While I sit at the table on Ben and Jean Harrison’s back deck, a bird warbles, and Ben immediately looks up in the singer’s direction. He spots it and calls Jean’s attention to it. Both look with practiced eyes (I can’t see it, but I hear its sweet song), and they talk a little about it to each other and to me. It’s as if one of their children has checked in. That’s how I’ve come to see this couple. They aren’t just curious—not just professionals now retired from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They are connected to the environment as true stewards of the natural world. Both have committed their lives in service of the environment. In an era when so many people are focused on themselves and centered on self-gratification, Ben and Jean Harrison present a different example. The couple, originally from Connecticut and married in 1980, speak of the environment as if it is part of their family, like their two sons and 17-year-old kitty, Mel. Even though they are now retired, both remain committed to the environment they worked to preserve. Retirement from careers doesn’t mean retirement from an active life of service to their community and the environment.
Ben Harrison earned his bachelor’s degree in natural resource management with an emphasis in forestry, followed by a master’s degree in plant and soil science, again with the forestry emphasis. His professional career began in Florida, where he became a contractor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doing wetland habitat mapping. Later, he became a regular employee of the federal agency, and the Harrisons, plus their two sons, moved to Oregon, where Ben’s work included doing habitat mapping, land acquisition for national wildlife refuges and program administration applying environmental law for protection of the same. They have lived in Maywood Park for more than 30 years.
Jean Harrison majored in graphic design, specializing in the development of interpretive exhibits and teaching these skills. She attended the Maryland Institute’s College of Art and did graduate work at the Oregon State University program in Native American art and museum studies. Once they were in Oregon, she worked for the Portland Art Museum until a job opened with the U.S. Forest Service designing interpretive exhibits. In addition to her work for the agency, she has traveled to other countries sharing her skills in Russia (three times), Sri Lanka and China for visitor services planning and interpretive exhibit development.
They settled in Maywood Park, where Ben became a city council member for many years. He is currently the city forester.
Maywood Park residents are proud of the community’s sylvan atmosphere, and when a new resident suddenly cut down two large Douglas firs, the position of city forester was developed. Residents must now apply for a permit before any tree can be removed. (Sadly, Mother Nature had yet to be convinced to apply for that permit, as made clear when several large trees succumbed to last winter’s severe weather.)
Ben and Jean are a team. Their skills in the field of natural resource preservation are different, but they are as one where the goal is environmental responsibility. These two don’t just talk the talk, they live the life and share it with everyone around them.
When the 50th anniversary of the World War II shelling of Midway Island was commemorated, the Harrisons were there, Jean having contributed to exhibits. They showed me a video of the celebration, emphasizing how the site of such a devastating event has now become a major bird sanctuary. Jean also designed a series of orientation panels in Ilwaco, Washington, for the Willapa National Wildlife Refugees.
Both of their sons were Eagle Scouts, and one did a project that resulting in the series of interpretive plaques displaying native plants that grow along Maywood Place. Jean was her son’s adviser, but the plaques were his project, and they continue to provide educational information for visitors and residents who take in the exhibits during daily walks along this southern stretch of Maywood Park. Jean also designed both signs that designate this small city’s north and south boundaries.
Community members also consult the couple for yard development information. While interviewing residents for the recent garden tour, I was interested in how many of them talked about input the Harrisons gave them on more naturalized approaches to beautify their yards. Ben and Jean lead van tours for the Portland Parks & Recreation’s (PP&R’S) senior programing. These tours include such destinations as Wolf Haven, a rescue center that provides a home for displaced and captive-born wolves, and Cider Mill Fest. The tour provides education about the value of wildlife. Interested citizens can contact PP&R at 503-823-4828 for this and other available van excursions. Some of the van tours include opportunities for disabled seniors.
Like all of us, the Harrisons have been watching, with dismay, the violent destruction of natural areas throughout the Pacific Northwest and the devastation of Southwest and insular Southeastern human and animal habitats. They express a concern that human residential encroachment can lead to some of the destruction. Some areas are less appropriate for human residence.
The use of fireworks that caused and expanded the Eagle Creek fire, according to Jean, points out the need for more education about the importance of protecting the wild areas. Ben said, “Be aware of what the risks are where you live, and prepare for possible disasters.”
Jean added, “Be sure you live in a protected area with a good water source.” Preparation was in both messages. No matter where we live, the couple points to potential risks we all need to anticipate.
For Ben and Jean Harrison, a lifetime relationship continues to include service, family and love of the environment. Commitment on all these levels is a key to this couple’s success as individuals, as a couple and as contributing members of their community.