SINCE I HAVE LIVED full-time in a rural place the last decade, my reading list tends increasingly toward tales of the natural world. The new book “Saving Tarboo Creek: One Family’s Quest to Heal the Land,” made it to the top of the pile recently, and I want to tell you about it, and introduce its author, biologist Scott Freeman.
Scott Freeman is Principal Lecturer in Biology at the University of Washington and author of various biology texts. His latest book, though, is at once a tale of his family’s 17-acre project that involved salmon and reforestation while tackling invasive species, and how each of us can engage in a role of stewardship with the earth, and live a more present and engaged life as a citizen of the planet.
“Saving Tarboo Creek” tells a story of ongoing ecological restoration, which Scott says “is really just gardening with native plants on a big scale.” But how do you know what to plant on a ravaged site, and in a world of changing climates? [Top of page: An aerial shot of the Tarboo Valley and bay, looking down the creek valley to the Pacific Ocean; Northwest Watershed Institute photo.]
Read along as you listen to the June 11, 2018 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
a q&a on ecological restoration, with scott freeman
Q. I enjoyed the book so much, and at first, you know, I have to say, I started reading and it’s about salmon, and I’m thinking: “I’m reading a book about salmon.” [Laughter.] And it was my first fish book—but it’s not a book about salmon; it is, but it isn’t, right?
A. That’s right, yes. It’s a book that’s—same here, that’s one of the common threads of the project, but, yes, you’re right, I hope it’s about much more than that.
Q. Exactly. Let’s tell people a little bit, first of all about Saving Tarboo Creek. The book is illustrated by your wife, Susan Leopold Freeman, who’s granddaughter of a famous conservationist. Let’s explain the genealogy a little bit because it’s magical, kind of, that you did this book together, isn’t it?
A. Yes. This project, and then the book, is something we’ve been dreaming about for a long time. The story actually goes back to 1935, when Susan’s grandfather bought a worn-out farm, a Dust Bowl farm that have been abandoned in Central Wisconsin, and he and his kids, and wife set out to bring it back to what he called a state of health. And so they were some of the first people ever on the planet in history who set about replanting native trees, and prairie grasses that were native to that region. And from this worn out godforsaken patch of 80 acres in 1935, it’s just a spectacular landscape now. That was my wife’s heritage. We actually met and fell in love at that spot.
Q. Yes, he’s Aldo Leopold, yes?
A. Yes, Aldo Leopold, considered the godfather of the international conservation movement.
Q. And he wrote a book in I think 1949, “A Sand County Almanac,” is that right?
A. Yes. It’s become a classic. It’s sold over I think 2 million copies and then translated into 13 languages.
Q. In “Saving Tarboo Creek,” you say that you reread your grandfather-in-law’s book every few years, and you’re struck by the desperate tone, and you used the words “desperate tone” in it. You say he’s, “a prophet crying out in the wilderness.” One could say things are even worse now this many years later, but in “Saving Tarboo Creek,” somehow it seems to have an optimism.
A. You’re getting to exactly what I hope is the heart of the book. So, I wanted to tell readers a story about what is happening on the planet. And there can be a note, as you said exactly—you captured it—a note of desperation. And then that’s the big change from Aldo Leopold’s day. He was looking at what was happening to Wisconsin and Iowa, and the United States in general, and now it’s gone international. So there is that sort of desperate edge at the scale of the problem.
But the optimism comes in what thousands or maybe millions of people are doing around the planet locally, in their own neighborhoods, in their own gardens, in their own little wild patches that are near them to heal the land.
Q. Yes, and that word “heal”—healing is in the subtitle, and in some of the cover blurbs by people who recommend the book and so forth. Healing’s a big deal. What was in need of healing when you came to this 17 acres, let’s say how many generations, two generations later from Aldo Leopold?
A. When Susan and I met at the Leopold property in Wisconsin, we had always dreamed about doing a project like that ourselves. And in 2004 we finally got organized enough to look for a project, and we found Tarboo Creek. We wanted to take on a place that have been beat up, and degraded, and abused [laughter], but even we were a little taken it back at the shape of Tarboo Creek. It was a mess when we first saw it.
Q. And this is in the Puget Sound area of Washington, and that’s considered one of the highest quality estuaries remaining, yet it was this tract that you’re taking about was in a pretty rough shape.
A. Yes. The creek is little. It’s only about 7½ miles long, and as you said it flows into the Pacific Ocean, so that’s where the salmon come in; they come in and out of the creek every fall. But when we took it on, there had been a history of agriculture that had failed. The soils are very poor, and so the commercial farming had ended decades ago. So, a lot of these areas along the creek had been ditched and channeled, and the wetlands had been destroyed for agriculture. But then after those operations went belly up, the land was basically fallow.
