It takes a trained ear to know the call of the grasshopper sparrow. Or a bobolink. Or even a meadowlark. For Wendy Paulson, standing in the grasslands of North Barrington and focusing her telescope on a rare savannah sparrow for all to see, it brings her great joy.
"Be sure to watch him as he sings," she says, stepping away from her scope so the group, organized by the Chicago region of the Audubon Society (http://chicagoregion.audubon.org), can get a good look. "This is a 10-star day for bird enthusiasts!"
Paulson feels at home with binoculars in her hands and mud on her shoes. This 65-year-old conservationist started her career as a teacher in Boston Public Schools before finding a passion for bird-watching in her 20s. She has led bird walks for more than 30 years, is known throughout the Barrington Public Schools system as "The Nature Lady" and has worked closely with the Barrington-based Citizens for Conservation (http://citizensforconservation.org) to help restore natural habitats.
Her latest project is teaching Chicago Public Schools students about birds through Birds in My Neighborhood, a program she conducts in partnership with Chicago-based Openlands (http://openlands.org). Paulson is working with fourth-graders at Hayt and Kellogg elementary schools in Chicago.
"I was at an education workshop recently where principals and superintendents were telling us that teachers were shrieking when the proposal of field trips comes up," she says. "They don't want to have the kids leave the classroom. But when you're outdoors, you're on all-alert, especially with children. I think it's a terrific learning environment."
Paulson's husband, Henry "Hank" Paulson, former Treasury secretary (2006-2009), is chairman of the Paulson Institute, which promotes sustainable economic growth and a cleaner environment around the world. They split their time between Barrington and Chicago. They have two children. The following is an edited version of our conversation:
Q: When did you become passionate about birds?
A: My dad was a bird-watcher, but he was kind of casual about it, and I loved being outdoors with him. But after college it was in the height of the DDT crisis (it was discovered that birds were dying from exposure to the insecticide), and they were banding peregrine falcons in Maryland, and I tagged along. It was as if a new room had been unlocked, and I'd entered. It was a whole new wonderful experience. I just couldn't learn enough.
Q: Does your family love nature too?
A: My husband was into birds before I was. He grew up in a family that lived in the country, and his dad taught him a lot about birds. I've kind of passed him up now. We've been married 44 years. And our two kids and my four grandchildren (ages 1 to 6) are very into the outdoors. Both my son and my daughter are supportive of conservation as well.
Q: What's the best advice you've ever gotten from your parents?
A: I was particularly close to my dad (Col. Clark V. Judge, who served 30 years in the Marine Corps), and he just taught me to maximize learning wherever we go. He was a career military officer, so we moved a lot. I saw a lot of parents wring their hands about having to pull their kids out of a school and move, and my dad did just the opposite. I went to nine different schools, three different high schools. He just taught me that every place had a great deal to offer, with people and in the kinds of landscapes that were there, the history, the culture, everything. We were always in learning mode.
Q: What advice would you give to someone just starting out in their career?
A: I always encourage young people to be honest about what they like to do, because a lot of them aren't. They're listening to what other people tell them they should do. Robert Frost has a great poem about that ("Two Tramps in Mud Time"). The message was that your avocation should be your vocation. And I remember as a kid when I was in high school studying that poem; it made a huge impression on me. And it can be very hard. There are so many pressures. But if your hobby, which is what you love to do, can be central to what you are doing for a living, that's the best.
For me, it wasn't obvious. I fretted that I wasn't forging a traditional professional career. When I began to take stock in what I really loved doing, I realized there were opportunities that I just hadn't seen before, like restarting "The Nature Lady" program, which had been dormant for decades, or starting bird walks, which had not been given around here. And all of a sudden I was doing what I wanted to be doing, which was fulfilling a need in the community.
Q: Why do you think it's so important to have nature programs for children in public schools?
A: Being in nature sharpens their perceptions, their power of observation and their ability to question. All those are qualities that deserve to be nurtured because they are the ones that help with lifelong learning. Every child on this planet arrives with a great desire to learn, and each one has a different path. As a classroom teacher, I always sought to identify what was it that each child burned to learn. I still remember one kid, this was when I taught second grade, and snakes were all he cared about. He wouldn't read and had trouble paying attention, so I got him all kinds of snake books and brought snakes into the classroom, and pretty soon he was reading. I had a latitude in my classroom where I could get the kids different reading materials. … To me, it just seemed normal that you would go with what really motivated them and then feed that. And that child (who loved snakes) went on to be a doctor. Teachers need to recognize the diversity of learning styles and learning interests.
Q: Tell me about your efforts to restore the grasslands in Illinois' forest preserves.
A: When we moved to northern Illinois, I discovered Henslow's sparrows and found that with the deterioration of the grasslands near me that Henslow's sparrows were disappearing. And I learned there were several threatened species — meadowlarks, bobolinks — that were forced to leave these places where they'd traditionally nested. There were a lot of scattered trees, and these birds do much better with wide open expanses. The Forest Preserve District (of Cook County) has helped to restore grasslands, savannas and woodlands where the quality had deteriorated dramatically since their original purchase. And we found that if you restore the grasslands, the birds will come back.
These forest preserves are gems: 11 percent of Cook County is under protection, and a lot of people don't recognize what a rich resource this is and what an essential habitat it provides for reptiles, insects, amphibians. They would be gone if not for these preserves. And a great way to get to know your region is to explore it with someone who knows the landscape. That's how I learned.
Wendy Paulson leads bird hikes that will resume in the fall in the Barrington area as well as along the Chicago lakefront. For details, go to citizensforconservation.org