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Our Stubborn Optimism for Mother Earth

Affecting Meaningful Change Through Coastal Conservation

Dear Friends,
 Life begets life. When you support NCLC, you support the abundance of life on the Oregon Coast.

I see this truth manifested on a regular basis. For example, the other day, I was walking in the small alder forest at our Circle Creek Conservation Center. This is a grove of trees we planted about 15 years ago in an effort to rewild the land, turning a pasture of non-native grass back into a conifer-dominated forest. And yes, alders are not conifers, but that’s what makes the story interesting.
The problem we faced at the time is that conifer trees, such as cedar and spruce, don’t grow well in grassy fields and unmitigated sunshine. They need a shady overstory to really thrive. But how do you achieve that without a forest? It creates a sort of chicken-and-egg situation.
So we came up with a solution: We’d plant alders instead, to give the forest a jumpstart. Alders are affectionately known as “weed trees” for their ability to grow in a variety of environments, even those that seem inhospitable. But our hope was the alders would do exactly that. They would grow faster, producing shade, dropping their leaves to nourish the soil, and ultimately creating a forest with the conditions needed for the reintroduction of coniferous trees. We received plenty of support, but we also were faced with questions, doubts and even critiques concerning our strategy of planting alders. Nevertheless, we persisted.
Now, as I walk through this forest, I see the fruits of that effort. In just 15 short years, there is a forest containing not only alders but also a burgeoning midstory of shrubs, salmonberry and elderberry, with little ferns, fringecup, and wood sorrel popping up from the understory. Sure enough, there are even now conifer seedlings. And all we planted were alders. Life begets life.
When you donate to NCLC, that’s exactly what you accomplish: You plant a tree, nurture a seedling, nourish the soil, and protect a piece of the planet.
It wasn’t too long ago I read a phrase that so aptly captures the essential spirit of NCLC, represented by our alder forest story. It was part of a Washington Post article by Amanda Shendruk called “Tired of Feeling Hopeless About Climate Change?,” in which she explores the question of how people can avoid hopelessness when confronted by a rapidly changing climate and the myriad of associated impacts.
She quotes Christiana Figueres, the architect of the Paris climate accord, who offers a solution called “stubborn optimism.” This, Shendruk explains, is “a dissatisfied, gritty, determined confidence that humanity can bring about needed change in the face of great challenges. It’s a necessary precursor to action, and adopting this attitude requires shifting focus from the past to the future.”
“Crucially,” she continues, “this doesn’t require ignoring reality or becoming complacent. Stubborn optimism calls for work toward solutions.”
Stubborn optimism. Those words embody the character of NCLC supporters and the values with which we strive to lead. They seem to reconcile the opposing perspectives sometimes used to characterize our organization. Sometimes we are painted as seeing the world through rose-colored glasses and being relentless cheerleaders. Other times we are painted as being a bit stubborn in our mission of conserving precious places. And it’s possible that both are true. No doubt, we exist in a variety of ways in people’s minds, but at the end of the day, we focus our attention on what we’re for. We’re for community conservation. We’re for stewardship of precious places. We’re for connectivity of lands and waters, as well as the connection between people, plants and wildlife and our Mother Earth.
We are so grateful that you, too, are for these things, and demonstrate your support on a regular basis with your gifts and your time.

Sun shining through the trees at Short Sand Beach

The truth is, I don’t care for doomsday rhetoric and discourse around the state of the planet. Pessimism is a roadblock. It evokes helplessness and becomes a deterrent to taking action. So, stubbornly, with eyes wide open to the truth of our current situation, we opt for optimism and the belief that we can still make a difference for our planet and the life she supports.

We know affecting change is not insurmountable. We have all the tools and the knowledge to do it. We don’t have to wait around or make new ground-breaking discoveries. It just takes the will of humanity and rallying around solutions that already exist. We have forests, wetlands and prairies. We have rivers, tide pools and wildlife. We have the ocean. We have the soil. And these ecosystems support life. All we need to do as humans is let them exist. Preserve them. Keep them safe. Love and respect them.

I’m reminded of the words of Robin Wall Kimmerer, an Indigenous scientist and author. In a speech at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, she references biomimicry, which is considered a relatively new field of study that revolves around finding solutions and inventing products based on natural systems. “Human ingenuity,” she says, “will absolutely be a part of the solution, but we should keep in mind that there is already a system that pulls carbon from the atmosphere, stores it for centuries, and has even more bells and whistles. This invention can also generate oxygen, build soil, protect biodiversity, purify water, and makes us feel happy and peaceful. And it’s called a forest.”

When people are searching for actionable solutions in the face of climate change and its detrimental effects, we can offer one. Land conservation is an actionable solution. And there is scientific evidence, as well as momentum and support, behind it. For example, the country’s 30×30 vision spotlights this solution by setting a national goal to conserve at least 30 percent of U.S. lands and freshwater and 30 percent of U.S. ocean areas by 2030. If we rally around that vision and support the work being done by local land trusts, we can collectively create a significant difference.

By making a donation to NCLC, you are taking action in a tangible and meaningful way.

Stubborn optimism empowers you to continue moving forward, even in the face of challenges. With our early Circle Creek plantings, we received occasional critiques about our approach, one of them being that when restoring this type of ecosystem, you can’t only plant trees, because you’ll end up with a tree farm, not a healthy forest. Some at the time adhered to the belief you must also plant groundcover and shrubs, in addition to trees. It would have been easy to get bogged down by this idea that we weren’t doing enough. But it also would have meant doing nothing because of the time and expense involved in planting vegetation at every level of the forest.  

But stubborn optimism said, “No.” Doing something—planting trees—is better than doing nothing. We clung to the belief that if we could establish some kind of forest, even one made predominantly of alders, it would change everything else. It would alter the surrounding environment and set it on a trajectory to heal itself. That continues to be the philosophy that informs our restoration and habitat work on the Oregon Coast.

We have faith in the strength and complexity and capacity of our ecosystems. We know if we let them be—and give them a boost here or there—it will set them on a trajectory to thrive on their own. Just as we have witnessed with our alders at Circle Creek. It took 15 years of some pretty stubborn optimism to believe we could help restore a coniferous forest, but it’s now coming to fruition. Life begets life.

Human ingenuity will absolutely be a part of the solution, but we should keep in mind that there is already a system that pulls carbon from the atmosphere, stores it for centuries, and has even more bells and whistles. This invention can also generate oxygen, build soil, protect biodiversity, purify water, and makes us feel happy and peaceful. And it’s called a forest.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Indigenous scientist and author


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