How does the environment figure into your daily life? Marlene Broemer, a poet and a professor, has embraced nature in her daily life since she was a child in the far north of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. She believes that our relationship with nature is an integral part of being human. Her travels to the arctic areas in Finland and Siberia impressed on her how communities living in these wilderness areas depend on nature to survive. This was a real wilderness existence, which she compares to her experience of living off the grid in the wilds of Northern California.
As one of the earliest staff members of the New Renaissance Center in 1988, Marlene Broemer helped develop projects for what became the Resource Renewal Institute (RRI). Her passion was the Water Heritage Trust, an ongoing RRI project, to acquire in-stream flows for fish. At that time Marlene was spending weekends in her off-the-grid house in the wilds of Northern California, and volunteered with various environmental protection groups to protect watersheds and community arts groups to promote local artists, writers and musicians.
After two years at RRI, she worked in the private sector, but went back to her roots as a poet and teacher. She has a master’s degree from San Francisco State University, and a PhD from the University of Helsinki, in Finland, where she lived for ten years. Both degrees are in Comparative Literature, with a focus on Finnish, European, and Russian poets. Dr. Broemer lives in Lake Oswego, Oregon, and teaches at Portland Community College and Clackamas Community College.
Huey Johnson: Give me an example of one of your memories that relate to environment.
Marlene Broemer: I remember in school there, we had to go out and collect leaves from all the trees in the forest there. We had to know all of the trees that were around us. And I guess that was my first introduction to any kind of biology or environment, that it was immediately brought home to me from that and it stayed with me all these years. And then I was thinking about the fact that my father, who was a World War II, Purple Heart vet came home, and he was a hunter and a fisherman. He was always going out into the forest and into the woods. So the environment was very much a part of our regular daily life. You know, year round he was either going out ice fishing, or hunting in the fall, and so on. I did go away to the city to school, but then when I came to California, I ended up going to the wilderness and living with a group of people in an intentional community. And I remember my grandmother thought it was very funny that I was the only person with a college degree and I was back taking care of chickens again. And she thought that was maybe a little bit of a waste or something, but she was also very tickled.
So now when I think back on that time, I realize that it just gave me so much strength in my life, because I didn’t think anything about walking five miles down a dirt road in the pitch dark at night, and without a flashlight, in the pouring rain. But during that time, I was really involved with a kind of grassroots environmentalism and then when I returned to the Bay Area, I came and worked for Resource Renewal. And I was there during the time when we worked on Water Heritage Trust, for example. Not just trying to save land somewhere, but trying to save the water for the animals that were on the land and trying to raise consciousness about the environment everywhere. I ended up going back to school and getting a Masters degree in comparative literature and that brought me to Europe, which was another step along my way and traveled to Russia and all of Scandinavia. I was looking for my Scandinavian roots there. And that kind of informed my master’s work, which was basically on European modernist literature; so looking at people during the time of war.
Huey Johnson: You’ve seen a lot of diverse, wild landscape. Can you give me reflections on the meaning of wilderness to you? You mentioned you lived in the wilderness for 15 years.
Marlene Broemer: Oh, well, what I thought was wilderness here in America is not the same as some of the wilderness I’ve seen, say in Siberia or even in northern Finland. And I haven’t been as far north in Norway, but I’ve been in the Arctic in Finland and that – it’s another, it’s a totally different landscape. It’s totally dependent on…people are dependent on nature there and they have to live with nature or they don’t survive. And they’ve always just have a respect for nature and nature is part of life. It’s not something that’s separate from life. And they have the national epic, the Kalevala that shows all the ways that people are part of life, how the swans in the lakes and the birds in the trees all live together. That’s the way it should be.
Living here in Oregon, I have a little bit different perspective because the outdoors is so important here. It’s the number one concern of everyone from children all the way up through retired people. But when I hear about things that are happening in other parts of the country, I’m a little bit more worried because maybe the environment is already so degraded that people don’t know, you know, how to even restore it. And then I also think about the urban environment and the bankruptcy of Detroit and the decay of an urban resource like a great city like Detroit. It really concerns me. I think it’s a lack of attention to our surroundings. We shouldn’t lose cities and we shouldn’t lose forests. We should be preserving or maintaining all of our habitats.