Day of service: giving back to the community of the land

On Monday afternoon, my husband, Richard, and I pulled on recyclable rubber gloves, filled our pockets with the plastic bags our daily newspaper comes in, and headed for the section of our town’s trail system that runs along one edge of our property, marked by a slender thread of high-desert creek. We were answering President-elect Barack Obama’s call for a national day of service by doing a bit of neighborhood beautification, picking up trash–and dog poop–along the trail and creek bank.

We’ve done this before–we adopted this stretch of trail and the block-long reach of creek it parallels when we moved here eleven years ago. So we have the drill down. We patiently work our way along the concrete ribbon of trail, stooping to pick up cigarette butts, untangling plastic grocery bags from the tall grasses and seed heads remaining from last summer’s wildflowers, picking up styrofoam packing peanuts, crumpled paper receipts, gum and candy bar wrappers, and scooping up piles of doggie leavings (that’s where the newspaper bags come in handy), along with  less-identifiable human detritus. After a while, Richard gets a rake and begins hauling waterlogged plastic bags and sheets of newspaper and other trash out of the creek.

As I worked my way gradually upstream between trail and creek, I thought about how this block of urban creek and its thread of habitat for people and wilder life has changed. When I first saw this shallow spring creek, it ran ruler-straight between dirt banks thinly hazed by a prickly growth of invasive annual weeds. Chunks of concrete protruded from the dirt here and there, along with oozing spills of asphalt, rusting fence wire and pieces of cast-iron engine blocks, and other remnants of the place’s industrial past, the whole festooned with windblown trash.

It was not a thing of beauty. But Richard and I had just purchased the formerly industrial property on the other side of the creek. It came complete with six-foot-high chain-link fence topped with sagging barbed wire, crumbling century-old brick shop building, rusting junk, and knee-high weeds. (Our friends thought we were crazy.) 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 that slender thread of water.

I have always wanted a creek to play with, and I was not daunted by the shabBeforeby condition of the one I got. Right away, before we pulled up the
posts and removed the fence around the property (we donated both to the town public works department), before we hauled away many construction dumpsters of unidentifiable industrial detritus to clear a space for our house-to-be, before Richard cleared the old shop building down to its beautiful timber-frame and brick bones and fixed it up, before we built our house and planted wildflowers and constructed our kitchen garden in the embrace of one old u-shaped stretch of cement wall left from the property’s industrial past, we set to work reclaiming the creek.

First came weeding: Richard and I spent whole hot, sweaty weekend days pulling tumbleweed, cheatgrass, and kochia by the trailer-load. We grubbed out weedy Siberian elm trees and Canada thistle. When the annual weeds sprouted from the carpet of the previous year’s seeds, we burned them with a propane torch, hoed them, and sprayed them. And then we planted native shrubs to begin the slow process of reweaving 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 weeded and watered the tiny sprigs of shrubs that were all we could afford, 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. Soon more clumps of willow appeared, sprouting from the underground roots of those pioneers. 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 the native plants along in recolonizing this block of formerly blighted creek, spreading seeds here, pulling weeds there, planting a few more shrubs, plus a rescued clump of wild Rocky Mountain irises, and a couple of cottonwood trees. We have watched the butterflies return on fluttering wings to feed from the wildflowers and lay their eggs on their favorite plants, the bees buzz in to gather pollen, and the hummingbirds hover, sipping nectar. We have heard Northern dippers practice their warbling songs in the concrete culvert where the creek goes under the street, and seen tiny trout flash in the water under the shade of the willows.

So as I stooped and picked up trash on Monday, I thought about our ten years of service to this creek, and the joy it has given us as we have watched it slowly come back to life. And when I listened to President Obama the next day call us all to action, “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and get to work” on rebuilding our nation, I thought, we can do that. It just takes time, patience, faith–oh, and a little help from our friends, both wild and human. Just look at our creek. 

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.