After 15 years of teaching at the Colorado State veterinary program, Carolyn Butler found herself looking for a piece of land in Latin America.
She had a dream to live there before she turned 40, and so at 38, she settled on a small farm in Panama. Her and her husband planted hardwood teak trees and built a 500-square-foot concrete house. She wanted to learn the language and know her neighbors. She loved the passion in Panama — people were open, and they hugged.
Years later, sitting on her “mediation rock” in front of the house one morning, sipping coffee, Butler experienced a moment of awe when a flock of bright green parrots flew over her.
“They all together tipped their wings up and it was blue — I wanted to cry,” she said. “I felt like it was such a gift.”
It was at this moment that she realized she wanted to devote the rest of her life to the environment.
“I just had this feeling, I thought, ‘This is what I want to provide every person,’” she said. “I want every person to feel that awe and connectedness. That deep sense of reverence for life. I just said, ‘That is my mission.’”
So she moved back to Lincoln, got a job at the Nebraska Wildlife Association, and there haven’t been enough hours in a day for her since.
“I hit 55 and, honestly, I feel like I really became myself,” she said. “I felt like it was going to kill me if I didn't start addressing and working on the things that were meaningful to me. My family said, ‘You have to be practical, you're a single parent.’ I don't want to. I want to show my kids you can pursue a dream. And also, don't write off these chubby, grey-haired ladies, we've still got some ideas!”
Now 61 years old, Butler is putting all her energy into helping people get closer to nature and understand that nature is restorative.
Her summer project? An urban pollinator “flyway” in the middle of downtown Lincoln.
The project entails planting native pollinator plants in the 67 permanent planting beds that line 13th Street along the eight-block stretch between R Street and Lincoln Mall.
In June, Butler coordinated the planting of 5,000 seedlings by garnering support from the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum, the Downtown Lincoln Association, the Nebraska Wildlife Federation, Groundwater Guardian, and University of Nebraska-Lincoln environmental studies students.
By establishing native pollinator plants in the beds such as milkweed, which is the only plant monarchs lay their eggs on and the only plant monarch caterpillars will eat, the flyway will become an effective habitat for pollinators — that is, the birds, bees, butterflies and moths that cause plants to produce fruits and seeds and are essential to our ecosystem.
You’ll find 10 boulders along the flyway beds, too, provided by Tailored Landscapes, Outdoor Solutions, and Nebraska Wildlife. They serve as natural places for water to puddle and pollinators to drink.
Think about the flyway as a safe rest stop for butterflies, as well as a space to educate the public about pollinators in peril and the value of planting water-wise, perennial native plants that support Nebraska’s biodiversity.
Butler was inspired to create a longer downtown flyway after she helped put together a small pollinator garden and educational signage in front of the Foundry coworking space on 14th street.
“With the pollinator flyway being right downtown more people will see it, and we'll have educational signage, as well,” she said. “Hopefully it will be beautiful, and they can say, ‘I could maybe do this at home. I could make a difference that way.’”
Butler’s environmental activism doesn’t stop there. She’s also the woman behind High Level Happiness, a Lincoln nonprofit that is working to build a larger-than-life treehouse in a public park.
Her own struggle trying to coax her son outside and away from his video game console got her head in the clouds — literally. She wondered what could be compelling enough to get young kids outside and in nature.
“And like any normal person, I thought, of course, a massive treehouse,” Butler said. “Wouldn't everyone think of that?”
Butler became the CEO of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and hit the ground running.
“The idea is to get people thinking about how we need restorative places,” she said. “Parks are lovely, but a lot of our parks here are green grass parks. To me, that doesn't support our biodiversity. It doesn't engage young children as much as a park that has native landscaping in it.”
High Level Happiness has plans to start small with a 13x24 treehouse at 11th and B, where kids can play and other nonprofits can hold meetings.
Although this small start to the project might take a year of planning and paperwork, Butler loves any opportunity to talk about her dream. She’s created an advisory board, enlisted Lincoln architect Tammy Eagle Bull from Encompass Architects, and holds public meetings to get the community involved.
“There's something really special that happens when, say you're sitting in a tree, or sitting out in nature, and a wild bird comes near you,” she said. “And I think the treehouse will have raised walkways, and will allow people to feel that.”
Butler saw turning 60 as a chance to start a new chapter.
“I've embraced my aging,” she said. “I think that's what we all need to do. We're getting older, but we're getting happier, because you become more yourself.”
The reality of climate change is what drives Butler underneath it all.
“People may want to not look at it and may want to convince themselves that it's not going to impact their lives, but it's an urgent issue,” she said. “Because it’s on my mind every day, it gives me a lot of motivation to stay at it. It's about creating more active environmental stewards. I don't want my children to ever feel like I wasn't paying attention.”
For Butler, pivoting her career later in life was because of a revelation that if she had the drive, the rest would come later.
“I always think that you can't go wrong if you look to do something that you believe in,” she said. “Don't worry if you don't have the experience in an area, don't worry if you don't have the education in an area, don't worry if you don't have the money to do it. Because one of the things that I think we give up as we age is this idea that you have to be perfect. I realized I don't have to do this perfectly, and there are many ways to do something well. And here's the difference: I'm okay with it. And I may not do it as fast as I would like to, or certainly not as fast as someone else might do it, but I will do it.”