Walking through donor and Conservation@Home certified member Robin LaBancz’s Bartlett oasis of a yard on a coolish day this summer, I felt my mood and energy level lift with every step. The size of Robin’s yard is very typical of a suburban lot, maybe a quarter acre or so, but her gardens are anything but typical. Artfully designed drifts of colorful native (and some non-native) perennials are a feast for the eyes, and also a feast for the bees, butterflies and other furred and feathered creatures finding nourishment upon and among them. Three of the biggest Baptisia australis I’ve ever seen create an understory shelter for wrens, downy woodpeckers and many other birds, and oak trees she grew from acorns are forming a lovely canopy.
Robin speaks of and to these plants as friends, and knows their personalities, habits and preferences better than I feel like I know my own children. Ten minutes with her and I feel my zest for life and environmentally friendly landscaping completely reignited. That’s why I’m not sure what to make of the slight despair I sense in her on this visit. She clearly finds joy and delight in both the process and product of her efforts, so why is she feeling so down today? This is a different Robin than the one I’ve strolled these garden paths with in the past, and I finally decide to just ask her what’s troubling her.
She tilts her head thoughtfully and responds, “Of course I enjoy this – I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t. But it can be incredibly distressing with so many things out of your control. Weather, for one, and then also pesticides and chemicals. The reason I started originally 40 years ago and why I keep doing this is for the bugs and birds, and then everyone around me is paying companies to come kill the bugs with chemicals. And it’s happening everywhere.” Then she notices a bumblebee happily indulging on one of her blossoms and continues with a wry smile, “There are far fewer insects here, but if they’re the last ones, I will feed them!”
Driving home from my visit with Robin and reflecting on our conversation, I gained an even deeper appreciation for her and the way that, despite her concerns for the future, she doesn’t give in to despair and just keeps on working in this moment to provide for the people and creatures who are here right now. She has done such good with what’s in front of her, what she can control, transforming her small corner of the world into a suburban haven for wildlife and pollinators, and dedicated so much time and energy into planting, seed collecting, and getting to know every little species the way she has in an effort to help heal our ailing planet.
Renowned conservation and social justice author Wendell Berry wrote “But the citizen who is willing to Think Little, and, accepting the discipline of that, to go ahead on his own, is already solving the problem.” We’ve had more than five decades to further the environmental degradation of our planet that led Berry to pen those words in 1970. Our problems with climate change are huge. How can Thinking Little possibly be the right approach?
At The Conservation Foundation, we work daily to preserve and restore open space and natural lands, protect rivers and watersheds and promote stewardship of the environment right here in northeastern Illinois. And we see concern for the climate daily in the schoolchildren, homeowners, community leaders, parents, volunteers and businesspeople with whom we work. Robin is not alone in her worries and frustrations!
Visiting a local homeowner to advise them on ways to make their yard more environmentally friendly and functional, like Robin has, our Conservation@Home Assistant Nancy Cinatl learned that this couple had elected not to have children because they did not want to bring a new life into a planet they feared could not sustain it.
Our Volunteer Coordinator Cass Hatzfeld admitted she struggles mightily at times worrying about our environmental future, but the influx of volunteers interested in doing something to help local nature lifts her up and keeps her going.
And lest we think we have sheltered our children from some of the harsher realities our world is facing, this spring we asked elementary school students in our Mighty Acorns® environmental stewardship program how they want nature and our world to look in 50 years. Juan, Age 10 hopes we will solve global warming, Brandon plans to try to “stop a lot of pollution”, Allany hopes that the problem of “Monarch butterflies being extincting” will be gone, and Affan puts a fine point on it: “In 50 years I hope that global warming is gone so we actually exist.”
Our best advice to all who struggle with concern over climate change is to accept two things:
-No one person or one act is too small or insignificant to make a difference!! Even if all of our governments, corporations and large scale polluters decided right now to take drastic measures to address climate change, it will take a long time for those decisions to be implemented. But the seemingly small action taken today by a concerned citizen will have impact immediately, and when joined with other small actions will create big change.
-No matter how quickly we right the ship, we are going to hit a bit of the climate change iceberg ahead. One of the most vital things we can work towards is making our communities more resilient to the effects of climate change. For example, increasing the use of deep-rooted native plants in our landscaping and reducing the ecological deserts of turf grass will better prepare our landscapes to handle increased flooding and other extremes predicted as fallout from climate change. It doesn’t have to be a full-scale yard overhaul like Robin has taken on, as breathtaking as her yard is. Transforming one little part of your yard at a time with wildlife and water conservation in mind will help!
The best part is that the simple act of doing something good for the environment not only has immediate impact, it also tends to immediately make us feel less anxious about the climate crisis! We can let the overwhelm we sometimes feel about climate change stop us in our tracks and consume us, or we can go out and plant a tree or some milkweed. If we choose the latter, the physical activity is bound to make us feel healthier, and enjoying the birds and butterflies our efforts will bring close is wonderful for our mental health.
A couple of weeks after visiting with Robin, I got a picture of her yard with the following text, “Almost everything you saw has passed and there’s a new landscape of Liatris, Campanula, Yellow Coneflower, Euphorbia and Lynchnis. Hummingbirds are everywhere! It is absolutely glorious to stand in the middle of all of this.” As we heal our landscapes, we heal ourselves.
The Conservation Foundation exists to help people take those small but oh so significant actions that will make a huge difference in the healthy future of this planet we call home. Our job is to empower you to dare to hope. Actually, if I’m being honest, daring to hope will not be enough. We must BECOME hope, like my friend Robin. We must Think Little.
Written by Jill Johnson, Communications Manager at The Conservation Foundation
Landscape Photos by Lea Rodbarry,
Portions of this article originally appeared in the April 21st, 2022 edition of the Daily Herald