If you’re like me, you often wonder what just one person can do to help your community and heal the web of life, so I was delighted to hear Elaine Neiswender speak at a recent meeting of the Backyard Wildlife Habitat Stewards group I belong to. Elaine’s story made it clear to me that with an accessible vision, dedication, and delegation, one person can indeed make a big difference. One day last year, Elaine was picking herbs on a large vacant lot in her town of Forestville, in northern California’s Sonoma County. Elaine, who owns Earth Treasures Landscaping, was interested in natural healing and loved to create wildlife habitats. In the wake of a disabling auto collision, she was looking for a new direction. As she foraged, a vision swept over her: to make Forestville a community wildlife habitat and a mecca for natural healing. The heart of all this activity would be a Joyful Living Center, right on the spot where she was gathering herbs.
Elaine went home and began to draw, and within an hour she had diagrammed the whole vision. She learned that a local developer was planning a mixed-use project on the property where she’d been herb gathering, and she could see her concept as part of his. Elaine joined the Forestville Planning Committee, and she began talking about her ideas to everyone who would listenand a lot of people listened.
Within months, Forestville residents have embraced the vision of community wildlife habitat. A group of natural healers is planning the Forestville Joyful Living Center with the encouragement of Orrin Thiessen, the Forestville Square developer, and people and businesses all over the county are getting swept up in the project.
Providing habitat for small animals is fairly simple and has had an immense positive impact. “Our emotional nature needs healing, and gardens are so nurturing,” says Elaine. “But we’re not just healing ourselves; we’re nurturing all kinds of living things.” By growing native plants that provide food and shelter for birds, bees, butterflies, and beneficial insects, she’s bringing delight to humans who are inspired by helping rebuild the damaged web of life.
“I feel like the whole earth is groaning,” Elaine observes. “We’ve become so insensitive to life in generalnot just human life, but the butterflies, the insects, everything. I can’t postpone doing something good any longer. There’s got to be a way to heal both humans and wildlife and to help people understand the connections between the two.”
NWF guidelines for developing and certifying a community project use a point system based on the community’s size. In Forestville, this means certifying 100 gardens as backyard wildlife habitats. In addition, a town must accumulate points in several categories, including education and community projects such as stream cleanup, invasive plant removal, and plant and wildlife rescue. The NWF website provides step-by-step instructions at NWF.org/BackyardWildlifeHabitat.
Forestville was ripe for this proposal. A semi-rural, unincorporated town of 5,000, laced with two-lane highways, the area is experiencing development pressure. In 2002, Forestville residents began to hold town meetings to articulate a vision for their future.
Launching the dream
Elaine shares her vision at gatherings around the county by distributing flyers to Forestville homes, introducing habitat gardening, and inviting neighbors to participate. The local press loves the story, and articles have appeared in several newspapers. She and other community members have taken leadership roles in developing the CWH, forming a core group that meets regularly to plan projects and move the community toward NWF certification. Homeowners and businesses are stepping forward to have their gardens certified, and the core group tracks the progress.
Working with the local Master Gardeners program, Elaine set up free weekly classes to teach the basic principles of habitat gardening. “Many people are intimidated about buying plants,” she observes, “so I chose three that grow well and that attract birds and butterflies. I provided them to the class along with information sheets about their care. People really liked that, because they can take it on in bite-size morsels.”
The Joyful Living Center
In time, the center will ideally include naturopathic doctors, nutritional consultants, chiropractors, massage and bodywork therapists, community service agencies, and others devoted to natural healing. There will be classrooms for teaching art, dance, music, exercise, organic gardening, natural health, and nutrition. “The Forestville Joyful Living Center isn’t just about natural health practitioners,” says Elaine. “It’s really a community center that addresses the needs of children, teens, seniors, and anyone who wants to be healthy.”
Sharing the journey
Setting a positive precedent is important to Elaineand to her neighbors. “I want to create a model so people understand this isn’t difficult,” she says. “We have to make a change in the tide of negativity that’s sweeping this country and turn it into joy. This is a stand for joy.”
Reprinted with permission from: Natural Home And Garden Magazine, March-April 2005 Issue, published by Natural Home LLC. Copyright: Carol Venolia, 2005.