‘Conservationist of the Year’ Embraces the Environmentalist Lifestyle

puma drinks stream

A juvenile puma drinks from one of our water features.

By Paul and Barbi Holdeman, Pond Gnome

Picture it. Late August in St. Charles, Illinois at Pondemonium 2019 and our company, the Pond Gnome, had been nominated for Aquascape’s annual Conservationist of the Year award by the chief sustainability officer, Ed Beaulieu. When Ed presented the award and surprisingly called our name, my wife and partner, Barbi, happened to be in the restroom. (We didn’t exactly get a “heads up,” after all.)

I stood up and very slowly sauntered down the aisle toward the stage while a couple of friends bolted toward the women’s restroom, screaming at Barbi to get to the stage right away. I eventually made it to the stage and was immediately handed the mic. I had just begun stuttering my way through a completely unrehearsed speech when Barbi burst into the room, jogged down the aisle and hopped up on the stage next to me (luckily leaving no toilet-paper trail). She had no idea what was going on, but she was just as thrilled as I was.

A Long Time Coming

As a kid, I found myself around water all the time. My father was an avid boater, so being on the lake was a common pastime for us. As I grew up, I developed a love for hiking and fishing in Arizona, my home state. It is a love that I have been honored to instill in my son Parker.

Barbi, on the other hand, grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, and was a self-proclaimed “city girl.” Still, she found herself playing around perennial creeks and wooded areas like Forest Park until her teen years when she moved to Arizona. Her childhood laid the groundwork for her appreciation for nature and the peace and healing that it brings people.

girl and fish pond

A little girl feeds the fish during a pond tour.

When Barbi and I first met, we loved to explore the desert and back country in our Jeep Wrangler (which we still have today) and hike and fish Arizona’s riparian areas. Truth be told, I did most of the fishing, while Barbi enjoyed a book on a blanket in the warm sunshine. We both particularly hated to see all the litter left behind by lazy and inconsiderate people, and we were vocal on the issue when given the chance. In fact, we taught Parker from an early age that people who left trash behind them wherever they went were “butt-heads” — a term he still uses 20 years later. We’ve always been avid recyclers, from daily trash to landscape elements like urbanite walls.

I built my first pond in 2000 in my father’s backyard while we were still designing and building complete landscapes. It took us just about three years to transition from providing complete landscapes to focusing on ponds and water features.

coyote

A coyote sunbathes in a stream.

A Natural Discovery

We noticed almost immediately that when we built a pond in someone’s yard, it wasn’t long before they were calling us back to talk about much more than just their plants, fish and turtle pets. New conversations sparked about birds, butterflies, dragonflies, toads, frogs, beneficial insects (like bees), snakes, coyotes, raptors, bobcats, pumas, javalina, deer and more. This certainly made our client relationships a lot more interesting!

With each question or concern about wildlife, we began to do more research to ease our clients’ minds and to prepare for the next client who may call with similar questions. At first, we found ourselves “over-informing” people, which quickly became an onerous task as more and more calls came in.

Oriole in river.

An oriole stops by a water feature for a drink during his annual migration flight.

“Facts tell. Stories sell.”

We found this particular slogan from Aquascape very helpful and decided to start telling fun and interesting stories about wildlife. It worked great! In fact, a few clients even helped out by sending us amazing photos of wildlife in their yard. This approach had a noticeable effect, as much of our marketing by 2005 was done at the podium in front of garden clubs.

As our knowledge base grew, my reputation for being a fun and knowledgeable public speaker got around. Even some HOAs and schools were asking us to do presentations. Our participation in Aquascape’s Ponds for Kids Program really boosted these opportunities, even leading to speaking invitations from local wildlife clubs, the Arizona Game and Fish Department and Arizona State University, my alma mater, to discuss living in harmony with nature and creating urban backyard wildlife habitats.

Paul Holdeman

We soon discovered that our ideal clients responded really strongly to the wildlife message. We had grown weary of hearing stories from people who were intent on killing many of their backyard pond visitors. Our marketing evolved from selling ponds to creating a lifestyle that included drawing local and migratory wildlife to your yard.
Amateur and professional photographers, armed with the ability to photograph wildlife from their living-room recliners, also started looking in our direction. New marketing initiatives and opportunities opened up that were much more fun and interesting, not to mention nearer and dearer to our hearts. Our growing credibility in local wildlife circles has brought an amazing group of people to our doorstep. Since then, life as pond professionals has been much more enjoyable.

Looking Ahead

Thanks to Aquascape’s Ponds for Kids program, we have built or been involved in a few dozen schoolyard wildlife habitats for college campuses, high schools and a myriad of elementary and preschools. Each project we take part in includes an ecosystem water feature by yours truly, the Pond Gnome. Most of these are being used as refugia (safe harbor storage) for endangered species of native Arizona fish and frogs. This has put us in front of several local wildlife officials. Some of these meetings have been amazing, while others have been scary and a little disheartening. Working to improve the circumstances of our endangered species within the confines of Arizona law has been both fascinating and frustrating.

painted bunting

A painted bunting pauses for a bath and a sip.

The bottom line is that we have created a bully pulpit for building ecosystem water features. We use this bully pulpit to educate our clients, social media followers and whoever else will listen about the joys of living in harmony with the wildlife around them. In the long run, we to make a difference in how the ever-growing population of Phoenix interacts with native and migratory wildlife by providing respites in their very own backyards. Urban sprawl is a serious issue in our desert, and we continue our endeavors to convince people to replace those disappearing riparian areas with backyard wildlife habitats.

We owe much of our success to the continuing education provided by Aquascape, as well as our association with local entities like the Desert Botanical Garden, the Phoenix Zoo, Arizona Game and Fish, the Southwest Audubon Society and the University of Arizona Master Gardener Program. We continue to learn so much from each of these organizations.
We had no idea that our small, yet consistent contribution to responsible environmental stewardship would be recognized in this exciting way. Preaching the conservation message has been a reward in itself.

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