The Man Who Planted Trees is the compelling tale by writer Jean Giano of his meeting a shepherd wandering the wrecked landscapes of France after World War I, tending his small flock, planting acorns — living simply, sowing beauty and enhancing life, renaturing whole valleys through the decades.
The story, written in 1953, was translated into several languages and made into a popular movie, inspiring people worldwide. And it was just fiction, Giano revealed in his later years.
He wrote it “so that people would like trees more.” It was, as Picasso said of the illusion that is art, the “lie that makes us realize the truth.”
Indeed, something in us, I believe, resonates with the notion of a simpler life that adds to nature rather than merely subtracting less — being restorative rather than being merely less bad.
We’ve become quite good at being less bad. I’ve grown wearily expert at detailing how and why we fall short of a truly sustainable relationship with the rest of nature.
We understand how ecosystems unravel, but are just scratching the surface of how they regenerate.
We need environmental restoration to burgeon, to vault beyond “mitigation,” “amelioration,” “remediation,” “rehabilitation” — all of those code words for being less bad. We need it for the Chesapeake and the planet, but equally to keep our spirits up, keep our heads in what’s going to be a long game.
This column was sparked by a chance meeting with Wes Gould, who only a few years back had been a student in the Environmental Studies Department, where I teach at Salisbury University.
He’s working with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Center for Habitat Restoration and Conservation, a small unit that is recently able to tap serious money, thanks largely to a tax on car rentals that generates around $55 million dollars annually.
Wes’s current projects, restoration of a couple of stretches of a couple streams in the Gunpowder River drainage of northern Maryland, won’t change the world. But they’re aiming to be genuinely restorative, to recapture how the Chesapeake landscape sheds its water in ways that made a pristine Bay.
They take guidance from the millions of beavers that once dammed and ponded and slowed runoff across the watershed’s 64,000 square miles, filtering and purifying it.
“Streams as we know them are not as they used to be,” explained Claudia Donegan, who heads the DNR’s habitat restoration center. Rather than today’s single thread of water, chiseling gullies through floodplains clogged with sediment (from centuries of deforesting and farming), original streams were broad oozes, braided channels spread through lush wetlands that filled whole valley bottoms.
Wes is still negotiating with other agencies for necessary permits and with skeptics in his own department — but it’s likely that his little restorations are going to turn out a lot better than just less bad.
Claudia is looking to move more boldly; she has become DNR’s beaver apostle, working to reverse our ecological amnesia as to how the original watershed worked, to show how humans can emulate beavers and even co-exist with them and encourage their return.
In Pennsylvania, Big Spring Run in Lancaster County is another success in restoration, wrought with bulldozers and backhoes, not beavers.
Based on research by two professors at Franklin and Marshall College, Pennsylvania removed 22,000 tons of “legacy’”sediment from massive 18th– and 19th-century erosion. They took 3,000 feet of stream banks down to their original, flatter, wider, slower-moving profile — allowing the water to spread out, to seep and dribble through lush wetlands.
The project cost about a million bucks, but the monitored reductions in pollution heading for the Chesapeake indicate that replicating it widely in Lancaster County alone could meet the whole state’s 2025 goals for reducing sediment and phosphorus to the Bay.
There’s reason to hope restoration’s time is coming. A 2015 study for the Walton Family Foundation showed that ecological restoration employs 126,000 people nationally. That’s more than logging and coal mining combined, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The Walton study estimated the “restoration economy” to have $9.5 billion in direct economic impact, and another $15 billion indirectly. In terms of jobs per million dollars of investment, restoration projects ran from seven to 40 jobs. Oil and gas industries are about 5 jobs per million. Gas pipeline construction is about 20.
We know enough about restoration to start scaling it up, from the earthmoving projects like Big Spring Run, to the science and social accommodation of reintroducing beavers — even including what kind of tree to plant in your backyards to most help birds (that would be oaks, which host a huge variety of insects, according to research by Douglas Tallamy at the University of Delaware).
I’ll end with some thoughts I read in an interview with 81-year-old Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard: “Everything Man does creates more harm than good. We have to accept that fact and not delude ourselves into thinking something is sustainable.”
And yet Chouinard and Patagonia press forward, founding a movement through which businesses have generated a quarter billion dollars for the environment. Also using fibers from plants to replace the petroleum in fleece; creating a million-acre park in South America chosen to maximize carbon storage; growing cotton with 580 small farmers in India with practices that go beyond organic and actually enhance nature and soil quality.
Much of this is not ready for global scaling, Chouinard concedes. “Growth is destroying the planet,” he says, admitting to mixed feelings about his own company’s growth and billion-dollar value.
All you can do, he says, is keep moving forward.
And no better path to take than restoration.
The views expressed by columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.