had a conversation with a pollster who had asked people about that connection. The poll, according to Elder, found that, “a lot of people like the Great Lakes, but the people who fight for them love them, and more people need to love them.”

Unfortunately, “there's a lot of people who take them for granted. A lot of people who don't know the Lakes are vulnerable, or a lot of people just overwhelmed by the state of the world these days,” Elder said. “It's easy to want to throw up your hands and say it's all hopeless. And there's also the ‘Well, it is hopeless. Well, it's party till the end.’ Or the cynical version of ‘Well, my generation will squeak through, but too bad about the next one.’’’

She cited Vaclav Havel, the playwright and former President of the Czech Republic, as a source of inspiration. Havel, according to Elder, distinguished between optimism and hope (a recurring theme on this blog), with “optimism sort of being a decision to be cheerful in spite of the facts. But hope as a beautifully irrational act, that knowing the facts, to carve out just enough to think maybe there's another way, right? Maybe there's something we haven't thought about yet. Maybe if we pull together. And so I choose to be in a place of hope, but not optimism.”

How do we move towards hope?

Another recurring theme with this blog is examining how to get people to move from despair, cynicism, or optimism towards hope and taking action on behalf of the Lakes. Elder touched a number of themes that can help people make that journey, including personal experiences, call and community, the arts, religious traditions, and our current environmental challenges.

Personal Experience

As I mentioned above, many of us who love the Lakes have personal experiences that connect us to them and help us care for them. But some folks, including people making important decisions about the Lakes, don’t have those experiences and those connections.

While working on the Michigan Wilderness Act of 1987, Elder helped host Congressman Dale Kildee, who was one of the champions of the bill. “Dale was not an outdoorsy kind of guy,” Elder remembered. ”We did a tour of a number of the prospective areas, and I think he was in the newest pair of blue jeans I have ever seen. He was trying so hard, because he was used to being in his suit in Washington, DC. But Dale came along as he wanted to learn, he wanted to understand and know. And we were on the shore of Horseshoe Bay, which is just above the Straits of Mackinac, a curved shore at that point on Lake Huron, beautiful cedar trees, the classic smell of the cedars coming up, a little creek coming down to the sandy beach, and he just stood there.”

“He said,” Elder continued, “’I see why you want to protect places like this.’ And he said, ‘When you think about it, this is the sign of God's creation.’ He said, ‘This is like the mind of God expressed.’ And I was just thunderstruck by that... There was something ineffable about these places, and when he talked about the mind of God expressed in terms of just seeing the design of creation. And whether you believe in evolution, whatever your creation story is, it was beautiful and profound. And it really spoke to me and everybody who was in the group. I think some of the other folks who were on a congressional tour were like, ‘Whoa, he's gone. They've got his vote.’ But that's what these places do for us.”

Call and Community

For Elder and others, the work of protecting the Great Lakes isn’t just about themselves but about something bigger. Sometimes that larger thing is an individual call to care for a particular piece of the world, and sometimes that larger thing is the community around them. In Elder’s case, it’s both.

“The Great Lakes have been one of my driving mission areas for probably 30 years of my life,” Elder reflected. “We all make choices about where am I going to put my time and energy and there was just something about the Great Lakes that said to me, ‘I got to work on this, I have to do this. They're big, they're precious, they're vulnerable. They're important. I have skills. Let me help. Let me be in this space.’ And I always want to do what I can to protect and cherish and safeguard this remarkable gift on planet Earth.”

“So, from a professional standpoint, because I care deeply about them as a sense of place, and a sense of personal connection, it was an easy choice to do this work, and frankly, working with other people who are passionate about the Great Lakes is very rewarding, and often a lot of fun,” Elder said. “You’re not in it because it's on the job description. You're in it because you care. And to be around other people who care and are willing to roll up their sleeves and spend their time and do the really hard, boring, sometimes tedious work, to move bills through Congress, or to get a regulation dealt with or to raise public awareness, they're a good group to hang out with.”

The Arts

Elder knows the power of the arts through her work with the Wisconsin Academy but also her time serving on various art organization boards. She’s found the power to be present in connecting people to the Great Lakes, as well.

