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From Restoration to Resilience

Originally appears in the Winter 2012-2013issue

Four women were visiting a ranch in Sonoma County, California, when a herd of dairy cattle began to get curious. At a distance, the animals looked as peaceful as any cows you’d see munching grass in a pasture as you drove by. But as the herd moved closer and still closer, the women began to feel mildly unsettled — and then, at the sight of one distinctly unhappy-looking bull, very definitely nervous.

There is no such thing as a totally safe bull, as Temple Grandin writes, and dairy bulls are the most dangerous. So when this one approached with its head lowered, eyes protruding, and hooves pawing the dusty ground, the women— who were not ranchers, but ecosystem restoration practitioners —clearly felt the danger signs.

“I don’t like the look of him,” announced Emily Allen, a former AmeriCorps tutor who now works with K–12 student groups on restoration projects.

Instantly, the women scattered: Allen and her colleague Stephanie Nelson got behind a fence that safeguards a creek, while Vanessa Wyant and Laurette Rogers chose the nearest possible option and hopped into Wyant’s small white pickup truck.

With this distance between them, the bull calmed down. But some 50 cows were not so easily appeased. They circled the truck and firmly planted themselves, as only cows can, blocking it from the front and back. Worried that they might be mistaking it for a food truck and begin to butt it if they were not soon fed, Wyant began to slowly drive away. But the cows slowly and resolutely followed. Wyant then drove a little faster. The cows moved a little faster. And on it went until both Wyant and the cows moved more than a football field away. Then, suddenly, Wyant made a U-turn and sped back to where the two other women watched from behind the fence. Finally, the cattle gave up the chase, and the women got back to business: monitoring and maintaining the creek restoration work young schoolchildren had carried out under the auspices of the nonprofit project, Students and Teachers Restoring A Watershed (STRAW).

Ecosystem restoration work is, of course, not always this exciting. It is usually a slow, quiet process that requires great patience. Results can take months, even years, to appear—nearly a lifetime from a child’s perspective. The work is deceptively complex; the science of ecosystem restoration is still in its infancy; and the collaboration required can bring together the most unlikely of partners. In other words, it can seem unlikely work in which one can successfully engage young students.

Nevertheless, STRAW has a twenty-year track record of success. It has engaged more than 30,000 students in restoring nearly twenty-one miles of habitat in California’s Marin and Sonoma counties. It offers hands-on engagement that widens empathy, emphasizes leadership and working in community, and cultivates an understanding of ecosystems.

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Daniel Goleman is an internationally known psychologist, former New York Times science reporter, and author of Emotional Intelligence, Social Intelligence, and Ecological Intelligence.

Lisa Bennett is the communications director of the Center for Ecoliteracy; a former Harvard University fellow; and a longtime writer about the environment, education, and equality.

Zenobia Barlow is the executive director and cofounder of the Center for Ecoliteracy, leading its grant making, educational, and publishing initiatives since its inception.


Goleman, Bennett, Barlow, Ecoliterate, copyright 2012 by the Center for Ecoliteracy. This material is reproduced with permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.