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La Crosse Tribune, Wis., Joe Orso Column: When the Forest Speaks, Area Residents Respond With Coulee Partners

July 20, 2008

By Joe Orso, La Crosse Tribune, Wis.

Jul. 20–One of the challenges of reporting on the environment is that nature doesn’t speak like we do.

You can’t quote a leaf. You can’t ask a bluebird to relate the experience of flight. You can spend a day with soil, but it just sits there and says nothing about its existence. Still, nature has stories. Like us, its inhabitants have been planted, born, stood in rain.

But for those of us who can’t hear those stories, who spend more time standing on carpet enclosed by four walls than standing on earth surrounded by sky, the forest has a translator: Glen Jenkins.

After retiring from being principal of Longfellow Middle School four years ago, Jenkins was walking his dog through Hixon Forest when he started to see the woods as a graveyard, with the bones of old trees lying on the ground.

So he started collecting old tree stumps for his bases, and carving sticks to depict everything from the moon crying to a one-breasted woman to mother nature raising her arms like she is being robbed.

“These creations are a way for me to help the woods and the natural world speak out one more time,” said Jenkins, 59, holding one of the 15 sculptures in his series titled “The Resurrection of Forest Bones for Environmental Enlightenment.”

But Jenkins doesn’t only give the forest a voice.

With his wife, Carolyn Mahlum-Jenkins, a former principal at Lawrence-Lawson Elementary School in Sparta, Wis., he tries to respond to its call.

The couple is part of a core group working since last fall to get the Coulee Partners for Sustainability up and running.

For the past nine months, about a dozen people have been hashing out by laws, filing for nonprofit status and settling on things like a vision statement (“Living respectfully, responsibly and reverently with one another and with Earth”).

Carolyn said the couple has joined local environmental groups in the past, but those often got concentrated on a single issue — fighting the construction of a north-south corridor through the marsh — and would eventually fizzle out.

Coulee Partners, on the other hand, has emerged at a time when support for the environmental movement has become widespread.

Both the city of La Crosse and La Crosse County governments have passed resolutions to be eco-municipalities, meaning they incorporate sustainability, as understood through a program called The Natural Step, as a factor in decision-making.

The Jenkinses hope Coulee Partners becomes a vehicle of education for the community, and with other members have already been speaking to businesses, schools and community groups about the four principles of The Natural Step.

“It isn’t just that darn big business that’s screwing everything up,” Glen said. “It’s every day what we do. It’s the packaging of our food. It’s how many trips we take to run errands when you could plan it all in one trip.”

As former principals, the couple sees nature as integral to educating children. And they worry when they hear parents say they’re afraid to let their children play near the marsh.

“How do you develop feelings for that unless you’ve been out there?” Glen asked. “Our modern life has separated us from nature. We have no direct connection to understanding any longer how dependent we are on nature.”

And as his series of sculptures warns, we destroy more than plants when we destroy ecosystems.

In one piece, a human face is carved into a grove of dead trees next to the words: “What we do to the forest we do to ourselves.”

Joe Orso can be reached at (608) 791-8429 or jorso@lacrossetribune.com.

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Copyright (c) 2008, La Crosse Tribune, Wis.

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