Your Chance to Eavesdrop


“Can I ask you folks a coupla dumb questions?”

I turned around abruptly, and gasoline overflowed from the weedwhacker tank I was filling. “Shit,” I mumbled automatically, flash-imagining the whole field going up in flames. “Yes, sir,” I said, more loudly, to the man coming up the path.

“Why are you all weedwhacking around these trees? Why don’t you just leave this to Mother Nature?” That day we (a watershed restoration crew) were rigging the competition for our underdogs before they became underneaths. We were cutting the tall invasive grass away from young willow, ash, and ninebark seedlings that we had planted, before it could grow as tall as a basketball player and then fall on top of them like a mattress onto a bottle of wine. (Wink wink)

I saw that he was a robust old man and so his initial question was spoken in mock-humility. He was half Saint Nick and half Fish Stick man, but he didn’t look silly. He wore Carhartt overalls, a white beard, and a conductor’s hat. He looked sea-hardened, or air-hardened, or some element-hardened. Maybe earth-hardened and fire-baked, like pottery.

He gestured at the monoculture of reed canary grass in the field. “If this is the way Mother Nature wants it, I don’t see why you’re out here trying to save these trees. This place is flooded two-thirds of the year, how do you know if the trees like that? And I seen trees knocked down by weedwhackers because the folks can’t see them through all the grass. I just don’t see why we’re spending tax dollars…”

This is the frontier, and people up here in Washington are very independent-minded and skeptical of government and taxation.

“Sir, this grass is not native here and we’re trying to restore the native plants. So I’d say we’re on the side of Mother Nature.”

Like most people filing a complaint, he preferred it to be a monologue. Unlike most people, he had not completely made up his mind beforehand, and seemed willing to do some research.

“Restore it to what? Like it was 100 years ago? I have people who were here 100 years ago and I’m going to ask them what it looked like then. Don’t get me wrong, I want this land to be preserved, I just don’t know if you’re doing the right thing with it.

“Do you remember when Mt. St. Helens blew?” His voice became low and dramatic. “Are you old enough to remember that? These brilliant scientists, who obvously aren’t so brilliant, said that nothing would ever regrow there. But then trees were regrowing the very next year. And the scientists were the ones who said we should take care of all these hatchery salmon. Now of course they’re saying the opposite, we need to save the wild salmon. A lot of times the decisions humans make end up being the wrong ones.”

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Our crew plants native trees and shrubs in riparian areas to restore wildlife habitat and create a healthier watershed system. All this land was cleared for agriculture at one time, and so it’s laid open to invasive species now. We take out the “bad” species (reed canary grass, Himalayan blackberry, Canada thistle, Japanese knotweed) and put in the “good” species (Pacific willow, red osier dogwood, Oregon ash, Hardhack spirea, Pacific ninebark).

I appreciated this kind man’s comments, because I think restoration raises a lot of questions about how we view nature. Isn’t tearing out invasives and planting trees as much an interference with nature as the original razing for grazing? In addition to the practical reasons, is there a touch of romanticism or nostalgia in our efforts? How far back in time are we going? Hasn’t disturbance and dynamism (whether from natural disaster, climate change, animal or human activity) always occurred in ecosystems?

Bottleman mentioned in a previous post that scientists still haven’t been able to assemble a self-sustaining living system. What I’ve learned from our efforts to reestablish woods on scarred lands is that it’s much, much easier to undo than to redo.

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