the slow, meaningful work of restoration…a yard update!

It’s already the end of August. Time for a yard restoration update!
Today I want to give you a peek at what I’ve been discovering in my small wilderness, chat a bit about the arduous process of restoration,
and list some great book options offering more learning for kids and adults.

It has been a year since we first began this work and the task I’m still working on is —
you guessed it, removing invasive plants.
I have been pulling out thousands of buckthorn shoots as well as continuing to find and uproot copious amounts of garlic mustard, burdock, Canada thistle, motherwort, and stickseed. I’ve added a few others to my “bad guy” list as well, including bittersweet nightshade, marestail, and something called red rooted pig weed!  Up and out they go.

Rest assured that when I am out doing this “gardening” it looks nothing like this genteel sort of affair:

elegant gardening

Rather, I come in after hours and hours of work looking something more like this…


…grimy from head to toe, my hair often festooned with burrs and stick seed which has to be painstakingly picked out, sweat running down my face, sporting spider bites, scratches and bruises, my hands and back aching from the tough job of yanking these plants up by their long, grabby roots! Tending the earth is a full-body experience!

As this uphill journey has gone along, I have had plenty of opportunity to ponder the slow, laborious process of restoration.  I’ve been struck by how quickly and often effortlessly, mindlessly, we humans can spoil something precious —
a piece of nature, a relationship, a community —
and how much strenuous, sustained effort is required to rebuild, restore, heal.
The regret of not having acted earlier, not having prevented the damage in the first place, is powerful.
Just in the past two weeks we have seen the horrific environmental catastrophe caused by the Mauritius oil spill,

mauritius oil spill
with at least 1000 tons of oil despoiling pristine marine ecosystems and a rare wildlife sanctuary,
as well as the collapse of the last fully intact ice shelf in the Canadian Arctic,
and simultaneously the White House pushing forward on a plan to open up the invaluable Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
It is beyond me how instead of learning from the devastating errors we have made, we continue to wreak havoc on the environment such that it is already impossible to return parts of our planet to full health.
Digging into this very small restoration project of mine has amplified my desire to lead a much wiser, more heedful walk through the world.

Despite all the grime and soreness and still, yes, a pretty unattractive back yard, glimmers of hope have delighted me as the summer has brought sun, rain, and growth in the buckthorn-free ground. Here are a few of the lovely, native Minnesota species I’ve found popping up in the vacated area:

[Top: jack-in-the-pulpit seed pod beginning its fall color; enchanter’s nightshade; milkweed; white avens. Middle: Joe Pye weed; spotted jewelweed; elderberry.
Bottom: sumac just getting its first fall tinge of color; goldenrod.]

 We were also lucky enough to find a couple of monarch caterpillars on our milkweed. We installed them in a butterfly enclosure where they turned into elegant, jade-green chrysalises and emerged in all their splendor before being released back outdoors. Magical!

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At long last we have set a date for the first phase of planting. Woohoo! The first week-end of October we’ll put in somewhere around 150 baby trees and shrubs. It will be so cheering to finally put something in rather than only ripping things out!
This planting schedule is purposeful in order to avoid most of the summer heat. We’ll be better able to keep up with the watering in the fall before all the trees go to bed over the cold winter months.
Next year we’ll have to once again keep a rein on all the nasty invasives that will assuredly pop up again, keep learning about the lovely native plants that emerge, and keep the new baby trees watered until the second phase of planting in Fall 2021.

Over the next month we’ll rent a wood chipper for all the deadwood and branches we’ve removed, then turn those chips into a meandering path through the area. That and some ongoing removal of invasive plants should keep us plenty busy.

I’ll be back later in October with a final restoration update for this year
so you can see the very beginnings of new life.
For now, here are some books chronicling various cool restoration projects from Iowa to Zambia.
There are choices for ages 4-adult. I’ll list them in order of age accessibility.

The Boy Who Grew a Forest:The True Story of Jadav Payeng, written by Sophia Gholz, illustrated by Kayla Harren
published in 2019 by Sleeping Bear Press

A teenager in India begins what will become a 30-year project to restore an incredible, 1300-acre forest. Ages 4 and up.

The Wolves Return: A New Beginning for Yellowstone National Park, written and illustrated by Celia Godkin
published in 2017 by Pajama Press

One of several accounts of the dramatic renewal in Yellowstone after wolves were re-introduced. Ages 4 and up.

The Brilliant Deep: Rebuilding the World’s Coral Reefs, written by Kate Messner, illustrated by Matthew Forsythe
published in 2018 by Chronicle Books

The clever work of Ken Nedimyer restoring coral reefs that have been collapsing around the world. Ages 5 and up.

Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai, written and illustrated by Claire A. Nivola
published in 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A gorgeous account of Maathai’s life work in reforesting and restoring the damaged countryside of Kenya. Ages 5 and up.

Creekfinding: A True Story, written by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrated by Claudia McGehee
published in 2017 by University of Minnesota Press

A restoration project in the Driftless region in northeastern Iowa where one man purchased a large acreage of farmland with the intention of restoring it to native prairie. One day an older neighbor stopped by and told him that right there, smack in the middle of the cornfield, he had caught a brook trout many years ago.  A brook trout in a cornfield? How could that be?!

