The importance of small things

Awhile ago, a group of about 20 of us spent five hours working on a habitat restoration project at the Washington Family Ranch in central Oregon. The ranch occupies 100 square miles of magnificent desert, with steeply rising buttes and canyons in between.

The project centers on what is called Muddy Creek. What once was a clear running stream feeding into the John Day River has become, well, a muddy creek, with hardly a trickle of water meandering through cattails and other invasive vegetation. Where once the bison would graze down to the banks of the stream, eating back the invading plants, ranching practices replaced the bison with other grazing animals and hemmed them into fenced pastures. Slowly and without much notice, vegetation crept in and choked the stream. The goal of the project at hand is to restore the riparian habitat so that steelhead trout and other species can return once again to this ancient spawning stream.

Now, the project is a multi-year, multi-million-dollar endeavor. It’ll require heavy equipment that none of our group of adults and kids can operate. In fact, the effects of our 100 hours of volunteer time will seem insignificant against the backdrop of huge changes in the future. But it’s not nothing.

Something isn’t nothing. A small action isn’t inaction.

Our culture almost always thinks big. “Go big or go home,” is our mantra. But this “All or nothing” approach to life is both false and paralyzing. It’s dismissive of all of the tiny steps that get things moving. And it makes too many of us quit before we even get started, because we can’t see how our small contribution can make a dent into the mountain (or stream bed) in front of us. But that’s simply not true. As the saying goes, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” In fact, the first step is generally the hardest. Getting off our butts and actually moving is tough. The move from inaction to action is truly laudable.

Logging 100 hours of volunteer time into an immense project that will dwarf our accomplishments is significant, because it tells those who will make the decisions that will continue the project, who will invest those millions that we are serious about seeing this project through. They will want to see that there are others already invested in the project, that this is something people want to see accomplished and are willing to invest time and effort to see it through.

If anything is worth doing, it’s worth doing small. The journey is worth each tiny step. The book is worth each sentence written. The life is worth each breath, each effort taken.

Like toddlers, we start by taking small steps at first. We make sure that they’re headed in the right direction. And hopefully before too long, we start taking larger strides. The next thing we know, we’re running.