Twenty years ago this summer I started something new. Something I had no idea how to do. It was related to the creek that ran beside our house in Oakland.
I’d moved onto the property a few years before, charmed by the old house on a steep hill and especially by the seasonal creek gurgling far below the house. After a rainstorm in the cool winter months it sounded so beautiful!—rushing and scrambling downhill over rocks. It was glorious.
A half-mile away from our house the creek began as a spring on an undeveloped parcel at the other end of a steep little canyon. Getting there involved strolling along a tiny one-lane street that curved through the canyon, parallel to the creek, under huge overhanging bay trees. I walked that street morning and evening with my dog, Sapphire, listening to the creek when it was gurgling, listening to the birds, watching the wildflowers come and go with the seasons.
But then For Sale signs began popping up on those steep properties next to the creek, including the parcel holding the spring. Real estate was hot at the time, and developers had figured out how to build retaining walls from hell that could hold back whole hillsides. So suddenly those steep lots were buildable. And what would happen to the creek then? It would get sent underground, where so many other creeks in the Bay Area had been sent over the years, in the name of millions of dollars of mega-profit.
So twenty years ago I did something I had no idea how to do: I started a land trust. Here was the plan: to form a nonprofit in the neighborhood and find the money, somehow, to buy or preserve those creekside lots, so the creek could run free forever. I started by doing some research, learning about land trusts, holding some meetings with neighbors. And after those first baby steps, I went ahead and filed the paperwork with the state to form the nonprofit.
I didn’t know it at the time, but ours was the first land trust within city limits that was aimed at the environment. Plenty of land trusts were conserving huge swaths of land in the rural edges of the Bay Area, but we were the first one trying to preserve a tiny stretch of land within a populated city of the Bay Area itself.
So our new land trust immediately hit the news. And before I knew it, a reporter from KCBS, the biggest AM newsradio station in the Bay Area, was calling me up for an interview—for their busiest slot, the morning commute.
I was beyond terrified. Speaking in public at that time was just—not my thing. I couldn’t even imagine doing it. When the reporter showed up at my door, my mouth felt like sandpaper and my voice threatened to disappear for good. The reporter was brisk, in a hurry. But in a stroke of genius he suggested that we walk along the creek to roll the tape.
So we walked up that tiny street under the bay trees next to the creek, and he jabbed his mike into my face, and I explained as well as I could what a land trust does. Then one last question, the tough one: “In an urban area like this one there’s always a need for housing. But your group is trying to stop building houses here. How do you think that’s going to help people?”
Thousands would be listening. I paused, terrified. But suddenly the answer was just as obvious as the question. And before I knew it, I heard myself say, clear and strong, “Because what’s good for creeks is good for people too!”
The reporter signed off, zipped his microphone back into its bag, and told me what time the interview would air the next morning. And then he drove away.
And my astonished mind was left with one big question: Did I actually believe what I’d just said? I had no idea—it was such a new thought! Is what’s good for creeks good for people too? I filed the question away to think about later. Meanwhile, I hooked up a recorder to tape the next morning’s show. Because I was way too nervous to listen to it live.
Turns out, I was too nervous to listen to the tape as well. So the cassette sat in a drawer for almost twenty years. And when I finally cleaned out that drawer and ran across it, I just erased the tape without listening. I don’t even know if the story aired that day.
Because I’d already learned everything I needed to learn from that interview. And what I needed to learn was that one sentence that popped out of my mouth with confidence, as if I’d been thinking about things in exactly this way all along: “What’s good for creeks is good for people too.”
Where did that thought come from?
I like to think that the creek whispered it in my ear. After all, the creek and I were friends by then. I’d been living on its banks for several years already, and I was helping to care for it. The previous fall, I’d organized a neighborhood creek cleanup, and fifty neighbors showed up on a cool and cloudy Saturday to show their creek love. They dug out rusty appliances in the creekbed far below the street and hauled them up the steep banks with a rope brigade tethered to somebody’s pickup at the top. They lined up in the mud at the bottom and pulled out hundreds of old tires, handing them off one by one to join the pile of tires on the road above. It was a jubilant day, full of love, and it turned into an annual cleanup.
I’d also by then volunteered for the creek next door to ours, a couple miles away, where a group of neighbors was busy restoring their creek so that rainbow trout could spawn there again. People took out the concrete weirs from the creekbed so the creek could flow freely. And every fall they gathered a harvest of seeds from the plants near the creek and propagated them in a little native plant nursery. Then one rainy winter hundreds of us gathered to plant those baby plants—forty thousand native seedlings, willows and monkeyflower and mugwort and yarrow, going into the banks of the creek to shade the water and encourage the trout to spawn there. And the trout did spawn, and their numbers grew.
