Publications / Annual E. F. Schumacher Lecture

Making Amends to the Myriad Creatures

Introduction by Hildegarde Hannum
​MEMBER, BOARD OF DIRECTORS, SCHUMACHER CENTER FOR A NEW ECONOMICS

It could well be said of Stephanie Mills, as it once was of Bob Dylan, that she burst on the scene already a legend. This occurred in 1969 with her commencement address, “The Future is a Cruel Hoax,” at Mills College in California. As valedictorian she drew attention to the global population crisis by pledging that she would never bear children. So radical a declaration by a young and beautiful woman instantly caught the attention of the media and subsequently the nation.

A consummate wordsmith, the focus of much of Mills’s work has been in writing and editing. She has served as the editor of a number of environmentally oriented publications, including Co-Evolution Quarterly and Not Man Apart. Her 1989 book Whatever Happened to Ecology? has been called a singular voice of sanity and a moving personal statement by a woman on the ecological frontiers. She has since edited and contributed to the anthology In Praise of Nature.

Stephanie Mills is an eloquent proponent of bioregionalism. Such is her conviction that a number of years ago she abandoned a life of urban celebrity to make her home in the rural upper peninsula of Michigan, where she is learning to reinhabit her chosen ecosystem. The aspect of bioregionalism she embraces is Earth stewardship in the form of restoration ecology. This constitutes an active rather than passive practice of conservation—a means by which we can begin “making amends to the myriad creatures” we have long chosen to ignore or destroy. It is Mills’s thesis that in so doing we will inevitably come to know, understand, assume responsibility for, and ultimately truly love the ecosystems of which we are a part.

A few weeks ago a friend of mine, Lowell Cate, invited me over to his place, a couple of miles northeast of my home, to have a look at his woods. He’s an older man, living near land his great-grandfather homesteaded in 1868. A lot of Lowell’s acreage had been farmed, much to its detriment, and was recuperating under straight, evenly spaced rows of white pine. The hardwood groves where we walked were on slopes steep enough that the stout maples, beeches, basswood, birches, and hemlock had escaped being cleared. Over the years the slopes had been cut selectively, for firewood. Here and there stood some quite substantial trees, beeches mostly. My friend seemed familiar with them all, and he recalled the years and storms in which others had blown down and awaited the arrival of the chainsaw and the service of the flame. In Lowell there’s no dearth of feeling for the woodland and no want of lore of local land use. He has knowledge of his home place.

As we were emerging from the leafy shadows to a spot where he’d had a commercial pulpwood harvester clear a stand of popples, I noted a burdock on the sunny margin and asked if he minded if I pulled it up, because it’s a weed (“just a plant out of place” by one definition). I explained that I’d recently learned a new rule of thumb to justify this act. Every alien species that establishes itself in a new surrounding displaces about ten natives. This was news to Lowell, something he immediately began to ponder.

My point is that most of us, even people like Lowell who know and love and daily walk bits of land they have presumed to be well and carefully used, usually don’t see the nonsequiturs or gaps in those ecosystems. It’s quite understandable. The tendency of our civilization from its beginnings has been to simplify the natural world in the process of taking it over for human occupancy. In the modern era this human tendency to transform landscapes for short-term advantage has, with the accelerations provided by rapid population growth, global transportation, and the juggernaut of mechanization, annihilated hundreds of thousands of species and made lonely relicts of countless others in their vanishing habitats. Absent some special interest in botany or ecology, we haven’t much sense of all that is lost in the domestication of wild places.

