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Manes: Woman at one with nature

Bonnie Susan Swarner with their pet bearded dragon.| Jeff Manes~for Sun-Times Media

Bonnie and Susan Swarner with their pet bearded dragon.| Jeff Manes~for Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 17, 2013 6:07AM



“I do not want to talk about what you understand about the world. I want to know what you will do about it. I do not want to know what you hope. I want to know what you will work for. I do not want your sympathy for the needs of humanity. I want your muscle.”

— Robert Fulghum

I had thoughts of interviewing the mother-daughter team of Bonnie and Susan Swarner and making one column out of it. After glancing at their impressive resumes, I opted to interview mom only and save Susan for another occasion.

Bonnie lives on beautiful Long Lake in Valparaiso. Susan, along with a bearded dragon as stoic as a sphinx and a loquacious African grey parrot, sat in on our chat.

Swarner, 63, is a former animal rehabber who manages several extensive woodlands. Among other things, she also is a member of Wahoub Lake Association, Northwoods Parks Improvement Association, Hoosier Environmental Council and is currently involved in a federal program to remove invasive species.

But what has she done for the environment lately?

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“I was born in Fort Wayne,” Swarner began. “When I was 6, we moved to Bluffton near Oubache State Park. Oubache is a Native American word; its translation is Wabash. We went to Oubache every Sunday after church.”

Like libraries, parks are wonderful things for people of all walks of life.

“Back then, people didn’t have much money and they didn’t want to spend what they did have after enduring the Great Depression.”

Education?

“I graduated from Bluffton High School in ‘68 and then attended Hanover College down on the Ohio River near Madison. I graduated from there and then I went to graduate school at Indiana State University for school psychology. I decided to be a psychologist by the time I was 12.”

And you’ve always had an interest or love of nature.

“Yes. My husband also attended Hanover which is near Clifty Falls State Park. We went there all the time. We’ve always had a park to go to.”

Your husband?

“John was a doctor who was the head of the critical care unit and pulmonary department. He also was director of the nursing home all at the same time. He had a heart blockage which is so ridiculous because that’s what he took care of. John died in ‘99. My husband just didn’t take time to care for himself, but he is well-remembered in this community.”

Did he smoke? I mean, it amazes me the amount of doctors and nurses I know who smoke.

“No, John wasn’t a smoker, but he would tell his patients: ‘Go ahead and smoke, you’re putting my kids through college.’”

Good one. Let’s fast forward. I used to work in the mill with quite a few guys from the Valparaiso area who fished lakes like Flint, Wahoub and Loomis. It seems like they fared well most of the time.

“I used to rent boats, but now I just sell fishing rights. They are only $100 a year and the anglers have unlimited access. By charging, you get serious fishermen. You don’t get people who are going to be destructive and leave trash all over.”

Environmentally speaking, tell me some of the good things you do.

“We’re working to remove invasive plants on my three nature preserves. Susan has helped a lot with that. The one at Wahoub is 65 acres, the one at Loomis is 22 and the one in Suman Valley which is 55. I got a farm grant and we worked for three years removing those unwanted plants.”

They’re tough to eradicate.

“We’re still working on removing invasive plants. Every year they come up with a new one.”

Reaching out to kids.

“I’m the education chairman for the Izaak Walton League and Suzie is the youth program coordinator. We’ve started a program where we go into the schools and have what we call Environmental Family Fun Night.

“We did two last year. We’re currently advertising to expand it to all the schools in Porter County.”

A few more examples?

“Susan did a display about the ages of trees. The kids draw ‘tree cookies’ and then denote a specific event that occurred with each ring in the tree. People like Charlotte Read and Marilyn Spencer participated. They help the kids make wind chimes. Don Frame did soil quality.

“We have lots of live reptiles and amphibians at our ‘Fun Nights.’ Porter County Wildlife Advisory Board came. We had a man from the south side of Chicago who brought bats. Kids love that; it’s like going to the zoo.”

I hope you get to as many schools as possible.

“We take care of everything financially and we supply the manpower. The schools don’t have to do anything.”

Obviously, Environmental Family Fun Nights are after school. How long does an event last?

“A couple of hours, usually from like 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.”

***

Kudos to all the area folks like Bonnie and Susan Swarner who walk the walk, roll up their sleeves and get things done. Mother Nature is a resilient old dame, but she can always use a helping hand.



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