“What’s good for creeks is good for people too.” Twenty years has given me time to reflect on how this one sentence calls for looking at our world from a different angle. It means starting our measures of human welfare at a different place—not with human beings but instead with the forces and beings who provide the gifts on which we live. It means starting with the water and soil and air, because we depend on them for everything—which is to say, for life itself.
“What’s good for creeks is good for people too.” It means that water has priority. We care for creeks and rivers not just so we can enjoy a beautiful environment or feel good about ourselves; we care for them because we literally cannot live without them.
To say “What’s good for creeks is good for people too” is to acknowledge a simple geological truth: water was here first. Water is our ancestor. Water’s welfare comes before our own—because we need water to survive, but the opposite is not true: water does not need us. And because we are completely dependent on water for life, whatever harms water is going to harm us. And what helps water will also help us.
This is in fact the only trickle-down theory that works in the real world: what happens to water trickles down, literally, to us. So a good measure of a community’s health is the health of its waters. When water is polluted, people get sick. Water’s well-being has to take priority.
A lot of people are waking up to this realization, which is why a growing number of communities are taking legal steps to protect their nearby waters. They’re passing laws to protect the rights of nature—the rights of waters and soil to be clean and healthy. Last fall Orange County, Florida, home of 1.4 million people in the city of Orlando, passed a charter amendment to protect their local waterways—the largest community to pass a rights-of-nature law. The law states that the waterways of the county have legal rights “to exist, flow, be protected against pollution, and to maintain healthy ecosystems.” The law passed with a whopping 89 percent of the vote.
And just this month the small Colorado mountain town of Nederland, upstream from Boulder, where I used to live, passed a rights-of-nature resolution that names the whole Boulder Creek watershed as the bearer of “fundamental and inalienable rights.” These new rights-of-nature laws push the legal framework in a new direction—away from the old habit of regarding nature as commodity and toward recognizing that protecting nature means giving it a voice in court, so its welfare can be taken into account. “What’s good for creeks is good for people too.”
I’ve mentioned before the legal scholar Kelsey Leonard, from the Shinnecock Nation, who works for recognizing the legal rights of nature. And I want to return again to her TED talk on the rights of water and listen anew to what she said there.
“If I asked you, What is water?” she said, “you might respond ocean or lake or liquid. But what if I asked you, Who is water?, in the same way I might ask you, Who is your grandmother? Who is your sister? That type of orientation fundamentally transforms the way in which we think about water.” She says we need such a transformation. We need to protect water, she says, “in the way you would protect your grandmother, your mother, your sister, your aunties.”
We need, in other words, to love water. Like a family member. To protect it as a beloved. Because water is our intimate relation. Water is closer to us than our very breath. Water is what breathes in us; it makes up about two-thirds of each of us. Water is our bodies. Water is our ancestor. Water is our first environment, in the waters of the womb. Water is generous. Water is life.
A simple practice for building our affection for water is to thank water each time we lift a waterglass to our lips. Thank you, Water, for giving us life. Thank you, Water, for making our lives possible. Thank you, Water, thank you.
And the more we love water, appreciating just how generously it provides for us, the more we may be moved to give something back in return. “What’s good for creeks is good for people too.”
And we don’t need to look far to find a way to give something back. The one thing, the biggest thing, that any of us can do for water is to put pressure wherever we can to stop the process of digging up fossil bodies and using them aboveground. Because extracting fossils pollutes the waters and soil. Burning fossils for fuel heats up the Earth, cooking lands and waters and killing animals and fish. When we spread those fossils on lawns and farms as pesticides and fertilizers, they leach into water and make us sick with cancers and are linked with developing autism. And when we turn them into plastics, they gather in riverbeds and pollute oceans and threaten the lives of sea creatures. So whatever each of us can do to keep fossils in the ground will be an enormous kindness to water.
“What’s good for creeks is good for people too.” The time to act on climate change is now. And the work belongs to each of us, now. The book All We Can Save just came out in paperback a few days ago, and it’s chock-full of inspiration for acting to stem climate change. Plus there’s a nationwide project, based on the book, to gather people in local circles of support to figure out, together, solutions for the climate crisis. You can find or connect with those circles by going to the website AllWeCanSave.earth.
And a new tool was launched online this month to help us call Congress about climate change. It connects each person to their own representative and senators and gives advice about what to ask Congress for at this moment in time. You can find it at call4climate.com.
“What’s good for creeks is good for people too.” It means helping our friends and neighbors reduce and end the use of pesticides and herbicides on their lawns. Already a dozen years ago Scientific American published an article titled “Fertilizers Harm Earth More Than They Help Your Lawn.” There are better alternatives for lawns—but it usually takes a few neighbors taking the lead and helping to educate others. And there are solutions for agricultural runoff as well.
