In the process of writing her book, “A Generous Nature: Lives Transformed by Oregon,” Portland-based writer Marcy Cottrell Houle traveled across the state to meet with conservationists and activists, including North Coast Land Conservancy founder Neal Maine.
What struck her the most, she said, was discovering that among the people she interviewed — including the 21 profiled in the book — there was a wide array of lifestyles, ethnicities, religions, political views, occupations and geographical locations represented.
“Yet their values were really similar in how they cared for humanity and the beauty of Oregon and wanted to give something back,” said Houle, a fifth-generation Oregonian who was born in the former community of Zena near Salem.
At the core
Houle’s idea for her book, published in November, was cultivated through her own love of environmental science, wildlife biology and conservation.
Serving with the Oregon Parks Foundation, she heard stories about individuals who contributed to creating and preserving Oregon’s parks and natural places, from the Columbia River Gorge Natural Scenic Area to Portland’s Forest Park and 363 miles of public beach. When she searched for them online, however, she came up with nothing.
“These things were really big deals, but they were at risk of being forgotten,” she said.
Houle worried that without understanding the patience, perseverance, and vision that contributed to preserving Oregon’s natural resources, current and future generations would take them for granted. She decided to do something about it and embarked on a 10-year journey to seek out the people she had heard about.
A decade-long project
She asked numerous questions, but one she was especially interested in hearing the answer to is, “Why would you do these things that took years of time and effort?” As a result, she said, “The book is really full of wonderful quotes about, ‘How do we live our lives with meaning?’”
People spoke of what Oregon meant to them and what they wanted to see it become, demonstrating how “beauty can give you a generous nature,” Houle said.
She was inspired by the way they overcame differences and crossed boundaries to work with others toward mutually-beneficial solutions.
In the current socio-political climate, she said, it’s a good reminder that “we can cross them, too, and live for higher values.”
“They gave me hope, they gave me courage,” she added. “Realizing we are Oregonians first, we can rise above some of these little things.”
Down to business
The book also highlights the various avenues and approaches people took to reach their goals. For some, it was engaging in legal battles or facilitating educational programs. For others, like Maine, it was establishing agencies to expand the reach of their efforts.
The land conservancy, founded in 1986, has protected more than 50 properties and thousands of acres on the North Coast. Currently, the group is working to create a 3,500-acre Rainforest Reserve from the Cape Falcon Marine Reserve to Onion Peak.
In the book, Maine discusses how “it’s not the quantity but the integrity and quality of life that count,” and the importance of believing that “if you’re doing the right thing, it will ultimately turn out right,” Houle said.
Houle believes the actions and ideas of the various people in the book — which shaped Oregon and continue guiding its future — serve as an effective model for others.
“We have to remember why we have the state we do: It happened because of individuals doing these things,” she said. “They’re really illustrations of participatory democracy in action.”