Q. Yes, and it had no trees, is that correct?
A. All the lowland areas had been cleared until they were abandoned pastures or just boggy areas that have been abandoned. There’s still commercial forest land on the upland areas around the creek, but yes the whole entire watershed in general had been pretty beat up for about 120 years.
Q. So, the story of salmon–the fish is this metaphor of courage and determination. Like you just mentioned, they go out foraging in the Northeast Pacific Ocean—the ones near you at any rate, the species near you. And then when the waters rise with the rains in late summer and fall, they try to make their way back to the streams of their birth to spawn and create the next generation. Am I oversimplifying?
A. No, and there’s a magical element of people in the Northeast, if they’ve seen Atlantic salmon, or people in the Northwest or California with Pacific salmon, as you say—the creek is empty. You might see the little minnows, the little babies hanging out during the summer, but then in the fall or whenever the timing of what we call the run, when the adults come back to breed, they just appear. And as if by magic, these gigantic beasts are running up and down this little creeks.
Q. And so, this land as you two found it in shocking condition, what was wrong that this little piece of water—why didn’t it support the salmon? What did you aim to do? What needed healing in that sense?
A. The basic thing we needed to work on, there were two things. We needed to work on the stream course itself, to get it back into a natural meandering sinuous shape that had wood in it, and lots of gravel for the mom salmon to build her nest in. And the we needed to reforest, to replace the trees that had grown in the area historically. We were really focused on those two things: to cure the water and to cure the trees.
Q. You say in the book, and maybe it’s a quote; maybe you’re quoting someone else, I’m not sure. You say, “With the stream, you needed to make crooked that which was straight.” [Above: the newly re-meandered stream, in 2004; photo from Northwest Watershed Institute.]
A. Yes. That’s exactly, yes that’s my line, because it’s exactly what you’re doing is if you’re farming in a wet spot. You want to get the water down and off, and get the soils dry, and to bring the fish back and bring wildlife back, we had to do exactly the opposite.
Q. Right, instead of ditches that in agriculture are used to move the water off, and they’re straight, and they’re not like nature makes … water doesn’t move in nature that way.
A. Right, they’re deep and you want to bring the stream back up toward the surface, so it re-wets the soils, and get it wandering back and forth the way it does naturally. Before we worked on our place, it was about 1,000 feet of the creek. When we were done with this re-meandering, there was 1,500. There was just a lot more creek.
Q. So, the shortest distance between two points might be a straight line, but it’s not the best way to go. [Laughter.]
A. Not the best way. Not the way the water wants to move.
Q. So you wanted to slow the water and bring it up to the surface, and rewet the soils that were in such desperate condition.
A. Right. Then you get a complete change in the kind of insect life, and plant life, and then mammals and birds, and everything else follows.
Q. I’m a gardener—again, I don’t know much about fish—and so I found as I said at the beginning I was like, “Oh, I’m reading a book about fish.” And then I realized I wasn’t. It’s bigger than that. There’s this reforesting as well, and what really struck me the most in this book was this isn’t a story that’s particular to the Pacific Northwest, or even America, where the land as you say in the book, “settlers led and logging companies followed close behind.” This has happened in Europe, that happened, too, hundreds of years before it happened here, right?
A. That’s right.
Q. I mean, yes, but when you went to then not just make this dream better for the salmon, you then went to reforest. You couldn’t really look in a historical record, and say, “Ah, here’s the palette of plants that we need to regrow,” from some point in the time in the past. Because things have changed, and that’s what really interested me.
I wondered if we could talk a little bit about what do you put there? You could find historical records of what grew there, but that’s not what you necessarily were going to replant, was it? [Below, conifer seedling illustration by Susan Leopold Freeman from “Saving Tarboo Creek.”]
A. Yes, and this is a big conundrum that’s being debated among people who do this work.
Q. It is, it is.
A. We now call it ecological restoration. It’s really just gardening with native plants on a big scale.
A. We actually think of ourselves as gardeners, you know the dictum right plant in the right place.
Q. Because we’re imposing something on land. It didn’t just happen where a garden is an imposition.
A. Right. Right, and you often have to manage invasives just the way you’re managing weeds in a vegetable or flower garden. And our water feature in our big 17-acre garden is this salmon stream.
Q. There were carcasses or stumps at least that gave you a hint of what once grew there and for instance, what would some of those plants have been that might have been the old trees that no longer exist?
A. The iconic trees in this part of the world are Western redcedar [Thuja plicata], and your listeners may know them because they’re used widely for roofing or for the sides of houses. It’s wonderfully rot resistant, and just a gorgeous tree, too—just lacy, fully striking. And then Douglas-firs [Pseudotsuga menziesii], which are if your listeners have to do with a 2-by-4, it’s very likely the Douglas-firs from the Pacific Northwest. They were the real grandmothers and grandfathers when settlers found the old-growth forest here.
