Jeff Nania restores wetlands, writes mysteries

'Spider Lake’ is Madisonian's newest novel
Jeff Nania's latest mystery, "Spider Lake," was recently published.


Jeff Nania was present for one of my favorite events in Madison history: when 38 monkeys broke out of the zoo and swung from the trees in the Vilas neighborhood.

It happened in the summer of 1960. Nania was just a kid, and one of the monkeys ended up in a 200-year-old bur oak tree in his family’s yard on Chandler Street.

“Sitting on a limb, just staring down at us,” Nania recalls.

We’ll have more on the Great Escape momentarily. But in the years since, Nania has worked in law enforcement with the Dane County Sheriff’s canine unit; he had a second career as a pioneering and award-winning conservationist; and, most recently, he’s written mystery novels, the latest of which, “Spider Lake,” has just been published.

Nania will appear with the new novel at a local author “slam” at Mystery to Me on Monroe Street on Jan. 23.

The Nania family goes back a long way in Madison. James Nania, Jeff’s dad, was a dentist who grew up in the city’s historic Greenbush neighborhood.

James Nania bought the home on Chandler Street to raise his family. A police officer lived next door. When Jeff, age 10, helped find a toddler in the neighborhood who had wandered away from home, the officer pinned a junior policeman’s badge on him. It sparked his interest in law enforcement, and his years with the sheriff’s department and as a special deputy with the DNR inform the stories he now tells in his novels.

But it was upon leaving law enforcement around 1990 — “It was time for a change,” he says — that Nania found the work that would be the most rewarding of his life.

He bought a farm in Columbia County, where he still lives, and restored it to the wetland it had been prior to being ditched and drained for cropping.

“It was a miraculous thing to me,” Nania says. “I loved the whole idea of restoration.”

That led to nearly two decades of work with the Wisconsin Waterfowl Association, as head of its habitat restoration team and as executive director. In that time Outdoor Life magazine named Nania one of the 25 most influential conservationists in the United States.

He gained a special affinity for involving young people. After a less than satisfactory field trip to the UW Arboretum — in which the kids were admonished to “stay on the trails” — Nania founded Outdoor Adventure Days, an interactive experience that provided kids a hands-on day in the field, muddy fingernails and all.

In 2002, with teacher Victoria Rydberg, Nania founded an environmentally focused charter school in Columbia County that became a model for others around the state. The collaboration was so successful they added another – they’re now husband and wife.

It was in April 2011 that Nania had the chance to revisit the home on Chandler Street, and the 200-year-old bur oak in the yard that had attracted the fugitive zoo monkey.

The tree had died, and at 13-feet in circumference, was in danger of toppling. The property owners — Ken Loving and Sarina Schrager, who purchased it from Nania’s family in 1997 — invited Jeff to be there when it was taken down.

Nania recalled that in 1960, the police came and got the zoo monkey from the tree. It took days to recapture them all. (They busted out through a broken window in the monkey house basement after a cage was left unlocked.) A young Wisconsin State Journal reporter named Bill Stokes — who became one of the best newspaper writers in state history, and, at 87, a first-time novelist — wrote a brilliant piece from the point of view of one of the monkeys, sitting in a tree watching the people acting strange below.

In 2011, Loving and Schrager used the wood from the beloved oak for a table, and gave Nania some, which he turned into rocking chairs.

Nania’s current novel writing also has its roots in those Chandler Street days. When he was a kid, his family would take summer vacations to a cabin on Spider Lake in Sawyer County. Nania has kept up the tradition and will spend his 70th summer there this year.

We bring mystery books for everyone to read,” Nania says. The Loon Lake series by Wisconsin author Victoria Houston has been a recent favorite. But a few summers ago, Houston didn’t have a new book out.

“I thought, ‘I’ll write one,’” Nania says. He’d written a magazine story on Aldo Leopold’s shotgun and another on the Wisconsin artist Clarence Monegar.

His first novel, “Figure Eight,” about a law enforcement officer who experiences a tragic event and heads to Spider Lake to heal, came surprisingly easy. Nania enjoyed the process.

He couldn’t help but enjoy the reader reaction. “We’re in our fourth printing,” Nania says. Early word on “Spider Lake” is equally positive, and one suspects more books may be coming. Some of us will be hoping for a plot point in which the monkeys break loose from the zoo.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.