Our topic today, “Human Habitat and the Natural World,” could be taken to suggest a dichotomy between the two realms it mentions—the world of nature and the dwelling places of Homo sapiens. The difference between the whole world and one’s own home or settlement is a fairly recent concept in our life as a species, along with the human self-concept of existing in a transcendent category, apart from and superior to rude nature. For traditional peoples, we are told, nature and human habitat were one big, if not always happy, family wherein the two-leggeds were just folks along with coyote, raven, old doctor loon, fox, deer, and waterbug, and it was only polite to beg the pardon of the grass people upon whom you slept in the course of your journeys. Now, because our upstart civilization’s insensitivity to the personhood of each member of an ecosystem threatens to bring the whole domicile down, we’re being forced to remember how to belong and how to cherish. It may not be too late to begin to cultivate what Thomas Berry has phrased, with apt simplicity, a courtesy towards the other beings of the living world.

There is a developing practice of such courtesy, a discipline of learning how to beg the pardon of damaged and decimated landscapes. It is work called  ecological restoration. Barry Lopez, who writes with a solemn sense of the relations of nature and the human, extols it as “so rich in the desire to make amends!”

Ecological restoration is an experimental science, seeking the ways and means of healing damaged landscapes, attempting to reinstate their original plant and animal communities and revive their chartless web of interactions. Restoration ecology recognizes that habitat is complex, distinct, and essential to the preservation of diverse species. Conceding that nature is unsurpassed in its genius at evolving niches, creatures, and adaptations beyond counting, this science cares to be faithful to nature’s ways. By stoop labor, painstaking observation, and much applied intelligence, ecological restoration pays more than lip service to the sacredness of Earth’s phenomenal—and threatened—biodiversity.

Beyond that, I would say it is work which has the potential to engender true love for the land: not romantic love, not blind love or possessive attachment but a love which declares, “I want thee to be.” Not platonic but erotic, it is a love that increases one’s knowledge of the beloved—the myriad creatures—and of the self, through deeds.

Part of the work lies in gaining eyes to see the detail of the natural world. It involves discerning an ecosystem’s past, noticing significant events in the course of its recovery, and foreseeing a time of future thriving. Restoration ecology demands ingenious historic research and a little bit of schooled inference.

The motives for ecological restoration are various. Some restoration is required by law, as in mine-spoils reclamation or the trade-offs implied in the “no net loss of wetlands” doctrine. Mandating and bureaucratizing restoration projects can lead to low-bid jobs and very crude approximation of original conditions, vastly inferior by any measure. Satisfaction of minimum requirements is the wrong philosophical context for the mission.

It remains to be seen whether even the most exacting restoration ecology will succeed in its aspiration to restore successional processes and cradle evolution’s continuity. From 1936 to 1941 Theodore Sperry oversaw the pioneering restoration of the Curtis Prairie at the University of Wisconsin’s arboretum at Madison. He is perhaps restoration ecology’s most venerable practitioner. Asked how long it would take to restore the prairie, Sperry replied, “Roughly… a thousand years.”

However appropriate a millennium is as a time frame for work of evolutionary dimensions, it is a rather longer while than engineers generally abide waiting for permission to dredge or agencies are willing to wait to approve the results. Despite this fundamental mismatch of frames of reference, a legal requirement for some kind of restoration or mitigation of damage to ecosystems marks a positive turn.

Some ecological restoration is seemingly altruistic, although given our absolute dependence on the functioning of the biosphere, nothing we do to maintain its diversity and health fails to benefit our species. If we employ a narrower definition of self-interest, though, spending one’s weekends in pursuits like lopping European buckthorn saplings, scything weeds, torching grassfires, or gathering, threshing, labeling, storing, then sowing and raking seed from hundreds of different varieties of rare plants is altruistic. In Chicago and many other venues hundreds of volunteers do this work for the sake of the plants’ survival as well as to gain a new sense of relatedness with the wild plant, insect, and vertebrate communities they serve. In the Chicago region, in a scattered group of sites called the North Branch Prairies, this seasonal round of restoration activity is conducted under the watchful eyes of volunteer preserve managers. All are engaged in stewardship of lands that are either publicly owned or held in trust by nonprofit organizations. Chief among these is the Illinois Nature Conservancy, whose basic mission is ecosystem preservation. In northern Illinois the key endangered ecosystems are prairies and savannas or oak woodlands.