“What’s good for creeks is good for people too.” Here’s a close-to-home way to be kind to your local creek: growing something besides lawn turf in your yard—because native plants and wildflowers do a better job of filtering contaminants, plus they feed the bees and butterflies and bugs and birds, who basically cannot find anything to eat in lawngrass. Lawn turf is the single largest crop grown in the US—over 50,000 square miles of it, a crop that uses an estimated 9 billion gallons of water per day. That’s a lot of water to draw out of local rivers for a crop that basically feeds no one.
“What’s good for creeks is good for people too.” Maybe you are moved to help restore a creek or river in your local area. Because creeks and rivers work like the blood vessels of our bodies, spreading nutrients and carrying out wastes. If we need to protect our own hearts by keeping our blood vessels running free, how much more does the land needs its creeks and rivers to flow healthy and free? It might mean removing dams or weirs or concrete channels and making the area green again.
Or maybe it means just getting to know your local creek in a new way. You might not have a creek running through your property, as I did in Oakland, but every house does sit in the watershed of a creek, and that creek empties into a river, and that river joins other rivers on its way to the sea. And from the perspective of the water in your creek, you are related to everyone else living along its banks. Human and more-than-human are one water family. We share the same water body. What happens uphill flows to everyone downstream. One way to meditate with water is to visualize everyone in a watershed as one body or one family. It’s a powerful reminder that we all equal; we are all equally dependent on the gift of water; and we all equally need that water to be clean.
“What’s good for creeks is good for people too.” May we love water with a bigger love. May we grow in appreciating its gift of life. Thank you, Water, thank you.
For digging deeper
The watershed group where I first put my hands in mud on behalf of creeks is the Friends of Sausal Creek in Oakland, CA. Check out their website and click on the Resources page to learn more about watersheds and gardening with native plants. I tell the full story of the first creek cleanup and the start of the land trust in the “Peralta Creek” chapter of Kissed by a Fox.
More on rights of nature: About the charter amendment in Orange County, Florida, see this statement at the Bioneers website. Here is background on the Florida initiative from the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights, the organization that helped draft the amendment. The Denver Post covered the Nederland resolution to grant rights of nature to the Boulder Creek watershed.
Sandra Steingraber, a biologist and writer, explains how the environmental crises of climate change, chemical pollution, and plastic pollution all lead back to digging up fossil beds; see this interview from 2020. A documentary about her cancer journey and environmental work is Living Downstream, based on her book of the same name. You can watch the trailer here.
On how climate change is increasing extreme weather and causing flooding, see this 2015 study in Nature Climate Change. On how gas stoves contribute to releasing methane, which contributes more powerfully to climate change than does carbon dioxide, see this April 2021 article in The Verge.
Use the new climate change tool to call Congress about climate. Follow the prompts to be connected to your representative and senators and to learn exactly what to ask for.
From Scientific American in 2009: “How Fertilizers Harm Earth More than Help Your Lawn.” More on agricultural runoff solutions here. The EPA’s page on sources of and solutions to agricultural runoff is here.
On the ubiquity of lawngrass, see “How America’s Most Useless Crop Also Became Its Most Commonly Grown One,” from Gizmodo in 2015. The figure of 9 billion gallons of water per day used for landscaping comes from the US EPA, at WaterSense. The city of Las Vegas is removing purely decorative grass around public buildings and medians, and it will save more than 9 billion gallons of water annually, says a story this month from the Sierra Club.
For more on how native plants filter contaminants, save water, and provide habitat for pollinators, see the website of the Clean Water Education Partnership, especially the page “The Importance of Native Plants.” For more on how to plant natives in dry areas, see Susan Tweit’s beautiful article “Living Space,” from the Wildflower Center of the University of Texas at Austin. Susan also restored an urban creek near her home, and you can read that story at the Center for Humans and Nature site. Benjamin Vogt is a landscape consultant who helps people turn lawns into mini-prairies, like his own suburban yard in Nebraska, with pictures here. He is the author of A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Future (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2017).
On creek restoration, check out a three-part video from Oklahoma State called “Natural Stream Restoration.” Parts 1 and 2 cover streams and what makes them healthy and unhealthy. Here is part 3, “Restoring Streams.” When I was getting started in creek restoration, I pored over a book by Ann Riley, Restoring Streams in Cities (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1998).
Removing dams is the theme of the documentary DamNation (2014), available online for free viewing. One startling statistic: there are 75,000 dams over three feet high in the US, and former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbit says in the film, “That’s the equivalent of building one [dam] every day since Thomas Jefferson was the president of the United States.”