Reforestation and remeandering in Leopold’s bootsteps

A new book follows a family’s mission to heal the land.

 

On Jan. 12, 1935, a University of Wisconsin professor bumped down a rutted trail to a derelict farm in Sauk County, some 50 miles north of Madison. It was a forlorn place: its soils sandy, its elms straggly, its chicken coop sedimented with manure. The farmhouse had burned down ages ago, leaving only a foundation. An ecstatic Aldo Leopold decided to lease it on the spot.

Fittingly for a forester, Leopold, with the help of his bemused family, quickly began replanting the property. In 1936, the Leopolds planted a thousand white pines and a thousand reds, followed the next year by 3,000 more pines. In 1938, according to Curt Meine, Leopold’s biographer, the litany included “100 white pines, 500 red pines, 500 jack pines, 500 red oaks, 50 tamaracks, 50 red cedars,” and many more dogwoods, hazels and maples. Leopold planted shrubs like juneberry and raspberry, seeded wildflowers such as trillium and lady slippers, and laid prairie sod. He planted until, quite literally, the day he died: The morning before his fatal heart attack in 1948, he tucked 100 pines into their earthy beds.

Illustration by Susan Leopold Freeman

Fifty-six years later, Leopold’s granddaughter, Susan Leopold Freeman, and her husband, Scott Freeman, followed in the bootsteps of their famous forebear, purchasing 18 acres of floodplain, pasture and woodland astride a salmon stream on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Tarboo Creek had been nearly as abused as the Wisconsin farm: Previous landowners had straightened its course, drained its wetlands and allowed Himalayan blackberry to run rampant. The watercourse “looked like an open wound,” its flow “shooting through a steep-sided, arrow-straight ditch, excavating the bottom as it went.” Some stretches had eroded so badly that a person could stand in the streambed and see nothing but towering cutbanks.  

Rehabilitating Tarboo Creek became the Freemans’ raison d’etre. Scott and Susan, in cooperation with a nonprofit called the Northwest Watershed Institute and a legion of volunteers, recontoured the stream’s course, replanted its floodplain, and beat back invasive vegetation. As the stream revived, its non-human dependents returned: otters, beavers, eagles, cougars. One afternoon, the couple watched a female salmon “roll to one side, arch herself into a U, and beat her tail like a hoe against the rocks” as she dug out her nest.

Saving Tarboo Creek, a new book authored by Scott and illustrated by Susan, chronicles the family’s intimate relationship with their creek, its wildlife and each other. Much like A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold’s classic meditation on humanity’s relationship with land, it packs several parallel stories into a slim volume. Its narrative is a braided stream: a guide to Northwestern ecosystems, a playbook for restoration, an ode to observation and a lament for the earth. Just as Leopold drew a core tenet of ecological thought from the sandy soil of a ruined farm, Saving Tarboo Creek strives, too, to transcend itself — to situate a humble stream within a global account of environmental degradation and alienation. Nearly seven decades after Sand County attempted to reconnect people with the world they were losing, Tarboo Creek suggests that the rifts have only become harder to bridge. 

Scott Freeman and Susan Leopold Freeman study a tree on the property they’re restoring, in the Aldo Leopold tradition, on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.
Courtesy the Freeman-Leopold Family

ONE EVENING DURING THE INFERNALLY HOT and smoky season that Northwesterners used to call the month of August, the Freemans and I wandered along Tarboo Creek, stepping over ropy mink scat on the way. The restored stream, the width of a standing broadjump, was cold and sinuous, spanned by logs anchored in the banks. We were too early to witness the autumn arrival of coho, but their finger-length fry skittered in every hole.

“It’s magic, seeing these giant beasts return to this tiny stream,” Scott said. He turned to his wife for confirmation, only to find that Susan had fallen back to yank invasive bittersweet. “I’m coming,” she hollered. “That’s why we get along so well,” he told me. “She can’t stop pulling weeds.”

Illustration by Susan Leopold Freeman

Freeman, a biology lecturer at the University of Washington, has the gangling gait of a former basketball player and the goofy enthusiasm of your favorite science teacher; Susan counters with an artist’s serenity and the patience of a piano teacher, her own vocations. The couple met in 1980 during fellowships at the Leopold Memorial Reserve in Wisconsin; graduate school took them to Seattle, where they eventually settled. In the early 2000s, eager to advance the Leopold legacy, they began searching Puget Sound for ecological fixer-uppers. When they stumbled across the Tarboo Creek property, it had sat neglected for four years. The Northwest Watershed Institute, which had secured a grant to begin repairing the place, needed a landowner to help steward the project. Its director was skeptical of the Freemans’ intentions until Scott let slip that the family had been practicing restoration since the 1930s. “I said, ‘Have you heard of a guy named Aldo Leopold?’ ” Freeman recalled. “And I just heard the phone drop.”

