I dread plenary speakers. I always feel obligated to go, even if only one in eight spar my interest. My inner cynic is constantly on guard that the forty minute talk will dovetail into a timeshare pitch at any given moment.
But at a conference a couple weeks back got me thinking. The house and half-acre I bought last August is only 0.0000012% of the local watershed, and the only part I have any direct control over. A drop of rainwater falling on my half acre enters the continent’s longest river system ninety-nine days later, used a thousand times by people and wildlife reaching the Gulf of Mexico a couple years after that. It’s all connected.
The house sits on nine inches of silt-loam loess, blown in on the wind ten thousand years ago as glaciers receded from the central United States. Underneath is a thick layer of clay, limiting tree growth to a few ragged hackberries, honeylocust, green ash, shingle oaks and shrubs. Two centuries ago eastern hardwood forests met the central prairie on my half-acre, and from here unbroken grassland stretched eight hundred miles to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Back last fall the lawn was scattered with little bluestem, aster, goldenrod, black-eyed susan and wild petunia, vestiges of an ecosystem unmoored.
Humans have shaped this landscape since the Pleistocene, but those changes accelerated in the mid-19th century. As I write this a handful of starlings forage in the fescue lawn. The back fence is thick with Japanese honeysuckle, blocking sunlight and altering soil chemistry so native plants don’t grow. They colonize entire understories, preventing regeneration of native hardwood forests. And their architecture leaves nesting birds more vulnerable to snakes and mammalian predators than native shrubs.
My half-acre will never be what it was. Restoring even part of it to some semblance of a natural community is an admittedly small gesture in a time when society fetishizes big ones- marches, the rallies, concentrated, high-intensity bursts of outrage.
But sometimes, our biggest opportunities are the little ones.