One of the greatest threats to ecosystems—and a subtler menace than the omnipresent bulldozers, backhoes, and paving machines—is biological pollution: invasion by exotic plants or animals. When botanical immigrants find themselves in a happy land where no predators or pests have co-evolved with them, they proceed to outcompete the natives and to simplify and generalize the landscape. Damage to the natural community offers invaders advantages, as the scruffy plant gangs crowding vacant lots and edges of woods and fields demonstrate.

Hence, much of the work of ecological restoration is plain old weeding—removing exotics, restoring enough of the original structure and function so that earlier, more diverse communities can regain their ground and stand resilient against future incursions. Restoration is inescapably labor-intensive, requiring a horticultural “eyes-to-quadrats” ratio that makes Wes Jackson’s eyes-to-acres proposals sound casual by comparison. Sometimes this tending involves the application of herbicides or mowing. Often it entails just going into the thickets and weed-whipping the garlic mustard or girdling the soft maples in an oak woodland so that they will die and admit the light that the understory natives have been dying without.

Another and far more spectacular part of ecological restoration is “ritual pyromania.” The prairies and oak woodlands of Illinois are particularly fire-dependent ecosystems, communities that require periodic burning of grasses and leaf litter for a reduction of thatch, a release of nutrients, and the killing of invading herbs and brush. If left to their own vegetal devices, these few species of weedy herbs and woody perennials rise up and shade out the natives—scores of grasses, sedges, rushes, and forbs that make a dappled tapestry of life in which no single color or thread predominates. Only lately have we learned how fire was the evolutionary force that maintained that original richness.

When the plow broke the soil in the upper Midwest, prairies and savannas began to vanish in favor of the relentless order of agriculture, which depends on planting lots of the same damn thing and then defending it from all the plagues that assail even-aged monocultures. Years later, the advance of suburban residences guaranteed that wild prairie fires would occur no more. Thus, if the rare plant communities lurking in the shadows on preserves and parks are to be revived, there have to be fires, and the fires must be managed with exceeding care. Benign neglect will not suffice to ensure a future for these species.

One day this past summer, through meeting John and Jane Balaban, who are stewards of the Harm’s Woods and Bunker Hill Prairie, I was able to learn a little about the spirit of restoration as practiced in Chicagoland. That same day, touring a savanna restoration site with Steve Packard, science director of the Illinois Nature Conservancy, I caught a sense of the entrancement in the work. What all three conveyed is that there’s a mutuality in stewardship. It begins with a desire to know the plants, to be able to name them and to get a sense of their ethology. Plants live as any organism must—within ecosystems. Because there has been so much degradation of ecosystems, we’ve reached a turning point in evolutionary history; now the plants need us.

“The idea that these sites can’t exist without our help anymore,” convinced the Balabans of the importance of their stewardship. “You can’t just preserve something by building a fence around it,” as John Balaban put it, noting “how dependent that [ecosystem’s] structure is on our interference.”

As volunteers like the Balabans deepen their involvement in prairie and savanna restoration, they may wind up propagating rare plants in their garden, like the threatened small sundrops or pale Indian plantain a few beds away from the tomatoes. Stewardship is a further invitation to dedicated amateurs to share in a crucial botanical endeavor and the beginning of a postmodern interpenetration of human habitat and the natural world. For restoration ecology is scientific work, involving thousands of people in what is certainly the most critical array of biological experiments now underway.

With Packard I visited the Somme Woods Preserve near Chicago. The Preserve, not so long before, had been a suburban wasteland. Back in 1913 a generous and farsighted act established these Cook County Forest Preserves for the people of the Chicago region and their posterity. But ecological ignorance and neglect led to the degeneration of these lands. In their weedy, brushy, overgrown state they were used and abused the way vacant lots generally are—for kids’ rendezvous, party spots, random trash heaps. Therefore, thirteen years ago a preliminary step in restoring the site was to haul away soggy car seats and quantities of broken bottles. The earlier, commonplace desolation was not hard to imagine and made the present, resurrected beauty all the more miraculous.