Q. But, you didn’t just go and put those back, because the world has changed, hasn’t it? The climate has changed, and so what do you do?
A. Exactly. The short answer, honestly Margaret, is that nobody knows. We’re trying to figure this out in the fly. Initially, like in Susan’s grandfather’s day in the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s—up until recently—people said let’s do exactly what you said, look back at the historical records and put it back.
Things seem to be working well. Soils were good. Water was good. Wildlife was abundant. Let’s do that. And now as you said, that world doesn’t exist. Temperatures are higher. Storms are more severe. Fires are in many parts of the world are more frequent and more intense. So, we have to shift our framework and think, what is the future going to be like?
When we sit down to do our plant ordering, just the same way we were going to do our garden ordering for our vegetable garden we do at home, we have to think now we’re not planting lettuces and squash where they’re going to live for three months. We’re planning cedar trees, it could live 1,000 years.
We’ve gone through this debate exactly as you highlighted about what do we do? Do we plant stuff that’s native to California now because we think it’s going to be when our grandkids are growing, that’s going to be the appropriate environment?
A. And so we’ve been dancing around this issue, and as I say in the book, we don’t know what’s going to happen. We are optimistic people. We believe in action, and we believe in human beings and basic decency and concern for people about the planet. We’ve planting the trees that we think will thrive if we as a community, as a global community, wake up and start to take some reasonable action about climate change.
Q. You had to choose a strategy because there is no real roadmap that’s a guaranteed roadmap.
A. That’s right. Nobody’s done this before.
Q. Right, and so if one is trying to adjust or adapt for climate change, one would go and pick the plant pallet of a more southern ecosystem, is that the idea?
A. Yes, exactly. That’s the general pattern, is that plants are moving up in elevation, up mountainsides, and North Pole-ward, north and south. And the big extremes, the most extremes on the planet right now in temperature, are toward the poles.
Q. Of course, what’s interesting when you say that, it flashes in my head that what we’re also seeing I think is that insects—everything’s spreading further. They’re able to move farther north because it’s more favorable, it seems like.
Q. So it’s not just the plants that maybe from a more southerly or warmer area, but it’s also other creatures that are adapting, and where I assume birds, migratory species go and will come back to, looking for appropriate habitat, as time changes.
A. Exactly. Our older son is a biologist, and he does research and documenting exactly what you just described, of showing that birds are going up mountainsides, and in some cases in the tropics birds that used to be at the top of mountains in 1960s or ’80s are gone.
Q. Right. And yet you’re optimistic. I know you’re optimistic, and that’s what’s so beautiful about this book, one of the things that’s so beautiful about this book, and your part of Tarboo Creek, your 17 acres is part of a bigger—I should have said that at the beginning—is not just you in this little piece of land “own.” This is part of a bigger project, yes?
A. That’s right, and it’s really what attracted us to this. We were shopping all over western Washington for a project like this, and that’s really what attracted us to this particular project. it was that a little community started to form saying, “What if we worked on this entire watershed as a whole that could be a model for what we could do nationally or even internationally?” And that’s come to be.
That was a seed that was on the ground in 2004 when we started, and there have been well over 1,000 school kids, and 1,200, 1,300 school kids, who have planted trees in this watershed from all the surrounding villages and communities, and dozens of different government agencies, and tribes that have been involved.
It’s been a wonderful … We’ve met so many friends through this project. And you talked about shared values. When you’re digging out in the garden and getting worn out, and friends or family members are there, you’re just thinking we are really bonding here working on this place to make it beautiful, and you experience the same sort of thing doing this restoration work. [Above: Boy planting trees near he newly re-meandered stream; photo from Northwest Watershed Institute.]
Q. Fighting the invasives? How’s the bonding over that? [Laughter.]
A. Oh my goodness. Oh heavens, I don’t know if your listeners are familiar with reed canary grass. It’s famous all over the country.
Q. Is that a Phalaris? Is that I want to say? What’s this genus? I can’t remember.
A. Oh my goodness. Reed canary.
Q. I want to say it’s a Phalaris, but Phalaris arundinacea or something like that. I might have made that up. Don’t anyone believe when Margaret starts talking in Latin, O.K.? [In fact, I was correct.]
A. Someone will correct this. Anyway, yes we had a big infestation come in one of the areas near the creek, and so yes. We’ve been battling the past couple years. Making progress. We’re going to win this one.
Q. Just so people know, it’s not like you restore, like you say, “Oh, we’ve picked a pallet. We’ve made a decision on our philosophy over the pallet according to where we’re going to roll the dice about climate change and the other things that have changed, and then we’re going to put in all of our new plants thousands and thousands of new plants, and we’re just going to turn our backs.”
