Last updated 3/9/2022 at Noon
What do a group of Christians in urban Philadelphia; a Native American elder of the North Fork Mono in California; and a radical, off-grid, transgender, nomadic rewilder wandering Eastern Oregon have in common? They’ve all made significant impact on our struggling planet — not by carrying signs and calling senators, but by working hands-on with plants, soil, and people.
They and other fascinating characters are featured in Lisa Wells’ recent book, “Believers: Making a Life at the End of the World.” It is partly a travelogue, studded with anecdotes, interviews, and quotations, as we join a grownup Wells, visiting people who are making a difference—sometimes while living in marginal, unusual ways.
It is in part a memoir, chronicling the millennial author and her friends growing up in the Portland area, as they realize the precariousness of life on earth as we know it. Concerned about climate change down to their very bones, they become radicalized — ah, the idealism of youth! — and try to address it by dropping out of school and learning survivalist, “rewilding,” and tracking skills. Returning to civilization, they sometimes become immersed in the pettiness of activist hipsterism, where blog-comment battles threaten to overshadow any constructive changes these kids might make on the world.
Eventually, though, we enter a truly hopeful stretch. The Mono elder and a “manicured and magazine pretty” young U.S. Forest Service botanist work together to restore a meadow in the Sierra Nevada. The World Bank, Chinese government, and local farmers team up to bring forests, plants, and habitat back to the massive Loess Plateau. The 250,000-square-mile area in China had devolved from “an important ancient hub for travelers on the Silk Road” to a desert of yellow silt thanks to overgrazing and agriculture.
In Brazil, photographer Sebastião Salgado — known for documenting the ravages of war and industrialization around the world — returned home to find the farm and forest of his childhood denuded and desolate. With his wife Lélia and the engineer Renato de Jesus, a restoration effort began. An area of 1,754 acres grew from dust to forest.
“Natural springs and a waterfall had returned to the land,” Wells notes, “as had 15 species of reptiles, 15 species of amphibians, 172 species of birds, and 33 species of mammals,” some endangered.
This astonishing rewatering and regreening occurs on other restoration sites as well. In Jordan, Princess Basma bint Ali and her crew put up a fence to keep out grazing cattle for a few years. “It allowed the land to breathe, to take a breath,” the princess said. Species of plants last recorded in the 19th century, long considered extinct, rose up.
“We didn’t interfere, we didn’t do any planting at the time,” she explained.
Wells celebrates the work of John Liu, a land restoration expert and documentarian. He also founded Ecosystem Restoration Camps, working on degraded lands in various countries—including the Camp Fire Restoration Project down the road apiece in Paradise, California.
Ethiopia. Jordan. Rwanda. China. Brazil. USA. Real-life, recent-past examples in all these places show that success is possible. People have actually turned around environmental degradation—albeit in tiny patches on a large, warming planet. It is here that Wells, at last, finds real hope.
“There is no solution to the problems we face, but there are solutions: multifarious, collaborative, egalitarian, localized. For every so-called end of the world, a thousand smaller worlds must be born,” Wells writes. “The threats we face are overwhelming, paralyzing even, but a watershed, an ecosystem — these are limits where life can flourish.”
Here in Sisters Country, there is tangible hope. Sometimes it’s hard to see. After all, there has been overgrazing. Drought. Overuse. Noise, air, water, and light pollution. Soil depletion. Excessive logging, then replanting our forests as near-monoculture tree farms. Not to mention the elephant in every room on the West Coast: wildfire suppression.
Animal populations from flying insects to common mule deer have declined. While mining operations churn happily nearby, and giant green lawns proliferate in housing developments down the road, delicate riparian habitats and their bubbling springs fall prey to lack of water. As climate change moves from an abstract scientific idea to a daily, visible reality, we see our glaciers shrink on the mountains above the old ranch.
Yet in recent years we’ve done some good. We have implemented wildlife migration corridors. Begun to offer a small amount of outdoor, nature-oriented programming at the middle and high schools, raising awareness among youth. Many of our farmers and ranchers are working toward a more local and sustainable food chain: Seed to Table educational farm, Mahonia Gardens, Rainshadow Organics, Cascade Mountain Pastures, to name a few.
The people of Central Oregon saved Whychus Creek not only from its racist former moniker, but from its demise. It feels good to stroll beside a pretty stream as we walk our dogs through the meadow off Camp Polk Road or step across the bridge at Creekside in town. Beyond that feel-good, pretty-sparkly moment lies a massive effort to respect nature and restore habitat. The work continues today.
Reading “Believers,” it’s clear that restoration projects large and small can make a big difference, not just locally but well beyond. A group of international engineers and scientists called the Weather Makers even believes that by regreening the Sinai Peninsula they could increase rainfall all across the Middle East and North Africa.
From Deschutes Land Trust to the Wolf Welcome Committee, our populace shows signs of gumption and dedication. “Believers” offers a reminder to focus on the real, the local, the positive. As Wells writes, “The condition of our local ecosystems has farther-reaching effects than most of us imagine.”
May we take her words — and her hope — to heart.