Turns out a natural trout stream running through that plot of land had been filled in by farmers to make more room for corn. Thus a new project was born — to relocate that trout stream and restore it back to its former glory. Ages 6 and up.

When the Wolves Returned: Restoring Nature’s Balance in Yellowstone, by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent, photographs by Dan and Cassie Hartman
published in 2008 by Bloomsbury

A beautiful account of the Yellowstone project to bring wolves, a keystone species, back to the park and restore the entire ecosystem. Ages 7 and up.

Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot, Sy Montgomery, photographs by Nic Bishop
published in 2016 by HMH Books for Young Readers
80 pages

A brilliant, award-winning account of the efforts to preserve and grow the population of this incredible bird on an island near New Zealand. Lengthy, but great for sharing with ages 8 and up.

Rise of the Lioness: Restoring a Habitat and its Pride on the Liuwa Plains, by Bradley Hague
published in 2016 by National Geographic Kids
55 pages

In their native habitats “wherever lions are found in abundance, they are a sign of a healthy ecosystem.” That used to be the case in the Liuwa Plains of Western Zambia until poaching, war, and a damaged environment shrank their numbers to just one lionness. This account and its striking photographs describe the various inhabitants of the Liuwa, the collapse of the ecosystem without lions, and the tricky restoration of the region that thus far has been a success. Read it to ages 8 and up; hand it to independent readers around age 11.


Rewilding: Giving Nature a Second Chance, by Jane Drake and Ann Love
published in 2017 by Annick Press
88 pages

Nature is up against many dire threats including pollution, deforestation, and devastating climate change. Rewilders work to restore habitats to their natural state, easing the damage done by humans. In turn, healthy environments provide us humans with cleaner air and water, enriched soil, and the transformative power of nature for our weary souls, among other things.

These efforts are complicated! This fascinating guide leads us around the globe dropping in briefly on two dozen projects to restore keystone species, establish core spaces large enough to sustain biodiversity, and set aside wildlife corridors. Failures as well as successes are noted. Ages 11 and up.

my river

My River: Cleaning up the LaHave River, by Stella Bowles with Anne Laurel Carter
published in 2018 by Formac Publishing Company Limited
95 pages

The really exciting bit about this book is the age of the scientist/activist who brought about an urgently-needed environmental restoration project. Stella Bowles was just 12 years old when she took on her municipal, provincial, and federal governments from her Nova Scotia home.

Her mission: to eliminate straight pipes illegally dumping raw sewage from the toilets of 600+ residences directly into the river running alongside her home and through her town. That is one foul river!

If reading about a terribly poopy river makes your stomach writhe — it should! And you’ll need to prepare because Stella pulls no punches in her quest to force the government to take responsibility for this nastiness.  Stella tells her story in an intelligent yet thoroughly youthful voice. Young activists will be energized by her work! Ages 11 and up.


Champion: The Comeback Tale of the American Chestnut Tree, by Sally M. Walker
published in 2018 by Henry Holt and Company
136 pages

Everything I read in this book about the grandeur, vast numbers, and particular usefulness of the American Chestnut tree and its tragic demise due to an invasive blight fungus, was brand new to me!

Four billion staggeringly-large trees were lost to this fungus between about 1900 and 1940, a devastating loss for a multitude of reasons.

Scientists, however, did not give up on the possibility of saving this spectacular tree from complete extinction. Follow the work of these tree detectives, ride the ups and downs inherent in restorative research and efforts, and discover what hope remains. I find the curiosity, insightful questioning, monumental patience, painstaking accuracy, and dogged commitment of research scientists inspiring! What an amazing community, mostly unheralded and unthanked.

In addition to the main text, four brief appendixes discuss scientific classification, a nutty experiment for snacky squirrels, a tree-planting project in an Atlanta elementary school, and Longfellow’s famous spreading chestnut tree where the village smithy stands. This would make a fine read-along for ages 11 and up. Adults – this is an excellent gateway to appreciating and reading lengthier scientific nonfiction.

nature's second chance

Nature’s Second Chance: Restoring the Ecology of Stone Prairie Farm, by Steven I. Apfelbaum
published in 2009 by Beacon Press
242 pages

Definitely one of my favorite reads so far in 2020, this is the account of a decades-long restoration project in Wisconsin. Steven Apfelbaum was a young man in 1981, a research ecologist who had worked on restorative projects here and there and now felt compelled to sink his teeth into a long-term venture of his own, to “become deeply involved with the land…live simply and build a relationship with nature.” Inspired by the environmental philosophy of beloved conservationist Aldo Leopold, Apfelbaum purchased this 80-acre property. Here he chronicles the ups and downs, the thoughts, tenets, insights, and blessings of this life-long journey of transformation. If you are interested in environmental restoration, you will be deeply moved by his story. Highly-motivated teens might enjoy this as well as its intended adult audience.