When we lived on the coast of Oregon, we had to constantly fertilize the poor, sandy soil to maintain a garden. Also, the area received very high rainfall—100 or more inches on the coast where we lived and 200 inches in the coastal mountains that began at the edge of town, so nutrients were continually washed out of the soil to run into the ocean nearby. I first realized how accustomed people were to rain when shortly after I moved there I watched two people talking while standing out in a light drizzle when there was a covered porch just six feet away they could have easily moved under. During storms the water would often hit our house horizontally so you had to weather-strip and caulk windows against water being driven upwards as well as downwards on south sides of houses where big storms hit.
Notwithstanding our poor soil, one year we grew an enormous broccoli and people came from all over to see it because it was 14 inches across at the top and later won a blue ribbon at the county fair. People would come to the door and ask to see the “broccoli from outer space.” We always believed the secret of that plant’s success was the fertilizer. That spring we had used kelp from a beach a few hundred yards from our house to fertilize our garden. We had a prolific kelp bloom that winter and violent storms had covered the beaches with it. I made many trips bringing back tons of the stuff and we had spread it all over the garden. Kelp consists of green, slippery, long, tapering, hollow tubes from three or four inches wide down to a fraction of an inch. I used a hatchet to chop the tubes into hollow rings and spread them all over the garden. We always assumed that the kelp bloom that year contributed something that caused our broccoli to grow that large.
When kelp washes up on beaches it is called wrack and as it decomposes it produces clouds of tiny flying insects that shore birds eat. Seven hundred species depend on kelp and it contains about 70 nutrients that benefit plants.
A year or so later the broccoli played a part in changing the way I viewed forests because of an incident when I was in an ancient forest grove in the nearby coastal forest. During those years, I worked as a full-time volunteer stopping old-growth timber sales in the Pacific Northwest and naturally spent a lot of time in the forest. Like other forest activists, after some time saving trees from being clear-cut, I developed a special awe or affection for forests that felt even personal and it seemed to be reciprocated in strange ways. Activists often would say, “Mother nature does not love you.” Nevertheless, it seemed at times that she knew what we were doing. For example, one day we were driving a congressman an hour or so into a national forest to look at a particularly egregious proposed timber sale and it rained the whole way in, but when we stopped for lunch, the sun came out. It was sunny all during lunch, but when we got back in the cars it started raining again. Things like this happened all the time.
Another odd incident occurred when a friend and I were in the woods scoping out a route for an old-growth hike. The forests in the rural Northwest are so little visited that there are seldom established trails, so when you are planning a hike you need to go out in advance and scout a route. Rick, my partner, was a very experienced, surefooted woodsman and hike leader and moved through the forest fluidly. While we were walking in an old-growth area and as we were crossing a log over a stream, Rick slipped and skinned his shin. This was a very uncharacteristic thing to happen to him, yet later he tripped and sprained his finger. A mile or so further I fell and hurt myself and before we arrived home we had each slightly injured ourselves again, all this while simply hiking along on a sunny day. This seriously upset us, so when we got home we got out our maps to research more precisely about this spooky place. It turns out that both Rick and I had a history with this specific area.
Several years before, when I was in my first month of forest activism, many old-growth timber sales had been stopped by court injunctions. In a desire to save timber workers jobs, Congress suspended the laws the courts said had been violated and ordered half the sales to be clear-cut anyway. They also said the environmental community had to choose which would be cut and which saved and, if we refused to choose them by a certain date, the forest service would decide for us. Since Rick and I were the only forest activists for a thousand square miles, we had to go through the list and decide which ones in our region would be cut and which saved. To our shock, after our perilous walk in the woods, we realized the place we were hiking in was adjacent to one of the areas we chose to be cut, although both of us had long forgotten about it.
