Armchair Birding: Saving Tarboo Creek: One Family’s Quest to Heal the Land, by Scott Freeman, with illustrations by Susan Leopold Freeman

Armchair Birding: Saving Tarboo Creek: One Family’s Quest to Heal the Land, by Scott Freeman, with illustrations by Susan Leopold Freeman

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by Anne Kilgannon – During the recent snow event, despite our efforts, we lost the crowns from several maple trees and significant branches from other trees that graced our front garden. The damage is beyond repair. Which raises the question: what should we plant in the unwanted openings in our canopy to recreate the woodsy feel we—and our local birds—enjoyed? The adage of planting trees for future generations, not oneself, has been made more complicated by climate change. What future do we now take into consideration when choosing new trees? Admittedly, our maples are non-natives; was that a factor in their demise? Was this heavy dump of snow a harbinger or an aberration? How should we be thinking about our garden’s resiliency in the next years when the only certainty is uncertainty?

We have a small city lot. Scott Freeman writes about grappling with similar questions but scaled up to eighteen acres of mixed forest and a degraded salmon stream on the Olympic Peninsula that he and his family are working to restore. With a community of like-minded landowners, local tribal members, government agencies and land trusts, the Freemans joined the project coordinated by Peter Bahls of the Northwest Watershed Institute, to study and find ways to return the land to health. The goal is to recreate an environment fit for salmon to thrive and reproduce, as the key species necessary for that place to be whole once again.

Working from the question, what do salmon need, the family examined what had happened to the land over the years, what changes had debased the ecosystem. By searching for clues about missing pieces: the tree species logged from the site, the meandering streambed that had been channelized and scoured, the wealth of animal and plant life that had been discouraged, the Freemans set about bringing back what had been lost. What had been stripped and simplified was to be made complex and intricate, a living web again, niche by niche.

Very basically, salmon need cool, graveled, tree-shaded waters for survival and reproduction, so the stream bed was reconfigured and renovated to create protected spots for young salmon and locations for redds for spawning salmon. An extensive planting scheme was created, a many-year project that returned a variety of trees to the stream banks. When considering the recreation of the forest environment, the team also looked ahead to a future that will require different species tolerant of a changing climate and capable of sheltering birds and other species that may migrate into the area as conditions shift. This ability to learn from a lost past, work in the present, but always keep the unsettled future in mind is one of the great strengths of this book. Freeman and his coworkers demonstrate the ability to juggle many pieces of the restoration puzzle thoughtfully, learning as they go, but keeping a clear vision of a healthy place as their goal.

As high-minded as is that vision, Freeman also employs a humble humor and a patient sanity that keeps the work in perspective and makes room for delight in small moments. He and Susan and their sons take frequent walks to simply enjoy their patch of the world and note signs of progress. And there is irony, too: when one of the returning species is discovered to be beavers that relish the newly planted saplings, there is consternation about competing values, the new trees or celebration of the return of this denizen species from the lost past? The answer is to broaden the vision and find ways to include them as well as protect enough of the young trees to dapple the light reaching the water. It was a head-scratching moment, though!

Freeman ranges over concepts as large as climate change, mass extinction, the psychological toll as we contemplate the loss of home as we once knew it, our personal and collective responsibilities, and how to keep our commitment to life intact and open. He circles from looming catastrophe back to finding strength in family and community and shared values as the way forward. He finds poetry in salmon nosing their way into the restored stream and renewal in caring for the trees that hold the soil and stretch over the water, noting, “Thinning and pruning have spiritual benefits too, for there is no better way to learn a patch of land than to work on it.” He is as strongly rooting himself and family by Tarboo Creek as the forest he is encouraging.

And it is not happenstance that brought him to this place. While it may sometimes seem like every innovative conservation project has a Leopold involved, it may very well be true that every Leopold can be found doing something in the field, doggedly and with imagination and generations of experience to guide them. The lineage of this project is direct: Susan Leopold Freeman and her husband Scott named the area they are restoring “Carl’s Forest” in honor of Susan’s father who had dedicated his life to plant research as the founding director of the Tropical Forestry Initiative, the Finger Lakes Land Trust and the Aldo Leopold Foundation. Carl is, of course, a son of Aldo Leopold, who is, then, the great grandfather of Susan and Scott’s sons. That connection of generations, of shoulders to stand upon, adds depth and a sense of legacy and responsibility to uphold the family ethos of sustainable and conscious living. Whatever our own heritage, we can all gain from their example and accumulated wisdom and share in the task of loving the land upon which we live in this caring and visionary way.