An ethic of restoration, by Tom Rogers

On a recent crisp autumn evening, I wandered the back corner of my land on a hunting expedition. I was not on the hunt for deer or turkeys on this particular outing, but for any invasive European honeysuckle plants that had previously escaped my notice.

As I pushed apart the undergrowth looking for honeysuckle to pull, I recalled my childhood days spent accompanying my father in the hundred-acre woods behind our house in rural upstate New York. I would frequently work alongside my dad to help him clear invasive buckthorn or mend an old stone wall. He continues to steward that land to this day, cutting firewood to heat his home, hunting deer to fill his freezer, and planting native trees and shrubs. Although I’ll likely never move back there, I’m glad to know that the land has been well cared for when he eventually passes it on.

When my wife and I purchased our own home here in Vermont nine years ago, I felt strongly that I had to care for our land in the way I had learned from my father. Our new home came with one acre rather than one hundred, but it included a lovely brook and a steep hillside with hemlocks and maples. Unfortunately, it had been neglected for years, with eroded streambanks clogged with invasive Japanese knotweed, and impenetrable patches of honeysuckle that made it nearly impossible to walk around. These invasive pests crowd out the native plants that provide food for our local wildlife or help hold the soil during floods.


This spring, after years of toil and bloodshed, I formally declared victory in my war with the knotweed (anyone who has battled knotweed knows what a feat it is to defeat such a formidable foe!) and I’m close to winning my battle with the honeysuckle.

My two young daughters have helped replant our land with native trees and shrubs, and I hope that someday they will think back with fond memories of caring for the land they grew up on just like I do. We have driven willow clippings into the wet ground along our brook that we had collected from a local wetland over the winter. The willow branches have sprouted new roots and help keep the streambank from eroding, especially during heavy rains or floods. We’ve also planted native chokecherry along the brook, which provide berries beloved by wildlife, as well as dozens of native evergreen trees on the steep hillside behind our house that will hold the soil and provide nesting sites for songbirds.

And the local wildlife is already responding to the newly restored habitat. A pair of chestnut-sided warblers and a pair of common yellowthroats have started nesting by our brook each spring. It can take 9,000 caterpillars for a songbird to a raise one nest of chicks, and there are up to 35 times more caterpillars on native trees than on non-native trees, so we revel in having helped create a smorgasbord for these young bird families. 

Stewards of this continent had been caring for the land with similar diligence and devotion for thousands of years before Aldo Leopold outlined his ‘land ethic’ in his seminal book A Sand County Almanac. Still, it is Leopold’s words that appear on the posters in college dorm rooms today; “We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

I often wonder how Leopold would apply his land ethic to the global conservation challenges of today, particularly the crisis of climate change. I imagine he might tell us to start by caring for the woods and streams in our own back yards. 

Rather than representing outdated and old-fashioned thinking from a bygone era, modern climate scientists would say that this approach is exactly the right place to start. Restoring natural vegetation along our streams and rivers is essential to increasing our communities’ ability to withstand the flooding and extreme weather we are already experiencing from our warming planet. And healthy forests capture and store massive amounts of carbon; natural climate solutions such as these have the potential to address one-third of our global climate challenge (despite receiving only two percent of climate funding).

Vermont sits at the center of the largest temperate deciduous forest in the world, so our back yards are particularly important to the global carbon budget. Healthy forests in Vermont means less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and a cooler global temperature. 

We should all follow Leopold’s advice (and the example of the native stewards of the land that came before him) and remember to see land as a community to which we belong.  Only then may we collectively pass on to all of our sons and daughters a thriving Vermont with healthy lands and waters, and a cooler, healthier planet as well.