After experiences like this, the relation between activists and forests can become personal. This is especially true with places where you alone are entirely responsible for saving them. While most successes are due to team efforts, occasionally you can stop a planned old growth timber sale after it is cruised, marked and flagged, advertised for sale and sold at auction. In ten years of activism, I stopped sales by myself. These places have a special emotional significance ever after. In visiting these places, I have a sense of security that is not describable; there is no word in English that serves; perhaps the German word “geborgenheit” comes close. Once I was hiking through a forest with two other activists and, as we looked at several thousands of acres that one or the other of us had personally “saved,” we agreed that the feelings you get in these “personally saved” places was a main reason people are drawn to forest protection activism despite its many frustrations.
Forest activists live with a nightmarish side of the American dream and must constantly engage with people, situations and landscapes that disturb their emotional equanimity. To cope with this, I would escape to a remote grove of ancient forest which only escaped the chainsaw because of my personal action. Going there always cheered me up no matter how things were going. This place had once been prepared for clear-cutting and postcard-sized sale boundary tags and neon-orange plastic ribbons were still tacked to the trees to mark the boundaries of the clear-cut.
One day I was there, sitting under a tree, dozing off in what I considered my personal forest on the edge of a wilderness area so impenetrable, steep and wild that local foresters said they did not know of anyone who had ever been in its remote parts. In ten years of driving the dirt road to this grove four or five times a year, I had only once met a car coming from the opposite direction. While sitting in that grove, I had a very clear vision, or maybe a dream. When I later relayed it to my wife, Martha, she said maybe my vision was the key to the secret of the broccoli that ate Port Orford.
The day of the only “vision” I have ever had, I was sitting under the old-growth fir tree which had a clear-cut boundary tag still attached to it. Perhaps it was related to a slide show I had seen a few days earlier, which had pictures from long ago of a river illustrating an enormous salmon run long gone due to man’s interventions. The slides showed fish in an abundance I had never imagined possible; and eagles and bear feeding on dead and dying carcasses left after spawning. It included a picture of a large tree on a bend of a river that had been used as a perch by so many eagles over the years that their nitrogen-rich droppings had killed the tree. Bears were gathered at the river in incredible profusion to feed on innumerable salmon. During that slide show, I remember thinking that this is what our local rivers in Oregon must have looked like before logging, over-fishing and white settlement decimated our salmon runs.
I had, of course, read about pre-settlement salmon runs so thick they were said to be impassable on horseback. But the slide show gave me for the first time an actual picture of what my neighborhood could have looked like 100 years ago. It must have been with me subconsciously when I walked into that grove—a place few people have ever been and where I still occasionally get lost finding my way although I have been there many times.
There I was sitting in this grove in the headwaters of a stream in which a few wild salmon still spawn, which flows down to a river that empties into the ocean some miles away. And I had a vision in which I saw the forest, soil, ocean and the salmon in a new way; as one thing and not just related or dependent on each other, as parts of the same thing. In particular, the relation of salmon to individual trees came into vivid focus.
In my dream, I watched a kind of movie where trees grew out of the soil and rain fell on those trees and washed the nutrients out of the soil, into the stream and out to the ocean; and I saw the salmon bringing the nutrients back up the streams to the trees and then dying, and then bears and eagles and other animals eating them and spreading their droppings all over the forest, restoring nutrients which had collected in the salmon bodies. I saw this happening over thousands of years of 200-inch-a-year rainfalls on steep, gravelly, unstable slopes. In my vision, the fish were not “out” in the ocean, but were a part of a single entity—trees, soil, rain, ocean, fish, bears, and eagles.
I also saw that a natural landslide had blocked a river and forced the returning salmon to spawn at the blockage, so all the nutrients of the run were delivered to the exact place the land needed to revegetate and heal itself. I remember thinking how unique and vigorous a fish would have to be to swim upstream, over waterfalls, to bring nutrients back to where they were born, and immediately deteriorate and die. I saw that the fish developed in response to, because of, or as compensation for, the rain which continually washed the nutrients downstream; and without the salmon the soil would become nutritionally depleted. I saw that without fish the trees wouldn’t survive even if we don’t cut them down. We had interfered with and broken a long nutrient depletion-and-replenishment cycle. I saw man intercepting the fish in the ocean and putting their nutrients back into different watersheds, stealing nutrients from the forest they came from. I saw distant ponds and rivers in other watersheds choking from nutrient loading because they were getting nourishment which was supposed to come back to the stream flowing in front of me.
