On the afternoon before the Presidential Inauguration, my husband, Richard, and I pulled on recyclable rubber gloves, filled our pockets with the plastic bags that protect our daily newspaper, and headed for the slender thread of high-desert creek that runs along one edge of our property, paralleled by a stretch of our town's trail system. We were answering President Obama's call for a national day of service by picking up trash along the trail and creek bank.
We adopted this stretch of trail and the block-long reach of creek it parallels when we moved here eleven years ago. So we know the drill: we patiently stoop pick up discarded cigarette butts, untangle wind-blown plastic grocery bags from the tall grasses and wildflower seed heads, chase down styrofoam packing peanuts, pick up crumpled paper receipts, gum and candy bar wrappers, and scoop up piles of dog poop.
As I worked my way upstream, I thought about how this block of urban creek and its habitat for people and wildlife has changed. When I first saw this shallow spring creek, it ran ruler-straight between dirt banks sprouting a thin and prickly growth of invasive annual weeds, and punctuated by chunks of concrete, oozing spills of asphalt, and other ugly detritus.
Richard and I had just purchased the formerly industrial property on the other side of the creek, and its six-foot-high chain-link fence topped with sagging barbed wire, its crumbling century-old brick shop building, rusting junk, and knee-high weeds. Richard wanted the place for the shop, which he had already restored in his mind's eye for an office and studio. I was drawn to the slender thread of water.
I have always wanted a creek to play with. I was not daunted by the shabby condition of the one I got. I could see its potential. So I set to work.
First came weeding. Richard and I spent whole hot, sweaty weekends pulling tumbleweed, cheatgrass, and kochia by the trailer-load. We grubbed out Siberian elm trees and Canada thistle. Then we planted, beginning with native shrubs that could slowly reweave the natural community: red-twig dogwood, golden-currant, skunkbrush sumac, chokecherry, Indian plum, rabbitbrush, and my favorite, big sagebrush with its silvery-green leaves and pungent fragrance.
As we nurtured the tiny sprigs of shrubs, other natives returned. Two clumps of streambank willow sprang up just above the creek, their wand-like stems reaching five and six feet tall and casting lacy shade over the bare bank. And they sprouted from their roots, spreading into a thicket. Indian ricegrass, with its cloud of seedheads, appeared on the dry upper bank, along with purple aster and scarlet globemallow.
Over the decade-plus since, we have urged these pioneers along, spreading seeds here, pulling weeds there, planting more shrubs and a couple of cottonwood trees. We have witnessed the return of other native species: swallowtail butterflies flutter in to lay their eggs on their favorite plants, native bees buzz in to gather pollen, and hummingbirds appear as if from nowhere to hover and sip nectar.
As I stooped and picked up trash, I thought about our ten years of service to this creek, and the joy of watching it slowly come back to life. It has taught me about persistence and patience, and the blessings that come unlooked for when community re-weaves itself: Northern dippers now practice their warbling songs in winter from the concrete culvert where the creek goes under the street; tiny trout flash in the water in summer under the shade of the willows. This creek and its beautiful resurrection have starred in my weekly commentaries, in essays for magazines and newspapers, and in the last few chapters of my memoir, Walking Nature Home. The time and sweat and patience I've put into reviving this block of creek have been more than repaid. In fact, you could say I serve it in return for all it has given me.
Do you have a creek or other special place nearby? What are its stories? What has it taught you? How do you serve it? Our engagement with the landscape around us can be inspiring, moving, insightful, and above all, it reveals who we are and what we love.
The top photo shows "our" block of creek last fall, with willows overhanging the middle stretch and the burgundy leaves of red-twig dogwood in the foreground. The second photo is almost the same view, but eleven years earlier, the creek as I first saw it. Above is a detail along the creek in summer.