Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

For Peats Sake: The Benefits of “Show” vs “Tell”

By Marla J. Stelk, Policy Analyst, ASWM

My summer has been spent waking up to contractors outside of my house – hearing the sound of hammers and power tools – and the repeated announcements by my dog, Alice, letting me know they are here. Thankfully the end is in sight, but it’s been a long 4 weeks and we’ve got about another week to go.
marla724141We’re having our old clapboard taken down and replaced with fiber cement board. The old clapboard was in terrible shape after years of neglect by previous owners. We had tried to do the repainting ourselves, but found that with limited warm weekends in Maine and with an increasing frequency of rainy days, that we couldn’t get it done. Plus the old wood just wouldn’t hold the paint no matter how marla724142well we prepped it. So we made the decision, in light of climate change predictions for increased precipitation in Maine, to replace it with a material that is engineered for our specific climate zone and to resist precipitation, mold and mildew. In fact, the baked on finish comes with a 15-year warranty covering both paint and labor.

Our neighborhood is ecstatic – finally the “ghetto-fabulous” house at the entrance to the neighborhood is looking respectable. Everyone’s property values have benefited from our home improvement project. Nearly every neighbor has stopped by to comment to us or our contractors about how nice our home looks. And in the process, we’ve been able to initiate conversations about dealing with changing precipitation patterns, the benefits of long-term investments, and sustainable, durable building materials. It’s been an unexpected but wonderful opportunity to share our reasons why we chose to use fiber cement board and the benefits of no maintenance for another 15 years – financially and environmentally.
marla724143Interestingly, I have also noticed that several of our neighbors have now initiated their own exterior improvements. I see some of them painting and looking at our house – and I can see it in their eyes – a little tinge of envy. That was not our intention, to spur envy, but it is an emotion that spurs action to “keep up with the Joneses” – or the Stelks as the case may be. But it has made me pay more attention to neighborhood social dynamics. For example, I have noticed in our neighborhood that when one person decides to call the lawn company and have them treat their lawn with pesticides, pretty soon, the other neighbors are doing it too. Suddenly, nobody wants to be the only one in the neighborhood without the perfect lawn.

Exhausting I know, but it has provided me, I believe, with an interesting opportunity to lead by example. I don’t spray my lawn. I use organic corn gluten for weed and insect control and I make sure my Ph levels are in good shape with lime. I mow high and relish the occasional patches of wildflowers that bloom in early summer. And we
marla724144plan to have our lawn aerated in the fall. Next year with the exterior done, we will do more landscaping and cover much of our front lawn with native ornamental flower gardens. I wonder what the neighbors will think of that? It will, I’m sure, open up yet another opportunity to talk about sustainable landscaping, the benefits of providing pollination sources for the bees and seeds for the birds, and the benefits for our local drinking water. And it will look beautiful – which is what will attract them over to initiate a conversation.

So what the heck does all of this have to do with wetlands, you ask? Well it speaks to the power of “showing” rather than “telling” to communicate deeper meanings and perspectives. By living our personal lives in line with our professional values, we offer an opportunity for folks who don’t have the same professional knowledge and education to learn from us. I have certainly learned from others in my life and they have shown me not only why they do what they do, but how – and they do it by example and by personal stories. It’s an extremely effective and non-confrontational approach to communicating complex scientific ideas.

My neighbors don’t want to listen to me talk about how lawn fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides get leached into Tannery Brook behind our homes. On some level I’m sure they already know this. They don’t want to listen to me talk about how climate change is going to create more intense and frequent precipitation in the form of rain in the northeast. Instead I share with them the stories of how hard we tried to keep up with old clapboard and how we now have rot to deal with which attracts bugs. And then I explain how this new material will save us time and money – oh and by the way it’s better for the environment, too. If I approach these issues from a pulpit, many of
marla724145them, quite frankly, will shut me out – either they don’t want to hear it about it because it’s too depressing or overwhelming or they don’t believe it. But with a positive approach that speaks to the benefits (for critters and for my pocket book) of our choices to use sustainable building materials and non-toxic lawn care, then I can get their attention. And we’ve shown that it can be done, on a budget and with beautiful results. Their human instinct to keep up with the Stelks might just create a ripple effect.

So when you are trying to communicate about the benefits of wetland conservation to a broad audience think about how you can change people’s perspectives through stories. Lean on your own personal experiences and, whenever possible, take people out into the wetlands themselves. Share your love of wetlands and the critters that call it home. Don’t tell – rather, share your knowledge through stories about all the really cool benefits of wetlands, like how they can provide clean water, can absorb excess storm water and reduce flooding impacts, and they are essentially the earth’s kidneys. How they provide recreational opportunities for canoeing, kayaking, bird watching, hunting and fishing. For Peats’ Sake, share your enthusiasm and your stories and lead by example. People might just want to keep up with the “Wetlanders.”

FMI on natural lawn care, visit the Maine Dept. of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Yardscaping.

FMI about fiber cement board, visit here or here.


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