Accustomed as we are to seeing rare plants and animals only in the confines of botanic gardens and zoos, it’s quite a wonder to be able to tread careful trails past healthy populations of these plants in natural communities. Such was my experience that day in the Somme Woods Preserve. It was marvelous to gaze across a pelage of dozens of rare, and some endangered, plant species lifting their faces to the same sky that arched over their ancestors’ arrival on the empty loess plains left ten thousand years ago after the glacier’s retreat. In these open settings, restoration has become liberation.

The knowledge and ethic that had to be arrived at to effect these prairie and savanna restorations are of a peculiarly contemporary sort. They could only have been called forth in, and by, this unprecedented moment of life’s peril. The volunteers and organizers of the North Branch Prairie Project live urban and suburban lives in built environments, depending on store-bought food and the stability of the existing economic order. Their restoration work is avocation or occupation but not a matter of immediate personal or community survival.

If we were still gatherers of wild food and if our medicines were still provided directly by the herbs and flowers of the field and forests, we would grow up with eyes to recognize the distinct character and value of the hundreds and hundreds of plants in a woodland’s understory or on an open prairie. Our knowledge of our vital stake in an interdependence with the life and health of each individual plant and animal would be second nature (or so the theory goes).

The will to return to something like that unselfconscious human belonging to, and direct dependence on, the local ecosystem is another motive for restoration ecology. Bioregionalists call it reinhabitation. One inspiring saga of ecological restoration with reinhabitory purpose is unfolding in the Mattole River watershed in northern California. Its aim is to reinstate a native race of king salmon and with it to regain what some Mattolian activists refer to as “natural provision.”

For timeless time in the Mattole River watershed, far north on the Lost Coast, the water made its way down to thousands of nameless rills, then scores of creeks, to become the Mattole River and flow past the bar to the Pacific. Its descent was just enough governed by the forest community of Douglas fir and tan oak and their compatriots that the water’s action maintained long-term equilibrium in the watercourses. There were shaded creeks, clean gravel beds, deep pools, and a cool estuary whose banks were overhung with vegetation.

So the Mattole, like all the rivers pouring into the Pacific from Hokkaido to Monterey Bay, supported its own races of wild salmonids—unique stocks of king and silver salmon and steelhead trout. Historic descriptions of the abundance of these Pacific Northwest salmon runs beggar the imagination, just like the accounts of flocks of passenger pigeons millions-strong blackening the skies. But since those early days in the Mattole, clearcutting has removed nine-tenths of the forest. The roadbuilding that goes with logging and homesteading, as well as excessive grazing, have degraded lands upslope and hence salmon habitat downstream. These human activities have pushed the Mattole king salmon to the brink of extinction.

Tales of the Mattole Restoration Council’s response to this, which I had been following during my years in San Francisco, were impressive in their own way. The stories, pride of bioregionalism in northern California, suggested a respectful, if strenuous, remarriage of humans and the natural world—”becoming native again to place.” Some of the Council members see this as reinhabitation. Salmon support and watershed restoration in the Mattole declare a long-haul intention of working not merely in historic but geologic terms.

Whenever we try to pick something out of the universe, John Muir said, we find it hitched to everything else. So when, in the course of bioregional events, some 1970s back-to-the-landers settling in the Mattole Valley took it upon themselves, for mythopolitical reasons, to support their native race of king salmon, they learned that they had to follow the salmon’s existential logic upstream into the fabric of the land and down into the root hairs.

