This speech was given to the Chippewa Valley Sierra Club in Eau Claire, WI on April 9th, 2013.
When I was in the sixth grade, I hovered around the cafeteria at South Middle School in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, stalking my fellow students, begging them for their pocket change. I collected their loose coins in an ice cream bucket. This carried on for several weeks. I was raising money to purchase a piece of tropical rainforest and protect it from development. Soon, the adults in the school took notice of what I was doing and they cheered me on. They celebrated my efforts. What nobody told me, though, was that my interest in the environment would carry with it certain emotional costs, that there is great sorrow involved in caring for a dying patient. The adults slapped me on the back and told me to keep up the good work. Eventually, I raised enough quarters, dimes, and nickels to purchase one acre.
I’ve always considered myself a conservationist, an environmentalist, a tree-hugger, or whatever. I was lucky to have a dad who tossed me into a canoe at an early age. Together, we paddled the remote waters and hiked in the big woods of northern Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan. It was on those trips that I got my first taste of wilderness. I saw an osprey gracefully pluck a fish from beneath the skin of a river. I braced myself in the canoe as we floated towards the drone of whitewater. At night, lying in the tent, I heard wolves.
From there, an environmental ethic gradually emerged. I rode my bike to school even when other kids were getting their driver’s license. I became the self-appointed recycling czar in my family’s household. When I saw photographs of rainforests cleared for beef cattle, I stopped eating meat. Upon graduating from high school, I headed to college to get a law degree and practice environmental law. I wanted to fight the polluters, the extractors, the spoilers.