This is a lifelong commitment and beyond to then help it balance itself until these things take a foothold, and hopefully can fight the good fight for themselves, yes?
A. Exactly. The only constant for us is change, and we’re always learning from the plants, and from the land, and from the wildlife about changes to make, things to try. It’s a wonderfully creative process and very engaging. You have to be thinking along with the land as you go through this.
When we’ve been giving talks about the book, people will say to bring up your point is, “They’ll say, when is it done?”
A. And Susan and I will often say, “That’s exactly the point: never.”
A. We’re always engaged. We’ll always have our hands in this soil. [Above: Susan Leopold Freeman and her father, Carl Leopold, son of conservationist Aldo Leopold; photo by Scott Freeman.]
Q. Yes. Another great passage for me in the book, it’s a sentence that says: “If your goal is to live with the land instead of just on it, you have to accept the organisms that live there more or less on their own terms.”
For instance, you give the example of someone who wants to have a lot of lawn, and then they want to scream, and shout, and stamp their feet that there are moles who decide that that seems like a very nice place to do their mole thing. It’s like you really can’t say no moles—put up a sign that says, “Excuse me moles, you’re not welcome here, even though I planted this track of turfgrass.” [Laughter.]
Or with your pools that the female salmon would enjoy and would have the right situation for them to breed in, to make their nests in, someone else may come, an otter may come, right? And does. [Laughter.]
A. Yes, and this really became a big … We were confronted with exactly this issue when beavers moved in because they started damming the stream, and they started eating our little saplings we’ve planted so lovingly, or the school kids had put out with their parents. And so we started a process, and we talked to a lot of friends and folks in our circle, and everyone said, “Get rid of them. Beavers are bad. They’ll destroy everything.” And we went back to what the quote you just said is, that we’ve got to learn to live with them.
They’ve been here way longer than we have. Beavers and salmon have coexisted since time immemorial, and actually beavers create wonderful salmon habitats. So it ecologically really made sense for us to make it work, but we wanted to regrow this forest. We had to learn how to protect the plants and how to manage the restoration with the beavers.
Q. It’s funny, I’ve been stamping my feet out in the backyard. I have a couple of contrivances—water gardens that have been on the ground for 30 years or something. And usually I have lots and lots and lots of amphibians, and lots of frogs especially at the water’s edge, and this year I have one very, very large female bullfrog. And she has gradually often in front of me as if to challenge me on this theory that I just quoted you [laughter]—she has eaten almost everyone else. She’s had for lunch everybody else.
A. Yes, we have a real problem with bullfrogs. They’re very exotic.
Q. Yes, they’re exotic for you. And normally I have the greens, and the bulls, and the wood frogs, and I have everybody, and a couple or three species of salamanders, and whatever. Everybody’s in these little pieces of water, and everybody survives, and sometimes somebody eats somebody. But anyway, every day I want to put her in a net and cart her down the road to some bigger stream and say, “Get out of my yard and stop doing this,” but on the other hand, you know what? I can’t do that.
I have to let it play itself out, and I mean it’s a tiny example in a contrivance of a garden, but it’s a very important point for people to think about: “If your goal is to live with the land instead of just on it, you have to accept the organisms that live there more or less on their own terms.” To quote you again.
A. I’d make friends with your local great blue heron, and let her know there’s a wonderful dinner waiting.
Q. [Laughter.] She’s a hefty girl, that frog.
A. That’s right. That would be dinner and breakfast, with leftovers.
Q. So the book ends with an invocation to live a natural life. Can you give us that sort of invocation? What are the tenets of it?
A. Yes, I was inspired by the Beatitudes, these beautiful declarations out of the New Testament about how people can think about living. And I wanted to do something similar about our relationship with the natural world, and what I came up with was four.
The first is be engaged, and that’s what your audience does by gardening, and raising food or flowers, or making a place beautiful. The other three were to be present, and that’s just to sit and put your phone down, and experience the people around you, and the natural world around you in a real way.
Then the next one is to be real, which is I think epidemic. We’re coached in our culture all the time to judge ourselves by the size of our house, and our car, and our TV set, and I just ask we consider putting that away at least a little bit, and judging themselves by the quality of their relationships with each other and the land around them.
And the last one is to be simple, and that’s just the invocation about the decision you make about your life, the size of your car, what you’re eating. Are you growing some of your own food? Sort of the stuff in your life.
Q. The stuff, and it’s easy to let that take over, isn’t it?
A. That’s right, and we’re constantly bombarded with the messages in the consumer culture that we live in that this is where value is in life. And that’s empty for us, really, because what we value is when we serve each other and serve the land, and connect with each other, and connect with the land, that’s where the real value in life lies.
Q. Well said.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its ninth year in March 2018. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the June 11, 2018 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).