John Rensenbrink of Topsham was honored last week when the Cathance River Education Alliance named a road after him. He is pictured here with CREA Executive Director Caroline Eliot, left, and his wife of 60 years, Carla Rensenbrink. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

TOPSHAM — Sitting in the pocket paradise of his backyard the day before his 91st birthday, stalwart conservationist John Rensenbrink recalled a favorite poem.

“The Youth, who daily farther from the east / Must travel, still is Nature’s priest / And by the vision splendid / Is on his way attended,” he said, recounting from memory William Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.”

As a key force behind the Cathance River Nature Preserve’s creation two decades ago, and a steward since then of the Cathance River Education Alliance, Rensenbrink has been an untiring advocate for immersing local youth in the world of nature.

John Rensenbrink cuts the ribbon along Rensenbrink Way, which leads to the headquarters of the Cathance River Education Alliance he helped found. Courtesy James McCarthy

Caroline Eliot, who after seven years with the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust started in mid-July as CREA’s new executive director, recalled another Wordsworth verse: “Let Nature be your teacher.”

That line from “The Tables Turned” sums up the mission of CREA, which celebrated its co-founder Aug. 27 with the dedication of its access road to Rensenbrink.

In an interview Aug. 29 alongside his wife Carla, he recalled being “thunderstruck” upon first seeing the “Rensenbrink Way” sign – “wonderfully delighted and surprised.”

There was a dual purpose to naming the 1/10-mile path to the education center, Eliot said. It allowed the fire department quicker access to the facility when its fire alarm was activated. And it also paid tribute to the man who, with developer John Wasileski, founded CREA nearly 20 years ago.

“It’s a gateway” from the parking lot and down a set of steps into the “magic place” that is the Cathance River Nature Preserve, said Rensenbrink, who in the 1980s helped found the Maine and U.S. Green parties.

That 235-acre preserve was created in 2000 through an agreement with Wasileski, developer of the Highland Green community, and the Topsham’s Future citizen’s group, which Rensenbrink co-founded along with his wife and other residents.

“It was (Rensenbrink’s) vision of a different way … to structure that development so that the riparian area along the river, and a substantial part of the upland, could be protected,” Eliot explained.

Part of Rensenbrink’s interest was the fact the development was just up the river from the Cathance Road home where he’s lived since 1965, and where he and his wife raised three daughters.

“One of John’s most persuasive arguments was, ‘no one’s going to pollute the river; I want to swim there,'” Carla Rensenbrink said.

Wasileski “was great,” her husband said. “He assured us that he also had a strong heart for ecology.”

Negotiations between the developer and conservationist had taken about a year.

“That was itself kind of an amazing development, which I think pricked up the ears of everybody in Topsham and beyond,” that such a deal “actually could happen,” Rensenbrink said.

CREA, a non-profit organization, was born out of that arrangement, providing the preserve for ecological education to area students and teachers: a hands-on means of learning in an outdoor classroom. Along with welcoming people to CREA, the organization’s teachers go into the schools as well.

The idea was “to stimulate nature-based learning, to have kids and our teachers come out there and feel nature,” Rensenbrink said. “We wanted to change the curriculum of the schools; that was our goal. And … I think in many respects we have succeeded.”

One way of getting the children to absorb the world around them was to study Rensenbrink Way itself as they traverse it: they are asked to find the tiniest stone along the way, and the largest. Ultimately they determine the smallest to be a grain of sand, and the greatest, the planet itself.

“A lot of the teachers are now starting to see the benefits to getting their kids outdoors; they can learn but also get the release that comes with being outdoors,” Eliot said. “I think it’s really starting to snowball in terms of the impact spreading.”

“Let nature be your teacher, let us be your guide,” she added, hearkening back to Wordsworth.

Rensenbrink has packed much into his nearly-century life. Along with helping to found the state and national Green parties, as well as Merrymeeting Community Action, he taught history and political philosophy at Bowdoin College, and has written a long list of articles on politics and ecology.

But his proudest accomplishment of all: “CREA,” he said. “The discovery for so many people, including the kids and teachers, that nature-based learning is not only just a lot of fun, but is also tremendously important.”

Although his work with the Green Party was important, “that was more (about) changing the politics so that places like CREA can flourish,” Rensenbrink said.

And, as Wordsworth might say, so that youths can thrive as nature’s priests.

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