Back in mid-March I attended a meeting of the Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts. It was a virtual meeting: the COVID-19 crisis had just hit, and we were all scrambling to figure out how to function in this new reality. We happened to be joined by biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, whom you may know as the author of two inspiring natural history books, Braiding Sweetgrass and Gathering Moss, logging in from her home in upstate New York. Someone asked her how things were where she was—meaning, presumably, how many virus cases they had, were the schools closed, etc. Her response surprised all of us. The willows were budding out by the stream! The sap was running in the maple trees, she said, and songbirds were starting to build their nests.
Yes, the pandemic was radically altering our lives. Meanwhile, Robin reminded us, spring was unfolding on the land! Just as it always does.
There is still an urgent need to conserve and protect wild lands, to ensure that there will be enough space over time for wildlife to roam, seeds to catch on a breeze and disperse, birds to seek berries, and butterflies to transform and take flight. Your donation today is making that happen right now, and its impact will last forever.
Speaking of butterflies, they’ve been on my mind lately. As a young child, I had a pretty clear idea how butterflies get their wings. I’d seen it in picture books, the same books I’ve read to my own children. A “very hungry caterpillar” eats some green leaves, crawls into a cocoon, sprouts wings, and emerges as a butterfly. Amazing, right? Much later I learned the real story, and it’s even more incredible. The caterpillar doesn’t crawl into a cocoon, it turns into a cocoon. During this metamorphosis, all its body parts are reordered, and it grows a protective outer shell while the rest of its tissues dissolve into liquid butterfly goo inside. Those sophisticated cells then reorganize themselves into a completely new-looking life form with brilliantly colored wings, legs, eyes, and everything else that makes a butterfly a butterfly. And that entire process happens in just ten to fifteen days.
And I thought puberty was rough.
It’s fair to say that having knowledge like that—not the cartoonish, oversimplified story of butterfly metamorphosis but the real story, in all its complexity—has made my life better. Now, every time I see a butterfly, I have the exquisite pleasure of being awestruck by its sophistication, endurance, and beauty.
We humans are so impressed by our own feats. We travel to other countries—or used to, and no doubt will again—to see the great cathedrals and mosques, the ancient coliseums and pyramids. We are awed by their sophistication, their beauty, and the endurance and strength required to create them, sometimes across generations. To destroy them would be unthinkable. Why don’t more people feel the same way about our greatest, most stunning, sophisticated, beautiful temple of all: our Earth?
You do. That’s why you’re reading this letter. The awe you feel for this planet, its natural systems and its inhabitants, is why you follow and support organizations working on its behalf such as North Coast Land Conservancy.
Wait, the story gets better. Did you know that the annual migration of monarch butterflies from as far north as southern Canada to central Mexico is a multi-generational migration? The way this animal shares key features of the route—its geography and topography and wind currents—is not through direct instruction. Unlike the gray whale who migrates south to warm and fertile waters, births her calf, and then journeys back north with her offspring at her side, by the time the monarch caterpillar has emerged from its egg, its mother butterfly has died. The brand-new butterfly must continue the migration a few hundred more miles before laying eggs and handing the journey off to the next generation—sometimes taking five generations to make the round-trip. Which means that, somehow, monarchs are born knowing the way.
Every kind of animal migration is amazing in its own way. Migration shapes powerful conservation principles: connectivity matters. Corridors matter. Human geopolitical borders mean nothing to animals that need room to move, in the direction and distance that their nature dictates.
At NCLC, we aren’t just about conserving pieces of land. We’re about creating habitat corridors, giving all of us—plants, animals and humans—room to move and the opportunity to thrive. Your gifts make that work possible.
How do the great-great-grandchildren of monarch butterflies find their overwintering sites—places they and their parents have never been to? How their homing system works is one of the many unanswered questions in the biological world. But it makes a powerful argument for genetic memory.
I’ve come to understand that humans, too, have the capacity for genetic memory. And I’ve learned it from the original inhabitants of this land, people who know they can feel the presence of their long-dead ancestors at sacred sites, can see the ancient villages along the river as they journey past in a canoe, can hear the roaring of Celilo Falls—the great falls buried as the waters rose behind The Dalles Dam nearly a century ago.
This human capacity for genetic memory was impressed on me last year in a conversation I had with Chuck Sams of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. He told me about stopping for lunch at Cascade Locks with his family on a drive from his home in eastern Oregon to Portland. He noticed that his four-year-old daughter wasn’t eating her sandwich; she looked glum. When he asked what was wrong, her answer stunned him. “So many people are crying and sad here,” she said. But there was no one else around. What she seemed to sense was Celilo Falls and the deep trauma her ancestors experienced with the loss of that traditional fishing and gathering place on the Columbia River—a story he and his wife had not yet shared with their daughter, feeling she was still too young to hear such a sad story.
That little girl is now in college studying engineering—a choice that had surprised her father until she explained it, succinctly: “There’s got to be something better than dams, Dad.”
There’s got to be something better. That could be NCLC’s founding motto. Help us carve a more sustainable way of caring for and living on the Oregon Coast. Let us all be inspired by those who are most connected to this land. Your donations are helping us forge a new way forward.
I wish I had the kind of genetic memory of my adopted home place that Chuck Sams’s daughter has of hers. Sometimes I wonder how I, a transplant to this landscape, can presume to know what kind of “help”—implied in our mission, Helping to conserve Oregon’s coastal lands, forever—this wild coast most needs. I know I can’t ever know this land the way the Clatsop and Nehalem people know it. But I can, and do, benefit from their knowledge. We all can. That knowledge enhances my own quality of life, helping me more deeply experience the wonder of the world around me. And it’s critical for my family’s future and for all the generations that follow me. Literally or metaphorically, they will inherit some of my memories and live with the results of my action or inaction.
By supporting NCLC, you too are taking ownership of that mission, helping to conserve Oregon’s coastal lands, forever.
I hope that, during this worldwide crisis, you’ll still be able to give to NCLC as you have in the past. Experiencing this pandemic has been intense, scary, and devastating for many of us. It has also been a stark reminder of the imbalance in our global ecosystem and how critical it is to continue to do our part to restore the balance. We must not lose sight of the importance our mission continues to have for the sake of all life on Earth. Just as—as I write—each of us is doing our small part to end this epidemic by staying home, NCLC continues to do its small part to meet the global environmental crisis with local actions, and we need you to keep making that possible.
Thank you for the support you are able to send today, sustaining our work and the coast we all love.
I hope you’ll check out our new digital annual report at 2019.NCLC-report.org, with names of all our donors, volunteers, and conservation partners, plus photos and stories highlighting our 2019 successes.
With deep gratitude,
PS: The recently signed CARES Act has new allowances for charitable contributions, whether or not you itemize deductions.
PPS: As I sat writing this letter from my bedroom, I watched a hummingbird visit the wild plum blooming outside my window. Then I saw my three boys run by like the wild little animal pack that they are. Then the geese flew by for what seems to be a regular lunchtime migration from valley to marsh. I’ll hear them go over again tonight at about dusk. Daily, minute-to-minute, wonders unfold. Our work in local conservation will support them all.