New book explores a lifetime of Great Lakes resilience


Jane Elder visits the Sylvania Wilderness near the border of Michigan and Wisconsin in the Upper Peninsula. Image: Jane Elder

By Reese Carlson

Jane Elder once escorted a live cormorant to a Congressional hearing.

Elder, then a Sierra Club lobbyist, and James Ludwig, a Great Lakes ecologist, in 1989 drove the bird named Cosmos from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to Washington D.C.

Cosmos had a beak deformity and the two brought her into the hearing to show lawmakers proof of the effects of toxic air pollution.

Elder features other similar moments in her new book, Wilderness, Water & Rust: A journey toward Great Lakes Resilience. She once brought water pollution to the forefront of many politician’s eyes when she provided them with a buffet of fish no one could eat because they were highly contaminated.

A buffet of Great Lakes contaminated fish was offered to members of Congress in 1988 to showcase the effects of water pollution. Image: Jane Elder

The book is a memoir of 50 years in environmental advocacy and leadership, including serving as a lobbyist and then director of Michigan’s chapter of the Sierra Club, as a consultant and as the executive director of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters from 2012 to 2021.

It is also a policy critique of what has been accomplished in the region regarding ecological resilience, the ability of an ecosystem to maintain its normal patterns when experiencing disturbances.

“When talking about resilience, it is everything from water quality pollution control to biological diversity to physical protection of the habitat, that all weaves into what makes a system resilient,” Elder said.

The Great Lakes region has the capacity to be resilient, but it is inhibited by many human factors, Elder said. Humans need to put in the work to help the ecosystem become resilient once more.

The 311-page book is riddled with bits and pieces of Elder’s experiences in the natural world. She tells readers about her part in establishing Pictured Rocks National Park and Sleeping Bear Dunes, helping to find the money to create these new parks.

“I worked on the early stages of the national lakeshores: Pictured Rocks, Sleeping Bear Dunes, Indiana Dunes,” Elder said. “They had all been established in the 1960’s or the 1970’s, but getting the money to create a new national park is a story that a lot of people don’t know when they’re standing on the beautiful dunes looking out at the lake.”

The book offers a glimpse of growing up in a world without many environmental protections. Scientists would publish their findings on the effects of air pollution or water pollution and no one would believe them, Elder said.

One section focuses on land and another on water. Another is about many treasured wilderness areas and our connections with these places that require protections.

“Jane has been such an influential person in the realm of environmentalism for years and years,” said Anne Woiwode, Elder’s longtime friend and the former director of the Sierra Club’s Michigan chapter. “She was one of the first people working in the environmental arena to focus on the Great Lakes as a place that needed significant attention.”

And she had a flair for attracting attention to a specific issue, Woiwode said.

Jane Elder stands on the step of the Michigan capitol in 1978. Image: Jane Elder

“She wanted to make sure that Congress knew about pollution in Great Lakes fish,” Woiwode said. “So, she put on a buffet for Congress that included all of those polluted Great Lakes fish. This was a great way to put the issues right in front of people. When you can visualize what is happening – this is the level of expected contamination in this fish – it really brings it home.”

She made the fish look pretty, complete with lemons, and large signs reading ‘DO NOT EAT, POLLUTED FISH’ in bright red lettering.

Most of the memoir sections are based upon her journal entries, Elder said.

“When something that felt important happened to me, I would write down how I felt and how I experienced it,” she said.

With nearly 50 years of environmental advocacy under her belt, Elder has many journal entries worth sharing. She hopes that they offer lessons in leadership for the younger generations and their battles in environmental advocacy.

That seems likely, Woiwode said. It wasn’t just policy that Elder influenced. She also had a significant impact on the people who worked for change.

“She was my personal mentor and was a mentor to many environmental leaders in this region,” Woiwode said. “You look for people to be heroes, and she is one of those sorts of people, but she also made sure other people could be heroes as well.”

The cover of Wilderness, Water & Rust: A journey toward Great Lakes Resilience by Jane Elder. Image: Jane Elder

Wilderness, Water & Rust: A journey toward Great Lakes Resilience is published by Michigan State University Press and is available on both Amazon and Barnes & Noble for $39.95.

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