Guilt and Grief of a Failed Steward

Please bear with me, as I grieve an incredible loss, and offer up my guilt and deepest sorrow at my failure as a steward. I cannot yet even go outside to face the many beloved family members who have been harmed this morning. I have no idea how to begin to make amends.

For the past 15 years or so, I and my husband have been nurturing an ecosystem restoration on our 1/3-acre plot in the Coast Range hills of California. The entire focus was on creating thriving, inhabited habitat for native flora, fauna, pollinators, fungi, you name it. And we have done all the work with our own four hands (except for the occasional beer-and-pizza-bribed-lawyer-friends who helped push and spread many hundreds of wheelbarrows of mulch for us).

Over the past year and a half, my husband even took leave of the paycheck-issuing world, to work with me full-time, building a mini-farm and orchard, seamlessly integrated with the habitat areas. Then, two months ago, he returned to the “working world,” leaving me to tend the gardens at home. And I do my best, but I do not have the body strength or stamina to do the serious tree-pruning and maintenance work by myself. So, this morning, I hired help: a “service,” supposedly skilled with trees, with an arborist, supposedly supervising.

I spent an entire afternoon doing a walk-through with the arborist, spelling out in small words how this area was a restored habitat area — not just a bunch of pretty, “specimen” trees for the view. That deadwood and forest-floor ‘debris’ were to be left alone. That thickly-canopied trees, which sheltered a menagerie of native bird nesting sites, were NOT to be thinned — the animals need that cover as protection from raptors. That the low hanging branches (except directly overhead along narrow paths) and scrubby, thorny thickets were to be LEFT ALONE because they provided shelter, protected hiding places, etc. for breeding rabbits, quail, lizards, and the like. He smiled, nodded, repeated back to me, and scribbled notes. I assumed that he truly understood. I assumed that he would supervise. I assumed that he would clearly communicate my requirements to his crew.

And I turned my back for two hours of homeschooling, and trusted. I failed to watch. I failed to check. I failed to make sure. Gross negligence.

I first became aware of my terrible error when I saw a series of bird-plows from out my window. And then the angry, frantic bird-alarms began.

When I raced outside to see what was going on:

All the trees’ skirts had been raised to six feet; completely eradicating all the leafy screens that our critters depend upon for cover. The trees had been thinned dramatically (“artistically” the arborist claims), and birds nests destroyed. Brush cleared out and removed, and forest floor was being power-blown away, before my screaming finally convinced the man with the machine to turn it off.

I kicked them all off the property, as best I could. The only English-speaking person (the arborist) was nowhere to be found.

And now, I am in tears.

When I finish crying, I will go outside and try to apologize to all the wildlife harmed through my negligence. I will try to make amends. I just have no idea how to do it.

And tomorrow, I will begin to study Spanish.

9 thoughts on “Guilt and Grief of a Failed Steward

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    1. I was given no explanation. In fact, after his crew took off, I have not even heard from him. But then, there is really no way for them to repair the damage. Right now, I am just trying to focus on how to help buffer our wildlife from the awful results. Possible installing some temporary shade-cloth canopies to offer some protection to the critters, and to the shade-needing berry bushes (critical habitat food sources) — until the tree canopy grows back? Trying my best to avoid despair and stay focused on what can now be done.


  1. I weep as I write this response. I feel your pain, grief, disbelief and anger, both at the perpetrators or the horror and with yourself for somehow not being able to avert the disaster. I can say that I will join my thoughts and intentions to yours as you go forth to speak to your land and its residents, tree and animal alike. Deep sadness. A lesson for all of us.


  2. I wonder if it’s just because they were so used to doing things a certain way and couldn’t comprehend something so different? In your area, as in mine, perhaps fire suppression protocols and recommendations apply, much of the damage you describe seems to be in line with this; and neither the supervisor nor the crew could imagine someone willfully going the other way?
    That said, I too have learned the hard way more than once that when hired contractors are on a site, they must be watched like a hawk. Especially when machinery is in use, a lot of damage can be done in a very short amount of time.


    1. Hi @adiantum61, thanks for your comment!

      I am sure that fire suppression protocols had *nothing* whatsoever to do with it. None of the work they did would have any meaningful impact on fire.

      Mostly what they did was the kind of “artistic thinning and view enhancement” kind of stuff that most people probably do want done around here. And I don’t actually fault the crew — who clearly had no idea what they were doing. I do fault the absent “arborist/supervisor” with whom I had gone over — in hours of detailed discussion — how this job would be different from what most people around here had done, and the reasons behind those differences. It was up to him to supervise and instruct his crew, while they worked on a project different from their typical experience.

      But either way, the lesson to me is clear: NEVER hire a “service” if your goals are different from those of mainstream culture (to “improve” the curb-side appeal of a place, for added value when flipping the property, and to eliminate all contact with those fearful and inconvenient critters called wildlife); better to do your own work, and hire an under-gardener who will work side-by-side with you and actually learn about things like permaculture, organic orcharding, and habitat restoration.


  3. Larisa, I feel your pain. Can you sue the company for failing to perform the work according to your instructions? If its not a company, perhaps the “arborist”.


    1. Hi Ailim. Thanks for your note. I suppose that would be a possibility. However, suing them will not help the habitat recover any faster. Just a shame that considering it would even be necessary.


  4. Hi Larisa, I agree, though another way could be via the media – not good for their “company” reputation if they can’t be trusted to follow their client’s instructions 🙂


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