Barely 32, Chad Pregracke has had more public encouragement than most environmentalists get in a lifetime. Lenny Kravitz wrote a song inspired by him, and Pregracke has partied on Billy Joel’s yacht. This summer, he’ll be featured on the Discovery Channel series Dirty Jobs.

So what did a former clam diver from East Moline do to deserve all this? “I was just a dude picking up trash on the river,” says Pregracke, who tells his story in a National Geographic book ($26) coming out in April. Co-written with Jeff Barrow, From the Bottom Up traces Pregracke’s maturation from a diver frustrated with a dirty Mississippi to the founder of Living Lands & Waters, a group that has since directed cleanups along the Mississippi, Missouri, Illinois, Ohio, and Potomac rivers. 

“Chad doesn’t say ‘Charge’; he just charges and people want to follow,” says Barrow, whose biggest challenge was getting his subject to stay still long enough for an interview. In the next year, Pregracke and his East Moline–based team plan to build a floating classroom on a barge, then pilot the craft to Chicago. He also hopes to start a nursery in Beardstown, using byproduct from a hog-processing plant as soil for a million hardwoods.

“There are a few times I thought, Should I give up? I’m living under a bridge,” says Pregracke, who still prefers the river and the company of a dog to much else the world offers. “But [working on the book] I thought about what’s been accomplished and what it’s taken, and that’s good for me to know.”