Nicolet student explores naturalist ancestor

May 18, 2016

Glendale —When Nicolet freshman Adelie Content was deciding on the topic for her history class project, she looked to her own family history.

It turns out one of her mother's ancestors is John Burroughs, an influential naturalist from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Several generations later, Adelie's mother Susan Campbell is an environmental journalist who co-authored a book with Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson. Adelie's father Thomas is an energy reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Adelie seems to share her family's passion for environmentalism, as well as their knack for storytelling. Her eight-minute documentary, titled "John Burroughs: America's Forgotten Naturalist," earned praise from judges at the regional and state National History Day competitions, and now she's advancing to the national contest in Washington, D.C., next month.

Adelie had always heard that Burroughs was part of her family tree, but she did not know about his infuence until she started making the documentary. She read newspapers from the early 1900s and scoured the internet for old images and video clips to create a video that feels less like a history project and more like a Ken Burns documentary.

In her documentary, she examines Burroughs' biography and how he shared his conservationist ideas with close friends like Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford. Burroughs was also influential in that he made his naturalist essays approachable, by focusing on common wildlife instead of exotic species and locales.

Adelie said Burroughs should not be forgotten, as he predicted industrialization would be harmful for the environment — many decades before scientists started talking about climate change.

"A lot of his ideas are more applicable today than when he was alive," she said. "That's why I think his fame didn't continue after his death, because his ideas didn't make as much sense to people then. Now they make a lot more sense, so I think they should be brought back into the spotlight."

After she competes in the National History Day contest next month, Adelie said she and her family plan on visiting two of Burroughs' cabins near Poughkeepsie, New York.

Adelie's history teacher is Phyllis Santacroce, one of 23 teachers selected as a Behring Teacher Ambassador for National History Day this school year. She was selected for showing outstanding creativity, commitment and inspiration in teaching students like Adelie.

"National History Day believes educators are the best resource a student has, and Dr. Santacroce exemplifies what it means to be an excellent educator," said Cathy Gorn, the executive director of National History Day.

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