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An interview with Scott Freeman of Saving Tarboo Creek

by Timber Press on February 22, 2018

in Natural History

Tarboo Creek restored: the remeander is complete and the banks are planted out. (winter 2005)

“Ethics start at home and expand outward. We can’t expect someone else to defend what we value—we have to do it. That means taking care of the place that is your place in the world.” —Scott Freeman

Saving Tarboo Creek describes how your family restored a damaged creek from a drainage ditch into a stream that could support wild salmon again. The book also serves as a nature guide to the regional biodiversity of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, and a call to action to live a more natural life. What was the inspiration to document your family’s restoration project into a book?

You can’t write unless you have something to say. Telling the story of what we do at Tarboo Creek wasn’t enough for me—the book is really motivated by telling the story of why we work at Tarboo Creek.

The need to communicate that why grew out of an experience and an episode. The experience was watching my students confront projections for how human population growth, global warming, deforestation, and extinction will play out over the course of their lifetimes if present trends continue. I listened to their sense of despair over the data, but also to how strongly they responded when I’d introduce what we were doing at Tarboo Creek and how other restoration projects around the world are galvanizing communities. What if present trends didn’t continue? What if we did something together instead?

The episode was a conversation with an MD friend who mentioned a report documenting 11% of the US adult population is taking prescription antidepressants. I couldn’t believe it, so I looked it up—and promptly found that he was right. I started thinking about people who are self-medicating with opiates or street drugs or alcohol or food, and I felt that something is terribly wrong in our culture. I wrote Saving Tarboo Creek because I wanted to suggest a way to live that people might find more meaningful.

What kinds of challenges did you face during the writing of Saving Tarboo Creek?

Saying that I wanted to write about the why and getting it just right were two different things. I had no interest in lecturing or pontificating or preaching to my readers. But how do you offer ideas about how to live in a way that people can feel and see and consider? That—along with creating a balance between exploring the science involved and exploring our family story—was the hard part.

Early on in Saving Tarboo Creek, you describe the long legacy of Aldo Leopold’s influence on your family. In addition to his A Sand County Almanac, what kinds of texts have made an impact on your system of environmental ethics?

Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, John Muir’s Travels in Alaska and his other titles, the Gospels of the New Testament, the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible—especially Amos—and, as a young person, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.

When doing the research for the restoration project and the book, what surprised you the most?

For the restoration I was surprised by a paper that our son Ben found showing that after 80 years of being left alone, abandoned pastures in Olympic National Park that were surrounded by forest were still not supporting any trees because the grass was so resistant to tree seeds and saplings. This put us in a sober mood about reforesting the old pastures at Tarboo Creek. For the book I was shocked by papers on how salmon change the pigments in the photoreceptor cells in their retinas, depending on their age and what environment they are living in. As I discuss in Saving Tarboo Creek, salmon can remodel their eyes!

The creek is in a ditch, overgrown with reed canary grass and Himalayan blackberry. Photo from the author. (summer 2004)

How have the theories of conservation changed?

One thing that has recently changed is the understanding of the impacts of invasive species—how threatening they are and how they will always be with us. Another new understanding is the realization that climate change has changed everything. Restoration used to mean trying to turn back the clock in terms of vegetation and wildlife; now it means “restoring” plants and animals that will be appropriate for a different and uncertain future.

In terms of conservation and ecology, the globalization of habitat loss and the extinction crisis gets more attention now than ever before—it’s not just a U.S. and European problem now, but a planetary issue. Scientifically, our ability to quantify what Aldo Leopold called “land health” has changed over the years. We can more precisely measure how ecosystems are functioning now, and predict whether changes will be beneficial or detrimental.

Restoring Tarboo Creek was a project your family collaborated on together, and your wife, Susan Leopold Freeman, added her hand-drawn illustrations to the pages of Saving Tarboo Creek. What does it mean to you that these projects are in collaboration with your family?

Relationships are built with love and shared experiences; working on both at Tarboo Creek has made us closer. These are ties that bind.

What advice would you give readers who have limited mobility or are differently abled and want to contribute to conservation and restoration efforts?

The planet has great need from each according to their ability. We can all support organizations that do good work, whether by volunteering at events or speaking and writing and teaching in whatever context is available—from local schools to our immediate social sphere to our broader community. And it’s wonderful when people can garden or hunt or fish or raise chickens—putting their bodies and minds in direct contact with nature through acquiring at least a small part of their food.

In an educator spotlight for the University of Washington you say, “Our job as instructors is to help [students] be the best they can be, not to select a few, but to help anyone with the capability and the motivation.” How do your environmental, pedagogical, and personal ethos overlap?

I don’t separate them; it’s just the way I try to live. Lack of access and underachievement are the biggest problems I see in our education system, so that’s where I try to put my effort as a teacher and researcher. Treating land as a commodity to be exploited and consumerism as a defining value are the biggest problems I see in our culture, so that’s where I try to put my effort as a parent and citizen.

Why is environmental conservation such an important consideration for home and land owners?

Ethics start at home and expand outward. We can’t expect someone else to defend what we value—we have to do it. That means taking care of the place that is your place in the world. People who make money abusing land will justify it in any way that is available to them. It is the job of caring people to resist.

What kinds of organizations do you follow or volunteer with?

We love the work that Forterra—a land trust that works throughout much of Washington State— and Jefferson Land Trust do because they combine professional competence with a vision of sustainable rural and urban development.

What will Tarboo Creek look like in the future?

In five to fifteen years, the tree canopy will be closing, making the habitat dramatically better throughout the watershed. If ocean conditions don’t go all to hell, the salmon runs should start increasing even more. In fifty years, the trees will be getting big in the recently reforested areas, and beavers will have remodeled the creek’s floodplain into a wetland complex of open stream, ponds, and dams. After that, the future of Tarboo Creek all depends on what happens with climate change. If present trends continue, the trees we’re planting now won’t stand a chance and salmon will be long gone.

What’s next for you?

Ah, a question I am thinking about a lot these days. Over the next 1 – 2 years, things look exceptionally fluid right now. But I am coming to the conviction that I will soon be writing more and talking less.

Scott Freeman teaches biology courses at the University of Washington, where he received a Distinguished Teaching Award. He worked in environmental education and international conservation before completing a PhD in evolutionary biology at the University of Washington and conducting post-doctoral work at Princeton University as Sloan Fellow. In 2004, the Freemans bought 18 acres along Tarboo Creek, on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, and began reforestation and salmon stream restoration work in conjunction with the Northwest Watershed Institute and Jefferson Land Trust.


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