Midway into his 10th decade, author and environmental journalist Michael Frome carries on his mission to preserve nature with well-crafted words
By any standard — whether it is the countless books and articles he has written, the national awards he has garnered or the students he has mentored — Michael Frome is a world-class conservationist.
Still, for such a world-savvy environmentalist, Frome is remarkably content in his Port Washington home atop a tree-blanketed ravine overlooking the Ozaukee Interurban Trail.
Frome and his wife, fellow author and retired minister June Eastvold, named their sunny getaway PeaceWood, although it has also been nicknamed the Tree House.
“We love it here,” Frome said.
“June is originally from Minnesota and she’s the one who picked this place to live. I would say Ozaukee County stands up pretty well with the places I’ve seen around the country. There is an appreciation of historic buildings and the beauty of being right on the Great Lakes.”
Frome said the area’s standout characteristic is its insistence on being unique.
“We don’t want to be like every place else,” he said.
“One of the greatest assets we have is the realization by groups like the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust that it is important to preserve the natural areas we have left.”
The couple moved to Port Washington in 2004, the latest stop in a writing career that has taken Frome to the corners of the globe.
This month, he will celebrate his 95th birthday.
Frome possesses an encyclopedic recall of the places he has visited and people he has met over his career, readily spouting anecdotes with an understated tone.
A prolific writer on an array of environmental topics, Frome is waiting for his latest book, “Rediscovering National Parks in the Spirit of John Muir,” to hit the shelves next month.
Another volume, tentatively titled “Fighting for Wilderness in a Changing World,” is expected to be published next year.
With that resume in mind, Frome speaks with authority when assessing the quality of nearby places where people can get in touch with nature.
“We love walking in Upper Lake Park and looking out over the lake at Coal Dock Park, and think the Lion’s Den Gorge is a real gem,” he said.
When talking about the natural beauty of the area, it is a reflex for Frome to break into his favorite role as champion of wild things.
“It is easy to exploit nature and difficult to protect it, but preserving nature is something we all have a responsibility to do,” he said.
Any time someone asks what his favorite national park is, Frome has a ready answer.
“It is whatever one I visited last,” he said.
Frome was born in New York City, the son of William and Henrietta Fromm. He changed his last name to Frome at the age of 19.
“I guess I still consider myself a New Yorker, and I made many visits to Central Park. It is fair to say Central Park is the most valuable piece of real estate in the world, not because of its potential for commerce but exactly because it is a park. It has exposed so many souls to nature,” Frome said.
Despite those urban roots, he said he finds comfort in the more casual pace of life in a small town.
“When I was younger, I would cross-country ski and bike. Now, it is all I can do to walk to the corner, but I still do it.
“I have a little trouble getting around, and I am always impressed by how willing people here are to help. They don’t bother to ask my politics. They just ask, ‘Can I give you a hand?’” Frome said.
Reflecting the countless friendly encounters he has had during his now slow jaunts around town, Frome offered another piece of advice — “People should walk more.”
Although he lauded the foresight of local communities that have made parks a priority, he said Ozaukee County suffers from the same blight that taints the roadways of the nation.
“I have always hated billboards. They are scars on our landscape and distracting for drivers,” Frome said.
“We should also just slow traffic down. The world is moving too fast.”
Frome began his writing career as a reporter with the Washington Post.
While working for that paper, he became the first Western reporter to file stories from behind the Iron Curtain, after connecting with a relief flight to Poland.
That assignment led to a series of front-page articles on the troubled reconstruction of Eastern Europe following the devastation of World War II and the onslaught of Communism.
After several other writing jobs, Frome became conservation editor for Field & Stream magazine and a regular contributor to such publications as American Forests, Living Wilderness, Defenders of Wildlife and Western Outdoors.
It was in that writing that he had found his professional niche and passion, concentrating on the environment and the remaining wild places of the world.
Frome shared that passion for environmental writing with aspiring journalists, teaching at the universities of Idaho, Vermont and Western Washington, along with Northland College in Wisconsin.
A source no less authoritative than the late Sen. Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day, had glowing words for Frome’s efforts as a firebrand of conservation.
“No writer in America has more persistently argued for the need for a national ethic of environmental stewardship than Michael Frome,” Nelson once said.
Frome has an equal admiration for Nelson, whom he calls “my buddy.”
“Today, when senators leave office, regardless of their party, they usually take jobs with large corporations. When Sen. Nelson left office, he went to work for the Wilderness Society,” he said.
“We need more people to make preserving nature their life’s work. Natural areas and waterways are important to preserve for future generations, for our children and families.”
Following a pattern that started when he lived at various locations around the world, Frome still keeps in touch with friends and colleagues through a monthly newsletter he now calls the Portogram.
“As a longtime journalist, I have found I need a deadline to keep me going,” he said.
“It is my way of letting people know I am still alive, and that I remain hopeful about our future.”
Image information: Michael Frome leaned on a stack of his books in the lower-level office of his Port Washington home. Photo by Sam Arendt