Restoring a Human Watercourse

(What follows is a piece about the homeless that I previously posted on my newsletter, The New American Diaspora. You can read more of my writing on this issue by going to Thanks for supporting this new writing project.)

A crew of six or seven city parks employees worked on a weekday morning to restore an urban salmon-bearing stream to full ecology.

I knew it was a watershed restoration project because I performed this exact type of labor in my decade-long service as a caretaker of a national wildlife refuge and coordinator of a watershed council for two years.

In the case of the stream restoration project I was observing this morning, the work entailed removing non-native plants in the riparian area and conducting maintenance on native trees previously planted.

It’s hard work to repair a century’s worth of watershed abuse and degradation at the hands of rapacious capitalism. Yes, very hard and expensive work that takes decades to show results. The investment is for the future, the long term. In other words, the unAmerican way.

I stopped and watched the crew. A hundred yards away was my neighborhood homeless encampment situated somewhat along the stream. In fact, many residents draw their water from it via buckets or ingenious contraptions involving garden hoses and bicycle pumps.

Interesting, I thought: a project to restore a damaged stream in close proximity to a small community of damaged humans in dire need of restoration.

What does that juxtaposition say about us? I could write 100,000 words trying to answer that question and still not answer it adequately. Perhaps it is a totally unanswerable question.

I do believe, however, these damaged entities are connected. How can they not be when we’re all mostly made from water and need water to survive? Why wouldn’t you restore both at the same time since we, indeed everything living, are part of a watershed and the healthier a single watershed the healthier everything is in the world, ecologically and spiritually.

As I stood there, I wondered how would you apply the lessons of successful stream restoration to restoring a damaged human community.

To restore a salmon-bearing stream in Oregon requires culverts that don’t impede fish passage, cool, clean water not subjected to erosion from logging, grazing or mining, native vegetation, stream channel complexity with pools, side channels, abundant gravel, in-stream woody debris, insect life, native critters, diverse tree cover to provide shade, and wetlands to protect rearing fish when high water flows occur.

In previous decades, economic development, blind greed and terrible science destroyed streams, rivers and estuaries across Oregon and beyond. Then, slowly, as species disappeared, recognition grew in many quarters that destructive practices had to change. New laws compelled these changes.

Of course, there are still dams and clearcuts and mining wrecking Oregon’s watersheds, but I have worked with my own two hands to begin the restoration of creeks, estuaries and forests that were in perilous condition. It was the greatest work of my life and I know it will make a difference in the long run. I might even live long enough to see some of it.

I sat down on a bench and turned my attention toward the encampment. Could I apply the lessons and metaphors of restoring a damaged Oregon stream to the restoration of a damaged stream of Oregon humanity? It seemed like an almost impossible mental, let alone a material task but I gave it a try. I had nothing else to do.

This imaginative enterprise was a highly complicated task that I quickly realized would require more time than this particular morning. This was merely the initial attempt. So, I pulled out my notebook and jotted down some ideas. I even sketched a diagram.

My notes:

We must never use herbicides in restoring this stream of humanity. What might those herbicides be?

We must create a wetlands because human beings need places of refuge during high flows. What would something like a wetlands for human beings look like? Places of friendship, faith, service, learning, solitude.

This stream needs better flow. There are too many barriers and plugged culverts.

Mushroom riff

The destructive erosion of capitalism into this stream must be abated.

Bring in the damn beavers! (No metaphor here.) Wait, they’re already in the stream near the encampment! Look to their lodges for ideas for tiny homes!

AN IDEA! A POSSIBLE GREAT NOTION struck me sitting on the bench. It was:

What would it be like to teach a creative thinking workshop to employees of government agencies and non profit organizations tasked with solving Oregon’s homeless crisis and pairing themwith watershed restoration experts to have them lead us into a deep dive into the reality and metaphor of successful restoration work.

Perhaps something extraordinary might evolve from such a workshop and produce a model that might succeed and then be replicated across the various degraded streams of humanity all across the country.

Any participation in the workshop would require a gigantic leap of imagination by social service professionals, non profit administrators, advocates for the homeless, and politicians already wedded to myths, reputations, budgets, agendas, and gobbledygook jargon.

Why not try? Whatever these professionals are doing now isn’t working and moving incompetently with a glacial, inexcusable, immoral pace. They can’t clean up garbage. They miss deadline after deadline to erect housing. They erect benches on a side street that cost $500,000 and are not designed for sitting, but rather to deter homeless camping. Imagine building benches that no one is supposed to sit on as a part of a rational policy to solve the homeless crisis.

The workshop might prove a comical bust because some (alleged) experts in their field think they know everything and can’t be taught anything. Most public school teachers are like that and I would know because I was one for almost 25 years and often watched them mock a new idea to address a problem, such as a high school drop rate that hasn’t changed in half a century.

I could teach the class in a day—for free! We wouldn’t need a weekend retreat costing taxpayers a hundred grand. We wouldn’t need Zoom calls and PowerPoint/slide deck bullshit. We don’t need to gather any data. We would have to get into the field, or more accurately, into a stream for a hands-on approach to constructing the metaphorical model. I just know the damn beavers will show up! They love modeling (without knowing they are doing so) their industrious and artistic purposes for human beings to glean something useful.

Maybe this is all stupid, a fantasy, a waste of time, a dilettante’s dream. I admit that I don’t know if the lessons for stream restoration will apply to human restoration. Perhaps many of you reading this will laugh in derision at the idea. Doubtless, the professionals working to solve the homeless crisis will scoff. I want to state, for whatever it’s worth: I am no dilettante when it comes to caring for wrecked people, wrecked dogs and wrecked watersheds.

I need my mind to saute this notion. More will emerge, I can feel it. I walk along this creek and through this encampment every morning, I will always have plenty of visual refreshment to energize my mind.

Something splashed in the creek below me and I got up to investigate. Nothing. But it was time to go anyway, so on I went.