If you want to restore the fish, it turns out that you have to heal a three hundred square mile watershed—deal with vegetation loss, erosion, social fragmentation, the works. To begin with, the Mattole Watershed Salmon Support Group, which is a member of the Mattole Restoration Council, set about to enhance the reproductive success of the king salmon. The erosion problems upstream had radically changed the seaward reaches of the Mattole, widening the bed, stripping away shade-providing riparian brush, and filling in the pools where the salmon, which love cool depths, could come to oceangoing maturity. Torrents carried away nesting gravels from creeks, and silts washed down and smothered them. So to save the world—of the salmon, at least—the support group devised hatch boxes, simple nurseries where eggs taken from, and fertilized by, wild salmon trapped in the river could be incubated. Of this part of the work Freeman House, a founder of the Council, writes:

To enter the river and attempt to bring this strong creature out of its own medium alive and uninjured is an opportunity to experience a momentary parity between human and salmon, mediated by slippery rocks and swift currents. Vivid experiences between species can put a crack in the resilient veneer of the perception of human dominance over other creatures. Information then begins to flow in both directions and we gain the ability to learn: from the salmon, from the landscape itself.

In the clean filtered water flowing through the hatch boxes and rearing pond the salmon fry could grow, enjoying regular meals and an absence of predators, and then be released into their parent creeks. Over the decade that the hatch-box program has been going on, the valley’s elementary school children have been invited to participate in the release, trekking down to the streamside and dumping big buckets of little fish into the free waters of their destiny. It’s part of restoring salmon’s presence to local culture.

On the terrestrial front the Mattole Restoration Council members have over the years planted thousands of Douglas fir seedlings on the cut-over lands upstream; they practiced “restoration geology,” sometimes employing heavy equipment to remove boulders and debris dams from creek beds. They sweated to armor creek banks with head-sized cobbles, to transplant handfuls of native vegetation that could stabilize sections of eroded stream banks, to plant willow cuttings and alder seedlings along the river to shadow the water and foster the insect life on which the young fish feed. Through visits to the public school and creation of an alternative high school the reinhabitors began to educate valley children and adolescents about the life of the salmon. Perhaps most importantly, during this time the Mattole Restoration Council has been learning how better to find consensus with neighbors whose sense of domain may be threatened by the very idea of restoration activity. They also are learning how to work with the various state, federal, and county agencies that govern land use and fisheries. This is endangered species-cum-habitat preservation in a place where much of the land is privately owned and can’t be managed as a refuge.

In the winter of 1990 I finally made my way to the Mattole Valley. During my visit, Freeman House took me to a spot on Mill Creek where the Salmon Support Group had worked to restore a silver salmon habitat. In the Mattole, as on the North Branch Prairies and in scores of other restoration projects around the planet, part of what is gained is a physical sense of the laboriousness of an entropy battle. How very difficult it is to attempt to put a casually torn-apart ecosystem back together! As more people feel that difficulty ache in their bones and sinew, perhaps there’ll be less tearing apart and fiercer defense of life-places.

The restoration site is California-steep—not quite a ravine, overhung by gnarled leggy tan oaks, these festooned with lime-green mosses. Fallen Douglas firs caught and bridged the glen, which was musical with the sound of rushing water. As on many tributaries of the Mattole, logging-caused erosion had scoured Mill Creek and steepened its fall. Its waters flowed too swiftly to drop out the right-sized gravel for salmon redds. To slow it down required a structural solution. First the Salmon Support group had to winch a windfall Douglas fir log down from the cut-over north bank. Then a portable saw mill was hauled down to quarter the log lengthwise. The four pieces were placed across the stream to capture gravel and sediment and to moderate the gradient. The water falling over the straight edges of the dams scours out congenial pools beneath. This little project, all for the sake of thirty mating pairs of silver salmon, occupied eight or ten people for perhaps a thousand hours.

That wildly beautiful spot in Mill Creek was irrevocably human-altered. First, for the worse, by the frenzied logging upstream. But the healing, brought about by changing the stream gradient with those Douglas fir dams, left evidence of human activity, too. Another trace of human presence is the rock armoring, a dry masonry that artfully shores up the creek banks. Now there are patterns, straight lines, right angles, and planed faces of logs over which cascade linear waterfalls. The very music and echo of the creek have been tuned by Homo sapiens.

