The Reindeer Chronicles and Other Inspiring Stories of Working with Nature to Heal the Earth

By Judith D. Schwartz. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2020. 256 pages. $17.95/paperback or eBook.

Could land restoration play a significant role in making the planet cooler and greener? The question is a big one, and this book starts off with a bang. Schwartz describes the transformation of the Loess Plateau in China from an arid wasteland the size of France, whose dust filled the Yellow River, to a verdant landscape of terraced fields, orchards, woods, and waterfalls. If this does not make one a believer in the power and possibility of land restoration, nothing will.

Much of the rest of the book focuses on intriguing possibilities. Writing in an accessible journalistic style, Schwartz brings us with her on visits to northern Scandinavia, southeastern Spain, western United States, and Hawai’i, and invites us to get to know leaders of eco-restoration efforts in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Burkina Faso, and Australia. What can we learn from the reindeer herders of northern Scandinavia about right relationship with the tundra? How can indigenous permaculture and lifeways be re-established in Hawai’i in the wake of the scourge of colonial sugar plantations? What is the past and potential role of women in regenerative land use?

The discussion of deserts opened new possibilities in my mind. I had heard audacious claims of desert restoration but had never stopped to think that the oil under all the sand of Saudi Arabia points indisputably toward a time when that land was fertile and green. It seems that humans are a desert-making species, with the success of great civilizations linked regularly to the demise of their natural environments.

If a desert is defined dynamically—not by the amount of rainfall it receives but by the land’s capacity to absorb that rain—then human beings have an enormous amount of agency here. Our choices can even have a role in rain making. In many places around the world, it rains when moist air rises off the sea and is blown inland, picking up additional moisture from the soil, trees, and other vegetation in its pathway before it hits the mountains. We have the power to stop that process or to restore it.

In the chapter on water rights in the dry Southwest of the United States, I appreciated the author’s frank acknowledgment that addressing human conflict in the face of scarce resources may be the biggest challenge. Schwartz describes a fractured community’s process of working toward a shared vision and getting to the point of consensus, which their workshop leader described as “100 percent agreement to do the right thing.”

The book is full of thoughtful people. John Liu (whose stunningly powerful videos of the Loess Plateau transformation had already caught my attention) speaks of the need to naturalize the economy rather than financialize nature. He emphasizes the importance of intention—a different orientation from professional problem solving. Noting that our economic system is based on scarcity, while nature has a proclivity toward abundance, he has much in common with native Hawaiian healer Leiߵohu Ryder, who reminds us of the importance of perceiving and grounding in abundance as an act of will. The attitude we choose, whether consciously or unconsciously, has consequences.

The author ends with a visit to an Ecosystem Restoration Camp in a tiny hamlet in southeastern Spain, where desertification is a growing problem. Begun by Liu, these camps gather groups of passionate people across the world to learn as they do hands-on practice in land restoration. Building on best possible outcome thinking, these efforts focus on what we desire rather than what we fear. Though most of the acts of restoration described in the book seem dwarfed by the magnitude of the challenges they face, perhaps there is nothing more important than being able to catch a glimpse of “not just barren land but the possibility of oases.”

The Reindeer Chronicles offers a strong reminder that if we care about the future of the planet, we must put our attention not only on fossil fuel emissions but on the health of the land. It reveals the impact of regional land use choices on soil fertility, water supply, and the weather itself. Most important, while not minimizing the challenges, it leaves us with the potential of solutions that are lying everywhere beneath our feet.

Pamela Haines is a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting. Her most recent book is Money and Soul, an expansion of a Pendle Hill pamphlet by the same name.

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