Stream restoration began that summer. The overriding goal was, as Freeman puts it in Saving Tarboo Creek, to “make crooked that which was straight.” An excavator gouged a meandering channel from the dry floodplain and layered its bed with gravel; then, using plastic sheeting and sandbags, the Freemans diked the old ditch, guiding the stream into the artificial channel. Witnessing Tarboo Creek inundate its new, leisurely course, Freeman writes, was “like watching an innocent man walk out of prison, exonerated, after 35 years.”

The Freemans, in true Leopoldian fashion, next turned to reforestation. In the past 18 years, they have planted more than 10,000 trees, from redcedar to madrone, Sitka spruce to beaked hazelnut. Along the creekbank, we were shaded by 14-year-old alders taller than three-story homes. Whenever Susan’s father, Carl Leopold, the fourth of Aldo and Estella’s five children, visited the property, he was swept by nostalgia. Examining the plucky hemlocks and firs “was one of the things that made him happiest,” Susan told me. Carl, a renowned plant physiologist, passed away in 2009, content to have witnessed one more Leopold-led project. “He was so proud of this place.”

Saving Tarboo Creek takes the reader deep into the nitty-gritty of reforestation and remeandering. But it also frequently zooms out, from local restoration to planetary crisis. A chapter covering the comeback of the local beavers segues into a history of the global extinction crisis. The couple’s battles against blackberry become a portal into avian malaria, cheatgrass and other pernicious invasives. The annual return of salmon inspires a discourse on overfishing. For the ecoliterate, these digressions will be well-trod ground; still, they’re deft and deeply felt. They mimic, yet again, A Sand County Almanac, whose notes on geese, grouse and meadow mice cede to a series of sagacious essays: the mournful “Escudilla,” the indignant “Cheat Takes Over,” the timeless “Thinking Like a Mountain.” Like William Blake, Leopold saw the world in a grain of sand. His heirs, the Freemans, glimpse it in a watercourse.

Illustration by Susan Leopold Freeman

WE REMEMBER ALDO LEOPOLD BEST TODAY for his land ethic — the idea that we have a moral responsibility to treat the non-human world with respect and decency. Yet the notion of recasting Homo sapiens as “member of a biotic team” was not immaculately conceived in the mind of an armchair philosopher. Rather, it emerged from backbreaking mornings spent bent over a shovel, an ideology written in sweat. Leopold’s land ethic is not just an abstract thought pattern — it is a prescription for restoration ecology.

Likewise, the Freemans’ work on the Olympic Peninsula springs from their own code, one centered around leading a “natural life, ecological in outlook and practice” — attuned to the timing of bird migrations and wildflower blooms, impervious to materialism, active in conservation. More than anything, a natural life is one embedded within an ecosystem; to lead one is to be “part of a community—to belong to something larger than yourself and participate in it.” There is valor in weed-pulling and pleasure in tree-planting. The message is even implicit in the book’s art: Where Charles Schwartz’s illustrations for A Sand County Almanac captured pheasants and muskrats, Susan Leopold Freeman’s unpretentious drawings depict the instruments through which humans join their labor with nature: a bucket, a shovel, a pair of gloves.

Illustration by Susan Leopold Freeman

Of course, our biggest problems can’t be solved with hand tools. As I strolled Tarboo Creek with the Freemans, we walked under an eerie white sky, the sun reduced to an angry red eye by wildfire smoke. Climate change defies the land ethic: Stream restoration hasn’t prevented Tarboo Creek’s salmon from declining, the victims of warm ocean temperatures. What’s the use of fixing a tiny patch of land in the face of a global crisis? Saving Tarboo Creek is an optimistic book, sometimes to the point of straining credulity; its hope that global warming will be tackled through an “expression of public will,” for instance, is at odds with polls suggesting that Americans still — still! — consider climate change a vague and distant threat. But the Freemans seemed more discouraged in person than on the page. “It’s too big for us,” Scott admitted to me sadly.

So why bother? Restoration, in Saving Tarboo Creek, is a fundamentally spiritual practice, as salutary to the heart as to the earth, valuable for its ability to buffer its practitioners against isolation, anomie and the malignancy of the internet. Planting trees and remeandering streams is a way to reclaim agency in a social milieu designed to make us feel powerless, to heal a world of personal wounds as well as environmental ones. Recently, the couple counted the friends and family members who’d pitched in on their property, and came up with more than 80 names. “One of the most surprising things is that people want to be out in the mud and the rain,” Susan said.

We wandered through the reforested pasture, the Freemans pointing out all the ways Tarboo Creek remained degraded despite 14 years of restoration — the ubiquitous bittersweet, the deer scars afflicting the cottonwood saplings, the tip weevil stunting the spruce. They seemed almost giddy. The work would be lifelong, which was how they wanted it.

“People always ask us, ‘When will you be done?’ ” Susan said as she trampled another invader, a stand of reed canary grass.

“Our answer is never,” Scott added. “And that’s the point.”

Ben Goldfarb lives in Spokane, Washington. A frequent contributor to High Country News, he is the author of Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018).

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