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Wisconsin

For Oberhausers, Nature is a Family Affair

“For in the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”

Baba Dioum,
Senegalese environmentalist

When I ask Sanny Oberhauser if there was someone who sparked her love of nature, she tells me about her mother who made her own soap and composted and recycled before it was fashionable. Her husband Pete talks about his dad, “Obie,” who was a county extension agent in Iowa in the 1930s, helping farmers stay solvent and save their soil at a hot, dry time in our nation’s history.

 Pete spent his career as a large animal veterinarian in Wisconsin. Sanny raised their four daughters, was a Girl Scout leader and a school counselor. They built a home in the woods along the Embarrass River. “Haleakala,” which means House of the Sun in Hawaiian, has been a sanctuary for them and the entire Oberhauser clan for more than 25 years.

“I have a great sense of place, which is right here at Haleakala,” said Sanny. “Wallace Stegner said ‘If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.’ I live by that.”

Pete echoes Sanny’s sentiments. “While I’ve always been interested in the outdoors, bumming around in the woods and hiking as a boy in Minnesota, it’s here at Haleakala that my love of nature really took root.”

Both Pete and Sanny have turned their love of nature into action. Pete served on the board of The Nature Conservancy in Wisconsin for nine years in the late 1990s and early 2000s, helping guide the chapter’s work to protect Wisconsin’s forests, prairies and rivers as well as rainforests thousands of miles away in Nicaragua.

He and Sanny teach and mentor children in the Clintonville elementary school system, sharing intricate details about the lives of butterflies, bats and birds. They hope to spark that understanding, which they believe is critical to loving and conserving nature.

Each in her own way, Pete and Sanny’s daughters are following in their parents’ footsteps. Amy, who is a librarian, is carrying on their legacy of living lightly on the land: “I try to live as ‘conservatively’ as I can, composting, reducing my energy use and riding my bike to work. And I’m sharing these values with my children.”

Ann is a geography professor at West Virginia University. Like all of her sisters, she has shared her love of nature with her family through camping and kayaking.

Sara is a nurse practitioner in Meriter Hospital’s “at risk” pregnancy department. She was her dad’s veterinarian assistant for several years in her youth and once assisted her dad with surgery to repair a cow’s displaced stomach. “That’s when I decided I wanted to become a nurse, but not for cows!” she said.

Karen is a conservation biologist at the University of Minnesota; her expertise is in monarch butterflies, and she shows teachers how to use them as a teaching tool in their classrooms.

“I think it’s important to nurture kids’ connections to nature, and monarchs are good for that,” she comments. “Kids can go outside and pick a milkweed, which is where monarchs lay their eggs. They can bring it into their classroom and watch the remarkable transformation from egg to butterfly.”

Karen’s daughter, Amy, is one of Pete and Sanny’s eight grandchildren—the current generation of Oberhausers. She is getting her PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she is doing research on prairie restoration.

“I’m looking at the prairies that John Curtis studied in the 1940s and fifties to see how they’re changing and try to understand why,” she commented. Like her mom, she wants to “do good science and disseminate it widely.”

While Pete and Sanny have passed their love of nature and learning to two generations of their family, the sharing flows in both directions. Sanny puts it best at the end of a poem she wrote in 2010: 

I am a citizen scientist    I monitor our milkweed
for Monarch eggs and larvae
This is something beyond my Mother’s ken
I learned it from my daughter.

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