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Restoring our streams, restoring ourselves

By Scott Stolnack

If you start at the McAbee entrance to Carkeek Park at 6th NW and NW 100th in north Seattle, then wind down the broad gravel path, down past the blackberry brambles and horsetail and into the ravine, the city sounds begin to soften almost immediately. Just past the first bend, you begin to hear the music of running water. Hemlock and cedar saplings poke up through the head-high blackberries. By the second turning of the path, where the brambles thin, you've dropped into forest, and have left the city behind.

The trees, many of them over a hundred years old (the ravine was clearcut before 1900), are mostly alder, hemlock, cedar, an occasional Douglas fir. Native salmonberries inhabit the understory-in the spring, their bright magenta flowers attract hummingbirds. There are also thimbleberries with their broad, soft leaves, and snowberries, and willows.

The first view of Piper's Creek is not auspicious: a trickle of water dribbling out the bottom of a large pipe poking out of the hillside. Mossy boulders and ferns line the water's edge. Much of the stream bank is bare dirt, ready to erode at the first rains. The creek bottom is covered with silt and reddish-brown muck.

But even here, life struggles on: there are tiny insects living in the water beneath the rocks, and others crawling on leaf litter on the streambed. Chickadees call to one another in the bushes. As the stream gathers water from springs and side-channels, alders and big-leaf maples loom overhead; an old cedar stump sits crowned with sword ferns and salmonberry bushes.
And a mile further downstream at the mouth of the creek, where it empties into Puget Sound, I have seen herons, kingfishers, tanagers, and spawning salmon.

Piper's Creek is typical of many of our urban creeks around Puget Sound-challenged by sedimentation, flooding, runoff from oily roads and parking lots during rainstorms, contamination from malfunctioning septic systems and the overuse of pesticides and fertilizers in nearby yards, erosion, and invasion by non-native plant species. And yet, compromised as they are, urban creeks are refuges from our clamorous, hard-edged, urban landscape. We can visit these nearby natural places to refresh our souls, to nurture a sense of balance and health in our lives, and to re-connect with something greater than ourselves.

For three months now, I've been coming to Carkeek Park almost weekly to help ease some of the human impact upon the creek. Other volunteers and I pull invasive weeds like knotweed, loosestrife and garlic mustard; we plant willow stakes and cedar saplings; we monitor the insect life and count returning salmon. Much of the restoration and conservation work in Piper's and other urban creeks is performed by volunteers.

And in return, I-and the other volunteers, I hope-develop a more intimate understanding of, and deeper relationship to, the natural world in this particular spot. I begin to feel the rhythms of the place; I learn where the fish hide, where the crows roost, which plants love the saturated soils in the wetlands, which plants don't belong.

According to Elan Shapiro in an article entitled "Restoring Habitats, Communities, and Souls," this work to heal the earth-to return a piece of it to something closer to its natural state-can create "deep and lasting changes in people, including a sense of dignity and belonging, a tolerance for diversity, and a sustainable ecological sensibility." Not only are we restoring small pieces of earth: we're also restoring pieces of our soul. And I think we're also rediscovering our true roots in the natural world.

The various connotations of the word are not accidental. Roots go deep into the land. Roots sustain and nurture us. Deep roots see us through storms and droughts. Roots keep us from blowing away. They link us to the past but most importantly they anchor us here in the present, in this particular place, right here, right now.

As we work to restore degraded ecosystems, says Shapiro, we come "to understand ecological awareness as more than just facts about ecosystems, but also as an inclusive sensibility, an embracing of both the diversity around us and the many selves within us, even if they are not all as noble and beautiful as we would like them to be." Even a muddy, weed-choked stream is worthy of our attention and our respect. So too, those muddy and weed-choked parts of ourselves.

My restoration work may have other benefits as well. Howard Franklin, writing in the April issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, cites studies that suggest exposure to nature promotes healing. He writes of gallbladder surgery patients who recovered faster in rooms looking out on trees compared to those patients with a view of a brick wall. In another study, he reports that prison inmates whose cells faced a prison courtyard were 24 percent more likely to become ill, compared to inmates who looked out on farmland.

The nature I encounter along Piper's Creek, compromised as it is, still manages to reassure me somehow. It reminds me that I am part of something much greater, much older than my own narrow consciousness, my own short life. Even here in the city, there are still salmon struggling upstream in a cycle thousands of years old, there are thimbleberries ripening, hummingbirds, water flowing over stones, the wing beats of herons. Kneeling in the dirt pulling garlic mustard or canary grass, I begin to feel an intimacy with this place that is beyond words.

We will never know the full extent of our effect upon the world. Planting a cedar sapling or willow shoot beside the stream may take years to provide a tangible benefit. The purple loosestrife I pull out of the wetlands today may spring up again a week from now. But a single small act of care for the earth, together with other small acts, can slowly transform our society.

Our culture (or you could say lack thereof) has created in us a kind of powerful amnesia-and we've brainwashed ourselves into believing that a deep connection to the land is unimportant, even irrelevant.

But our inner and outer lives are related in ways we often stubbornly refuse to acknowledge: the landscape is mirrored in our soul, and our inner anxieties and tensions-our cultural neuroses as well as our individual ones-are reflected in the ways we treat and mistreat our environment. There is an unnatural split between our hearts and our heads; and the work we do to heal the landscape is also healing to our soul.

What You Can Do
Streams are affected by a number of human activities. Erosion caused by clear-cut logging and road building destroys spawning beds and increases flooding. Use of water for human purposes lowers stream flows and raises water temperatures, which can kill salmon and many aquatic insects. Toxic chemicals, fertilizer, pesticides, and sewage can kill or sicken all aquatic animals. De-vegetation of stream banks causes erosion, increases water temperatures, and removes a food source for aquatic insects. Paving streets and parking lots prevents rainwater from seeping slowly through the soil and contributes to floods and drought, as well as decreases water quality.
For a good primer on stream ecology and habitat restoration and conservation, see Adopting a Stream, a Northwest Handbook, by Steve Yates, available from the Adopt-a-Stream Foundation, (425) 316-8592.

For the psychological aspects of restoration work, see "Restoring Habitats, Communities, and Souls" by Elan Shapiro in Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind, edited by Roszak, Gomes, and Kanner
Public agencies and non-profit groups use volunteers in restoration projects throughout the Puget Sound region. Urban streams are often the most degraded and overlooked. Here are some places where you can find out about restoration work in your area.

Skagit County:
- Skagit Watershed Council, (360) 419-9326, http://www.skagitwatershed.org/

Snohomish County:
-The Adopt-a-Stream Foundation, (425) 316-8592, http://www.streamkeeper.org/
- Snohomish County Surface Water Management Division (425) 388-3464, www.co.snohomish.wa.us/publicwk/swm/volunteer

King County:
- King County Water and Land Resources Division, (206) 296-8359, http://www.metrokc.gov/volunteer.htm
- Seattle Public Utilities, (206) 684-4163, http://www.ci.seattle.wa.us/util/urbancreeks/default.htm
-The Adopt-a-Stream Foundation, (425) 316-8592, http://www.streamkeeper.org/

Whidbey Island:
- Maxwelton Salmon Adventure, (360) 579-1272, http://www.salmonadventure.org/