The great thing about watersheds is that they are the visible and sensual containers of our collective being. That visible and sensual part is very important. It’s really very hard to find ourselves in the trophic levels and energy exchanges that have come to define the ecological sciences. Watersheds are something we experience. We walk in them. We feel their winds and smell their smells and get our feet wet in their creeks. They break themselves into ever smaller increments—from river to creek to swale—as if to accommodate the variety of our human skills of perception. Think watershed and the ridge lines you see when you walk out the door every morning become the definition of a life place. Every one of us lives in one. Think watershed and the great cities that are always built on estuaries or at the confluences of major rivers gain a deeper sense of themselves—recontextualized in their larger landscape. Rivers and bays that were previously experienced as high-priced scenic views or obstacles to the daily commute are transformed into the visible containers of life itself.
The beauty of hands-on watershed restoration is that it allows the place itself to become our teacher. As we engage the particulars of our places, we begin to relearn how to live in a context that has always been there but has in modern times become all but invisible.
For somewhere between two and five hundred years in North America, we have lived in the context of territories and jurisdictions, of properties and the stuff of commerce. Now something new seems to be happening, maybe because we have run out of places to move on to. For the last twenty years or so, Americans have been looking at where they have landed after two hundred years of restless movement and are looking at the way their home place works for clues to a more satisfying and enduring community identity.
The question remains: What is it we are restoring? The theme of this gathering answers the question nicely: We are working to restore our watersheds, our communities and ourselves. The deeper we get into this work, the more we come to understand that those three goals are all of a piece. The first thing we learn in this work is how little we know, which drives us to seek help from experts—to whom we are grateful. The second thing we learn—and this follows quickly on the first—is that watershed restoration is by nature a community endeavor. It is demanded of us that we come to understand not only the needs of other species but that we come to understand the world views of all the humans who live in our home places, too.
Any serious move toward reinhabitation demands that we be inclusive, which means each of us talking to people we don’t necessarily like or who don’t like us. Those of us who are workers in the woods, fishers, school teachers, shopkeepers, or ranchers need to talk to each other. It is one of the primary values of community-based watershed work that it provides the occasion for this kind of communication to happen. As we work side by side with people different than ourselves, we find a common teacher in the place itself, in the particulars of our home landscape. And we discover that this new context is much more conducive to the building of functional community than the political processes that had previously separated us. We find strength in that—sometimes enough strength to change the political processes we can now set in a larger common reality. And in this way, we learn things about ourselves and about our home watersheds that no expert can teach.
This is the Spirit of Restoration that we need to embody, to maintain as our ultimate goal. What we are restoring is relationships—with each other and with real living places, each with its own set of unique ecologies, hydrologies, histories, and cranky psychologies. Places that become more real than their abstractions in the capitol. We learn from actual landscapes, and that is our strength. Our technical management skills and our innovative on-the-ground projects may or may not succeed in augmenting the natural healing processes of the Earth. We learn from our failures as well as from our successes. Luckily the work is its own reward. It gives us a relieved sense of finding a way to return some of the gifts of life. But unless we learn to restore ourselves as communities of humans firmly rooted in the larger communities of place, our efforts will be swept away, like a poorly anchored instream structure, by the flood of history.