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Fri December 30, 2011
Wielding Words to Conserve Wilderness
We conclude our year-end tradition, Life’s Voices. WUWM shares the stories and perspectives of people making a difference, often without public fanfare. Today, our installment takes a green turn, as we meet a man dedicating his life to preserving open and wild spaces.
WUWM Environmental Reporter Susan Bence visited prolific conservation writer Michael Frome.
His themes range from commercialization of national parks to exploring the Great Smoky Mountains.
Michael Frome is hard at it when I arrive at his home in Port Washington.
His setting is nothing short of inspiring.
The “plentifully windowed” residence practically spills into a wooded ravine that eventually dips down into Lake Michigan.
“Right now I’m updating a book I wrote in 1992 called Re-greening The National Parks. I’ve been associated with the national parks for fifty or sixty years,” Frome says.
At age 91, sporting a black beret and a broad smile on his white-mustached face, Frome says he spends a good bit of every day – especially mornings, when the light is best - writing.
His office brims over with books and photographs.
He points to an image snapped in the mid-1960s.
“There’s a picture of a fish I caught....” .
...a gleaming trout ...
“......I caught that fish in the Little Tennessee River and that fellow helped me catch it. We were fighting to save the Little Tennessee River from the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was really bureaucracy gone wild, they were trying to dam everything and they did,” Frome says.
His catch and efforts to preserve the river happened well into Frome’s career; decades earlier he grew up – the son of a furrier – surrounded, not by stately forests and running streams, but in one of the country’s most urban settings, the Bronx.
Frome describes himself – from the start – as a rebel. In his biography he writes “I chose to be in rebellion against authority, whether my parents, the school principal, organized religion....”
Restless to know the world beyond New York City, Frome left home at age 16 and found work in a steel mill. Later, just shy of 21, he enlisted and served as an Air Corps navigator in World War II.
At its end, Frome bounced around reporting for small newspapers in South Carolina and Tennessee, finally landing a steady job with the American Automobile Association – AAA - based in Washington D.C.
“ I was their travel expert kind of thing, writer, publicist,” Frome says.
Frome’s assignment was to write about tantalizing motoring destinations.
At the time, Frome fretted he was selling out on journalism, but ultimately this job set his life’s course as a writer and activist.
The AAA assignment job brought him for the first time, face-to-face with national parks.
“I said here’s something that’s worth writing about that isn’t being written about knowledgeably, or at all,” Frome says.
Frome was in demand and received assignments from magazines and newspapers alike.
“I wrote a lot of articles for Holiday; I had a column for Woman’s Day, I had a column in the Los Angeles Times. Then I got involved in wilderness; and I wrote a book called Battle for the Wilderness. We need to save wild nature, wherever it is,” Frome says.
Frome became freer with his reporting; gentle commentary gave way to critical analysis.
“The national parks are not what they were; now it’s more for tourism than for preservation purposes and so I’m trying to rekindle the voice of preservation of our cherished wonders,” Frome says.
Frome’s candor cost him jobs.
“I used to write a column in American Forest magazine, but I got after them, I had to write it. I don’t believe in clear-cutting or plantation forestry; it’s very, very bad and it’s not good forestry; it’s not way forestry was intended by the people who established forestry as a science; so they fired me and I got fired from Field & Stream too, but that’s all right, you know somebody has to pay the price,” Frome says.
Frome road out the lost commissions, continued to write, lecture and teach.
Four years ago, he wrote his autobiography – titled “Rebel on the Road”.
People continue to respond to what Frome has to say.
“I got a letter last week or the week before from a young woman student at a junior college in California and she said I read in Rebel on the Road what you said about efforts to protect the tule elk. Well the tule elk is the smallest elk and it was almost eliminated and to have that young woman write to me about her interests and activities; that makes my life worth living to know that I’ve spurred her on,” Frome says.
Frome plans to write about what he describes as “caring for the soul of our country” as long as he is able.
“And write about these things that we’ve been talking about – I want to write about the national parks, I want to have some impact there and I want to get it done before I go on to the next level,” Frome says.
Since my visit, Frome learned he’s been awarded a wilderness writing award by an international conservation group, citing Frome’s body of work as “an inspiration to generations of people who care about this planet.”