Paul Rokich is my hero. When Paul was a boy growing up in Utah, he happened to live near an old copper smelter, and the sulfur dioxide that poured out of the refinery had made a desolate wasteland out of what used to be a beautiful forest.
When a young visitor one day looked at this wasteland and saw that there was nothing living there — no animals, no trees, no grass, no bushes, no birds...nothing but fourteen thousand acres of black and barren land that even smelled bad — well, this kid looked at the land and said, “This place is crummy.” Paul knocked him down. He felt insulted. But he looked around him and something happened inside him. He made a decision: Paul Rokich vowed that some day he would bring back the life to this land.
Many years later Paul was in the area, and he went to the smelter office. He asked if they had any plans to bring the trees back. The answer was “No.” He asked if they would let him try to bring the trees back. Again, the answer was “No.” They didn’t want him on their land. He realized he needed to be more knowledgeable before anyone would listen to him, so he went to college to study botany.
At the college he met a professor who was an expert in Utah’s ecology. Unfortunately, this expert told Paul that the wasteland he wanted to bring back was beyond hope. He was told that his goal was foolish because even if he planted trees, and even if they grew, the wind would only blow the seeds forty feet per year, and that’s all you’d get because there weren’t any birds or squirrels to spread the seeds, and the seeds from those trees would need another thirty years before they started producing seeds of their own. Therefore, it would take approximately twenty thousand years to revegetate that six-square-mile piece of earth. His teachers told him it would be a waste of his life to try to do it. It just couldn’t be done.
So he tried to go on with his life. He got a job operating heavy equipment, got married, and had some kids. But his dream would not die. He kept studying up on the subject, and he kept thinking about it. And then one night he got up and took some action. He did what he could with what he had. This was an important turning point. As Samuel Johnson wrote, “It is common to overlook what is near by keeping the eye fixed on something remote. In the same manner, present opportunities are neglected and attainable good is slighted by minds busied in extensive ranges.” Paul stopped busying his mind in extensive ranges and looked at what opportunities for attainable good were right in front of him. Under the cover of darkness, he sneaked out into the wasteland with a backpack full of seedlings and started planting. For seven hours he planted seedlings. He did it again a week later.
And every week, he made his secret journey into the wasteland and planted trees and shrubs and grass. But most of it died.
For fifteen years he did this. When a whole valley of his fir seedlings burned to the ground because of a careless sheep-herder, Paul broke down and wept. Then he got up and kept planting.
Freezing winds and blistering heat, landslides and floods and fires destroyed his work time and time again. But he kept planting. One night he found a highway crew had come and taken tons of dirt for a road grade, and all the plants he had painstakingly planted in that area were gone. But he just kept planting.
Week after week, year after year he kept at it, against the opinion of the authorities, against the trespassing laws, against the devastation of road crews, against the wind and rain and heat...even against plain common sense. He just kept planting.
Slowly, very slowly, things began to take root. Then gophers appeared. Then rabbits. Then porcupines.
The old copper smelter eventually gave him permission, and later, as times were changing and there was political pressure to clean up the environment, the company actually hired Paul to do what he was already doing, and they provided him with machinery and crews to work with. Progress accelerated. Now the place is fourteen thousand acres of trees and grass and bushes, rich with elk and eagles, and Paul Rokich has received almost every environmental award Utah has.
He says, “I thought that if I got this started, when I was dead and gone people would come and see it. I never thought I’d live to see it myself!”
It took him until his hair turned white, but he managed to keep that impossible vow he made to himself as a child.
What was it you wanted to do that you thought was impossible? Paul’s story sure gives a perspective on things, doesn’t it?
The way you get something accomplished in this world is to just keep planting. Just keep working. Just keep plugging away at it one day at a time for a long time, no matter who criticizes you, no matter how long it takes, no matter how many times you fall. Get back up again. And just keep planting.
This article was excerpted from the book, Self-Help Stuff That Works: How to Become More Effective with Your Actions and Feel Good More Often.