“One of my favorite Great Lakes paintings is by Frances Hopkins,” Elder said. “She was trained in the genteel ladies art of watercolor and painting and went along with her husband in the Voyager canoes, in the really early era of the fur trade. And her landscapes and her waterscapes, if you will, of the Great Lakes at that era, one, they're amazing paintings, but two, you can see both her awe, I'm sure as a woman of European background, with the landscape, with the power of the water. There's one where they're coming through the rapids. Extraordinary, and it helps you see both the times, but also her lens as a newcomer to this world.”

“Every culture experiences art in its own way. And those objects and those artists help us see the world with deeper dimensions,” Elder added. “One of the amazing things about the arts, and the same thing with poetry, and exquisite writing, is that it allows you to see things through a different layer of meaning and a different layer of knowledge and a different layer of the human experience. And so art can speak to us in ways that a white paper does not, or a congressional bill does not.”

Religious tradition

Elder served as the founding director of The Biodiversity Project, an initiative to raise public awareness about the value of Earth's diverse species, habitats, and ecosystems, and to promote responsive action to stem the tide of loss. One of the products of that Project was the book, Ethics for a Small Planet, which addressed the ethical and theological underpinnings for this effort.

The Project worked with a number of different religious traditions, including during a workshop Elder remembered at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. “We had a rabbi; we had Christian leaders; we had a Wiccan; we had Indigenous leadership. It was about, ‘What is it from these faith traditions, and our religious practice, that inspires us or sometimes releases us from the obligation to care for nature?’”

“One of the things we realized (and this actually came out of scientific research and social science and focus groups) that for a lot of people, their respect for God's creation was one of the reasons that they and many people think we should protect nature,” Elder said. “And while religion is not always the primary source of morals and ethics for all people, and all times, it's certainly a powerful one for many people on the planet. So we took a deep look at what are the moral and ethical and religious underpinnings that help us make decisions about our relationship with nature.”

For example, “We looked at the traditions that are out there, and some of that are problematic and some that are promising.” She asked, “What does it mean in the Christian tradition to have dominion? Does it mean dominion over the forces of the world at a spiritual level? Or does it mean to dominate nature? And how that's been interpreted over the years. So it also opened up conversations... And it certainly helped me understand more about some of the tensions between certain versions of dominion, versus this concept of creation care.”

Nature doesn’t compromise

Finally, in the end, if for no other reason, we can be motivated to care for the Great Lakes and for the Earth because we have to, for our own survival. As Elder put it, “Nature does not compromise.”

“Our political systems are set up around compromise and debate,” she continued. “But the laws of physics do not care whether it’s a Republican or a Democratic issue. Climate change is not going to put itself off by 30 years just because it's inconvenient to us. Nature does not negotiate. Nature adapts, but in some ways, those adaptations are extinction. Those adaptations are algal blooms in our water. Those adaptations are scarcity. Those adaptations are loss of beauty, because you know that the natural world is going to do what it can with the biochemistry handed to it.”

“The assumptions are that we can fix it down the road, and you can in a lot of policy. But not when it comes to some of these environmental decisions,” Elder said. “There's an old saying in the environmental movement, ‘All of our victories are temporary. All of our losses are permanent.’ Those are hard things, hard things. But we are in a new era, in terms of the human relationship with the biosphere, and most people haven't figured that out yet. This summer's issues, I hope, with the forest fires out west and the crop losses and the flooding, I hope more people figure this out.”

I-Thou Relationship

Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, wrote about the I-Thou relationship, where we experience an intimate connection with the other part of the relationship, with the “Thou” in that relationship. We don’t see ourselves as separate. And ultimately, every Thou we connect with helps us connect with the Divine. All the ways to protect the Great Lakes and to create hope listed above seek to develop that I-Thou relationship with the Great Lakes.

Elder wrapped up our conversation by saying, “I hope that other people think about, ‘What makes a place special to me in a way that I can't describe? What makes me want to return to a place? What makes me want to care for a place because there's something powerfully human in there and probably powerfully spiritual?’” Elder said. “And I know my life is richer for having that awareness that when I go to a place I'm not just a tourist, or a visitor, at least with the Great Lakes. I have a relationship, and we know each other, the Great Lakes and I. And I hope other people will explore that relationship as well.”


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