The Mattole River watershed is no set-apart wilderness preserve. One object of the human artifice invested there is to ensure that the salmon will again feed the people and that the natural community will supply immediate human needs once more. That humans could participate conscientiously in an ecosystem, not as atavistic but as postmodern hunter-gatherers, bespeaks visionary thinking.

Entering into that place and the vision it spawned, I began, most reluctantly, to question the conservationist dogma of a hands-off policy towards “wild” nature. To relinquish the fictive absolute distinction between wild and tame implies moving on past Homo sapiens’s guilt and recrimination over the destruction that human action in the landscape has produced. The conscious gamble of those working in the Mattole is that cultural interaction with the watershed will inculcate a moral restraint on the impulse to control and determine, to expand and exploit. They can imagine a maturation beyond remorse into a sustainable way of life.

Peter Berg says that bioregionalism is about “more than just saving what’s left.” Clearly, reinhabitation in the Mattole means more than just preserving the spark of biodiversity embodied in the native races of salmon. As salmon recovery and all that it entails begins to make sense to the entire community, Mattole Restoration Council activists would see restoration becoming just as much an indigenous occupation as forestry, farming, fishing, or ranching—yet another livelihood connected to the locale.

In a vision statement in the inaugural issue of the Mattole Restoration Newsletter in 1983, House and David Simpson wrote:

If you can, imagine starting from the ridgetops and headwaters… planting trees and grasses for slope stability and future timber… as roads get built and maintained so that erosion slows rather than increases. The river gradually flushes itself and stabilizes. Vegetation begins to seal it in a cooling shade again. Work in salmon enhancement begins to pay in visible increases in spawning runs. Silt washed off the upland slopes begins to deposit itself permanently in rich alluvial flats. Grains and vegetables grow in soil that was formerly swept to sea.

A generation from now, our children reap a harvest not only of fine timber, abundant fish, productive grasslands and rich and varied plant and animal communities—but also a tradition which will assure the same harvest for their children.

One noble creature animates that vision and ennobles another at a time when for humans to entwine their destiny with wild species is a supremely risky form of romance. After a decade of dealing with the minute particulars of watershed recovery, the Mattolians are wondering where the king salmon are.

Our river has had the same near non-existent runs as other rivers draining the Northern California Coast Range, a phenomenon made spookier still by the fact that it is occurring only two years after some of the biggest salmon catches in forty years,” House wrote in spring 1991. This year, in a game departure from their usual fund-raiser, the Mattole Restoration Council had a “No-Salmon Barbecue,” and in a hilarious refusal to accede to despair, Simpson and his wife Jane Lapiner, with their Feet First dance theater group, went on the road with “Queen Salmon: A Biologically Explicit Musical Comedy for People of Several Species.

David Simpson writes that the musical’s “message of community responsibility seems to be working. We’ve made great headway recently in forming a working coalition with ranchers, timber interests, large and small landowners and restoration people… Now if Bush and his entire entourage would resign, the white Aryan brotherhood turn to rebuilding the inner cities, Earth First! open AIDs clinics, and NASA give up space shots to save the ozone layer… Ah well…”

Saving the world—one watershed, one species, one community at a time—is a good and honorable dream, and most of the people who engage in this hard work both love it and have some very bad days. The stories of human ingenuity and dedication which characterize restoration work are heartening. They suggest the correct behavior vis-à-vis evolution’s precious mystery of species. People who make a firm commitment to their life-places are among my greatest heroines and heroes. I admire their relationship to the land, or at least what I am able to observe and infer of it.

The only relationship to land I can claim intimate knowledge of, however, is my own. And so as not to leave you with an unqualified idea of what such tenure can feel like, I mean to let some of my own experience twine around the trunk here, like a bittersweet vine whose leaves also seek the light.

