GAYS MILLS - The life and work of rural Gays Mills resident, Dr. Robert H. Horwich, will be honored at a tree planting ceremony near the Log Cabin Village in Gays Mills on Sunday, Oct. 1 at 3 p.m.
Friends of Rob Horwich will plant a white oak tree in his memory, and participants should gather on the east side of the creek, near the Rivercrest Apartments.
There will be time for folks to share feelings and thoughts about Rob as desired, plant the tree, and retire to the main shelter for light refreshments and visiting. If it rains, the observance will go ahead as planned.
The creek can be crossed on foot to get to the shelter, or people can drive around to the other side by taking the driveway by the swimming pool. Some parking for those with mobility issues is available very close to the tree site in the small lot off of Highway 131 near the Rivercrest Apartments Others may park on South Rebecca Street near Rivercrest's west side, and walk on the south and east side of the creek to the planting location without needing to cross the creek. Look for signs directing people to the event.
Rob, or Robbie to his family, always had a keen interest in animals and he devoted his life to their conservation. Locally, Dr. Horwich was involved in mentoring young folk interested in conservation, as well as active involvement in the formation of such well-known local conservation groups as the Crawford Stewardship Project (CSP) and the Valley Stewardship Network (VSN).
Horwich served on the board of CSP for its entire 10 years, and was keenly interested in such local conservation issues as confined animal feeding operations and frac sand mines.
Edie Ehlert, president of the CSP board admired the work of Horwich.
“Rob saw the big picture, while working on specific projects,” Ehlert explained. “As an original CSP board member 10 years ago, he supported our work and reminded us to speak out strongly for our values, for the land and water, and especially for the wild creatures who live here.”
Ellen Brooks, another fellow-board-member of CSP, recalled Horwich’s final years.
“Rob was very concerned that the conservation community and members of CSP remain ever-vigilant, and not become complacent,” Brooks said.
Horwich, along with Kathy Fairchild, helped to found the Valley Stewardship Network, which has grown over the years into one of the premier environmental advocates in Southwest Wisconsin and the Kickapoo Valley.
“Rob was a totally unique guy, with a totally unique approach to conservation,” said Fairchild. “His idea that there is common ground in the idea that people care about where they live – that’s what made it all work. He had a unique ability.”
Horwich’s career spanned obtaining a post-doctoral appointment to India from the Smithsonian Institute, directing the Maryland House Natural History Museum, researching infant primate development at the Brookfield Zoo, developing reintroduction methods at the International Crane Foundation, and founding and directing Community Conservation, Inc.
Rob lived simply and generously, especially after moving to rural Wisconsin in 1976. Even his rare extravagance was modest: adding an extra sugar packet to a cup of coffee, giving dollar bills to children for cakewalk fundraisers, or buying suitcases full of used trinkets.
The latter practice was part of Rob’s life as an artist: he turned the shiny detritus of consumer society into bizarre, beautiful, irreverent sculpture. Visitors to his humble home on One Quiet Lane were greeted by the likes of plastic action figures glued with geometric arrangements of feathers and tinsel onto gaudy Tupperware platters.
Rob’s affinity for the unconventional allowed him to see solutions when others saw only problems. When endangered cranes being raised in captivity were losing their wild instincts due to human contact, he pioneered the use of puppets and costumes to rear them.
When dam construction on the Kickapoo River was abandoned and the repossessed land was being abused and argued over, he saw opportunity to create a community-managed nature reserve. And first in Belize and then in places around the world, when local people were blamed for the loss of wildlife, Rob saw that informed and inspired communities have the power to conserve the beauty and integrity of their homelands.
In Belize, Rob realized that the howler monkeys he was studying were disappearing, so he refocused his efforts from academic research to applied conservation. He worked with local villagers to create the Community Baboon Sanctuary, which became an internationally renowned model for conservation.
Later in his career, in India, Rob refined his simple but profoundly effective method as he worked to conserve forests for an endangered monkey called the Golden Langur. He told local people that their forests were special, he asked for their help conserving the forests, and then helped them to create community groups equipped for this mission.
Just weeks before his death, he was working in Cameroon with local communities to conserve habitat for the Cross River gorilla, of which only a few hundred remain in the world.
Since Rob consistently sought to catalyze rather than maintain influence, many of his efforts have carried on without him.
April Samsom, current executive director of Community Conservation talked about Horwich’s legacy.
“It is a great privilege and honor to be leading Community Conservation following in the footsteps of Rob's legacy,” Samson said. “Rob was my friend, as well as my mentor, and I am proud to be working alongside the board and many volunteers to continue his important and inspiring work around the globe.”
Rob Horwich will be missed for his gentle and friendly spirit, for his delightfully odd sense of humor and for his quiet, fierce love of the natural world.
Forest Jahnke, coordinator of CSP and one of the many young folk impacted by Horwich remembered Rob.
“I really consider Crawford Stewardship Project to be the local branch of Community Conservation,” Jahnke said. “My earliest volunteer effort for an environmental organization, when I was 11 or 12 was stuffing envelopes for Community Conservation.”
Jahnke said that Horwich’s model of creating “conservation contagion,” serving as a catalyst to bring local people together to see the value of what they had and set their differences aside to work to protect it was the inspiration for his life’s work.
“Rob’s work, both locally and globally, was a true inspiration for me and for many conservationists in our community,” Jahnke said.
Much of the information contained in this article was obtained from Dr. Horwich’s obituary, published in this paper.