Remembering John Cowan

Naturalist, photographer, community-builder loved to do good work

It’s said that the only things we truly own are our actions, and that our good actions are our only real wealth. In that sense, John Cowan was a very rich man when he died last Wednesday (Oct. 15) at his Gridley home. He was 92.

He was above all else a lover: of the earth, of wildlife, of community and family. And he acted on that love, with gusto and delight.

As the founder and longtime manager of the state’s 9,200-acre Gray Lodge Wildlife Refuge, he was an early leader in the protection of migratory wildfowl and other species of wildlife. As a founding trustee of Butte College, he played a major role in building that invaluable institution—an effort the college acknowledged by naming its sports complex after him. And it was Cowan who led the push to develop the college’s grounds as a wildlife refuge.

He was also a remarkable nature photographer, a skill that manifested itself most dramatically in his 2002 coffee table book, A Jewel in the Flyway. The lavishly illustrated volume (which was edited by Cowan’s wife, Avis) is both the history of Gray Lodge and a gallery for Cowan’s gorgeous photos, which are world-class.

Those of us fortunate enough to know John Cowan personally—and that’s thousands of people—will remember him as a self-effacing, sweet-tempered gentleman who always seemed to be joyfully alive. It was just his nature to express his love by doing good work.