One of the most poignant truths Aldo Leopold ever expressed is that “one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” Although ecological concern is growing, and living it is less lonely now, there are days when having even an inkling of what the average pre-Columbian ecosystem might have been like and how depauperate the North American landscape now is casts a hue of melancholy over the sight of my pleasant expanse of Michigan countryside. Sometimes sobering, sometimes bracing, is the awareness that one of the responsibilities attaching to an ecological education is envisioning how those wounds might be healed and the suppleness of the land restored.

Thanks to very little forethought and no hard work on my part, I own thirty-five acres of Section 26, Kasson Township, Leelanau County. The acreage is like a foster child, and at least one of us has posttraumatic stress syndrome. By the standards of my township it’s a middling-sized parcel. According to the 1880 survey the woods in Section 26 consisted of sugar maple, beech, elm, ash, basswood, and hemlock. Of their descendants there are only a couple of little patches of second or third growth trees remaining, huddled along my property’s south boundary. Most of the county was clear-cut for timber that fueled Great Lakes steamer traffic. When the trees were gone, the land was farmed—with varying degrees of success, varying with what the glaciers had deposited where. Corrugations just faintly perceptible in the central clearing and as yet undecomposed cornstalks suggest what the last crop growing on this land was before it came into the possession of certain feckless hippies. Four-fifths of my part of the holding is in teen-aged Scotch pines planted straight and regular as corn to hold down the naked, sandy soil.

I must confess, to my shame, that at times my relationship to this land has been quite as judgmental as my relationship with some significant human others in my life. I have “known” it to be damaged, impoverished, manipulated, and not the best. I have coveted my neighbor’s woods. I have felt mortally threatened by all these scruffy, marginal pines, many of them sick and dying, rightfully fearing that in a drought year it wouldn’t take much to kick off a conflagration. From time to time I have resented the self-imposed obligation to do something about all these Earth-afflictions, being in my essential character a sedentary type facing a grim thirty-five acres of yard work. I envy those whose love of their land is unalloyed. Maybe it’s the curse of having as yet mainly restoration eyes but no restoration skill, back, or upper body.

Despite watching the weeds encroach, sand blow, pines pine, and fire hazard mount, I love visiting the patchwork of places out back of the house. Spectral dead pines grizzled with lichen. Stemmy, deer-browsed young maples, nuzzling right up to the Scotch pines for shelter. Small, secret clearings. Blackberry thickets and popple copses. A stand of some new shrub with a red stem and pinnately-compound elliptical leaves, which I had not noticed growing out back before. Every ramble through the property reminds me that there is a universe-a-plenty here, with not a square foot unworthy of respect. Affection returns, and I’m forced to conclude that the whole community’s got to be held sacred, even the nattering of my thoughts, or nothing on Earth can be.

On a wet day this past August I bestirred myself to follow a suggestion from Malcolm Margolin’s wonderful Earth Manual, which is a guide to restoration projects for individuals. He urges the would-be erosion battler “to try to forget everything your mother ever taught you about ‘catching your death of cold'” and go out in the rain and see what the water is doing on the land. Despite a downpour it was a mild day, so I figured I could risk a soaking.

I started threading my way back through the thicket and soon was sopping wet, squelching around dreamily sans spectacles, which had been rendered useless by fog and droplets. I looked up and watched the rain falling at me out of a blotter-flat sky; I saw it course in rivulets down the trunks of the chokecherry trees. And by and by I got my new name: Woman Who Rips Up Knapweed In The Rain. Knapweed is one of those nefarious Eurasian invaders. It is a paradigmatic weed, and it has come to pervade the disturbed ground where I live. Periodically I engage in hysterical fits of knapweed pulling, but it’s like trying to get rid of oxygen molecules. Every day I pray for a mutant virus to annihilate knapweed.

Emerging from the pines onto the south slope of a little knoll whose north face I regard from my writing studio, I see the makings of gullies. These present a more urgent and slightly more manageable problem than biological pollution. White pine seedlings planted there a couple of years ago weren’t quite able to hold the ground.

