Design for Life: Planting Seeds of Inspiration

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Elaine Neiswender is encouraging Forestville, California, to become a backyard wildlife ­habitat.
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Elaine Neiswender is encouraging Forestville, California, to become a backyard wildlife ­habitat.

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 listen–and 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 general–not 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.”

What is community wildlife habitat?

To spread this message, Elaine turned to the National Wildlife Federation’s (NWF) Community Wildlife Habitat (CWH) program. I’m a big fan of creating backyard wildlife habitat. It’s a great way to rebuild the damaged web of life while healing ourselves through the company of birds, butterflies, and other critters. A CWH project embraces backyard habitats, schoolyards, businesses, community gardens, and parks. It literally helps whole towns create space for birds, butterflies, and other critters by establishing broad areas and migration corridors that welcome wildlife to feed, drink, set up housekeeping, and raise their young.

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 WildlifeHabitat.

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

Last May, Elaine presented her vision of Forestville’s Community Wildlife Hab­itat at a town meeting. “There were 200 to 300 people there, and the idea was unanimously accepted,” she says. In no time, things took off. Forestville Elementary School donated a room for meetings and habitat-related classes. It also became Forestville’s first school to initiate a wildlife habitat garden with thirty-five people, from seniors to children, digging and sifting the dirt, amending the soil with seaweed and other nutrients, and planting native species donated by Cinderella Nursery.

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

Meanwhile, another core group formed to promote the Forestville Joyful Living Center, and Elaine is signing up healing-related business to lease space in a building at Forestville Square. The group currently includes an acupuncture practice, a Pilates studio, a yoga studio, an herb store, an organic café, and a school of herbal studies.

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

Having a grand vision is one thing; avoiding burnout while implementing it is another. So I asked Elaine how she stays balanced. “In every meeting, I ask for help,” she replied. “I delegate. In the CWH core group meetings, we have a secretary who takes notes and keeps records of who’s handed in applications. We have two photographers who document each certified property, so the gardens can be part of the town history without having everyone tromp through.” Elaine’s grand vision doesn’t end with Forestville. At our Habitat Stewards meeting, she enlisted three new vol­unteers to head up CWH efforts for nearby towns with the goal of making our whole county a beautiful wildlife habitat. “I hope people will be touched and inspired to create natural habitat of their own,” says Elaine. “It starts in your own backyard, or on your own porch, your rooftop, or your door­step–whatever you have.”

Setting a positive precedent is important to Elaine–and 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.”

Carol Venolia is an architect, author of Healing Environ­ments: Your Guide to Indoor Well-Being (Celestial Arts, 1988), and former publisher of Building with Nature newsletter.

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