“I grew a native forest and found peace – and survival”

Aimee Milne started reforesting her New Zealand yard for the sake of climate action. Turns out, she was boosting resilience too – for both herself and her community.

“I grew a native forest and found peace – and survival”
Photo: Tom Teutenberg

Editor’s note: This is a follow-up to Aimee’s earlier story on rewilding her yard, which you can read here:

Why I’m Killing My Lawn to Plant a Forest | Rewilding
How one New Zealand woman is reforesting her yard as a personal act against climate change that will support native biodiversity, too.

I know I’m not the only one who gives an exasperated eye roll when I hear climate change denial in our news, social media and corporate advertising. Not always an outright brazen dismissal but a minimization of the problem and the urgency needed to address it.

We know it’s real. We’ve been warned by climate scientists for decades. We didn’t need Cyclone Gabrielle to prove the point but she ripped through anyway and we can only hope that the damage she left will convince naysayers not only to accept the forecast, but to take action. To change their mindset to one where money isn’t the bottom line, a mindset that values the earth and its animals, bugs, plants and microorganisms as something more precious. Because without them we are nothing.

The Earth is forced to put up with our shit. But we can choose. Choose to go without, sometimes. We can choose not to have a manicured colonial lawn and to build a habitat for insects instead. We can choose to have meat-free days or to buy secondhand furniture and clothing. To stop spending more and wanting more.

As I killed my lawn, I decided that I had no control over the government, the council, my neighbours or my family. I don’t have control over corporate polluters and befouling bureaucrats. But I do have authority over myself and my own small piece of earth – a privilege for some that should be a right for all.

Photo: Tom Teutenberg

Under the circumstances, it seems like a good time to stop taking up so much space and to plant more trees, and food.  I mean, in a perfect world we’d have more to share while the land has a chance to regenerate, right?

Communism! I hear you shout. You're dangerously close to communism!

I know. It’s too simple an ideological concept, but it’s a drift I’m compelled to follow and the only one that makes any sense. I’m not going full commie here. I’m simply presenting a planet-over-money mindset, and it’s more of an ethos than a political stance.

This was one of the reasons I grew a native forest in my front yard.

Every time I heard of another animal declared extinct I felt a small grief, a brief hatred for humanity, including myself for being part of the destruction. I know hatred is a strong word to put to a feeling but at that point I needed to feel extreme emotions to flick the switch and stop fucking around. To start walking the talk.

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I got tired of my own bullshit and planted the damn trees. Of course people made fun and good-naturedly joked that I was a “bloody hippy.” And given the headline in the Gisborne Herald about my front yard forest, “Bringing back the bush,” it warranted jokes.

To be fair it was a catchy title, and I was glad to share my story in the hopes of encouraging others to do the same. You stop caring about what people think when you hit middle age. There are more important things to be concerned with and I was committed to changing the way I live to help mitigate climate change, to feel I had some sense of control.

And this brings me to the other, more personal reason I grew a forest.

I’d lost control of my life.

I was freshly and happily married, and my teenager was living his best life overseas. Middle age brought with it a creative liberation and planting a micro forest was an extension of that. I romanticized the forest, and imagined myself writing a book or playing the ukulele there, amongst the shaded pathways of full-grown trees, with fantails flitting around me while I wrote and drank kawakawa tea.

But just as the trees were fresh in the ground, I fell ill, and it was a long way to fall. Every time I thought I couldn't possibly plummet any further I’d land in another layer of discomfort and squall like a bird fighting to fly in a storm. I clung to each new diagnosis or medication like it was the fix, but I didn’t get better. Each new symptom or side effect knocked me off my temporary perch with a gust.

I fell into a world of hazy pain and isolation. I spent the better part of a year in bed, gazing at a wall and wondering why I was even here anymore. I could contribute nothing. My brain function was impaired and I could barely walk with pain in my feet, ankles, knees, shoulders and hips. I was exhausted ALL the time. A dead-on-the-inside kind of fatigue. Blank. No electrical activity.

I left the trees to their own devices. I had worse things to fret over. With only one income coming in, how were we going to get through? Would we have to sell our house to survive?

Being trapped in my own body with my survival instinct on high alert I was thrust into another YouTube algorithm. Suggested videos included food forests, tiny homes, and how to raise chooks. I was a captive audience to video after video showing people living happy and sustainable lives. People who’d gone against the capitalistic conditioning of “more is better,” or social conditioning that made them feel they weren’t good enough if they weren’t contributing to society by working themselves into an early grave.

I began to see possibility where I’d once seen ruination.

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“I think we need to prepare,” I said to my husband. “If I can’t contribute financially, maybe I could grow our food?”

“As long as you don’t push yourself too much.” He shrugged. “I want you to get better.”

He knows me well, and he’s great, but it took a little longer to get him to agree to the chickens. Nevertheless, we were soon enjoying tasty frittatas with potatoes and eggs from our own garden.

I gave my husband directions from the couch and he made the chicken coop out of old pallets and recycled materials. He also made a cute little potting shed out of pallets and an old window off the side of the road. So now I can grow my own vegetables from seed!

Not only had our personal circumstances changed, but the world had deteriorated in a short time. Coastal erosion, famine, war, floods, fires, pandemics. Food has become less affordable and interest rates have increased.

We underwent the psychological process of letting go. We let go of our dream house on the beach and a trip to Italy. Instead, we looked at what we could cut from our budget. We were more conscious when buying groceries and using power.

I couldn’t leave the house much, so that saved petrol, and we reduced expenditure wherever we could.