This summer’s periods of drought alternating with slashing rains ensured that until I figured out something to do about that raw hillside, the sound of rain on the roof would just be tributary to a Mississippi of ecoguilt.

A few mornings after the rain-soaked reconnaissance some more of Margolin’s advice registered, and I concocted a way to build some brush dams with available materials. On either side of the incipient gullies I pounded in some sharp sticks. Then I lopped branches from the omnipresent pines, thanking the trees for their sacrifice to the cause. I wove the branches crossways against the stakes so as to impede the water’s flow and catch the soil on its way down. For now my hope is simply to prevent a blowout, which is how great ugly gashes in the land are referred to in my part of the country. Ecological restoration is yet a ways away.

Henry David Thoreau, who in the mid-nineteenth century hadn’t seen nothin’ yet, wrote this about ecological loss and change:

I take infinite pains to know the phenomena of the spring, for instance, thinking that I have here the entire poem, and then, to my chagrin, I hear that it is but an imperfect copy that I possess and have read, that my ancestors have torn out many of the first leaves and grandest passages and mutilated it in many places. I should not like to think that some demigod had come before me and picked out some of the best of the stars. I wish to know an entire heaven and an entire earth.

I am not unmindful of my privilege in having an extra-large and rangy backyard peopled with deer, skunk, grouse, jay, knapweed, and revelations unexpected—a fox’s skull, an indigo bunting. It is more land than I ever would have dreamed of knowing, but I will never not be cognizant of its woundedness or wondering whether my modest, homespun efforts at restoration won’t be obviated by the geophysical and climatic change we humans are producing on the planet.

In an interview with the ecologist Raymond Dasmann, Lewis Mumford allowed that he was optimistic about possibilities, if pessimistic about probabilities. Resistance to despair is proper, period. However, I think it’s insanity to deny that many of the first leaves, grand passages, and best stars have been picked out and torn away.

I came to ecological concern at a time when the valuing of wild over tame was the rock upon which conservationists built their church. Thoreau’s saying, “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” was a basic article of faith. I became, in my armchair, a devotee. One of the most startling realizations of the present moment is that the living tissue of wildness—biodiversity—may no longer persist except by human sufferance.

The psychological and moral shock of simultaneously losing that myth, or holy ghost, of autonomous wildness and assuming custodial responsibility for the preservation of species is terrific. To me it seems as though the fundamental ground of mind, god, and being is now shifting.

I subscribe to Gregory Bateson’s formulation: “The individual mind is immanent, but not only in the body. It is immanent also in pathways and messages outside the body: and there is a larger mind of which the individual mind is only a sub-system. This larger mind is comparable to god and is perhaps what some people mean by god but it is still immanent in the total interconnected social system and planetary ecology.”

The places and persons in which that something comparable to god is immanent have never before changed so fast. The relation of humans to the natural world is now the hinge of life’s history on Earth.

During our tour of the Somme Woods Preserve, Steve Packard quoted a sage of his discipline as saying, “Ecology is more complex than we think and more complex than we can think.” It is both a humbling and challenging observation. Yet I suspect that in the attempts of restorationists to discern what their lands would have of them, there is something of a wish to fathom that larger mind, a joyous wish to become a good part of its imaginings, to make an alliance with wildness. And therein may be the preservation of the world.

 

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Stephanie Mills’ 1991 Schumacher Lecture “Making Amends to the Myriad Creatures” later became part of her book, In Service of the Wild: Restoring and Reinhabiting Damaged Land (1996). 

Publication By

Stephanie Mills

Stephanie Mills has been a writer, editor, and speaker on matters ecological, bioregional, social, and political for the past fifty years. Famous for her commencement address at Mills College in 1969, “The Future is a Cruel Hoax,” she went on to serve as the assistant editor of Co-Evolution Quarterly and editor-in-chief of Not Man Apart, Cry California, and Earth … Continued

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Economics for the Anthropocene