Ever since that day in the forest I have looked at environmental issues from a watershed perspective. For example, my community is located on a north-flowing river a few miles from the Canadian border and if we have a sewage plant that is threatened every year by flooding, as the river it sits on is gradually filling up with sediment; every year, the flood is worse than the year before. Experts fear it is just a matter of time until the plant floods and raw sewage is released into the river. Last week I was in a meeting discussing how to find funding to fix it and thought about the plant in relation to its whole watershed and realized that, if it was damaged, the most serious effects might be in Canada. This is an angle we could use to score more grant points, giving us an edge over other distressed plants in search of state funding. Timely support could very well head of an international incident. Canadian municipalities that could be affected might readily agree to write letters in support of our grant application.
Thinking about our local watershed’s Canadian portions may explain a phenomenon inexplicable to outsiders; people in the local area always sing both the Canadian and American national anthems at public events. And it helped me think about why, possibly, adjacent communities in my region seem to have very different attitudes about life and politics. Maybe it is because they are in different watersheds. Watershed analysis helps us identify a community’s real “neighbors” and provides insights into why two may have different “characters.” A watershed perspective provides new ways to address the problem of the increase of noisy snowmobiles in the Adirondacks, a watershed one of whose floodplains is New York City. We might ask downstate environmental groups in the watershed to weigh in with their state legislators rather than just futilely lobbying the handful of rural state legislators located where the noise originates. If you consider water, and-use and wilderness issues primarily as problems for the entire watershed, then you will see that everyone in the watershed—including voters hundreds of miles away—has a vital stake in the issues. Also, if you want public support for a remote wilderness, where downstream half the residents of the distant floodplain are minorities, you might want to consider programs that give inner city kids summer camp experiences so they develop relationships they will remember in their later years as voters.
A watershed perspective can even help with mundane problems like why the street in front of my house never drained properly and water pooled in the street at the end of my driveway. Using Google Maps, I looked to see which direction it should flow and found that my house lot is exactly between two different local rivers (technically, subwatersheds). One side of my yard drains into one and the other side into another and it looks flat but the center is an inch higher than either side. I called the highway department and they came and regraded my street with new asphalt and now it drains fine and all the water now flows into its proper watershed. Looking at this problem from a watershed perspective made me understand how the problem was created. Also, I realized that my village was divided into two watersheds and this may come in handy someday.
We are accustomed to considering problems from village, town, county or national boundary perspectives and our thinking is constrained by these imaginary lines that were originally created primarily to facilitate real estate speculation. But looking at issues with a watershed metaphor provides new ways to solve problems, especially since the answer to most human problems lies with voters who are usually found in greatest numbers in the lower portions of watersheds. Watersheds are complete, complex ecosystems just like our bodies. Just as our bodies would not function normally if we were to pluck out an eye or remove an internal organ, watersheds are distressed if we remove fish, predators, trees and other habitat.
It took Martha’s prize-winning broccoli in Oregon to understand that the health of our garden and the nearby ocean were fundamentally connected because they were in the same watershed. Today, to their dismay, because of two great hurricanes, people in Texas and Florida are learning the consequences of having long-forgotten Superfund sites and poorly protected chemical plants in their watersheds. No matter how long you dam a river, beneath that water an ancient river pauses, waiting for man’s temporary obstruction to go away. No matter how you draw national and state boundaries in watersheds, the fate of everything and everybody in them are inextricably and everlastingly linked, irrespective of man’s struttings and scribblings.