I started building up my seed collection and taking free cuttings and seeds from friends.

Fruit trees, fruit vines, fruit bushes, berries, vegetables, herbs, pollinators. Out of necessity I use a no-dig method so I don’t have to expend energy, but it is also a wonderful way to allow the microbiome of the soil to remain healthy, and layers of compost are added after each harvest.

Photo: Tom Teutenberg

On my “good” days I laid mulch. (Chucked down pea straw on cardboard. Super easy.) I planted food amongst the native forest. I planted bananas, apples, nectarines, peaches, grapes, avocado, passionfruit and more. On my bad days I used a wooden stake to hoist myself onto a pillow for my knees and crawled around the garden pulling weeds. It took me three days to do a 30-minute job. I couldn’t bend too far down, or lean too long. I struggled for breath and dripped with sweat. Legs like concrete.

But, at the expense of the dirty dishes in the sink, I was outside, not staring at a wall, and that helped me get through. I’m not dead yet, I’d say to myself. My front yard forest embraced me as I grieved the loss of function. As long as I could still tend my garden I could still be happy, I thought. On the days I couldn’t get out of bed I worried I might lose that too. So when I could, I kept moving, even if it was just a crawl.

By now I’d watched so many permaculture videos that I stopped using sprays and started making my own compost. We saved money on green waste as well.

In fact, all waste is reduced now that we’ve developed a system. Food scraps go to the chooks and I’m much better at recycling. I’m not the one who looks at an empty tin of tomatoes and throws it in the bin because I’m too busy and can’t be bothered to wash it out. No. That’s not me anymore. I’m more likely to have grown and preserved my own tomatoes, too.

In between these minute bursts of energy, there were days I could do nothing but sit in the fledgling food forest and watch it grow. The chooks and the fantails kept me company.

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It’s a nice scene from where you’re standing, but on the inside I was freaking out. The realization that I may never recover...and what if something happened to my husband, who was suddenly thrust into the role of sole provider?

I went into a fight/flight response at the thought that I was losing my independence. I am not comfortable being dependent on anyone. I started obsessing over what-if scenarios.

By this stage I was on a new medication and my condition had improved somewhat, but I’d come to accept that I was never going to be 100 percent.

So, once more, I went big. I began prepping for a zombie apocalypse. For all my “just in case” scenarios. I can’t explain what was going through my head at the time, but before I knew it I’d built a composting toilet and outdoor solar shower.

My husband thought I might be taking things too far.

“Do you want to be the one to christen the new toilet?” I offered proudly.

“No, thank you,” came a quick reply. “I'm telling you now, I wouldn’t even shit on that in a category 5 cyclone.”

I gave him a knowing nod.

We also had an old rainwater tank in our backyard. It was an eyesore and we’d been meaning to take it to the dump. However, in prepping spirit I changed my mind and kept it in case of drought so I could still water the garden.

As it turned out, we needed it for something more vital. Our own survival. And my poor husband faced the mind-bending prospect of “shitting in a bucket.”

Photo: Tom Teutenberg

Cyclone Gabrielle arrived fast and hard. The first night was the worst. We brought all the animals inside and staked the trees. It was like a farmyard inside while a frighteningly strong wind ripped up the trees and strewed debris all over the yard. It rained so intensely that we woke up to a moat around our house. It was surface flooding, but we didn’t know how bad it had been in vulnerable places. We had no way to communicate with loved ones. Our town had no power, no landline phones, no internet. The local radio station was the only source of information and a transistor radio was the only thing I didn’t have in my emergency pack. (Note to self.)

Gisborne was completely cut off as bridges and roads washed away. A state of emergency was declared. We drove to check on family, but we had to wait a whole week to let my son know we were okay. As news started to trickle down the grapevine we learned that people had been killed in flood waters and whole townships were under water. Some people had lost everything. Food and petrol trucks couldn’t get in and EFTPOS wasn’t working so we could only buy food if we had cash.

And if that wasn’t devastating enough, then came the emergency alert to stop using water immediately, as the main water pipe had been damaged in the storm.

It was in that dreadful but selfishly glorious moment that I realized I’d been contributing all along.

I’ve gotchu whānau…

A full tank of rainwater, a solar shower, a composting toilet and a full gas cylinder. Eggs and vegetables. (The ones that survived.)

Not only did we have what we needed to survive, we had enough to share and were able to offer our help to other people who had lost much more than us.

As this town recovers and settles back into a normality we know won’t last, I think it’s time to re-evaluate what we consider normal. Although I was forced by circumstance to give up my job and live more sustainably, my husband and I decided as a team that even if I get 100 percent better I will not go back to work in the capitalistic sense because, actually, this is a really nice way to live. It’s gentler.

We have proved to ourselves we can not just survive, but thrive on only one income. There is a sense of security in having one member of the team at home growing and cooking food, fresh from the garden, cleaning (my least favourite), preserving food and keeping animals, all of which save money in the long run. I’m certainly no trad-wife and neither of us subscribe to gender roles but it naturally worked out that way, and for the first time in a long time I feel like my contribution matters. I’m healing my own small piece of earth, from a lifeless lawn to a productive, abundant, urban food forest.

You never know what extreme event climate change is going to bring so I’m preparing for any scenario. My next project is to build a glasshouse with raised garden beds. I have been collecting old windows that have been thrown out and learning more about home food production. I would like to keep bees.

You’ll be pleased to know that almost all of the native seedlings survived the cyclone, and my front yard forest just keeps growing.